Contemplative Composition in Photography (Podcast 636)

Contemplative Composition in Photography (Podcast 636)

Today we’re going to dive into some of the thought processes I use when composing my photographs, with some real-world examples to help illustrate my ideas.

This post is a continuation of last week’s post in which I relayed many of the shooting methods that I use to ensure that I get great quality images without having to spend lots of time finessing my photos on the computer. It was already a long post, so I decided to talk about composition as a separate subject this week.

Having said that, although I’ll provide some explanations regarding compositional formulae, I am not going to provide an A-Z guide, preferring instead to give you advice on the questions I ask myself in the field and my methodology, so that you can implement this in your own unique photography.

Be Deliberate

The first and foremost advice that I can give on composition, is to be deliberate in your work. Although I’ve met some very talented exceptions, the majority of the time, if you shoot without giving much thought to what you are doing, your images will be weak and unrefined.

Of course, it’s easy to just tell you to think about what you are doing, but it takes time to develop what I call a Mental Checklist which you run through as you shoot, to help with the considerations that you need to think through in order to decide on a pleasing composition. The good news is that the more you shoot, the more automatic many of these decisions become, and that leaves us free to ask the questions that lead us to our most compelling compositions.

Settings Order

Some of the main questions I ask myself as I approach any scene start, for me, with my exposure settings, which I mostly decide in this order. Keep in mind that I work in Manual mode most of the time, so I’m changing my settings while looking through the viewfinder and checking where the caret on the meter falls based on the meter reading, and adjust from there with my own interpretation of what’s really happening with the light.

The majority of the time, I start by setting my Aperture, as this to me has the greatest effect on the visual appearance of my resulting photograph. You may have noticed that I use f/14 a lot for my landscapes, and that is because I like to get a lot of the scene in focus, and f/14 enables me to get deep depth of field, with most if not all of the scene in focus, from the foreground to infinity.

Photographer's Friend 3 for iOS

When using long telephoto lenses, the depth of field becomes shallower and shallower still as you focus closer to the camera, but you learn how much depth of field you get through experience, and also I spent a lot of time, especially in my early days, using Depth of Field calculators, such as the one I now have in our Photographer’s Friend app for iOS.

The reason I try to avoid using an aperture much smaller than f/14 is diffraction, that can start to creep in. Diffraction is caused by light spreading out as it passes through a very small hole, and I built in diffraction warnings to the Depth of Field calculator in Photographer’s Friend, to help show when this might start to affect your images as you stop down the aperture. 

In my tests last year I actually found that most of my lenses don’t really start to suffer from Diffraction until I stop down to f/22, so now continuing to use f/14 is more of a habit than a requirement, but it’s enough to get the depth of field that I want with wider lenses. I explained all about Diffraction and shared how you can test your own lenses in Episode 594 if you’d like to check that out.

Moroccan Man (Karim) in Well
Moroccan Man (Karim) in Well

I will, of course, use a wider aperture when I want a shallow depth of field, and also, sometimes it’s simply too dark to stop down the aperture for more depth of field. For example, when I photographed this gentleman (left) inside an irrigation channel in Morocco last year, there was so little light that I opened up my aperture to f/4, the widest the lens I was using would go before I even raised the camera to my eye.

The next setting I decide on usually is Shutter Speed. I’ve already decided what depth of field I want, and now I have to decide if I want to freeze the motion of anything that might be moving or allow it to move over time with a longer exposure.

In Morocco, I actually try really hard to use Aperture Priority, as the street photography style environment makes manual a little bit difficult to keep up with sometimes. For this photograph, I ended up with a shutter speed of 1/40 of a second, and that really is as slow as I’d risk shooting something like this at.

To get to 1/40 of a second, I actually had to dial in minus two stops of exposure compensation, because the dark environment was fooling the camera into thinking that it had to increase the exposure too much, which would have resulted in the man being over-exposed, and the dark background too bright.

Even then though, the risk of using a 1/40 of a second shutter speed is that the man might move during the exposure, and also at 105 mm focal length, even with Image Stabilization turned on, I’m risking introducing camera movement as well. The rule of thumb is that you use the focal length as your minimum hand-held shutter speed, so at 105 mm I really want at least 1/100 of a second, but in such low light conditions we have to take some calculated risks.

After setting my aperture and shutter speed based on what I need for the aesthetic values of the photograph, or based on restrictions placed on me by the environment, I generally adjust the exposure with the ISO. As I mentioned last week, it’s important to not be afraid to crank the ISO up a little when necessary, as shooting with too low an ISO will introduce noise because the image gets too dark. You are actually less likely to see grain by increasing the ISO.

Again, because I was using an automated exposure mode for this example photograph from Morocco, I had also turned on Auto-ISO and set a maximum ISO for the camera to use at 6400, and that is what I shot this image with. What this means though is that I was at f/4, my widest aperture, with a 1/40 of a second shutter speed, the slowest I wanted to risk shooting at, and the highest ISO. The resulting image was actually a little bit darker than I’d have liked, but with my hands tied, I rolled with it, and the grain was there, but acceptable.

I knew it would be because I have worked in these conditions often enough that I know what my camera will give me under these conditions. The important thing is that you think through each setting and understand why you select them, and what you can expect to gain from each setting.

Use a Tripod When Possible

For the previous example, it wasn’t possible to use a tripod, as I was in a narrow passageway with my workshop group, and also even if I had used a tripod, using an even longer exposure would have just introduced more risk of subject movement, but when it’s an option, using a tripod will generally help with your composition. Some people dislike using a tripod because they slow you down, but guess what? That’s one of the main advantages of using a tripod.

I use a tripod for 99% of my landscape work, because it gives me the time and stability to really refine my composition. I am very careful about how I frame my images, and hand-holding your camera, regardless of how steady you hold it, will always result in the camera moving around as you compose your photos. It’s impossible to really look at where each of the four edges of the frame fall, and align them all perfectly at the same time. The only way to do that, is to have the camera on a tripod, and fix it in place.

Use LiveView When Possible

Another thing that I recommend is to flip your camera into Live View at least as a part of your process to check your composition. When we look through the viewfinder, although the scene is framed, it’s still a three-dimensional scene, and our brains find it much easier to ignore distractions if it can move back and forth between the layers of the scene. Live View, on the other hand, shows us the image in two dimensions, flattening it, so that all of the elements in your frame are on the same plane, and this really helps us to identify problems and fix them before we make the exposure.

Of course, Live View doesn’t work well if you are hand-holding with a DSLR, but the electronic viewfinder on mirrorless cameras probably does bring some of these benefits to hand-held shooting, because you are looking at a flat image, as opposed to the actual scene through your lens.

Give Your Subjects Space

Shortly I’ll talk about using a tight crop to add drama, but as you saw in the previous example, I did two other things that I’d like to mention, the first of which is that you might notice that I left a lot of negative space to the right of the subject and above him. The space to his right is to add some balance. I’m not afraid to place a subject in the middle of the frame when it suits, although that’s generally considered to be a no-no. We’ll get to that too shortly as well though.

I’ve actually used the rule of thirds here, by placing the subject along the left third of the image. Although you’ll probably hear people telling you to avoid the rule of thirds because it’s overused, I really also want you to keep it in mind, because we as an art-loving biological being find it pleasing to look at. Artists have been placing their subjects on the third intersections of works of art for centuries.

Of course, just plonking your subject on a third line won’t help it if it’s badly lit and not well thought out, but in some circumstances, it’s definitely a compositional technique to consider as an option, and definitely, don’t try to avoid it just because someone told you its cliche. Make up your own mind!

The reason that I added some space above this gentleman, is to give him some space to look into. The light in the scene is coming from directly above, and I had asked him to look up into the light like this. If I’d cropped the image off directly above his head, it would look unnecessarily cramped. The other thing that I did consciously that I wanted to mention, is that I decided to crop of this gentleman’s feet, simply because he was wearing white sneakers that really didn’t match the rest of his traditional clothing.

The Not-So Dreaded Bullseye Composition

At One With Oneself
At One With Oneself

Just as I don’t want you to rule out the rule of thirds, I also want to dispel the common advice to not put your subject in the middle of the frame. Even though we call it the rule of thirds, it’s not a rule at all. It’s a guideline. Just one option from a plethora of compositional techniques to draw from as we see fit.

As you can see in this photograph of a snow monkey, I chose to put the monkeys face smack in the middle of the frame, and I think it works this way. I was careful to get equal amounts of space all around the face, but notice too that the face isn’t even sharp.

I broke another so-called rule here, by focusing on the monkey’s wet fur, rather than the face. To me this adds a little bit of mystique, forcing the viewer to fill in the gaps for themselves. I’ve even partly obscured the monkey’s eyes with its fur, again, something that you might try to avoid, but I think this all helps to add a certain amount of emotion to this image.

At least for me, I feel as though this monkey is deep in thought, because of the position of the face and the downward looking pose, but most of that is simply created by the composition. The reality is that the monkey was simply snoozing at the side of the hot-spring bath, probably not thinking about anything more than its next meal, but we can read so much more into this because of the composition.

The Tight Crop

Another reason the snow monkey photo works is because of the drama caused by the tight crop. This is the same for the image we’ll look at later of the sand dune, where the tight crop works best, in my opinion. 

Quite often, getting in closer and focusing on the most interesting visual elements will result in a stronger image. The problem is that when we are actually in the field, somewhat overwhelmed by the beauty of our location, our brains tend to ignore the boring parts of a scene, and trick us into thinking it’s more beautiful than it is by focussing only on the elements interests us.

It’s important to evaluate what it is exactly that is attracting you, and think through your options to maximize the impact of those elements of interest. For example, here is a photograph of the mountains and glacial lagoon at Jökulsárlón in Iceland. I’ve never shared this photograph because it’s absolutely boring! It’s boring because going wide like this has left all of the individual elements of the scene so small that they lose their impact and drama.

Jökulsárlón Icebergs and Glacier
Jökulsárlón Icebergs and Glacier

This is a somewhat extreme example, but to me, grabbing a long lens and finding details like the water flowing around the base of an iceberg can often be a much more compelling image than a wider scene trying to include too many elements.

Water and Ice
Water and Ice

The Human Element

Talking of elements, I also sometimes find that adding a human element to a scene can help the viewer to put themselves in the environment. As beautiful as the valley can be, one of the most popular photos from my first visit to Iceland turned out to be this one, where I used jumped into the frame myself and looked out across the land. 

Martin in Landmannalaugar
Martin in Landmannalaugar

Despite us patiently waiting for the crowds to disappear to get a clean shot of the Skogafoss waterfall also in Iceland, this shot became an instant hit thanks to the guy that walked barefoot out in front of the falls with an umbrella! Even for what is essentially a landscape photograph, the human element can add so much, even without being very large in the frame.

Umbrella Man at Skógafoss
Umbrella Man at Skógafoss

Also, note that as deliberate as I like to be, this photo was very spontaneous. I was walking away from the falls with my group when the man started to walk out like this, so I had literally just a few seconds to drop my camera back down again and frame this up for just one shot. 

Zoom However You Like!

There is one popular mantra blindly regurgitated by photographers around the world that rubs me up the wrong way, and that is “Zoom with your Feet”. This is one of those phrases that is used in my opinion for one of three reasons, all of which I take exception too, which are…

  1. To make you feel guilty for not walking

    If you blindly walk closer to a subject, you completely change your perspective. You might remember my episode 568 post “The Effect of Subject Distance and Focal Length on Perspective“, in which I show examples of how the perspective of our photos changes as move closer to our subjects.

    Assuming you change your focal length as you move, this changes the relationship between the foreground and background elements in your frame, so there is always going to be an optimal distance for your composition. If you need to walk towards your subject to get to that distance, you’d essentially be zooming with your feet, but we should never do that blindly without considering perspective.

  2. To protect the ego of the 50mm lens shooter

    Some people latch on to mantras like zoom with your feet to help them to live with their decision not to buy a longer lens. There is a certain snobbery I sometimes come across with regards to using short focal length lenses and I sometimes meet people that have decided to only use prime lenses, and again, that’s your decision, but that doesn’t mean that you have to attack others for their decision to use a longer focal length to get their shots.

    It’s just another decision, like whether to use a Mac or a Windows computer, or whether to by a Canon or Nikon camera, or any of the other amazing cameras on the market. We make our own decisions, and it is completely unnecessary to tell other people why they are wrong about their own choices.

  3. Inability to think objectively

    The third reason I believe some people spout the zoom with your feet mantra is more understandable, as a general flaw in our human nature, but some people really just lack the ability to think objectively about the possible reasoning of others to do what they do.

    For example, a street photographer may well be able to shoot 90% of their images with a 35mm lens, and get stunning results, but if I were to take a 35mm lens to Namibia and try to photograph this lion doing what is actually just a fierce looking yawn, I would obviously have to get a little bit too close to avoid being eaten.

The Scowl
The Scowl

The same goes for walking off the edge of a cliff or into a body of water. There are a plethora of reasons why zooming with your feet may not be the best option, but I’ve talked enough about this for now, so I’ll jump off my soap-box and move on.

Effects of Subject Distance and Focal Length on Perspective

In fact, before we move on, let’s look at an example of the effects of subject distance and focal length on the perspective that we achieve in our photographs, using some images from last year’s Complete Namibia Tour. First of all, here is a photo from a distance as we approached a sand dune. In this first image I included the entire dune and some of the sky.

Dune #35
Dune #35

This shows the dune in its entirety, with the trees at its base, but it’s not a very impactful image. The trees seem a little insignificant, and the dune itself doesn’t look all that impressive. My focal length for this image was 200mm.

As we move closer, here is another photo, shot with a focal length of 148mm, which shows the trees much better, because I’m closer to them now, but including the top of the sand dune makes it look much smaller than the previous shot. This is because of the relationship between the larger trees, and because I’m now forming a more acute angle on the first peak of the dune, almost obscuring the more distant peak, making it look much smaller.

Dune #35 Closer
Dune #35 Closer

I think this is a nicer photo than the first, but it doesn’t do the sand dune any justice. This third image though, shot with a focal length of 312mm, enables me to completely fill the frame with the sand dune, which in my opinion does both the trees and the dune justice, by balancing their visual weight in a much more appealing way.

Dune #35 Closer Still
Dune #35 Closer Still

You could also argue that the dune appears larger in this final image than the first two, simply because we cannot actually see it’s edges. We have no clue as to how large the sand dune is, but we do know that it’s at least four times or so larger than the trees. The other point that I wanted to make about this composition is that it also becomes harder to understand what you are looking at, with the darker shadow side and the texture in the sand apparently confusing some people, and I like that. I find that images can be more visually rewarding if you have to work a little to understand them.

And to circle back to the zoom with your feet topic, I did indeed walk a fair distance to get close enough to this dune to make these photos, but I also zoomed with my zoom lens to 312mm to make what I consider to be the optimal image that this dune has to offer. It’s more about using your brain and your own sense of the aesthetic than rotely following a mantra that is used for the wrong reasons far too often.

Tell A Story When Possible

Another mantra that I am kind of sick of hearing, is that every photo should tell a story. I don’t believe that every photograph can tell a story, opting myself to at least try to evoke some kind of an emotion in the viewer, as I described in my post about What Makes a Photograph Fine Art back in Episode 589.

But, when we can tell a story with a photograph, it can be a powerful thing. For this next image (below) I had arranged for a couple of camel handlers to walk through the dunes in Morroco, so that my group and I could photograph them, and we were lucky to have a beautiful sunset while we were out there as well.

Camel Silhouettes at Sunset
Camel Silhouettes at Sunset

Again the human element helps here, but we can build our own story based on the visual clues in this photograph, perhaps thinking of a romantic distant land, with the camel handler hear making his way to meet his future wife with his camel dowry, or something like that. I don’t even know if they have a dowry system in Morocco, but you get the picture.

Decluttering and Minimalism

I love minimalist photography. A tree on a snow-covered hill to me is one of the most satisfying types of photography I do. I mentioned giving the subject some space earlier but wanted to follow up here and say that in this kind of minimalist work, I really feel that in many ways, space is the subject. The tree and its shadow, and the grasses poking through the snow in this photograph (below) are nothing without the snow itself that is taking up most of the space in this image.

Tree with Grasses
Tree with Grasses

Because of the need for this space, I find that when composing this kind of image, the opposite approach to the tight crop is called for. I tend to go wider and include more space around what you might consider to be the main subject because the subject, in this case, is nothing without its space to live in. 

The reason this space works though, is because its uncluttered. Some of my images like this don’t even have the additional grasses, so there is nothing but snow, a tree, and a white or grey sky. Just as the snow absorbs sound, making it a surreal and relaxing environment to work in, it cleans everything up visually too, and this is incredibly appealing to me, and probably why my Hokkaido Landscape Tours are so popular.

The other takeaway from this though is the importance of decluttering your images, even when there is no snow to help with this. We are responsible for everything in the frame, and it’s our job to select a camera position and focal length that enables us to best isolate our subjects in an environment that contains the least distractions, and this comes back to my point about being deliberate. Look and really see what is in the frame, and ensuring that the edges of your frame are clean, and cut off in a pleasing way is of paramount importance.

Cropping in Post

One subject that came up in the comments for last week’s post, that I want to mention for thoroughness, is that although I prefer to get my images as close as possible in the field, there are times when I’m happy to crop my images, so let’s explore when I might do this.

The main reason that I consider cropping my work, is when it feels to me as though it will simply work better in a format other than the 3:2 aspect ratio that my camera records images in. For example, in the below image, I wanted to include a lot of zebras in the main group to show the one of the left as standing outside of the main group. I also wanted to cut off the group to the right in open space, rather than splice through a zebra, so this naturally led to an image with a lot of detailless sky.

Odd Zebra Out
Odd Zebra Out

Cropping this down to a 16:9 ratio helped me to reduce the amount of sky in the shot, and I also like the 16:9 crop, because it looks great on a widescreen computer or TV. I’m finding myself viewing images on the TV more and more now that we have such large 4K screens to really do our work justice.

I will also try to decide on the crop when I’m shooting, but unlike my policy to not clone anything out that I didn’t see in the field, that I mentioned last week, for cropping, I’m fine with cropping it and just seeing what it feels like after the event. My camera does have a feature where I can crop the images in the camera, and I can also tell it to not actually crop the image, just add the cropping information, so that I can edit it later, but I personally don’t do this. I can imagine what the various crops will look like easily enough without emulating it in the camera.

I Rarely Crop Arbitrarily

I also wanted to mention that I rarely simply use the crop tool without locking it to a specific crop ratio, simply because I like to ensure that I can print images with at least a certain amount of conformity. Of course, the 16:9 crop that I just mentioned is more for screen viewing, but for prints, I like to use either the native 3:2 aspect ratio, and I also like 2:1, where the image is twice as wide as it is high. 

I don’t only create canvas gallery wraps, but using specific ratios also make it easier to get the right sized stretcher bars for my prints. For example, for the regular 3:2 aspect ratio we have 20 and 30 inch stretcher bars, and for a 2:1 aspect ratio I could use 20-inch bars and 10-inch bars, or 40-inch and 20-inch bars. Now that I have a 44 inch wide large format printer, I could even use 60-inch and 30-inch bars, although I haven’t stocked this size yet.

For fine art prints, it’s not really a problem to have arbitrary crop sizes, because I always print with a border, and the image would just fit inside the borders, but having my images all cropped to specific aspect ratios does still enable me to select images of the same crop ratio just for conformity. When possible I like to present work that adheres to a specific set of attributes.

Again though, like many of the decisions I make, these are all just personal preference, and if you are happy to crop your images freely, rather than sticking to specific ratios, that’s completely fine. I’m just relaying what I do in case it can inform your own decisions in any way.

Northern Red Fox's Yawn
Northern Red Fox’s Yawn

The 4:5 Crop

Another crop ratio that I like to use is 4:5, based purely on the aesthetic quality I associate with the popular medium format ratio.

This ratio really suits portraits and was a popular film size with portrait photographers. In my own work, the image that sprang to mind as I tried to locate an example image was this one of a Northern Red Fox yawning, as we photographed him from the bus during one of my Japan Winter Wildlife Tours a few years ago.

Again, here I was using the crop to reduce the blue above the foxes head, but I do think it enhances the image by making it feel more like a portrait, as I think we’ve been conditioned to associate the 4:5 with portrait work.

I also use the 1:1 square crop too occasionally, but by that point I generally start to feel as though I’m throwing away too many pixels, so I’m more likely to shoot two or three frames and stitch them together for a square image rather than cropping down from a single frame.

Having said that, now that I’m shooting with 50-megapixel cameras, I’m more likely that I was before to crop in a little more heavily, as I can still leave myself more pixels than I used to get with an uncropped image just a few years ago. 

Conclusion

I could go on, and keep looking for examples and my thinking behind each photograph, but again, this has turned into a bit of a mega-post, so we’ll wrap it up there for now. As I mentioned at the start, a lot of what I’ve covered today aren’t solid guidelines, but I hope that what we have touched on will help you to make the optimal decisions regarding compositions as you create your own photographs.

I’m a firm believer in not necessarily learning rules but learning how to think for ourselves, and then thinking our way through situations to reach our own often new and refreshing conclusions. I’m being contradictory here in that I hope you read or listen to what I have to say on this stuff, but at the same time, don’t want you to think too much about what people say, especially when there are a lot of “shoulds” in the post.

I prefer myself to avoid using the word “should” because I don’t think we can really tell people what to do or how to do it. As we gain more and more experience in our wonderful pursuit of photography, we gradually fill a mental toolbox with tools which we can draw from as we work. The more tools you have in your toolbox the more likely you will be to pick the best tool based on your own interpretation of any given situation, rather than have someone hand you a tool and tell you exactly how you should use it.


Show Notes

Check out my Mental Checklist post here: https://mbp.ac/498

I explain about Diffraction and how to test your lenses for it here: https://mbp.ac/594

Here is my post on what makes a photograph fine art: https://mbp.ac/589

You can check out my tours and workshops here: https://mbp.ac/workshops

Music by Martin Bailey


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Shigakougen Blue-Green Landscape Travelogue (Podcast 481)

Shigakougen Blue-Green Landscape Travelogue (Podcast 481)

I recently visited the Shigakougen or Shiga Highlands in Nagano here in Japan, as part of my trip to test the Canon EOS 5Ds R, and one of my main goals was to capture the blue-green summer foliage, so today we’re going to walk through three separate shoots on June 22, 23 and 24, 2015.

On June 22, I’d spent the afternoon with the Snow Monkeys on my first summer visit, and we looked at photos from the monkeys in the last episode. The monkey park closes at 5pm in the summer, which gave me another couple of hours of daylight, so I headed up the mountain to the Shigakougen area, as I was hoping to get some landscape photos of some of the many ponds in the area.

As you arrive in the highland plateau after driving up the mountain, the first pond is called Ichinuma, which literally means the first pond or number one pond. I parked my car in the car park down the road, and walked around to Ichinuma, and as I arrived the air was clear, and I recall thinking that I’d love it if we got a little bit of mist to add atmosphere to the images. I’d made maybe three exposures of the lush greenery on the other side of the pond, and then all of a sudden, a mist rolled in across the surface of the water and some low cloud came over from the back of the trees, as we see in this image (below). I couldn’t believe my luck, with this mist coming in this way, perfectly on cue!

Ichinuma in the Mist (Panorama #2)

Ichinuma in the Mist (Panorama #2)

Although the 50 megapixels of the 5Ds R is plenty to give me some great large prints, even if I crop down to this kind of panorama, I had been using the 100-400mm Mark II lens, and picking out just small sections of the trees, as we’ll see in some other images after this. I had just rotated the camera in the lenses tripod ring, to capture some vertical shots to stitch together for a panorama, so I went ahead with the series of frames as the mist rolled in.

The thing that you have to be careful with when shooting in conditions like this is if you aren’t relatively quick getting your images, the mist and cloud can move so far that it makes it difficult for Photoshop to stitch the images together because the content of the adjacent frames can be too different. I was shooting in Live View, as I often do for landscape work, and there’s a bit of a lag after making your exposure before the image comes back, and you can make the next exposure, but as soon as it came back, I panned the camera around by around half a frame, to give Photoshop plenty of overlap, and then quickly shot my next frame.

The final image that we see here (above) is from five vertical images, and is a whopping 140 megapixels. I can print this image at 24 x 43 inches at 432 ppi, without any resizing, which will give absolutely amazing detail in the final print. These images were shot at 0.6 sec, f/10, ISO 100 at 112mm.

Ichinuma Trees

Ichinuma Trees

As quickly as it rolled in, just five minutes after the last image, the mist was gone, as we can see here (right).

I was feeling really fortunate to have arrived when I did and get that beautiful mist and low cloud, but with it gone, I concentrated again on capturing the lush greens.

The line of bright yellow-green color along the waterline is from ferns, giving way to the green leaves on the azalea bushes around the base of the trees. When you zoom in on this image, you can actually see spots of orange red as the azalea were flowering, another reason that I decided to visit this area at this time.

Although I like the wide aspect of the panorama images we’ll look at today, and also the landscape orientation images, here I went for a vertical orientation to emphasize the vertical tree trunks and their reflection in the water.

Note that I also composed this so that none of the tree trunks are cut off along the side edges of the image. It can be difficult with woods to find a good place to frame your shot, but it really helps with images like this if you can find a good clean edge like this.

Note that I had also zoomed in to 148mm so as not to include any of the sky, now that the low cloud was gone. The sky was just white and lacked texture, so would have just been a distraction. This was shot at 0.8 sec, f/10 at ISO 100.

This next image (below) is another stitched panorama, from six vertical frames this time. Again, this is the shot that I had just set my camera up for when the mist rolled in, so with the missed gone, I shot another series of images and stitched them together in Photoshop. Again, my goal here now was to capture the lush greens, with that flash of brighter green from the ferns punctuating the line between the real and the reflected world.

Ichinuma Panorama #3

Ichinuma Panorama #3

The resulting image is this time 160 megapixels, and can be printed at 24 x 44 inches at 453 ppi, which again is going to give incredible detail. Of course, I could print much larger, but I’m basing this on my own large format printer’s maximum width of 24 inches. If I had a 44 inch large format printer, I could print this at 44 x 82 inches still at 244 ppi, and that would be amazing too, and this all made possible by the 5Ds R with its 50 megapixel sensor and a bit of stitching. Of course with a lower resolution camera I could have done multi-row stitches, but I never felt it worth going to that much trouble.

I spent a total of 15 minutes at Ichinuma on the 22nd, before heading back down the mountain to a business hotel for the night. The next morning I got up bright and early and went back to the monkey park until lunch time, then after grabbing something to eat at the convenience store, I drove back up to the highlands. I had booked a hotel just across the road from Ichinuma on the 23, as I wanted to get back to the pond at dawn the following day.

For now, I was going to make the most of the afternoon driving around the various spots I know in the area. I drove past them all initially, because the sun was still high, and went up to the highest point at Shibu Pass (Shibutouge), which is just inside the border on Gunma Prefecture, next to Nagano Prefecture, where I made this photograph (below).

Shibutouge (Shibu Pass)

Shibutouge (Shibu Pass)

This was shot with the new 11-24mm f/4 L lens from Canon, which I reviewed in episode 465. I opened the lens right out to 11mm for this shot, at f/11, ISO 100 for 1/100 sec, and processed it in Silver Efex Pro 2 for this beautiful contrasty black and white. The scene at this time of year is nothing really special, so I was really happy to see this somewhat dramatic sky, that lasted really just a few minutes shortly after I arrived, and then a bank of cloud came over from behind me and it poured with rain for a while, so I was lucky here with my timing again.

Shibutuoge, which is about 20 to 30 minutes past the main pond area, was the furthest I went, and having done a u-turn, I stopped at the location where I shot this next image of Yokote Mountain, again with some nice stormy skies (below). This was again shot with the 11-24mm at 15mm this time, for 1/60 sec at f/14, ISO 100.

Yokoteyama Stormy Skies

Yokoteyama Stormy Skies

At this location I’d actually done a few series of bracket shots, thinking that I might have to do some HDRs because the sky was so bright, and I was still at this point thinking that the 5Ds R probably had slightly less dynamic range compared to my 5D Mark III. As I suspected might be the case though, I got home and found that I simply hated all of the HDR images that I was able to create from my bracketed images. I also found that my usual claim, that I can usually get everything I need from a single frame, even when parts of it seem very dark, continued to be the case with the 5Ds R.

It can be scary when you see the base image in the camera, but I now know that I can trust my instincts again, even with the 5Ds R. Here (below) is the original photo of the previous image, straight out of the camera, so that you can see what I mean. I just expose to the right, so that the brightest part of the scene is on the far right side of the histogram, and there is enough detail in the shadows to bring it all back out with some slider adjustments in Lightroom. You’d think that there was no information in the black foreground here, but as we see from the previous image, that’s not the case.

Yokoteyama Stormy Skies (Original)

Yokoteyama Stormy Skies (Original)

I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the 5Ds R actually has slightly better dynamic range than the 5D Mark III according to DxO Mark’s tests. They have the 5D Mark III at 11.7 EV and the 5Ds R at 12.4 EV dynamic range, which is surprising, but great to hear.

I continued to drive back down the mountains towards Ichinuma and stopped at another pond on the way, called Kidoike. It was raining, so I decided to go with the flow, and include the droplets of rain in the surface of the pond, as you can see if you look closely in this photo (below).

Kidoike Reflection with Rain

Kidoike Reflection with Rain

Again here, I’m watching the edges of the frame, trying to find the best place to cut off the scene, so as not to have dissected tree trunks. I’d have preferred a smooth clear reflection, but I think the soft summer rain adds a different kind of mood to this image, which I don’t dislike too much either. This was a 0.5 sec exposure, at f/14, ISO 100 at 105mm. I headed back to my hotel for the night after this final visit to the Kidoike.

On the morning of June 24, I got up at 4am, for a dawn shoot. The sun was set to rise at 4:32am I think it was, so this would give me just enough time to throw on some clothes, grab my camera and go back across to Ichinuma. Because I’d gotten some shots with mist on the surface of the water two days before this, I actually considered going back to Kidoike first, because it had been raining the previous day, and I wanted that clear reflection. I decided to stick with my original plan though, as I really wanted to capture a different mood at Ichinuma.

I wanted to capture the foliage in the dawn light which I figured would give it the blue-green look that I associate with Japanese summer foliage, and I was lucky enough to get that, back at Ichinuma, as planned (below). As I’ve mentioned in the past, there is a very blurry line between the colors blue and green in Japanese culture. Ao means blue, and midori means green, but the Japanese will often also refer to green, as “ao” which is blue, but they really green. Confusing, I know, but that’s how it is.

Ichinuma with Dawn Mist

Ichinuma with Dawn Mist

This image was shot at 0.3 sec, f/16, ISO 200 at 100mm. I actually really wish I could somehow get a white horse on that shore in this photo. There is a Japanese artist named Kaii Higashiyama (1909-1999), who created a wonderful series of paintings depicting blue-green scenes very much like this photograph, but he painted in a majestic white horse. They are truly beautiful prints.  The best example I can find online to show you is on the cover of a children’s book called “The White Horse” here.

I spent maybe 15 minutes at Ichinuma, as I was confident I’d gotten my shots, and I wanted to get back up to Kidoike while the sun was still behind the mountains. Once direct sunlight hit these ponds the mist would be gone, and the blue-green would be gone too. As I drove up towards Kidoike, a valley filled with morning mist came into view, so I had to stop the car and walk back up to where I made this photo (below).

Birch Trees in Mist (Shigakougen)

Birch Trees in Mist (Shigakougen)

I seem to be really attracted to birch trees. I think they’re perhaps my favorite tree. I just love the contrast that their white trunks provides, as in the other images we’ve been looking at today too. This was actually quite challenging, as the valley has ski lifts and telegraph wires and other structures strewn all over the place. I shot something a little wider than this too, but there was a large pole to the left, and wires running all over the top, and I don’t have the patience on the computer to mess around removing them. This image still captures the mood of the scene though.

I love being out at dawn when all of this is happening. It’s just a shame that Japan doesn’t adjust the clocks in the summer time. The sun rises around 4:30 and sets just after 7pm in summer time. We could put the clocks forward by two hours and actually be able to utilize the light evenings, but the fear is that the salary men would have an even harder time dragging themselves out of the office if it was still light outside.

There is still talk of doing this, but I wish they’d hurry up. It would open up many photographic opportunities in both the mornings and the evenings. The reality is that to get to any of these places from Tokyo, you pretty much have to drive through the night and sleep in the car for a while, or stay in a hotel, which is what I generally end up doing these days.

Let’s look at the last image of this series, from back at Kidoike, shortly before the sun hit the top of the trees (below). This is another stitched panorama, from around six frames. I used the new panorama stitching feature in Lightroom 6 to create this one. It’s actually really good. It is quick and saves the resulting file as a DNG so you still get all of the benefits of a raw file.

Kidoike Panorama

Kidoike Panorama

The only problem is that you can’t easily fill in areas where there is background showing. In this image there was a slither of white in the top left, that I was not able to crop out, or I would have gotten too close to the top of some of the trees, so I ended up going into Photoshop anyway, to content aware fill that slither of white. Again, I’m longing for a while horse here. Maybe some day I’ll make enough money to put on a production and actually make that happen. 🙂

The exposure for this one is 1/5 sec, f/11, ISO 100 at 100mm. We can tell that the light was coming up as the sun came over the mountains, because the shutter speed was much faster at this point. Shortly after this, the sun hit the lake, the mist disappeared, and the contrast got up so I packed my stuff into the car, and started to drive back to Tokyo.

I hope the very similar theme in most of these images wasn’t too boring for you. I had a definite goal with these images, which affected the composition and time of the images. I’m very happy with the results, and can’t wait to actually start printing some of these. Some of them are already available as fine art prints if there are any collectors among you, and believe me, these are going to look stunning! They may well be some of the first 5Ds R fine art prints to hit the market too, which is pretty cool.

 


Show Notes

Music by Martin Bailey


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Craft & VIsion’s Quarterly Magazine PHOTOGRAPH Issue #3 is Out!

Craft & VIsion’s Quarterly Magazine PHOTOGRAPH Issue #3 is Out!

Craft & Vision have just released Issue 3 of PHOTOGRAPH – A Digital Quarterly Magazine for Creative Photographers, and as usual, it is packed with incredible photography related information and inspiring images. There are portfolios and Q+As from: Hengki Koentjoro, Dave Delnea, and Kevin Clark. And there are the usual great columns from Nicole S. Young, Kevin Clark, and John Paul Caponigro and myself, as well as a featured article from David duChemin about his recent work in Northern Kenya. The magazine is getting better and better all the time, and I’m very proud to be a part of this.

Click here to visit Craft And Vision and pick up your copy of ISSUE #3 for just $8! Or if you haven’t subscribed yet, you can get four issues for the price of three, at just $24, with the link below Issue 3 after the jump!

Either way, I know you are going to love PHOTOGRAPH.

Craft & Vision PHOTOGRAPH #3 Cover

 

Craft & Vision PHOTOGRAPH #3 Spread #1

 

Craft & Vision PHOTOGRAPH #3 Spread #2

 

Craft & Vision PHOTOGRAPH #3 Spread #3

 

Craft & Vision PHOTOGRAPH #3 Spread #4

Podcast 222 : Making Pictures

Podcast 222 : Making Pictures

On November 28, I visited one of my favourite parks here in Tokyo, Jindai Botanical Gardens, to shoot the beautiful autumn color that they have as a result of some strategically planted Japanese maple or Kaede trees. While I was shooting the below scene, I realized that a small crowd of photographers had gathered behind me, and they were vying for position to shoot the same scene. This is not uncommon, but it got me thinking that I had found a particular spot where everything works, that had not been obvious to others photographing in the same location, so I figured I’d talk about this a little today.

Colour Collaboration

Colour Collaboration

First let’s look at one of the resulting images from this shoot, which is image number 2417. I love this image. It was one of those “hair on the back of my head standing up because I’m making something beautiful here” moments. I have been so busy with other stuff recently, that I didn’t have time to have more than a quick glance through these images on the day that I shot them, but when I came back to the set on Sunday, three weeks later, my hair was standing up again just looking at these.

Anyway, as I say, I was aware at the time I was shooting this, that it was not the obvious angle to shoot these trees from. In fact, I have shot here at this time of the year for three years in a row now, and never noticed this angle before, so it has not been obvious, even to me, until this time. I have shot the yellow tree a lot. It’s my favourite tree here. This year though, it was not as beautiful as it has been for the first two years. I don’t know if they pruned it down, or if it was just more grandiose in previous years, but it just didn’t have the same presence this year. Feeling like I was standing in front of an old friend, I even called out to the tree, announcing that I was back, and thanking it for the great photos from previous years. I only shot a few frames of the tree from the same angle this year though, because it didn’t look at good, and I was not going to make as good a picture as the ones I already have.

As I walked away though, I felt somewhat saddened, and really wanted to make something of the beautiful yellow leaves, so I started to do what I’d spoken about a number of times, and that’s to look back. We can often think of a scene in a certain way, and especially, once you have what you think is the best photograph that the scene can offer, we walk away. I do though often look back at a subject as I move on, just to make sure that I’m not missing something, and this year, I did that for a little bit longer than I might usually do, and I ended up spotting an angle where there were a number of different coloured trees in a line. The moment I saw it, I knew there was a shot there, so I dropped my tripod down with my 300mm F2.8 lens on it, and started to line up a shot. I raised the tripod a little, and then lowered it a little, so that all of the leaves lined up just right.

I was pretty far away, so to really edit out as much of the surrounding as necessary, I also used the 1.4X extender, so this image was shot at a focal length of 420mm. So, in addition to looking, and finding the right angle to get this shot, I had adjusted the height of my camera on the tripod, and the focal length. The next thing I did was rendered the beautiful red, green and orange leaves in the foreground out of focus, by using a very shallow depth-of-field. When using the 1.4X extender with the 300mm F2.8 lens, you lose one stop, so F4 is my widest aperture, and that is what I shot this image at. I would bet a three digit amount that the majority of people that saw me shooting here and tried to shoot the same angle ended up stopping down the aperture, trying to get all of the leaves in the frame sharp. I didn’t shoot anything smaller than F4, because I knew that this look is what I wanted.

Shortly after I finished shooting this scene, I walked along a little further, and placed my tripod down to shoot the wider scene, mainly to show you what I was working with, and as I did, some of the guys that had been queuing behind me for my spot, ran past, obviously having seen something that interested them. I turned to see what it was, and the sun was shining through the larger surrounding trees, just highlighting another orange and red leaved tree maybe 100 meters or so away. My wife looked at me and asked if I wanted to go over, and I said no, and on recalling this realized that there’s another element in the making of this picture. I had shot this scene in the shade, which really helps to control the colours.

I’ve also shot the yellow tree in direct sunlight, and it’s nice, but as I’ve mentioned before, nice sunny days don’t always make for the best photographs. I’d actually prefer to shoot in the shade or on an overcast day and even in the rain, as opposed to bright sunlight. If you go to my online gallery and take a look through my albums, or use the Cooliris viewer to look back through my image collection, you’ll quickly see that there are very few images that include a blue sky. There is the odd one, but really, most of the time a blue sky doesn’t excite me, and even if I’m out on a clear day, I rarely include the sky in the shot if it’s a clear blue one.

So, to recap, I worked the angle, the height from which I shot, the amount of the scene that I include with the focal length, the depth of the focus (depth-of-field) with my aperture, and the quality of the light hitting the leaves was controlled by the time of day of my visit. I should note that the weather forecast for this day was sunny in the morning, and overcast in the afternoon. I arrived after lunch. All of the elements that I’m talking about here are totally adjustable, and very personal to how we as photographers choose to make our images.

To hopefully help to impress on you what sort of a scene I’d carved this image from, below is a photograph of the wider scene. You can see here though that it’s just a regular park, albeit a very beautiful one at this time of year. You can probably appreciate though that the first photograph we looked at my not have been obvious at all, to the many people that come here at this time of year to photograph these trees. The above photo is of the trees to the extreme right of this image.

Location

Location

As another example of making an image rather than taking it, let’s look at another photograph that I made this year, to introduce a few more concepts. The image is number 2256. You may recognize this image from earlier episodes, but the point I wanted to make here, is that I ensured that the sea that we can see softly illuminated here looks like that because I checked when the full moon was going to rise at this location, before planning a trip out to this spot. It’s a beautiful place, but to me, there’d be little point in coming here to photograph this Shinto Gate unless the moon was going to light up the sea in this way.

Ooarai Torii (Shinto Gate)

Ooarai Torii (Shinto Gate)

Also, you might remember that I photographed this same gate a few years ago as well, and the images, although OK, were not as nice, in my opinion, as this one. The reason for that is because I now have a much better handle on long exposures. This image was made with a 4 minutes exposure, which really renders that sea so much more beautifully than the 30 second to one minute exposures that I’d used previously. So here, my point is, doing your homework while planning a trip, to give yourself a chance of getting the conditions you are after is important. Also, don’t just consider how you frame and compose your images, but bear in mind the visual effect that the length of the exposure gives you, as well as the depth-of-field etc that are controlled by the aperture.

Finally, I wanted to talk about one other option for making pictures, instead of taking them, and that is post processing. I clearly recall standing on the beach at Hamamatsu with my wife, and she was telling me that I was wasting my time photographing there. Let’s take a look at the image that I did not post to my gallery first, to give you some background.

Nakatajima Sakyuu (Original)

Nakatajima Sakyuu (Original)

Here you can see a pretty drab scene, although you can get an inkling of what I was trying to do, if you notice that I was again using a long exposure, to enable us to see the effect the waves have as they draw back out, around the log in the foreground. I was being persistent here though, as although I was in this area to meet with the company that I had do the die-pressing for my new folios, I had brought all my camera gear, and was determined not to leave the area without at least one photograph to also show for my four hour drive.

Despite the apparent drabness of the scene though, as I shot this, I had a clear picture of what I was going to do with this shot in my mind. I knew that I was going to convert this to black and white, probably in Nik Software’s Silver Effex Pro, as we’ll see shortly. My main objective moved from capturing something immediately beautiful, because it simply wasn’t there, to capturing a base image I could use to make something more special in post processing.

You’ll see that the sky in the original is very pale and featureless, but note that it is not blown out. I do this by default, but if say, I had blown out the sky, because it’s just a large blank patch of white, which I sometimes do with more contrasty scenes if there are more important foreground elements that need to be correctly exposed, then I would not have been able to rescue any detail in the clouds.

Let’s now take a look at the resulting image which is number 2294 (below). The black and white conversion enabled me to add contrast, and make those wave breakers in the sea to become more of a focal point. It’s not easy to see in the Web version, but in a larger print, these concrete formations actually add quite a bit to the shot. Most of all though, using some strategically placed control points in Silver Effex Pro, darkened down certain parts of the sky and beach, and helped to rescue something from what at first glance could easily have been a very uninspiring shot.

Nakatajima Sakyuu

Nakatajima Sakyuu

Again though, I want to stress that ensuring I got the water drawing out in the image, with that long exposure, and ensuring that I captured detail in the sky were critical for the success of this image. I am certainly not saying that you can rescue any old crappy image in post processing. My point is that to make an image, you can also sometimes pre-visualize what you will do in post processing, and make your field work more of a gathering process, than a finishing process. I do like to nail a shot in camera, but sometimes, we have to make the best of the situation, and I think this is a relatively good example of that.

Of course, there are times when you will totally make the shot, by using models, and props, and totally controlling the light. I will soon be sharing the details of a portrait shoot that I did a couple of months ago where I rented a studio and controlled all the light with three strobe until and umbrellas, and even had some volunteer models come along to help me build my portraiture portfolio. These are times when making an image takes on a different meaning, but we’ll get into that at another time.

For now, let’s just remember that all of your compositional tricks, as well as carefully selecting the angle and height from which you shoot, the focal length, the shutter speeds and the depth-of-field are all things that you control, and that can make, or break, a photograph. Keep tabs on everything that affects the results, including the quality of the light, the time of day, and the location of the sun, or the moon, if they are important to you in the realization of the images that you intend to “make”.


Podcast show-notes:

This post was also prompted by a recent blog post by Rick Sammon; “On Making Pictures”: http://rickrawrulessammon.blogspot.com/2009/12/on-making-pictures.html

Music from Music Alley: http://www.musicalley.com/


Audio

Download the Enhanced Podcast M4A files directly.


Podcast 217 : Photography Fundamentals for the Beginner – Part 2

Podcast 217 : Photography Fundamentals for the Beginner – Part 2

last week we started this two part series to update a 5 year old forum post on the fundamentals of photography, which was revived by Chua Kim You, from Montreal, Canada. Thanks again Chua for reviving that thread, and I hope you are enjoying these Podcasts.

If you are just tuning in, and didn’t catch the first episode, it’s not essential to listen to these in order, but if you are really just starting out, and looking for some basic tips, we will be building on last week, so it might be better to go back to Episode 216 first.

It turns out that once again, as I prepared for this week, I ended up writing about twice as much as I can fit in one week’s episode. We’re going to finish up the basics series with this, but I’ll be releasing a Next Steps episode/post, probably in two weeks time, so stay tuned for that.

The Composition Toolbox
As we know, in art, as with most things, rules are made to be broken. In fact, some of the things that we even call rules, like the “rule of thirds” (that we’ll discuss shortly) aren’t really rules at all. They are guidelines that you can think of as tools to keep in your toolbox, and pull out from time to time while making images. I often find that when I come across a good subject that I want to make a photograph of, I’ll work through a number of compositional possibilities before I move on. Sometimes I know instantly how I want to shoot it, and nail that straight away, but even then, there’s always another angle or another way to frame a subject, so experimenting and working a scene or subject is a great way to improve your photography. So, although this is not a comprehensive list of compositional guidelines, here are few things to keep in mind when shooting, or a few tools for your compositional toolbox.

The Bulls Eye!
OK, so rather than something to do, the first thing I want to tell you is what not to do. Almost always, you’ll want to avoid composing your shot with your subject smack bang in the middle of the frame. Beginners tend to photograph people with their face in the middle of the frame for example, with lots of dead space above their head. This is often the most uninteresting compositional style. Our eye is drawn to the center of the frame and may not escape from there, so we don’t feel involved with the image. Our eyes don’t explore it. The confusing thing is that it will sometimes work, as in I believe it does in image 2366 (below). So don’t totally remove this from your toolbox, but most of the time, avoid the bulls eye composition.

Concentration

The Rule of Thirds

Rule of Thirds Example

Rule of Thirds Example

The rule of thirds is always a good place to start when deciding how to compose your shot and avoid the “bulls eye” composition. As in the example to the right, imagine you draw a line one third into the frame from the left and right, and from the top and bottom of the image. If you put your main subject or elements of the image along these lines, or at any of the four intersections, your composition will be worlds better than placing the subject in the center of the frame. You can see here how I aligned the equinox flower head along the left vertical third line, and I aligned the multiple flower heads to the right along the top horizontal third line. Also note how I aligned the center of the tree trunk in the background with the left vertical third line. I did this of course in camera, without the help of the lines as we see them here.

Bear in mind too that is an old and proven concept. Artists for centuries have used the rule of thirds as a compositional guide. According to Wikipedia, the rule of thirds appears as early as 1797 as a rule for proportioning scenic paintings.

How you place the elements in your image will change the story you tell. Generally if a person is facing the left, you’ll put them on the right third line, to give them space to look into. This is a safe and comfortable composition. You can create a sense of drama though, by putting them on the left third, so that they are looking or moving out of the frame with little actual space in the image to look into. This is more dramatic, and makes the viewer wonder what the person is looking at. It could make us feel as though the subject were troubled, or deep in thought. With lots of room behind them, we might wonder what they left behind etc.

In landscape photography, the horizon should almost never be along the center of the image, unless you are trying to create a mirror effect or balance the elements of the image in some other way. Again, it will be much safer to put the horizon along the bottom or top third line. A lone tree might work in the middle of the shot, but putting it on the left or right third will likely be a more pleasing composition in most situations. Also, remember to keep your horizons straight. A wonky horizon line can be very disconcerting, unless it’s obviously intentionally wonky. A spirit level to go in the flash hot-shoe on the top of your camera can help, and many newer DSLRs actually have levels built in, so make use of these to keep your horizons straight.

Break the Rules
In image number 2200 you’ll see that I positioned the mountain very close to the bottom of the frame. You could argue that the tip of the mountain nears the bottom third line, but that’s not really what it’s about. What I did here was took the rule of thirds, and broke it. All of these rules of composition are more like guidelines to help you, rather than rules. Experiment, have fun and break the rules as much as you like to see what you get.

Last Light on Mount Asahi

Mystic Arch

Mystic Arch

Negative Space

You’ll also note in this image that there is a lot of what we call negative space above the mountain. Apart from a tiny bit of dark cloud in the top right, the blue sky is almost featureless, but it adds a lot to this image in my opinion. When I view this image I actually feel my eye coming off of the mountain and drifting upwards into the negative space, giving me an even greater feeling of the scale of things than another shot of this mountain that I made with little space above the mountain.

Another example of negative space might be image number 1177 (right). Here we have a silhouette of an archway which is one of the entrances to the grounds of the Taj Mahal in India. We can’t actually see the archway, because it’s totally black, negative space, but because of the shape it forms, framing the image, we can tell that it’s a stone archway all the same.

River & Mount FujiLeading Lines
Finding lines in your scene or landscape can help to lead the eye into the shot, sometimes even towards a small feature that might not be noticed without the leading lines. In image 1549 (left), the river leads the eye into the image, and although our eye initials stops at the cloud bank, to explore the detail there, that gets us close enough to the top of the image to make us peak over the clouds and find Mount Fuji in the distant background.

Insinuation/Suggestion
Image 2396 (below) looks a lot like the eye of a reptile or even God Zilla, but it is in fact a knot on a burnt tree trunk, in the ashes of a camp fire. Look for things that when framed right will look like something else. This can lead to eye catching images.

 

Log Eye

Layers of Interest
Image 2392 (below) has two definite layers of interest. The first being the foreground tree, in its yellow and red autumnal colors, and the second is the waterfall in the background. You could also say there’s a third layer in woods behind the falls. Adding too many points of interest to an image can over-complicate and ruin an image, but adding two or three complimentary elements juxtaposed like this can be quite effective.

Tatsuzawa Fudoudaki with Kaede Autumn Leaves

Hibarako KaedeRepeating Patterns
More than two of the same thing is repetition. Repeating elements can be a strong form of composition. I’d say that three is about the minimum you can work with, as with these three sets of leaves in image number 2390 (right), but often with repeating patterns more is actually more.

Poppy in Baby Blue Eyes (Nemophila) Contrasting Colors
Look for contrasting colors, such as red and green, or bright colors amongst dull. Most of the things that I’m mentioning today I have podcasted about in the past. I did an episode on contrasting colors way back in Episode #31, when I kicked off with probably still my best example of this, which is image number 56 (left). Here we see a bright orange poppy amongst a patch of baby-blue-eyes flowers. I also discussed the Color Wheel that I placed on my site as a tool to experiment with this, but if you select these two colors in a color wheel, you will see that they sit exactly opposite each other, so there’s a reason why we find this contrast pleasing. Colors separated by one third also work well. Just look for contrasting colors or bright colors against a dark background etc. and you may be on to a winner.

Perspective
Your choice of lens changes the way the scene looks in your photograph. If you use a wide angle lens, say between 10 and 24mm, and get in close to your subject, you’ll get a very different perspective than you would say shooting the same subject from further away with a 100mm or 200mm lens. This can be difficult to grasp at first, but is easy to see what I mean with a little experiment. If you have a standard zoom lens, say an 18-55mm or a 24-70mm lens, shoot the same subject, first at the widest focal length, 18 or 24 using the same examples, then zoom out to 55 or 70mm, and move away from your subject until the subject roughly the same size in the frame as it was with your wide setting. If you have an even longer lens, say up to 200mm, try that too, again moving away from your subject to keep it the same size in the frame. Doing this will help you to see how the focal length of the lens changes your perspective.

Also note that wide lenses tend to make elements in your scene look further away from each other. If you photograph a person for example standing in front of a building, the building will look much further away from them with a wide angle lens that it would with a long telephoto lens. The longer the lens, the more you’ll get a stacking effect, like the mountains in image number 827 (below). You can see how all the mountains in the foreground all seem to be stacked up on top of each other in layers. That is because I shot this image with a focal length of 135mm.

Drama Through a Letterbox

Drama Through a Letterbox

You can also use perspective to effect as I have in image number 2353 (below). If you use a wide angle lens and point it up at tall buildings, the building will appear to be falling in on you, and this can give quite a dramatic effect.

Three People SilhouetteLook Up, Look Down, Get High and Low
Don’t shoot everything standing up and at your eye level. When shooting small children or pets, kneel or lie down on the ground to get to get to their eye level or even look up at them. Try shooting trees or building from a low perspective. Try shooting down into a valley from a mountain, or across the city from a tall building. Shooting from above or below your scene is fun and helps to get great images. As with the last image we looked at, be sure to look up and down as well while out and about. You only notice scenes like the one in image 2308 (right) for example by looking up into the tree canopy. Without looking up and down into the undergrowth for that matter, you might miss a lot of great photographic opportunities.

Watch Your Backgrounds and Edges
It’s very easy when you find a great subject to concentrate so much on that subject that you forget to look at the other elements in the frame. Do keep your eyes out for things like lampposts or trees in the distance that can appear to be sticking out of people’s head. Also, even when you are using a shallow depth-of-field to make the foreground and background out of focus, you still need to look out for what’s in that blurry bokeh. If you have patches of color, bright or dark spots in the blur, you need to make sure that these not only don’t distract from your main subject, but as you learn to use them, they can actually be used to enhance your main subject.

You also want to keep your eyes on the edges of your frame. Especially with beginner or mid-range cameras that typically don’t allow you to see the outer 5% or the photograph through the viewfinder, be aware of what’s creeping into the edges. If you are using a zoom lens, zoom out a little to check before zooming back in again, or if you are shooting hand-held, just wiggle the camera around a little so that you can see if there’s anything unwanted that’s too close for comfort.

Use a Tripod
Whenever possible, use a tripod. I know that when you first start out the thought of shooting from a tripod can be a bit daunting, but this will improve your images more than anything else you can do. This is not just because it holds the camera steady, but because when you use a tripod, you think about the composition more. You take your time and think about the whole process more in fact. Using a tripod is not always practical. Some fast paced shooting, like for some sports and some wildlife photography, as well as fast paced portraiture work will be much easier without a tripod. It’s your call, but my rule of thumb and guidance to you is to use a tripod unless there’s a reason not to.

Get It Right In-Camera
There’s a tendency these days to be sloppy in the field, because you can fix any errors in exposure or composition in Photoshop, by adjusting the exposure or cropping, rotating, and you can always clone stuff out later. Granted, you can do a lot in Photoshop, but it all takes time, and you will never develop good photography skills if you are sloppy in the field. Remember that when you have to save highlights or shadows in post processing, you are never going to get quite as good an image as you would if you nail it in the field, and it just feels better! I have nothing against Photoshop, and do save the odd photo myself too, but it’s always a last resort. I’d much rather hold my head high and say that I feel I’m a good photographer, than that I’m good with Photoshop.

In Closing
So, although I’ll do a follow up with some next steps advice in a few weeks, I’d like to leave you with a few thoughts from these two back-to-basics episodes.

Photography is both technical and artistic. Remember that you need to at once be both left brained and right brained. This comes easy to some people and not so easy to others. Whichever you are, please don’t lose sight of the fact that photography is supposed to be fun. By all means spend time on the Internet, in forums, reading books and magazines and view lots of other peoples’ images. It will all help. But the single most important thing for improving your photography is photography. Shoot as much as you can, and look at your resulting images. If you like what you see, think about how you achieved that result, and repeat it. If you don’t like what you see, check the shooting data, and recall what you did in the field, and try to learn from it, so as not to repeat it.

Really though, you have to enjoy yourself. If you get so caught up in trying to figure out all of the details before you get started, you’ll be getting in your own way, and that’s not good.


Podcast show-notes:

Music from Music Alley: http://www.musicalley.com/


Audio

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