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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Essentials of Photography -- Part One, The Eye of the Photographer

Essentials of Photography — Part One, The Eye of the Photographer:

I compose a newsletter for a camera club and have started to write a few tidbits regarding the essential of photography.  So I have decided to add the articles to my blog.  I will offer some thoughts about the essentials of photography.  This will involve little, if anything, regarding post processing (although from time to times it will be appropriate).  My goal here is to discuss basics of composition and exposure and re-energize not only my own photography, but all who read my blog to re-visit basics about image captures.  It is easy to forget that Photography is successful when we remember a few basic concepts.

Those concepts are:

A good photograph has to have a clear subject.  It is sometimes called the theme.  It’s about someone or something.  It may even tell a story about that subject.  But the subject must be clear and unambiguous.  Whoever looks at the photo must immediately see the subject.

1.  A good photograph has to focus attention on the subject.  
2.  In other words, the viewer’s eyes are draw to the subject.
3.  A good photograph simplifies — it includes only those elements that draw the eye to the subject, and excludes or diminishes those elements that might draw the eye away from the subject.

Some ways to do this, will be what we talk about here in this series of articles.  The three concepts involve how we use our camera to set up the scene, focus on the subject, and draw the viewer into the scene.  A photograph has no value unless it draws the fewer to see.  Thus, the photographer must have eyes to see and become capable of sharing what he saw with his or her audience.  Our first will involve guides to composition.

Composition Orientation:

Probably the most fundamental decision we make, as a photographer, concerning composition is how to orientate the camera.  It is about holding the camera and framing the image in the best way.  That is, do we shoot the picture as a (Fig. 1) horizontal (sometimes referred to as a landscape) format, or turn the camera on its side to shoot a (Fig. 2) vertical (sometimes referred to a portrait) format. It is amazing how often the simple act of rotating the camera through 90-degrees opens up a whole range of new compositional possibilities.  Unfortunately, how often do we hold their camera steadfastly in the horizontal orientation, without, it appears, ever considering that it could be turned on its side. One can shot at an angle, horizontal or vertical to achieve remarkable results.  No doubt this phenomenon has a lot to do with the way cameras are designed; many fit comfortably in our hands when held horizontally, and the near symmetrical position of our arms provides a snug, reassuring camera support. Revolve the camera through 90-degrees and we find the symmetry of our arms is disrupted; operating and supporting the camera is less comfortable and thus potentially less stable when hand held.  Using a tripod will improve stability and allow this action to become more under control.

Fig. 1 - Horizontal (Landscape)

Fig. 2 - Vertical (Portrait)

Subject Placement:

In our eagerness to frame the subject and ensure we have it in sharp focus it is easy to fall into the trap of placing the subject in the middle of the frame.  A condition often created by the configuration of auto focus sensors in digital cameras, is that the sensor focal point might be in the center of viewfinder or LCD frame.  Auto focus is helpful, however, ask yourself when you take a picture if you need auto focus when shooting a static scene.  It is a good idea sometimes to shoot manual to get a sense of what works best when framing an image.  In any event, lock your focus after you have placed your subject in a desirable and thoughtful place in the viewfinder frame.

Rule of Thirds:

Positioning the camera such that the main subject(s) occur at point(s) elsewhere other than the center of the frame will bring about an immediate improvement in the composition. To help decide where the subject(s) should be placed many photographers use the Rule of Thirds; this long established technique (painters use it) is about as old as art and photography!  NOTE:  See the image in Fig. 1 and 2 above, again, for this concept.

Part of the skill of a photographer is to balance the composition, so that the viewer is directed to those elements, or areas that the photographer wants them to concentrate on. Whenever we look at a two-dimensional photograph we start by looking at the whole, before refining our vision and studying it for specific points of interest. If the image has no particular focal point on which our eyes can rest, or there are areas within the frame that compete for our attention, because either there are multiple elements within each area, or the areas are of equal size, we tend to loose interest in the image far quicker compared with an image that has a balanced composition based on the Rule of Thirds, which allows our eyes to move in a sequential and organized manner between the different elements, or areas in the frame.  It is simple and effective technique; just divide the viewfinder frame of your camera in to equal third portions by placing four imaginary lines, two vertical and two horizontal through the frame area.  Most modern digital cameras have a feature (grid) that will help you do that.

To create a more dynamic composition place the subject(s) at one or more of the points where the lines intersect; this will create balance and tension within the frame (the points of intersect are sometimes referred to as the power points). By causing the viewer to scan the picture looking at each point of intersect (power point) in turn, thus leading their eyes through the frame, we generate an interest in the picture rather than just allowing the viewer's eyes to land on a subject placed at the center point of the frame and staying put, where they soon become bored!

The technique goes further; if you place a naturally occurring line in a scene, such as a horizon, or edge of a building on one of the imaginary lines, rather than across the center line of the frame elements, or distinct areas within the scene can be given a greater prominence. For example, placing a horizon on the upper of the two imaginary lines that cross the frame will cause the area below the horizon to occupy two-thirds of the frame area. You can work the composition the other way by placing the horizon on the lower of the two imaginary lines so the sky occupies the upper two-thirds of the frame. The unequal division of the frame is visually more interesting, and the viewer's eye is directed naturally to the specific area that you want to emphasize. If you leave the frame divided into equal proportions the viewer the composition looks dull, because the two halves of the frame compete for the viewer's attention, and their eyes shift back and forth between the two areas unsure of where they should come to rest.

The Rule of Thirds certainly works; however, strict adherence will soon have all your pictures looking rather similar, and dare I say clich├ęd. The solution is to adopt a more dramatic composition by using a greater division of the frame area, such as fifths rather than thirds (see diagram). Placement of an element on one of the points of intersect close to the edge or corner of the frame produces a more challenging composition, as does the positioning of a horizon on one of the imaginary lines next to the frame edge. As I said in the introduction to this lesson there are no rules here – it is a question of experimenting to see what works and what does not work.

Example of Rule of Thirds

Another Example of Rule of Thirds

Leading Lines and Patterns:

Moving beyond the Rule of Thirds, or adaptations of it, there is a range of other compositional techniques that we can look to apply when we frame a scene or subject. One of the most effective visual clues is a line, straight or curved, that occurs naturally in the scene, or subject being photographed but with some careful choice of camera position and framing can be used to link different elements in a scene, leading the viewer's eye through a photograph; hence they are often called leading lines. Some common examples include, paths, roads, streams, rivers, fence lines, a row of trees, or a line of buildings but if you take you time to study a scene from a variety of different viewpoints you will soon see any potential leading lines and be able to exploit them to strengthen any composition.

Straight lines are the simplest example, as they take the viewer's eye from one point to another in the picture but within the regular geometric shape of the viewfinder frame a straight line that is parallel to one of the sides of the frame does little to create any tension but a diagonal line is far more striking. However, parallel or diagonal, straight lines can be rather too obvious and lack dynamic appeal. Curved lines on the other hand, particularly S shapes, are far more attractive, and help to add a three-dimensional quality to a picture by creating a sense of depth in the composition.

As powerful and useful as lines can be in linking the elements within a composition to lead the viewer's eye, lines need to be handled with extreme care because they can also undermine a photograph by creating a distraction; avoid any line that divides one part of the frame from the rest in such a way that it acts as barrier severing any link between the two areas, or bisects the frame and in so doing obscures part of the main subject, or scene.

Repeating patterns are related closely to lines, and can be used as extremely strong compositional elements, because they have an order of their own, which immediately creates a balance in the composition that the viewer’s eye will find easy to follow. Regular patterns tend to suggest a sense of order and can be used to create a feeling of harmony; by contrast irregular patterns can create tension that adds an extra dimension to a picture.  Regardless of whether it is a regular, or irregular pattern, look at the shapes within it, and their alignment, to see how you can weave these attributes into a composition by applying the considerations concerning the division of the frame area, and the use of lines, as discussed above.

Example of Lead Lines

Example of Patterns

Filling the Frame: 

One of the most common failings of many photographs is their lack of impact due to the principal subject begin too small in the frame. To paraphrase the legendary photojournalist Robert Capa, if your pictures are not good enough, you were not close enough.  Shooting with a wide-angle lens it is essential to fill the frame with elements that allow the viewer's eye to move through the picture. 

When we compose a photograph we concentrate, quite naturally, on the ensuring the subject is within the frame area and in focus, consequently our mind's eye can play a visual trick that causes the subject to appear as though it fills more of the frame than it does in reality. The solution is to get physically closer to your subject; do not be satisfied with the first composition you see in the viewfinder but try alternatives at different camera-to-subject distances.

You will be amazed at how a few paces forwards can change the composition for the better, and thus the overall success of the picture. If you are shooting inanimate objects this is rarely a problem but in some circumstances, particularly when photographing people, the confidence of the individual photographer may prove decisive. My advice is to be bold – when appropriate ask for permission from your subject to shoot some pictures, and always abide by their decision; engaging strangers with a few common courtesies and some small talk will often win you their trust, and allow you to move in close!

Filling the Frame and Leading Lines

Filling Frame Creatively

Space in a Composition:

We have already discussed in this lesson the idea of dividing the frame to emphasize a particular area with in a scene but the relationship between the space in any area of a composition to other areas is critical to the picture if it is going to succeed.

If that space does not contribute anything to the composition by way of containing something of interest, or supplying information about the scene it is known as dead space. Examples of dead space include too much empty foreground, such as a featureless sandy beach, or an expanse of water; alternatively it might be too much empty background, such as a clear, cloudless blue sky, or a heavily defocused patch of grass.

The solution to dead space is to eliminate it! It serves no useful purpose, so exclude it from your composition by choosing a different camera position, either lower, or higher, or adjust the angle of the camera to include less or more of the foreground/background as required.

Alternatively, take some time to look around and see if there is some element that you can include in the foreground, or background to add interest to these areas.  Free space is not the same as dead space; it contributes something positive to a composition. Free space, which can often be devoid of any detail, supports the rest of the composition by creating such things as a complimentary mood, a backdrop for a graphic shape, or an area that allows the action of the subject to be accentuated. For example, you may want to include a mist-covered river to create a sense of tranquillity and peace, set the silhouette of a subject against a clear sky to provide a clear view of its form, or allow more space in front of a subject that is moving than behind it to heighten the sense of motion.

Use of Space in Composition

Use of Space, Rule of Thirds, Filling the Frame

Eliminate Distractions:

Finally, once you have composed the picture in the viewfinder, and you are satisfied that all the elements are where you want them to be – pause! Take just an extra few seconds to scan your eye around the viewfinder, just before you release the shutter, to ensure that there are no unwanted distractions in the frame. I always follow the same routine, whereby I start by working round the edges in a systematic way from the top left corner moving clockwise, before I double-check the central area of the frame. You will be amazed at how often in the excitement and eagerness to shoot some small, unwanted detail that will spoil the picture is overlooked.

Now look at the images in this article and throughout the blog and ask yourself:

What do you as the subject of each photograph?
How did the photographer focus attention on the subject?
What did the photographer do—an not do— to simply the photo?

The material here I owe to the following Resources as I have learned more and more about Photography over recent years:

1.  Darren Rowse and others who write for him at Digital Photography School.
2.  Jim Miotke and his team of fabulous instructors at Better Photo.
3.   Bryan Peterson and his team of photographers at Perfect Picture School of Photography.
4.   New York Institute of Photography and its team of instructors.
5.   Craft & Vision -- eBooks from such authors as David duChemin, Michael Fry and many others)
6.   Beverly Richards Schulz and her team at Education 2 Go

Conclusion and Future Possibilities:

Well we have now started our journey with composition.  We discussed Rules of Thirds, Framing, Lines, Patterns, Orientation, Subject Placement, Space, and Elimination of Distractions.  Over the course of the next few months we will discover more related to composition include Focal Length, Aperture, Perspective, More on Framing, Light and Time.  

Then we will move more into some detailed study of Exposure wherein we will learn about the Exposure Triangle, Aperture, Light and Time in terms of Density, Tonality, Color Balance, Contrast, Lenses, Shutter Speed, ISO, Exposure Compensation, Exposure Modes, Light Metering, Middle Gray, Extreme Backlighting, Snow and Sand, Low Light, and Extreme Contrast.  In a few instances, we will look at how a RAW converter can correct problems with highlights to salvage an image as well as a few other minor post processing activities that specifically relate to Exposure.

By John D. Roach