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 …..
Change of venue to a walk around the docks in pleasant company, always interesting thing to photograph going on as it is now a social centre for the city. It being evening and ending after dark rather suggested that we take a look at night photography, both with and without a tripod.
On the face of it, night photography is defined by two of the absolute essentials of photography. Firstly contrast, you have to go and find it. It will either be very low, which can make things muddy and ill defined or very high, which can call into question shadow and or highlight detail, losing it mainly. Then there is the whole light thing, rather the relative lack of it and the effect that has on the exposure triangle, camera shake and sensor noise.
Situation is also key. This post is going to look at the urban setting as that is where we were, which sets a very different array of questions than say, photographing the milky way in the Brecon Beacons. Urban settings have more immediate and multiple hazards, multiple opportunities too. That is not to say that you should go prancing around the countryside with anything but due care, it is a far more dangerous place than townies think.
Whereas there is a joy in wondering around looking for photo-opportunities you are far more likely to find them if you know what you are looking for (planned serendipity). Let’s start with the golden hour. The Golden Hour isn’t exactly an hour, it is short hand for, in photographic terms, a quality of light that is a function of the relationship between the angle of the sun to the earth. During that time the colour temperature of the light is around 3500 Kelvin because of the greater depth of the atmosphere it has to travel through.
Now you say, being on the ball, that makes the light bluer than the standard daylight of around 5500 Kelvin and you would be right. That soft quality of light that makes for good portraits as well as land, urban and seascapes (we will ignore sun rise for the purposes of this piece but the golden hour is that which starts around dawn) is a product of the low angle of the sun to the horizon which scatters the blue wavelengths relative to the red/yellow wavelengths which, psychologically, look warmer to us. Think instant no cost tanning. That low angle means long shadows too that are also softer than you will experience later in the day.
The time it is available is limited so there is a time pressure (though no excuse for bad technique, of course). It’s all in the preparation (a point worth repeating). Cloud cover will need to be monitored and factored in too. Knowing when today’s golden hours are, or tomorrows etc, depends upon your planning window, is fairly easy to calculate. I feel almost obliged to mention The Photographers Ephemeris at this point. It also worth persisting throughout the hour because of the speed the light changes is so rapid. ISO’s are likely to be higher and/or apertures wider and the White Balance, which will try to correct to daylight if left on auto, should be set to cloudy to preserve the warmth in the light.
Not that the setting of the sun should stop you, the urban landscape presents a myriad of possibilities, some of these we have spent some time on club outings photographing. The first thing to remember is a piece of advice from Scott Kelby and that is the last thing you do is put the camera on the tripod. Make up your mind what you are photographing, “Working the scene” to determine the most productive angles. Then fix the static element around that rather than restricting yourself the other way round. Handheld is also an option, depending on vibration reduction/how steady your hand/availability of something solid to brace yourself against or set the camera. Another tip I have found very useful is, when holding everything steady as you can, is to shoot a sequence using the motor drive that is built into virtually every camera these days. Five will get you one steady shot more often than not, though there are, of course, limits to what you can achieve. Wide angle are a lot easier to get results with this way than telephoto lenses which, with exceptions, need a tripod.
The lights in the urban environment are both static and mobile. The very wide and the very narrow are both good for picking image subjects. Cityscape panoramas provide, usually, both static and mobile elements. Shop windows, street lights vehicle light trails. Getting high up, windows, multi storey car parks with a view, bridges and alike offer vantage points. Shop windows make for a great free soft box for street portraits. Neon light always sticks out and often uses reds and yellows which are particularly striking and blues can be arresting set on a dark background. Reflections in windows or water are worth paying attention too. The light sources in the scene really are the first thing you should weigh up These are, light trails aside, entirely static. Waiting for something or someone to come along and add interest to it is really quite logical.
Exposure is always going to be tricky at night as we discussed above, because of the high dynamic range that you will be dealing with. This is one situation where it really does make more sense to shoot in RAW than in JPEG (or, if you want your cake and eat it, both) unless your camera is using a version of HDR with a high ISO and a black frame to reduce the noise, which will be a built in function and therefore not one where you have the data format option, necessarily. Noise reduction in camera will slow down the write to card times by approximately the same length of time as the exposure so if you are going longer than a second or so and/or shooting sequences with long exposures it probably makes sense to turn it off and do your noise reduction in post.
Flash has it’s uses, but not if you are trying to be discrete. Nonetheless, meter for the highlights, shoot camera RAW, accept that post production is almost inevitable in these things. Dark images are not necessarily a bad thing, you are shooting at night after all, but the mood after dark is always different. The mood of some people is also rather different so make sure you play it safe. The tripod is a good idea, of course, especially if you are looking at longer exposures, when it becomes an essential, either because of the generally low light levels or because you want to include some blur in your subjects – also useful if you are putting in some zoom blur too – or you are looking to put some light trails in, as discussed above. And we haven’t even broached the subject of light painting.
All in all a great way to extend your photographic day and pretty much what e shall be doing at WSM this Thursday, with the added incentive of it being bike night. See you there.
Slightly late for St Patrick, last Thursday had a distinctly emerald tinge to it, as the club celebrated the Apostle of Ireland with a photographic evening. We were joined by local model Kelly Wolf Rogers and various club members were dressed in (at least) forty shades of green. There were balloons too. And cake. Thanks to everyone involved in getting this event together, it was a good humoured and very enjoyable one. We don’t set so much store against Saints days in the modern era (not least because, strictly speaking, it is a denominational affair) but they were and are a way of setting out the seasons. St Valentine’s day is where the bleakness of winter starts to be broken by wild primroses, crocuses and aubretia (those small, usually purple, flowers that grow in clumps I am reasonably informed, however, to me Hell is a Garden Centre so I would probably have accepted that it was a form of fungal infection just as readily). Saint David’s day is a bit early for our idea of spring but there is plenty going on. Paddy’s day and you may start to see the first of the bluebells in the far south west, but by St George’s day spring is resolutely marching north across the country at a steady walking pace. Warmer, if not entirely dry, weather entices the less hardy outdoors.
We are not short, in other words, of photo opportunities provided by nature, from the very small to the grand vista. Let’s start with the very small. I am using the term close up rather than macro in deference to the technical definitions of such that hold macro to start at an image reproduction ratio of 1:1, that is life size. A third term you often come across is micro photography and they are pretty much interchangeable in any camera company marketing department. A few, if obvious, facts bare illuminating as our plot unfolds. Every lens has a minimum focusing distance. The longer the lens the, generally, further away from the camera that will be. Short focal length lenses focus closer. Depth of field is shallower/deeper the more telephoto/wide angle you go. Smaller than about f16, apertures start to soften out the image because of light diffraction.
So, speaking in close up terms, there are ways of getting more out of your lenses than the manufacturer designed for and each have their pros and cons. You can also ally these with certain software tricks, such as focus stacking, so as to cheat more out of your equipment. Certainly this is an instance of where a tripod is an absolute necessity (at least until you can slowly zoom in video on 4k – 8mb per frame – , or Sony’s rumoured 8k DSLT – 33mb per frame) , but that doesn’t mean that you have to bring the outdoors indoors to achieve it. Neither do you have to go to extremes, these things can be found around the house, e.g. a pot plant, fruit, etc. but also “in situ” as it were. Why, essentially, do we need to do this when we are shooting close up? After all we usually only have space for one thing to be in focus, indeed, often to fit in the frame. The first problem that we usually have to contend with is depth of field. The D.o.F. on a 50mm lens set at f8, focusing on an object 25cms (10 inches) away is less than a centimetre (about 4/10ths of an inch in imperial) on a 1.5x crop sensor. It would be less on a full frame sensor. Autofocus may not cope, so be prepared to go to manual.
Nature, it has been observed, is wild and inclusive, whereas art is about choice and exclusion. In the discussion, very broad as it was, on the last blog, on the section about wide angle lenses, it was stated that they are commonly associated with getting all the view in shot, whereas it is an invitation to get in close. To marry these two observations we need to think in terms of why what we have in the viewfinder is there and also to investigate other angles too. Don’t forget to press the shutter though. So what has this to do with close up photography? More than it would at first appear. In both instances a small detail in a larger context is the situation for our image’s story. By deciding we want a close up of that insect, that petal, those leaves etc we are making very definite decisions about excluding other detail from this story. Coming back to the detail idea, what is obvious in close up photography, applies, just not necessarily as obviously, to landscapes, portraits and so on. We have been told by more than one judge at the competition rounds (next round at the next meeting, f.y.i.) that there is room in any frame for a single story. When we are using wide angle lenses to capture an image the edges of the view become more important than is the case with telephoto’s.
The reason, of course is that there are more chances to cover more objects and those objects could be distracting to the eye. This is also something you can get in the close up, extraneous detail you overlook because you get target fixated. That target in close up photography is the in focus area. We end up concentrating so hard on that we miss what is glaringly obvious in post production. That detail we miss will almost certainly be a little off centre, (or centre of attention). The same happens with wide angle lenses, the wider the angle the more of a problem. Attention can be distracted quite unintentionally so you need to be aware more of what is on the outside of the frame.
Lighting for close up outdoors is also less of an issue and a different set of problems. Whereas the “ideal” light for landscape falls within the Golden Hour, and some landscapers won’t photograph in anything else, a lot of opportunities exist throughout the day – and you don’t always have the opportunity of going back at a more fortuitous hour (and can’t control the weather if you do). Judicious use of reflectors or auxiliary lights, flashes etc (though not the one on the camera as it will fall within the shadow of the lens and will unlikely be reducible to useful strength if it doesn’t) can certainly help in ways that are inconceivable for the bigger picture. If you want to wait for the golden hour, the details in the landscape, even down to the very small ones still offer opportunities.
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Next meeting is the Reflex Open Competition. RCC_notice_Ian
Member Adrian Cooke took us through some of his favourite landscape pictures last meeting and his presentation was well received by the members. We are now regularly fielding 40+ at each meeting and that has something, a lot, actually, to do with the programme. In the words of Butler and Yeats, “A good thing”. Active members mean a healthy club.
Adrian shoots a lot of landscape photography, he has a lot of it on his door step, nonetheless the fact that he showed us a wide variation of images of the same landscapes just goes to prove that no two images are ever the same, even when the subject is identical (Maybe). Adrian showed some scanned slide film images among the purely digital images and the colours were quite different in comparison. Now there are a whole lot of technical issues in scanning slides to digital, and the image sensor may not have the same dynamic range as the (negative) film, and just how much information you can get on film as opposed to a modern sensor, the way that each respective medium records light, standardisation of results, and a swathe of other pros and cons constantly rumble around like a number of other technical questions that seem to get in the way of people making pictures. None of those, and all of them, are my point. It is refreshing to sit back and rediscover some of the features that many people now can’t appreciate because they have never been exposed to the processes nor the outcomes. Sometimes I suspect that the memory of those images is superior to their physical reality. One day I will go for a rummage in the attic to find out. These technicalities were hurdles and barriers to entry, the number of photographs taken was exponentially smaller, but the role of mastery has not changed. Just the size, number and relative cost of the spanners it takes to make even a poor image.
Not that Adrian’s images suffered in the quality category, familiarity and technique were in evidence aplenty. Perhaps the most consistent point to come across was the importance of the focal point. There are a number of ways to promote the (usually single) focal point. With landscapes it is generally held that greater depth of field is desirable but, nonetheless the question still remains what is the focal point and where in the frame am I going to put it. Yep we are back to the thirds, fifths, sevenths and “Golden ratio” , so I will move on. The f-stop isn’t the only way of highlighting the focal point. Careful use of, or observation of, contrast and shapes will also do it, as, of course making it the largest thing in the picture (OK, obvious, but worth mentioning). It also helps with not providing too many points for the eye to rest on, and thereby confusing things, and that is less likely to happen if there are fewer places to fill them with.
The eyes journey around the image is important. The photographer creates that journey and the elements within it make up the story. As was stated at the judging of the last round of the ROC, for a photograph to really make an impact it really should be telling one story and one story only. As Adrian implied, these images don’t just happen they are created. Another feature of Adrian’s photographs were the role that lines play in the journey we make around each image through the use of horizontal, vertical, diagonal and converging lines in making patterns to give impressions of depth and scale or leading to the focal point.
Timing is also important. Adrian related how he tended to shoot towards sunset, though there were a good few early mornings represented in his presentation. This is the period of the “Golden Hour“, where the light has a different quality to that of the rest of the day and for which The Photographers Ephemaris is a great tool. Almost by implication this brings in the idea of longer exposures, which have effects of their own, pretty much demand the use of a tripod, for lower ISO settings tend to give better results with less noise but increase the problems surrounding camera shake. Almost counter intuitively this allows for the capture in motion, especially of water and clouds. Adrian discussed using ND filters to cut down the light and ND grads to help even out the exposure (back to dynamic range again – the range of lighting that a sensor or film can represent. Of course it helps when you don’t confuse your Infra Red Filter for your big stopper ND filter as I did on Sunday (apologies to Dan Ellis who I leant it to) but then there is something there about labelling things. Or in this case not loosing your filters. Maybe I should take note. Also Dan discussed the use of a polarising filter (and when to use one) and certainly this can have a quite dramatic effect on skies and cut down on reflections when the light comes in from the side. And of course not just limited to landscape.
Adrian’s presentation provided a thoughtful and thought provoking refresher on landscape photography, and the club thanks him for his time and effort. Next meeting we have a speaker, who will talk about editing and take us through the process using some pictures from the club. Marko Nurminem has worked at the “Very high end” in editing images, including for previous speaker Damien Lovegrove. See the link RCC EVENTS Feb_05_15 Marko Nurminen_No_Images for more information.
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A reminder from Dan Ellis about the Ask The Club session. Get your questions in by 12th February, either via FB or the forms you can get from the table where the register is kept on club nights.