Following on from the table top week this session was a results one. These are important sessions to us as photographers even if we are looking at the same subjects we are not looking at the same interpretations and as we looked at in the last blog, these are a really good place to practice the basics in situations where we can control pretty much everything, cheaply and enjoyably.
Photography, for anyone who takes it at least a little bit seriously, is a problem solving exercise. How do we get others to see what it is that we see that bears recording? The author Flannery O’Connor is quoted as saying ‘I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.’ Substitute “write” for “photograph” and “read” for “frame” and “say” for “see” then I think a lot of us would recognise the feeling. There is a whole craft of difference between “There is something interesting” as opposed to “There should be something in that”. Don McCullin feels that “Photography … is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures,” Hence, in search of what our mind’s eye sees (visualisation) we can apply the principle of “Working the scene” as a method of seeing what we are feeling.
Worth revisiting, before we expand this, are previous considerations on rules – which those of you have persevered with this blog will remember as “Tools” – which are all about organising lines, curves, triangles and shapes for effect. There is an elemental value to thirds, leading lines, filling the frame, repeating patterns etc. etc. but not of their own. We are the difference that focuses all these things into a frame, the ultimate lens.
First off let us consider the notion of the position the camera is in when viewing a scene aka Point of View (POV). Rarely is eye-level when standing, unless you are exceptionally tall or exceptionally small, the best to be had POV. I am not sure what percentage of the images are taken from this rather inflexible POV but willing to bet it is in the high nineties. That is not to totally to dismiss it, it gives us an as seen perspective after all but it shouldn’t be left at that.
Moving, zooming with our feet changes the perspective of foreground to background. Zooming with a lens alters the compression between foreground and background by optically cropping. Then there is the low angle and high angle perspectives and we can combine these POV’s with the tool of thirds to place objects around in different parts of the frame, and / or vary the depth of field.
All these are interactions with the thing that we saw in the first place, the thing that gave us pause. We use the frame of the viewfinder to exclude those things that get in the way of that vision and we use the principles and tools of composition to work the scene in order to explore those things that are particular about it out of which we make a story. It is worth putting in the effort to make sure we have all the angles covered, to have the material to choose from that gives us the best chance of getting on file what we saw in the first instance.
Can’t this be done in post? Technically some of it can, but, the in camera images are the raw materials, not the finished item. Indeed, it could be argued that, as pictures, this data does not exist as an image until it is printed. It is everything we can work with but it’s not everything on offer. Remember, that the camera is a tool for excluding detail from the capture of what we have visualised.
Culling the images should be the left to the start of post production. It is basically a waste of time and battery to keep on chimping (taking the photograph and then looking into the live view and going ooh,ah) and breaks the work flow when working the scene. All things at the proper time is the basis of an effective work flow.
Time spent in capture, getting it right in camera, saves on time staring at a computer screen trying to put things right. Experience tells us that we will, with the luxury of time, squander it fiddling with lifeless images, often trying to hide deformities beyond masks and filters and effects. It is the joy of being an amateur that we can do this to our heart’s content. It is death as far as anyone getting paid for it is concerned.
To get through a lot of images it is a good thing to apply the 2 second rule. Any image that does not hold your attention for longer than 2 seconds delete. No ifs’ no buts’ no maybes’. Two seconds, it appears, is about 4 times longer than it takes to form an opinion of a photograph. Anything longer is not going to make an image any better.
Then we can start working on those that are left. There are a number of different ways of doing this and everyone develops their own, but there has to be a reason for making each decision. I am doing this because … It is always because, as, as far as learning goes, there is no more powerful word in the English language than because.
So, at this point, grab the camera and off we go ….
This week we had our first of the season’s My Photography sessions, Steve Dyer taking us through his studio work including lights, modifiers and some of his post-production work flow. Some fine images, and a sound outline of the equipment he uses to get his preferred evening was an illustration of some of the talent we have in the club. And Steve was happy to state that the club has played, and continues to do so, a strong part in his development as a photographer.
We have looked at light modifiers in the last two posts of 2016, dividing them into soft light modifiers and hard light modifiers. We also referenced the excellent The Strobist website and it remains well worth the effort. These three will form the underpinning of the rest of this post, which will mainly, but not exclusively, be about building an off camera flash on a budget.
Steve has spent the last few years and not a little income in collecting his equipment he uses in his set up. The modifiers can be gained quite cheaply, but the build quality is what you really pay for when you buy the more established branded modifiers. One of the keys here is how core these pieces of equipment are to our particular form of photography. Another is our available budget, of course. It can be done relatively cheaply and here we will be looking at the options from a restricted budget perspective.
So, our mission is to put together a useable off camera flash with modifiers. Keeping within the basic theme we will start with the flash unit. Canon Speedlites start at around £160 and, obviously, are designed to work with Canon cameras (though will work with other makes but might have limited use of extended features) and we can pay over £500 for the top of the range and into four figures for the specialist designs. Nikon is not so very different. But how low can we go? The main thing that we give up on a restricted budget is power, as expressed by the Guide Number.
The Guide Number (GN) is far more than this though. Usually expressed in meters (feet in the USA) the GN is a tool for calculating the light falling on the subject from that unit at a given distance or F-Stop. How does that work? Actually quite simple. I have a flash gun with a GN of 33. I am 2 meters away from my model. The GN = f Number x Distance. The industry standard is 100 ISO but check the flash-gun’s handbook.
So, back to school maths, GN 33 = f number x 2meters.
Therefore 33 / 2 = f number or 16.5. Set the aperture at f16 to f18 according to the capacity of the lens diaphragm.
In an ideal world going to 200 ISO effectively doubles the guide number. Well it would if it weren’t for the laws of physics. There is a thing known as the inverse square law. Double the distance means
four times the light to get the same degree of illumination on a subject. So ISO 400 to get twice the light on the subject from a 100 ISO base.
Now TTL metering will sort all this out if the flash unit and the camera are capable of dealing with it, but that basically doubles the cost of the manual flash. Or we could buy a flash meter (make sure it is a flash meter not just a light meter, and better it is calibrated for photography. as we may waste our money) to do accurate calculations for us. However, dedicated off camera flash meters start at around £175.00. Not within our remit here. This is one area where chimping comes in and getting to know your equipment will really pay off. We can, with practice, get pretty close to right first time but, with the cost per frame and immediacy of digital, test frames consume not a lot other than a little time.
As we are talking off camera flash we will need some way of triggering the flash off body. Basically there are three ways to do this: Fixed cable (if the flash unit will take that, but most modern ones will); light trigger; wireless trigger.
Wired isn’t much, if indeed any, cheaper at the budget end of the spectrum than wireless. Light triggers (Optical) are built into the front of flash units so enabled and are usually encased in a red plastic cover. These can be triggered by other flashed including on camera flash if you have one built in. Wireless triggers are very popular and even the cheaper ones function pretty well, though it is necessary to maintain a line of site to ensure the flash triggers. The cheaper ones will be more prone to misfire, and will have a limited number of channels they can operate over (usually 4). The more sophisticated units cost more money, are better with weaker signals, can be programmed to fire in zones or sequences, even so there are some good units out there for not a huge amount of money.
As an extra and when you have one, essential, piece of kit to complete this summary, a light stand is a good investment. A light stand will take your flash to a higher angle, usually up to about 9 feet, or just under three meters. This gives us a lot more lighting options.
So how much can we do this for? * At 16th October 2017:
Flash Unit, Amazon Basics (made by Godox) £26.
Neewer Light Modifiers for Flash £46
This is a pretty complete set and a good start. Refer to the Soft and Hard Light modifier links above and note that some of these quality of light is determined by their size. This is a good place to start, but by no means the only place.
Light Stand £13.60 (two for £22 also available)
All in around £95.
Thanks Steve, for the entry point. The rest of us, enjoy.
*There are lights, stands and back drops that members can borrow from the club. See Eddie House.
Monochrome and lessons in depth of field as we split the room between practical and tutorial this last session and I must say it worked rather well. Both the choices of colour and the application of depth of field are creative decisions, they convey subtleties of look and feel, they speak as much to meaning as they do they do to composition.
Timely indeed as there has recently been evidence published that rather challenges the conventional wisdom of how we look at a photograph. Logically paintings, etchings drawings etc too, but this is a camera club so we will stick to talking about photographs. At the outset I have to say that this research doesn’t present a new way of perceiving how we look at images, how photographers perceive their images, but it does present evidence to support some photographers way of looking at their art. “We are making photographs to understand what our lives mean to us” wrote Ralph Hattersley so maybe it isn’t such a stretch to suggest that meaning is our primary guide when we look at a photograph. Similarly Don McCullin feels that “Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures,” and Wynn Bullock “When I photograph, what I’m really doing is seeking answers to things.” Well you get the idea.
Of course we all spend a lot of time discussing whether it is “Visual salience based on semantically uninterpreted image features [that] plays the critical causal role in attentional guidance, with knowledge and meaning playing a secondary or modulatory role [or it is] … meaning [that] plays the dominant role in guiding human attention through scenes”. Not … but ….
Let’s think for a moment about the way we are lead to judge photographs when we start taking photography more seriously, especially when we start talking about conventions used in competitions.
Very basically we photograph to capture a relationship between and impact of objects, subject and space arranged within a frame to tell a story. When we looked at critiquing images last season we talked about the considering initial impact an image has on us before moving on to: considering the story it is telling us; the technical issues such as light, focus, foreign objects, crop, exposure, saturation; then considering the technical details like composition, colour and subject matter before using all these as evidence to come to a reasoned conclusion.
It isn’t the only way but its consistent application, when applied across a range of photographs makes it clear how to go about improving our own. It is a good habit to get into, if nothing else to make your efforts clear to yourself and to spot areas you can work on. It’s also worth keeping a record.
Not too much of a leap to say that we, as photographers, already think that we look for impact (meaning), first, then for the prominent features (salience), because emotion is what we are trying to stir in our audiences. For sure that is going to be variable, but if we put consideration into what and how we photograph then we can make then we have the makings of a story.
Then we have the many and varied tools of composition. We have discussed before why tools not rules, but basically it is do with the selection of techniques to emphasise the point of our story, rather than a must comply with. You can get one story per frame for the sake of impact. Split the audience’s attention between two focal points of equal weight and you risk halving the impact of the image. Restrict the impact and you restrict the meaning and we, according to this study, are suckers for meaning.
So composition is one way we can get meaning into our images. With human subjects we can also do much by our interaction between photographer and model and leave the camera out of the interaction as much as possible. This is our chance to explore character. Too many photographers let the camera come in between them and their subject. Time spent building that relationship, even with a model you know is time well spent. Use the camera as unobtrusively as possible, get them to focus on the brand label on the camera body rather than the unblinking eye of the lens, which can be intimidating. Candid photographs have their own power and their own techniques.
Someone, and I cannot remember who, once said that we should consider the background then put the subject in it. That makes sense when we want to cut out distractions. It also makes sense when we have a striking background and can reference our subjects within it. There is a difference between the background as backdrop and the background as distraction. Dramatic scenes, interesting lighting, like the light of early evening or early morning, add to the meaning by adding qualities of light or drama for us to place our subjects in an interesting part of the frame all. These things can be ways of adding meaning to our images as long as we practice, practice, practice and practice with a critical eye.
We were entertained by the members who went on the club run to the Lake District back in May, this week, and certainly, they got a lot of the same views, but they weren’t the same shots. This goes to show the worth of “working the angle” even when you are in wide open spaces populated only by hordes of tourists in large busses on narrow roads. Apparently, our Esteemed Chair indulged his passengers with novel language lessons when these pantechnicons and sundry other road users broke the unwritten etiquette of British roads. An enhanced learning experience all round then.
Now non-landscapers can have rather jaundiced views of those who revel in long walks to nowhere in particular and back carrying kit they end up not using and still not get the shot because the light was “wrong”, but that is to miss the point. Landscape as a discipline brings with it challenges and techniques, not all of them specific to this category of photography, broad as it is and possibly viewed as a subcategory of Nature. There are some car parks with very fine views, after all, and if we can’t actually see any tarmac in the picture …… we get the same view as the previous 100,000 motorists who preceded us. It is, however, our version of it and that, for most amateurs is what counts. It’s our version of Kilroy was here.
Picking not only the vista but having a focal point in it, making the picture about something, is a big step as opposed to ooh-pretty-point-shoot. “Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer – and often the supreme disappointment ” according to Ansel Adams. Planning is the key, not only to getting the photograph we want from what is in front of us but in creating further opportunities for us to take. Our aim is to make a picture of one thing in relation to its setting without letting the setting overpower the picture we are looking to frame. That can be done hours/days/weeks/months/years before we leave home, or on-site and in the moment. But taking a short time to really look makes a difference.
In that short time, what we are looking for is composition. There are as many “Rules” of composition as you want. Except rules is a bit misleading as a term. Think of them as tools. The Tools of Composition. Essentially these are ways of guiding the eye to the subject in ways that suggest meaning to the viewer. The question is how we use them together. Quality is better than quantity, you need to be deliberate and you need to be able to work fast and with the light. It is all about the light, regardless of what style of photography you are partaking in. OK photography means, roughly, painting with light, so it’s hardly a surprise.
The best light is at dawn and dusk as far as landscapers are concerned. Low angle soft light in the warm end of the spectrum coming from or moving towards the blues of twilight. The best shooting light is commonly held to be roughly half an hour either side of those two events. That leaves the rest of the day for other things – which probably explains the notion that landscaping is a solitary sort of pursuit. Certainly, it doesn’t necessarily easily fall in with the plans of others.
There are other costs to landscape as you get more into it. A good tripod for one, the reason being minimum ISO’s and small apertures tend to be the order of the day. Marry that with low light levels and we need to be accommodating exposures that are too long to hand hold without showing considerable signs of camera shake. Lenses tend towards a wide/super-wide and medium telephoto – and everything in between and either side depending upon the depth of your pockets and your penchant for collecting expensive pieces of kit. Then there are the filters. At least a circular polarizer. Then there are hard and soft graduated filters for equalising out the light in the sky to that falling on the ground. Investing in a quality set of filters is not cheap, but pays dividends in the quality and clarity of what you are getting. You are, after all, adding glass in front of glass and that will have an effect on quality. And don’t forget a waterproof, solid, comfortable bag to keep all that expensive kit in.
As usual, it isn’t about the kit. As Mike Browne has been known to opine, nobody says to Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsey “You must have a really good oven” when enjoying their world-class cuisine. Good photography is the product of practice, knowledge, practice, planning, practice, willingness to learn, practice, a critical eye, practice, hard work and practice. There is also technique, practice, willingness to pushing our limits, practice, getting to know our cameras, lenses and other kit inside out, practice, and practice, but you get the general idea.
It was an entertaining evening, for sure, and we thank our fellow members for their time effort and willingness to share.
Morag McDonald was our guest last meeting and she addressed a lot over a short time. Interesting history and a combination of the academic and the practical. There was a lot of talk after the meeting about cropping and composition so it was to the latter that we address ourselves in this post and will look at colour next week – which is also editing part ii so bring your laptops.
Composition, or getting the stuff you are looking at in the right place in the right proportion to tell our story most effectively is going to be part of any successful photograph. It is the grammar that supports the plot that tells the story that grips the reader. Rules are often talked about, but talked about as rules, “Authoritative, prescribed directions for conduct, especially ones of the regulation governing procedure …” are not at all helpful to the developing photographer. We need to learn to look for stories first then compose, rather than look for structure then find a story. Rules are designed, applied and enforced to reproduce a stable set of circumstances. We must do it this way in order to ape the greats and get an acceptable photograph. Logically, then, all photographs should look the same, should comply to a half dozen, or less, formats and nothing of any worth happened after Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was classically trained and used it to great artistic effect.
Tools, on the other hand, anything used as a means of performing an operation or achieving an end, are very useful. Cameras are tools. Lenses are tools. Flash guns and strobes are tools. Light modifiers are tools. Filters are tools. These are the ones we to tend to think of as tools because they come at a cost to our bank balances and credit ratings. They are the tools of capture. The most effective tools we have to tell our stories, on the other hand, are free, easily accessed and well known. They are the tools of composition.
The composition of an image has three parts to it. The focal element, the structure and the balance. We will look at each of these in turn, starting with the biggest culprit in dulling the impact of an image, the focal element. Without a focal element, or with too many focal elements, the eye goes on a hunting trip for something to focus on. The eye isn’t really the problem here it is the brain, of course, and our brains work on the principle of rapid summation of our environment and the ordering of threats in it. Basically that has not changed since we all lived in caves, in Africa and shared the name Ug. What’s the point? That is the first thing the brain looks at when it surveys a scene. What’s going on? It needs limited information to form an initial judgement which will be refined as other information adds to this judgment or detracts from it to the point it becomes redundant. We constantly reconcile what we see with what we think we know.
The sort of things our eyes will latch on to the focal elements that show high contrast, high saturation, sharpest focus, motion, faces and or figures. These in turn will be influenced by items such as leading lines, framing and geometry.
Structure is probably what we think of first (and that might be part of the problem) and certainly it’s where the idea of rules in composition is seated. We are talking about such items as the Rule of Thirds, the Golden Ratio, pyramids and triangles, symmetry and filling the frame. They are all sound under the circumstances that tell the story best for that structure. Think of them as plot devices.
The rule of thirds has four points, known as eyes, of importance and the idea of these is to put something of importance at the intersection one of these points a third or two thirds across the frame and a third or two thirds down it. A second element can be place on one of the adjoining thirds to provide balance (diagonals seem to work best by adding depth in 3D in a 2D environment, but that might just be a personal preference). It has to be said that these points are not absolute (it’s a tool remember) and that objects placed in proximity work just as well or good enough depending on your aesthetic. Of course not everyone is a fan of it.
The Golden Ratio is everywhere we look it seems. It also explains why all those classical Greco-Roman statues are beholding grapes at odd angles. The Rule of Thirds is often referred to as a simplified Golden Ratio, but when it comes to classical composition the Golden Ratio is king. It is found commonly in nature and can be expressed through the Fibonacci Sequence. Now whether it is there and we impose it or we find it because it is there is always open (this link explores in detail). It is also a tricky blighter to get right and its mere presence is no guarantee of the perfect image – plenty of images to be found that are technically proficient but subject deficient. There is no denying that it is fascinating and when it works it works, but remember to the viewer it is an explanation of why this image works not the point of it.
Pyramid Composition, aka triangle composition, is really a matter of converging lines. Converging lines are more usually associated with wide angle lenses because they are more obvious in those perspectives and indeed, we spend time in post “correcting” them. Really we are imposing order on physics because we want our vertical lines vertical not curved (unless shooting with a fisheye lens of course) nor angled at anything but the perpendicular. As we are talking composition we are talking about deliberately converging lines not incidental ones. Leading lines are the most frequently encountered pyramidal tool in the advice given. They converge on a point, our eyes naturally follow that conversion so we need to make certain that our focal point sits at the point of conversion. If the lines within that pyramid follow its boundary lines then the effects are reinforced. It’s a matter of our next tool, symmetry.
Symmetry is repetition of a pattern on both sides of an axis. We associate it with power and beauty. It is explained in Gestalt psychology but we have already touched upon this when we talked about the brains need for patterns and conforming details. Basically our brains crave patterns and if we can find them and use them to concentrate the viewers imagination in the frame we present them then we are on the way, given a sufficiently compelling subject, to making a successful photograph.
Last but not least of our little selection of tools and before we go to our third element, balance, we are back with the oft quoted (here at least) Frank Capa: If our photograph isn’t good enough it’s because we are not close enough. We are moving beyond Capa’s original intent here, which was about connection with your subject. Basically, fill the frame. Essentially you use a single element, like the details in a face, to take up the whole frame. A face is a good example because it has a high degree of symmetry to it and so fits in a frame quite balanced along the central vertical axis. Doesn’t have to be a face, of course, but it should be minimal in the number of subjects In the frame, that is, one image in the frame.
Is there any order to these? No. These are just a very few of the design principles, tools, we can use. we need to learn to decide what tool we are going to use in order to get the result we want. Advice for the beginner would be to start by ensuring you fill the frame and try the rule of thirds. When you have mastered these tools then expand your tool kit, deliberately, by which I mean we go out to deliberately shoot x number of frames in a session based on tool y. Take notes.
So the third element of this composition monster is a thing called visual balance. Basically everything you capture in a frame has an effect a weight in relation to the rest of the frame and the other things in it. Things that can affect the visual weight of an object in a frame include relative sizes, shape, number, high contrast, saturation, brightness, faces, figures etc. They need to be played off so everything seems to part of the whole and those things have a harmony to them. There are a Of course disharmony has a place too, but let’s get the basics right before we start to get cocky.
So, this composition thing in a nutshell: One clear element arranged within a structure to make a point in a scene that is balanced. Simples. Maybe …..
Kev and Rich talking about landscape photography was our last meeting, two of the clubs finest and most experienced landscapers. We all take landscapes, it is hard not to, apart from the obvious fact we live in them to a greater or lesser extent, but to get them just right requires planning, determination and patience. And practice. Lots and lots and lots of practice.
What comes first though? You have to spot the picture. Not everyone sees the subject of a photograph in the tangle of the environment it inhabits. Certainly two photographers can look at the same thing, pick out the same subject and one will think the shot worth taking, the other not. Both are right, at least for them. There can be a lot of stuff going on and as with other forms of photography the first strategy is to tell one story in one picture. This means looking, critically, at what is in front of you. Yes, as often as not a landscape is taken with a wide angle as a telephoto lens, lens choice is not the point, it should be consequent to a decision about how to frame a picture you have in mind. You use whatever you think is necessary, but the absolute basis of landscape as any other form of photography is the composition. You have a frame made by the physical interaction of object, light, glass and sensor size. You control distance, angle, subject focus, depth of field, about the subject itself. You vary these elements to compose your image in the frame and ….. click.
Well, if only it were that simple and of course it is, but it is a lot more than about the mechanics. We are not after the best shutter sound, most satisfying zoom look and feel nor any of the other myriad electro-mechanical marvels that go into making a retrievable image. We are after the essence, the soul of what we have observed in the landscape. We want to ensnare what the poet John Keates observed simply because “A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.” It is the sweet dreams, health and quiet breathing that we are trying to capture. Indeed if there is a poem for landscape photographers then Endymion is it. Maybe all photographers.
Waxing lyrical aside, that which we can control in landscape photography is a good deal less than we can control in studio photography. Get up well before dawn, drive to the appointed place safe in the knowledge that the several weather forecasts we have consulted the day before assure us that it will be excellent weather. Trudge for half an hour in the dark: set up camera and tripod; find out that the weather forecasters got it wrong; employ colourful epithets around the possible uses of weather forecasters who can’t; pack up go home; come back tomorrow. Or at sunset. Or buy yourself a 720 nanometer infra red filter and make a day of it (or any other IR filter depending on the number of batteries you have with you and the length of the chapters of the book you are reading when taking 30 minute plus exposures with 900nm filters). Still, as Mr Keats put it: “That, whether there be shine, or gloom o’ercast;/They always must be with us …“. Or maybe not abandon the day? Maybe you should go and look for particular details of interest in themselves, who don’t need the context of the vista to make a story? It won’t be that story, but it will be a story, if only a different one. You could even do your own mini photo-marathon. Always pays to have a foul weather alternative at the very least.
If this is the case it really shouldn’t be by chance. The successful landscape expedition is always going to be at mercy of the weather. So are the unsuccessful ones, but the difference between the two is planning. You may not get what you thought you were going to get but you can get something and this is far more likely to happen if there is a plan in place and, as I always say, if you haven’t got a plan B you haven’t got a plan. As for luck, as we have visited and revisited in this blog, originally from a presentation by Kev and Rich on their first Iceland trip, you make your own.
That doesn’t mean that spontaneity should be crushed in pursuit of the single frame, though at least one speaker we have had over the last year said he tended to relentlessly pursue the single image he has in mind, then pack up and go home. Whereas I admire such tenacity I have to say, where’s the fun in that? There is a middle path here that certainly will yield results. Looking without seeing is the difference between the lay person and the artist, the bloke-with-a-camera from the photographer (regardless of gender). It isn’t about being a professional. A professional gets paid for it. Not all of it, but some of it, enough of it and they make a living, but certainly the some of it good enough, or suitable enough to get published. Composing in the mind’s eye then varying those things we talked about controlling above, and post processing as and if necessary.
The basic rules is the same for landscape composition as it is for everything else we want to take a good photograph of. Reduce the contents of your frame to the absolute minimum. Then reduce it again. What? With a wide angle lens and a huge landscape in front of us? Yes. A single focal point for the eye to rest on. Then the other details in the frame unfold as our eyes are lead from one point to another. The less the competing details the larger the impact. It’s why we fill the frame. All that varying the angle? To avoid the middle and make more use of the space in the frame. Then there are the lead lines, diagonals, to play with perspectives and backgrounds and borders to police for distracting extraneous detail. Above all, have fun.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Week 7 – 13th Oct 2016 19:30 – Guest Speaker: Margaret Collis “Photography For Fun”
Tony Worobiec FRPS made welcome return as guest speaker at the last meeting and spoke on the subject of composition. Tony’s opening was to challenge the idea of “Rules”, not in an attempt to throw them over, but in order to put the ideas of “The rules for composing a photograph” into a useable perspective.
A rule, as we generally perceive it in a photographic sense, can be defined as: “An authoritative, prescribed direction for conduct, especially one of the regulations governing procedure”. In the photographers case this means following what books and tutorial videos tell us to do with the objects within our frame. For frame read viewfinder. Mostly these carry the caveat that “Rules are meant to be broken”, but as with most clichés it is one that is too often lightly worn and frequently lazy – especially when not referenced with analysed examples. What we actually mean by rule is “A generalized statement that describes what is true in most or all cases”, emphasis on the most.
As there are at least a half dozen different interpretations we can put upon the idea of a rule, Tony put forward the sensible suggestion that we should, like an image that is not quite working in the viewfinder, reframe. He offered “Principles“. We can define that as “A basic or essential quality or element determining intrinsic nature or characteristic behaviour”. This works better for us as photographers, because it carries a useful hint as to the nature of a photograph that has a lasting impact. It has interest in the subject. We talking directly of those photographs that are “Technically proficient but subject deficient”. You can follow every rule in the composition handbook and composition is simply the arrangement of objects within a frame, remember, but if the subject is soulless, if there is no hook, no emotion, then it’s just a record. A colonoscopy image may have an emotional hook, especially if it’s your colon and even more so if there is something there that says “Get your affairs in order”, but to the general viewer not imbued with a morbid fascination, it’s just a record.
If the “First Rule of Photography club” were “Do not talk about photography club” then this blog would be a lot shorter. You might consider this a mercy. If there is a first rule of photography club, aside from pay your subs, then it is, possibly, The Rule of Thirds. Tony hinted that it has an interesting if, relative to the golden ratio and so on, short history appearing sometime towards the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. Actually 1797. I don’t know about Tony’s assertion that John Thomas Smith was a “Failed artist”, (he was an engraver for at least part of his career) conjuring as that does the slow death of the young Chatterton, but “Antiquity” Smith wrote a book “Remarks on Rural Scenery” that included the following:
“Analogous to this ‘Rule of thirds’, (if I may be allowed so to call it) I have presumed to think that, in connecting or in breaking the various lines of a picture, it would likewise be a good rule to do it, in general, by a similar scheme of proportion; for example, in a design of landscape, to determine the sky at about two-thirds ; or else at about one-third, so that the material objects might occupy the other two : Again, two thirds of one element, (as of water) to one third of another element (as of land); and then both together to make but one third of the picture, of which the two other thirds should go for the sky and aerial perspectives ….
…. This rule would likewise apply in breaking a length of wall, or any other too great continuation of line that it may be found necessary to break by crossing or hiding it with some other object : In short, in applying this invention, generally speaking, or to any other case, whether of light, shade, form, or colour, I have found the ratio of about two thirds to one third, or of one to two, a much better and more harmonizing proportion, than the precise formal half, the too-far-extending four-fifths—and, in short, than any other proportion whatever.”
If Smith’s view from posterity is that of a failure then he certainly got his revenge in first, a revenge that is built into every modern DSLR/CSC even if we can turn it off. As a precept, “A rule or principle prescribing a particular course of action or conduct”, it has certainly got a hold.
The basic fact of the matter is that the Rule of Thirds works, as Tony amply and beautifully illustrated. Tony’s point is that it works to the point where we allow it to dictate contrary to what the viewfinder is telling us. The best is the enemy of the good, especially when the good is good enough, and pursuit of perfection comes at the price of other missed opportunities. Not just the rule of thirds, of course, but this blog would be about the length of a PhD thesis if we examined all of the possible principles and Tony has already written a book on the matters of composition (and a good few others on different aspects of photography). What we are looking to deliver, in the words of Steve Schapiro, is an image that gives us “information, emotion and execution” (see link immediately above). Time to rewatch “Crush the Composition” I think.
Last words (yeah, right) on this blog at least, go to Antiquity Smith:
“I should think myself honoured by the opinion of any gentleman on this point; but until I shall be better informed, shall conclude this general proportion of two and one to be the most picturesque medium in all cases of breaking or otherwise qualifying straight lines and masses and groups.”