Club evenings with cameras are always popular and always a good opportunity to gain knowledge and practice the basics, or try something a little different. Last meeting was no exception as we undertook an evening of tabletop photography, for which the club is grateful for all those who put a lot of effort into making the evening a success.
Theses themed evenings aren’t just about the theme and or subject. They are a chance to get the most out of a controlled situation, specifically, at least for our purposes this week, the chance to work a subject. Now working the scene, or a variation of it, is a phrase that often bandied about.
Sooner rather than later you will come across Henri Cartier-Bresson and the idea of the decisive moment, and certainly in any scene that involves movement there is, or will be a combination of the elements in the frame for which their interplay makes the full story. Is it the same with table top/still life? Essentially yes, but the control in the frame is pretty much absolute and the truth in the frame may be entirely documentary or an arrangement of light on shape in some artistically pleasing manner. The chaos of everyday life is excluded in pursuit of control either way.
So what do we mean by working the scene? Cartier-Bresson didn’t just take one photograph of a scene, even if the first one was the one he ended up using. Nor anyone else. Closer, further away, left, right, up, down all realign the elements, the task is then to isolate the best image to work with.
With table top, though, there isn’t necessarily a lot of room to work with, nonetheless it is still worth the effort. Whether you change the camera angle or the arrangement of the items you are photographing you can still affect the same sort of ends. The end result, the one you show, is then more likely to be better at communicating with your audience because it is the end result of a process.
There is also a question, further prompted by the idea of the end result, of whether you can do this moving around in time. If your intent is to capture something that has to be constructed before you take a picture of the end result, why not photograph that construction? It could well be that the image that you end up keeping is one that shows all the elements but not the whole. That whole is then constructed in the mind of the viewer.
The whole point is that of collecting data deliberately. From this data we then make a story. Changing the angle/distance/perspective creates a pause and in that pause we can process the data we have collected. We can turn these to our own advantage with a little pre planning. Whilst framing the image we can be critical of what we are looking at, now that we have put a physical frame around it.
Put simply we start seeing when we stop looking. Look is the hook, the thing that caught our eye, the draw in. Seeing takes a lot more effort and experimentation, but seeing is the essence of photography. It also means that we can practice this, using table top, at home, through experimentation and starting with the tools of composition. Two to start with, I suggest are light and dark and lines.
Light and dark in its purest form, black-white (the Japanese Notan art form for instance) or at the least two complimentary colours. Contrast is what the eye, rather like the autofocus on our cameras, looks for, so as to make things clear. Use this as a key to where the light falls and with a little practice we can make powerful yet subtle ways that take the eyes of the viewer to where the photographer wants them.
Lines are, possibly, less subtle but no less powerful for that. We are largely familiar with the concept of leading lines whether we are conscious of their effect or not. Anyone who has seen white lines on tarmac will have been affected by it. Anyone who has ever followed a path will have been effected by it. By getting close, looking for the key detail, we better frame the thing that attracted us in the first place.
There are of course a myriad of other compositional tools we can use, we can practice. Composition is just a way of seeing in one sense. In a more useful sense it is a deliberate way of seeing. We need to practice with deliberation. Stuck for something to do? Then pick one of these compositional tools and use it to go shoot. The table top environment allows us to experiment in these cases by arranging the elements in our frame to our own ends. In other environments we have to look for the chances to capture these things on a more random basis, but in doing so we have to abandon looking for seeing.
N E X T M E E T I NG
Annual General Meeting.
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 …..
Last meeting was the territory of club member and treasurer Steve Hallam, talking through some of his digital history. Steve is an Olympus fan and has been for over ten years. Micro four thirds, the name come from the diameter of the sensor in inches, is the invention of Olympus and as Steve pointed out, the first system to be designed exclusively for digital from scratch. The first Olympus Steve owned had a 5 MP sensor , which when compacts these days can pack 20 Mega Pixels, sounds restrictive. In reality most people would be largely untroubled by 5MP sensors, the key being the quality of rendition not the size. More Mega Pixels give you more room to crop and still get a reasonable image. The ability to resolve reasonably accurate colours and the capacity to restrict noise at higher ISO’s are generally bigger factors in most peoples’ photography . The bigger numbers in terms of Mega Pixels are something driven more by perceived marketing needs (bigger must be better) than actual customer requirements.
For so long full frame, as Steve pointed out a tag rather than a technical term of any enlightening feature. The 35mm (actually 36 mm but that is a spurious accuracy) was of course the film size in most SLR’s and has carried over to the digital age as the most common “professional” size. I will come back to the need for the inverted comma’s shortly. In the film age, especially from the late 60’s onwards, 35mm was pretty much everywhere. Unless you were doing advertising or studio work then the frame size went up to 6 x 4.5, 4 x 5, 10 x 8 and so on. Hasselblads used 120 roll film (6 x 7 cm). Just like the Box Brownie. Only there was a bit of difference price wise. Also, it has to be said, there is a slight difference in quality too.
The reason for the inverted commas around professional above is that there is no such thing as a camera by which one becomes a professional by being in possession of. There is plenty to be said for the idea of a larger sensor – and some people bang on endlessly about it – but, as been said before in this blog, unless it is predicated on an actual photographic need then there is no reason why a professional has to shoot with a 35mm sensor. Damien Lovegrove doesn’t, as he explained when he visited us back in July 2014, he uses APS-C (among other formats I am sure). Any argument based on the logic of sensor size would have that a 6 x 4.5 medium sensor format has to better than a 35mm and so on. The question always has to be “At what”?
Lugging a D800 across Antarctica to photograph polar bears in the wild may seem like hard work, it is, after all a sizeable chunk of Bakelite in its own right. Adding in the heavy duty lenses adds even more bulk and that’s before you realise the nearest wild polar bear is 12,500 miles to the north (it pays to do your research). You had better have a really, really good reason for packing it in the first place. Well that would be weather sealing, shock-proofing, reliability given that it’s 2,500 miles to the nearest camera shop to replace that broken lens (assuming both that you are going North and turning left(ish) and Punta Arenas has a camera shop, otherwise it’s 3,700 miles in a completely different direction to Auckland). You may require very large blow ups at a high dots per inch count, there are any number of reasons you need a full frame camera, but , logically, not one of them is because you are a professional. Steve pointed out the main advantage of the Micro 4/3rds format is the capacity to build smaller, lighter cameras.
Smaller lighter cameras with smaller sensors, yet we still think of lenses in 35mm equivalent terms and that does make things easier for comparison reasons, but allows for some confusion. When we talk of crop sensors we are talking about the size of sensors relative to 35mm and as most sensors are smaller than this then we are seeing a smaller image given the same focal length of lens.
A confusion creeps in with the idea of “magnification” which a lot of people assume to be a telephoto effect because a 100 mm lens on a 35mm camera shows the same as a 150 mm lens on an APS-C or a 200 mm lens on a micro 4/3rds and the logic goes (off at a tangent but it’s easy to see why) a 200 mm pulls in the image twice as much as a 100 mm lens. Well when you double the focal length on the same size sensor it does, the mistake is to not factor in the change in the size of the sensor. If an image is made with the same lens, but a smaller sensor, it shows a smaller area. Enlarge both your 35 mm and you crop sensor images to, say, 10 x 8 inch print and the degree of enlargement, the magnification if you will, will be greater for the smaller sensor than for a larger one. Hence you might get an inkling of why more Mega Pixels on this year’s sensor than last sounds attractive – you can make larger prints without a loss in quality. Well sort of, as, after a point, those extra pixels start to get in each other’s way.
So, our thanks to Steve for bringing up some interesting topics and for sharing his images with us. Much appreciated.
N E X T W E E K
NOT AT THE CLUB. Light trails, meet at the fountains on the centre. Bring cameras and tripods we are going to be taking some light trails. 7.30 commencement.
Philippa Wood AWPF CPAGB AFIAP, ably supported by husband Peter, took us on a tour of the Scillies and the Gower Peninsular as part of their own grand tour this week that took in Preston, Reflex, then moved on to South Wales before culminating in emigrating to Australia on Sunday (our best wishes go with them) – and that only covers the week from Thursday! The theme that stood out for me from Philippa’s presentation was detail, specifically ideas of repetition and rhythm, and I want to investigate this in the blog this week. Think of this as one of those “Making of” features film makers marketing departments flog off to television channels, where we have been charged with getting the picture that encapsulates a 90 minute film over which they can run the end credits and use as a film poster.
Our brief from the art director tells us that we will have to get all our elements together so that they are governed by a rule of composition, either balanced within our frame to create harmony or unbalanced to create tension, but governed by a single point or object more dominant than the rest to give us a fighting chance at capturing a simple, effective strong story. Detail will be the key.
Even using a planetary view, we can’t get everything in. That means that we are going to have to select. Selection is the basis of composition. Last week we talked about the extremes of selection, macro and astro, but even when taking pictures of the Milky Way we are going to have to select foreground and we have to select the correct piece of the sky. The guiding principle of the photograph we want to take is the story that we want it to tell. Lets assume that our metaphorical movie is an action thriller. The rules of composition we have visited many times. They are not the story, they are a means of supporting the story. How we make the picture isn’t as important as what we decide we are going to put in it. Compositional rules help connect with the viewer but they won’t be what the viewer takes away with them from the picture. That is a lot more complicated. We like what we know, we are challenged by what we don’t. The rules of composition are there to entice us, to engage with what we sometimes don’t know and might otherwise reject. It makes it easier for the audience to engage with our photograph when we have decided what the story of that image is – and before we press the shutter. Phillipa’s journey was expressed through her photographs and her illuminating narrative, which included showing some misfires and discussing what made them so.
Let’s approach this from a slightly different angle (always a good idea in photography). Going back to the presentation that Damien Lovegrove gave us last July. At one point he made up a wild story about the life history of one of the models in his shoot (we know it was wild because he admitted that he had made it up in order to illustrate the way we project our own experiences and preferences on a photograph). When he broke the illusion we looked at it in a different, possibly diminished light. His first two rules of taking a photograph are: “Know your shot” and “Make your subject part of the process”. OK the second one makes more immediate sense in portraiture, but could also mean getting down to the right level for that shot of the bee on the flower, picking the key feature that makes that building interesting, or not being timid about tilting the lens down to frame out that non-descript sky “…Because it’s entirely an artist’s eye, patience and skill that makes an image and not his tools” (Ken Rockwell).
Composition, then, is the imposition of rules within a frame of our choosing – basically where we point the business end of our cameras and how much of the viewfinder is taken up with what we are pointing the business end at. Symmetry is very powerful, it indulges our brains cravings for order. 50% of our brains processing capacity goes to making sense of what we can see. 70% of the bodies receptors (things that gather environmental data which the brain processes into assumptions, priorities and actions) are in the eyes. We can make sense of something we see in about a tenth of a second as a result of these two facilities. The brain takes about 250milliseconds to process and attach a meaning to a symbol – that’s why we have road signs not road memos! Colour amplifies meaning greatly in these basic calculations.
This is why, when sorting through your photographs, a very strong guide to the keepers are only those that hold our attention longer than 2 seconds. Be ruthless at this, because we will start to attach meanings to the ones we wanted to” come out better” (aka excuses) and consequently that will add up a whole heap of storage over nothing of real value. It’s like when we were seven and told to clean the rubbish out of our room – everything means something, so what is rubbish? Yes that toy is broken but I don’t want it gone, I can still have fun with it. In fact it is now officially my favourite toy etc etc. Thus, through self-deception is the Devil in the detail and we enslave Photoshop as his instrument.
But we were talking about symmetry. Symmetry we use to alter the meaning of a photograph. Think of a landscape. Where we place the horizon makes that picture about the foreground or the sky depending on where we place the horizon in a photograph. Go to your local church, especially, but not exclusively, one of the old style ones. Look at how the symmetry gives power to the space we are in. It is the same for a cathedral as it is for a parish church, just we are that much smaller in relation to the cathedral sacred space and with that comes a sense of power and structure and order (and your place in it). Look for symmetry to photograph, we will find beauty in it.
Repetition gives us predictability and in a system that has three initial responses to sudden change, flight, fight or, most often, freeze, our brains find repetition comforting, because of the predictability. Rhythm is a little more complex, visually. Rhythm is made up of visual elements that are repeated. Generally, very generally, a low number of repetitions give a photograph a slow rhythm. A high number of repetitions give an image a more intense, faster rhythm. It can be quite a difficult concept to grasp but it is an observable phenomenon. Again colour can have an effect and as club member Adrian Cook showed us back in January, horizontal, vertical, diagonal and converging lines are instrumental in making patterns to give impressions of depth and scale and effect the rhythm of a composition.
Then we come to where put these things in our frame. This is where the concepts of thirds, fifths, sevenths and “Golden ratio” enhance the ideas, the story elements, of our image. It has been said by more than one speaker and by several competition judges that the best photographs tell one story only. We do not start with these for a reason and that would be, quite simply, that if we did there would be no need to take the lens cap off to get a “good” picture as they would all be present in the pitch black. If we start with these then we are making our job that much harder. Start with the detail, the heroine of our action thriller and give her the right setting to keep our viewers enthralled. Have her dominating the situation to give our readers a comfortable feeling of control or out of balance in her situation to create tension for them. Make her the single point of dominance in action or being acted upon but always, always keep the focus on her through her allies and co-conspirators, the rules of composition.
A N N O U N C E M E N T S
NEXT MEETING: DO NOT go to the club but meet in Queens Square. Practical session, bring your cameras and be there from around 7pm Thursday 7th May.
DO enter the clubs monthly Flickr competiton, club members also get to vote on their preferences.