Last week we talked about the concept of visual weight, the idea that objects in a frame, depending on their position, colour or mass, draw the eye around an image and that we photographers can take advantage of this.
So this week we are going to take the opportunity to look at some other tools of composition and the opportunities they give us to reveal just a little bit more. These tools evolve around seven basic ideas, in no particular order: line, shape, form, texture, pattern colour and space. These were more and less in the background of what we discussed last week and in a past post about Gestalt Principles.
First up is the tool of odds. Impanumerophobics aside (persons with a fear of odd numbers) the human brain has an affinity with odd numbers. Were I to speculate why it would be to say that odd numbers make it easier for the brain to determine a middle.
If we can determine a middle then we are as far as we can be from right or wrong, more likely a manifestation of the heard instinct and the fact that predators stalk the fringes for the young, sick and old who will make for a lower energy expenditure in the hunt.
Or maybe not.
We find the balance comforting, and in truth a single frame will possibly hold no more than five items comfortably and certainly three in a frame is commonly found, or groups of three or five. An exercise in looking for them, as is an exercise in looking for any of these tools, is a good exercise in looking with a purpose and that is one of the keys to making a strong image. It as much about exclusion as inclusion.
Diagonals are also a powerful composition tools and are often bracketed in with triangles as occurrences that build “Dynamic tension” sometimes known as visual tension. All these tools are methods to create a focal point or points in a frame.
The diagonals and the triangles can either be actual or implied, The key is to move our point of view until we get those visual clues in line and the frame balances out the way we want. This can mean font and back (zooming with our feet) up and down and even a bit of Dutching, maybe a combination of these.
Re-framing is a good habit to nurture. “Working the Angles”, to give it another name, a.k.a. “Working the Scene” gives us more options. We see the world from a relatively fixed position.
This is the “mistake” most photographers make, not altering that position, or at least leaving it at that. The image remains the photographers view of the object, it tells us a lot about the photographer’s view but maybe there is more to be made of the point of view of the subject and/or the subjects environment.
The stronger visual stories are those that have a strong point of focus, where our eye as the viewer first falls and where it is lead to next. This is the dynamic bit of that dynamic tension we were talking about earlier. The movement of the eye across the frame, purposefully driven by what the photographer has chosen to show and what to exclude.
More tools of composition to help you practice seeing are the subject of the main blog this week. There is no level of skill that these do not apply to, but there is considerable skill in knowing when to break those guidelines and in doing so make a different but still effective image.
Neither is this the case of being born with a talent, though the right talent is a boon to have. A lot of people pass over the fact that working hard on something is a talent in itself, and certainly it is the core skill in developing in any field.
We tend to forget that we are surrounded by objects in our everyday lives that we can make into mini photo projects. Watch the following video and choose three ideas to replicate and improve on over a week or weekend. You don’t have to spend hours on one, in fact limiting your time can force you into decisions, which can tell you a lot when reviewed. Video link is here.
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.
Here’s something or nothing. Did you realise that we, as photographers, take images in additive (Red, Green, Blue or RGB) and print in subtractive (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black or CMYK, the K stands for Key) colours? Explains, partially, why we have printer profiles I suppose, but as the last session was about editing and the previous was about composition and we have talked about colour space before, which impacts on what we will be talking about here, it seems proper that we talk about colour in a little more depth.
It matters way beyond photography though. In a much quoted survey, “92.6 percent said that they put most importance on visual factors when purchasing products. Only 5.6 percent said that the physical feel via the sense of touch was most important. Hearing and smell each drew 0.9 percent.
When asked to approximate the importance of color (sic) when buying products, 84.7 percent of the total respondents think that color (sic) accounts for more than half among the various factors important for choosing products”.
Source: Secretariat of the Seoul International Color Expo 2004
“92% Believe color (sic) presents an image of impressive quality
90% Feel color (sic) can assist in attracting new customers
90% Believe customers remember presentations and documents better when color (sic) is used
83% Believe color (sic) makes them appear more successful
81% Think color (sic) gives them a competitive edge
76% Believe that the use of color (sic) makes their business appear larger to clients”
Source: Conducted by Xerox Corporation and International Communications Research from February 19, 2003 to March 7, 2003, margin of error of +/- 3.1%.
Colour perceptions and the way that colour works is vastly important, yet most photographers, even the ones who know about the colour wheel and might even know some colour theory, don’t always use it to the maximum advantage probably because we take the environment that we are capturing as outside of our control. Studio work excepted, where control is, can be, total. It will help us to be aware of why colour and shape attract us in the first place and a little understanding of colour theory, including the psychological and emotional effects of colour, can be made to go a long way.
Using colours effectively can have a big impact. we can use it to draw the eye, tell a story or change the mood. HDR often suffers from being what I call beige, that is the colours are muted and squashed together in spectrum which certainly gives them a look, but not necessarily a pleasant one. Shooting in RAW really helps here because if you desaturate to black and white and get a very grey image then it is telling you something. Altering the sliders for individual colours has an effect, even in black and white, and can help balance things more to your taste. Why RAW? Because RAW gives you more. More data to affect the final outcome. JPEG isn’t terminal here it is just limiting.
Whilst we are on the subject of sliders, saturation is more often than not the guilty party. Saturation is the intensity of a colour. Value, which is related is the brightness or darkness of a colour, gives you the same saturation but it effects the visibility of that colour on screen. Between them you can get a range of shades. Highly saturated colours are very shouty. A whole image made up of saturated colours can be overwhelming unless very skilfully applied.
The idea that certain colours complement each other is as old as the ideas of colour and art go and nature cottoned on the signal properties of colour long before humanity came along. What follows is a jaunt around the colour wheel from a solo trip to several in company. The simplest colour harmony is one where a single colour predominates. Monochrome. Best for single subjects and striking effects, How photographic in principle can you get? It can be a wash of sepia or a cyanotype, the striking light of the rising or setting sun, or a single colour like a red, a pink, a green a yellow or any other colour that works. The next circuit is one in the company of near neighbours, analogous harmonies. These are the colours that are adjacent to each other on the wheel, the ones either side of the primary colour we are looking at. It tends to create feelings of comfort in the viewer, no jarring opposites to clash with our senses. Any landscaper or natural photographer will tell you it is most often found in nature.
Things start to get a little bit more complicated with the triadic. Think of a clock with hour, minute and second hands permanently at a 120 degree separation, so pointing, for instance at 12 4 and 8 on the dial or 1,5 and 9, 2,6 and 10 etc. It can be quite difficult to pull off but it is very striking. The one we have all probably heard of is the complementary, opposite sides of the colour wheel through the full 360 degrees (well, logically 180 degrees as you have then covered everything in the full circle but that might be being picky). They really are the two colours that go best with each other but rarely, very rarely, do they work when in equal amounts. There needs to be an imbalance, probably in favour of the less strident of the two colours (green, if red and green, blue if yellow and blue for instance) because the other way round throws the whole scene out of balance because of where the eye is drawn.
So why leave it there, why not complicate it by using split complimentary colours? Well why not. Similar to the basic complimentary, what it does is split the range of one end of the opposites between two analogous colours, it’s an hour earlier than the triadic on our imaginary colour watch, so 12 is complimented by colours at 5 and 7 o’clock (red by blue and green for example) 1 by 6 and 8, 2 by 7 and 9. But, I know, that is not complicated enough for you, well, sir, madam, out the back and for very special customers only, we have the tetrad. Now this comes in two flavours. The rectangle and the square. Basically four corners arranged around the wheel or two sets of complimentary colours. Again the application should be in favour of the weaker colours or you will get a mess. And if that doesn’t produce something close enough to a dog’s dinner then you can try the adjacent tetrad, same principle but the complementaries are immediately next to each other on the wheel. Multi colour schemes are extremely difficult to control but might be found in the built environment. For those you have to trust your eye or make it the story of the image.
So, in your studio, light tent, bokeh creations or in the wild, but MOST particularly in post production, don’t over-do the saturation; use high contrast values to get the viewing eye’s attention; use colour harmonies (there others in addition to the ones we have looked at) to maximise impact.
One very good resource you want to look at if you want to take this forward is the remarkably informative and flexible Adobe colour (OK Color) wheel.
N E X T M E E T I N G
Portrait Evening: Photographing a couple of models with studio lights and backdrops.
Your Picture Your Way, Architecture and Artistry last meeting and thanks to all those who took part either showing pictures or from the floor. It was thought provoking and showed a refreshingly wide sensibility within the club as to who takes what and why. A couple of items came up I am going to pursue because they show the broad spectrum within the club and the ways we individually develop.
Firstly lets establish something that is important for all of us to recognise about our development as painters with light. Not every photograph we take is an exam to pass, even if we are doing this as a living. That way we spend more time in revision than in actually enjoying our hobby/living. The difference between the amateur and the professional are the activities that put bread on the table. Increasingly difficult to make a living purely from photography these days because someone with a camera is no longer an event. They are everywhere. It doesn’t mean one takes better photographs than the other, though we do expect the professional to be more competent – which is partly based on the assumption that price is some arbiter of quality.
Every photograph that a photographer takes for a client has to pass their examination if the transaction is to take place (lesson: Always get the money up front), that is to say every image made for a paying audience has to pass an exam. Every photograph we take is an opportunity to add to our development and as such there will be a lot more failures than passes. Looking at something as a straight forward pass/fail doesn’t do our own, regardless of its state or impact on our economic status, development much good. Not every photograph has to see the light of day more than once.
Every photograph we take is an opportunity to learn. We’ve talked about criticism and its role in development before and we will return to develop that at a future date. What we had at the last meeting was a sharing of that opportunity. All questions based in adding to what we know are a good thing. So we had discussions on the difference between JPEG and RAW (JPEG uses data compression for smaller files and white balance etc are encoded in the image at the time of pressing the shutter, the ability to lighten and darken is about a stop and half to two stops based on programming decisions made at the time the software was written, where as RAW has everything left in ); cropping and composition; long exposures and seeing photographs and were amongst the things covered. Also finding inspiration popped up at a tangent to the main conversations, at least the ones I was privy to.
Architecture isn’t really a topic we’ve covered in the blog and it is a subject that brings challenges of its own to the photographer. Most buildings are, well so damned big. I was at Salisbury Cathedral last week and had I not had a 10-20mm zoom on the camera I very much doubt I would have got the magnificent west frontage in (at least at an angle that obscures the tent they have erected for those who cue to see the Cathedral’s copy of Magna Carter). You are going to shoot in RAW (especially when shooting interiors where colour casts and dynamic ranges may be a problem) probably use post production of some kind and use a tripod. Ah, that tripod thing. Well I know that if you want to get the best quality then you should use a tripod. I was told this at great length by a photographer with one a couple of years ago, at Salisbury Cathedral as it happens. Didn’t have the heart to tell him my camera didn’t have a mirror to bounce around and quite how much shake he thought I was going to get hand held at 10mm at 1/640th of a second at F8 I didn’t feel the need to bore myself by asking. As a general rule I see the point, especially for interiors that have tendency to be dark. Best quality low ISO in the dark means a low shutter speed, low shutter speeds are best augmented by steady camera position. A tripods bulk, even the small ones, doesn’t add much fun to the experience, but that isn’t the primary problem I have with them, neither is it that just-another-damned-thing-to-carry.
The primary problem I have with tripods, from experience and observation, is the very thing that we use them for. Immobility. How many good shots are lost by having the camera on a tripod and fixing not only the view before us but the angles, frames and crops that moving the camera left or right, up or down or through an arc? How many of us actually go: This is the view; this is where I set up the tripod; then frame the picture in those up-down zoom in-out plains? The last bit two things a photographer should do is attach the camera to the tripod, not the first. The last but one is fine tune the frame, focus and exposure (I know that is three things but I am trying to avoid a Monty Python Spanish Inquisition re-run here) and the last press the shutter. It is a problem of when the kit gets in the way of the photography, what the French might call an idée fixe, that is, an obsession that dominates other considerations. Iif the building you are trying photograph allows photography and allows tripods in the first place (Do your research to avoid a long and fruitless journey).
Like landscape, or come to that any other form of photography, it is all about the light. Buildings being fixed will have an axis around which the sun appears to travel (it’s the other way round, I know, but , as Father Ted explained, “These are small, those are far away” and in this case far away and small are a convenient confusion) The Golden Hour works for buildings as for anything else in the landscape, even if the relative geography of the area that you are shooting in can make things difficult getting the angle you want.
Symmetry is also a powerful tool in shooting buildings. Horizontal, vertical, diagonal and converging lines should be actively sought out, they lead the eye and lend proportion to your image. Shapes, patterns and shadows can give you interesting details to shoot when the whole building is too much and should not be overlooked even if it isn’t. Also the use of reflections can add depth to it and other areas of focus. When shooting at night or in poor light, commercial and shop windows often can be used as free soft box if you are utilising a model or shooting portraits as well as adding interest. In fact shooting at night, especially on buildings where the whole or significant parts are illuminated can give buildings a whole other feel than they have in day light.
I haven’t talked about TSL’s – Tilt Shift Lenses. That’s because they are screamingly expensive and for the average hobbyist a waste of time and money. You can always hire one if you really need one. As soon as the camera goes off a flat plane verticals start to converge or fall away. These can be fixed in post production , but you have to leave sufficient room around the building because you will also effectively crop your image in so doing. You can also think about your elevation – get higher up – but this is not always possible. The thing is, with a little forward planning these things can be over come.
So a good evening, with plenty to talk about. next time why don’t YOU bring something along?
N E X T M E E T I N G
AGM – Annual General Meeting. Committee elections and your chance for your say on how the club is run.