Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Essentials of Composition - The Eye of the Photographer PART IV

Light & Time

Introduction -

So far in this series of articles we have looked at some composition ideas, and how to improve how your pictures look, the tools of composition, the hardware such as lenses, filters, and tripods have been discussed, as well as perspective and how it can be used as an aid to composition, together with some ideas on how to frame pictures to add strength to a composition. 

In this final article we are going to take a brief look at the elements of time and light, because whenever we make an exposure the shutter of our camera, or lens, is opened for a specific duration to expose the film, or digital sensor in the camera to light to form the image.  This is really the introduction to EXPOSURE which is an extensive subject for possible future articles (if you are interested in reading more).  Since the photographer is in control of the shutter and determines the speed, or duration, for which it remains open, he or she can influence the perception of time when shooting a moving subject, by either choosing to use a brief shutter speed to record a fraction of a second and arrest the movement, or keep the shutter open for a longer period to allow the subject to blur deliberately. Time also determines the sort of natural light we shoot in, whether it is the light at dawn or dusk, or the light in the middle of the day.  

Long Exposure during a Lighting Storm

Light -

Twilight can be a great time to shoot, as colors in the sky have a strong intensity.  If you shoot in natural light the time of day, or the time of year will have a profound affect on the quality of that light.  At each end of day the sun is either just below, or just above the horizon. In the former conditions, predawn, or twilight, the light can have a beautiful, soft, even quality, whereas once the sun is above the horizon its low-angle casts long raking shadows that can really emphasize the form and texture of a subject. In the hour immediately after sunrise, or before sunset, a time often referred to by photographers, as the "golden hour", the color of the light is much warmer (more red) than it is in the middle part of the day when the sun is higher in the sky; hence the name. Most people are more familiar with the light of mid-day than that of dawn, or dusk; therefore, the light of the "golden hour" has an added appeal when captured in a photograph.

Twilight in Milwaukee

Morning Golden Light

If you shoot early, or late in the day, frontal lighting (such as light illuminating the subject the front) can impart a particularly strong warmth to the color(s) but it often leaves the picture looking a little flat, and lacking in contrast. Try to use the low-angle of the light to the best effect by composing with either side, or oblique lighting (i.e. the light illuminates the subject from the side, or at an angle), as this will often reveal more of the subject's shape, and the shadows cast in this light can be incorporated as part of the composition. You can choose to shoot into the light, so the subject is back lit, which can be very effective such as when you shoot a silhouette.

Sunset Silhouette

Two White Sands New Mexico Sunrise Images

If you shoot in the middle part of a sunny day when the light is harsh and the shadows are deep, the scene will probably contain too much contrast. You can use a few tricks to make the most of these difficult and challenging conditions.  Shoot in open shade (i.e. under a clear sky but not in direct sunlight) – the light is softer, and removes some of the harsh shadows. The color temperature of light in these conditions will be very high (remember our discussions about white balance during a prior article), so set an appropriate white balance value on a digital camera, or use a warm-up (pale amber) color correction filter if you shoot on film. Use a diffuser, or reflector to modify the quality of the light (see panel below). Shoot into the light for a rim-lit, or silhouette effect; you will need to expose for the bright background and allow the subject to be in either partial, or full shadow.

Although it is usually better to avoid shooting pictures that include areas of white, or hazy sky (try looking for a composition that excludes the sky altogether) the softer, more gentle quality of the light in these conditions is perfect for shooting portraits, and close-ups, particularly of flowers and plants, so do not dismiss these opportunities!

NOTE:  sometimes when you have undesirable results because of condition during the actual photo capture you can improve it using Camera RAW in Photoshop to adjust exposure results, contrast, etc.

Controlling Natural Light

Reflectors - 

Shooting under natural daylight can provide challenging conditions with deep shadow and high contrast. A simple and very effective way to improve the quality of the light is to use a reflector, which can be any flat, light-toned, or reflective surface (e.g. a piece of white card, a piece of card or board, covered with a reflective material, such as aluminum foil, or an all purpose made photographic reflector that might be silver, gold or white). By positioning the reflector, so it bounces light from the sun, or bright sky back in to the shadow areas of the subject the overall level of contrast will be reduced, and more detail in the shadow areas will be revealed.

Natural Light With Reflector

Natural Light Without Reflector

Diffusers – 

Rather than reflect light from a light source, such as the sun or a bright sky, a diffuser (e.g. a piece of semi-translucent material) can be used to interrupt the light and disperse it, so that it has a softer, more even quality. Diffusers can be particularly effective when shooting small scenes, or close up details.

Non-Diffused Light

Diffused Light

Time - Shutter Speed

The camera can be used to express time in a way that we cannot perceive with our eyes. A very fast shutter speed (short duration) of a 1/1000 second can stop rapid movement and "freeze" the subject in a moment of time, in way that we cannot achieve with our eyes, equally using a slow shutter speed (long duration) of 1 second or more, can allow a moving subject to record at numerous points on the film or sensor, creating a fluid blur of motion that creates a real sense of movement, and again records the scene in a way that we cannot see with our eyes.

Fast Shutter

The level of sharpness you can attain in a subject that is moving will depend on three factors: how fast your subject is moving, how far away it is from the camera, and its direction of travel in relation to the camera.  For example, if the subject is heading straight towards the camera position, for example, you can use a slower shutter speed than if it is moving across your path. Similarly, a faster speed will be required if the subject fills the frame compared with when it occupies only a small proportion of it. As a guide I have prepared a table listing some suggested minimum speeds that would be required to arrest the movement of a number of everyday subjects, and record them as sharp and well defined.

Minimum Shutter Speed to Freeze Movement

Subject           Across path –Full frame  |  Across path–Half frame  |  Head-on

Person jogging       1/250 sec                              1/125 sec                  1/60 sec
Person Sprinting     1/500 sec                              1/250 sec                  1/125 sec
Slow cyclist             1/500 sec                              1/250 sec                  1/125 sec
Fast cyclist              1/1000 sec                            1/500 sec                  1/250 sec
Trotting horse          1/250 sec                              1/125 sec                  1/60 sec
Galloping horse       1/1000 sec                            1/500 sec                  1/250sec
Tennis serve            1/1000 sec                            1/500 sec                  1/250 sec
Car at 40mph           1/500 sec                              1/250 sec                 1/125 sec
Car at 70mph           1/1000 sec                            1/500 sec                 1/250 sec
Car at 120mph         1/2000 sec                            1/1000 sec               1/500 sec
Airplanes                  Note — between 1/1000 to 1/3000s depending on position.

Adopting this minimum shutter speed approach is all very well but consider the consequences of photographing a subject that is moving very quickly, for example a racing car hurtling around a racetrack or a bird with very fast shutter speed.  The car or bird will be recorded tack sharp, the wheels will not look as though they are turning, and to our mind's eye the car or bird appears, for all intents and purposes, to be stationary; since there is no sense of movement in the photograph it is unlikely to have the appearance of a dynamic picture of an exciting sport!  Or will have to be the judge in each instance.

Jets at 1/1000s

Gull at 1/1600s

Slow Shutter

Combining low-angle, late evening light, and a slow shutter speed, this shot creates a strong mood of time.  Using a slow (long) shutter speed to create a sense of movement can be very effective, particularly if you juxtapose a moving subject with a static one. The classic example is to photograph moving water, such as a waterfall, with a long exposure. The water takes on an ethereal appearance whilst the surrounding landscape is recorded sharply. To do this you need to select a slow shutter speed and make sure your camera is supported firmly, preferably on a solid tripod. If there is a lot of fast moving water it is important not to use an exposure time that is too long, because you will just end up with a featureless area of white water. There are many other situations when you could try a similar technique; for example, traffic moving along a busy street, trees or grasses being blown about on a windy day, or a group of children playing energetically in a park. If you are shooting in bright daylight you may need to use a low ISO film, or set the ISO rating on a digital camera as low as possible, and consider the use of a neutral density filter, or polarizing filter to reduce the amount of light passing through the lens, so you can achieve a sufficiently slow shutter speed.

Sable Falls at 1/125 sec

Sable Falls at 1/5 sec

Because scene conditions may vary, there can be no certain answer to the question of what shutter  speed should be used to achieve a suitable motion blur effect.  What you should do is practice shooting a scene at varying shutter speeds and see the effect.  When possible take several exposures at different shutter speeds and select the best of the images for final use.

As an alternative to shooting with a single long exposure it is possible to achieve an interesting and subtle variation by shooting a series of exposures (i.e. a multiple-exposure) in rapid succession. This builds up an image
comprised of a number of different images, which, assuming the camera remains still, a moving subject will be recorded at different locations within the frame. If you look carefully at the lower area of the shot of the waterfall (see pictures below) you can see the different way in which a single, and a multiple exposure of four exposures has recorded the moving water. It is possible to shoot multiple exposures with most film cameras but it is only in recent mid to high-end range digital SLR cameras that this feature has become available; you will need to check the specification of you own equipment to see if it offers this feature.

Summary —

Finally, to conclude this series of composition lessons we offer these closing ideas as a way for your to think about your image composition so that it becomes more compelling.  Think and act in terms of each of the following words and work your scene and subject.  See the series of Baha'i Temple images below.


Our visual perception is almost invariably linked to some form of emotional response; this emotion may be stirred by the nature of the overall scene, a particular element within it, or even something as simple as a single color, shape or texture. Whatever it may be the first step to successful composition is to distinguish and identify the particular aspect, or aspects, that you find appealing.


After this initial response you need to take time to go beyond a mere "look" and begin to "see"; it is during this phase that attention to detail will allow you to identify the essential elements that you wish to retain within your composition, and begin a process of filtering out the unwanted/unnecessary residue.  So often on workshops I watch as one student looks at a scene, briefly, dismisses it and moves on only to express bewilderment later when a fellow student begins to "work" the same subject, feverishly, with their camera. The key is to take your time; resist the temptation to just glance casually; pause, slow down and vary your point of observation. We are all familiar with the world around us when viewed from eye-level, so try looking at your chosen subject from a much higher, or lower position. If possible, walk a full circle around your subject and observe how factors such as shape, form, and texture alter as the direction of the light changes.


This is perhaps the most important phase; the expression "less is more" is commonplace and it applies very well to photographic composition. The difference between the success and failure of a picture rests, so often, on the inclusion/exclusion of a single element, and I find, frequently, that exclusion is preferable to inclusion. If in doubt leave it out. For example, it may be nothing more than a distracting area of bright reflection, a piece of foliage that  encroaches at the edge of the frame, or an awkwardly posed pair of hands. Remember - keep things simple, isolate all those elements that are superfluous to the vision you have of the subject, and eliminate them!


By now your thought processes and mind's eye have identified and assembled the key components of your photograph. Until now, for the purposes of flexibility, I will generally have held the camera in my hand, as I experimented with different camera positions. However, at this point I will attach it to a tripod and position it according to my earlier assessments, before turning attention to fine-tuning the composition by making adjustments, which can often be small but significant. One of the most important is to position the camera with precision, as you will be amazed at the affect a movement of no more than a few inches (centimeters) can have. First, I always check for a level horizon, particularly if the picture includes an area of water, unless of course I wish it to slope intentionally. The most convenient way to do this is to use a small spirit level that attaches to the accessory show of the camera.  Next you should scan the composition for any small distractions such as an element that bisects a natural boundary, for example, the top of a tree that breaks the skyline of a distant hill, because these will interrupt the flow of the viewer's eye reducing the appeal of the picture. Finally, consider the nature of the prevailing light and decide whether it is satisfactory, or if it needs a helping hand. You may wish to modify or control it by use of filtration, equally, it may need to be supplemented so think about the effects of a reflector, diffuser, or fill-flash, and how they might improve the appearance of the subject.


The four stages have so far been concerned with perception and planning, this final phase makes the transition to the business of actually taking the picture. By now my camera will be mounted on its tripod with a cable release attached, filters (if required) will be in place, and a lens hood, or other form of shade will be fitted to protect the lens from extraneous light.

Your final check list should include the following:

Lens aperture – have you selected an appropriate aperture for the required depth-of-field?

Shutter speed – is it in the "camera shake danger zone", generally anywhere between 1/30th to 1 second? If so, set the mirror lock-up facility (assuming the camera has that feature.)

Focus – is the point of focus where it should be? (use the hyperfocal distance technique if appropriate.)

Finally, make a visual scan of the viewfinder from corner to corner, and if all is well release the shutter and hopefully you will have an image that has (1) a clear subject, (2) a subject that is in focus, and (3) an image that is simple and compellingly presented such as these dramatic skies over Chicago.


New York Institute of Photography Pro Photography Courses
Several BetterPhoto Courses Material on Composition
Perfect Picture School of Photography and Bryan Peterson Books

Digital Photography School and Nikonians websites among others

By John D. Roach
August 6, 2014

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