The Tuesday Composition: Lighting and Composition

Traces of the Ancient Thule
Traces of the Ancient Thule, Danmark Ø, Scoresbysund, East Greenland. I wanted more texture in the foreground, front-lighting and soft light from clouds kept the rocks from being visible. I couldn't move to the side, because I wanted to include the bay behind. I couldn't come back because of the constraints of getting to this location in Greenland. My only option for introducing texture and depth into the foreground rocks was adding some fill flash, which I did with the help of a reflector.

If you like this article, you can now get the book! Joe has expanded the “Tuesday Composition” series into an inspiring new ebook on composition, especially for nature photography. Check it out: The Tuesday Composition.

A few years back, Frans Lanting said something in passing that’s really stuck with me, I presume it’s an old studio lighting maxim:

Front-lighting for color, side-lighting for texture, back-lighting for form.

This line is pretty much a recipe for how to light an object in the studio depending on what aspect of it you want to emphasize. Got a colorful subject? Start by photographing from the same direction as the light is coming from. Want texture?  Make sure the light is coming in from the side, that way it’ll be raking across the front of the subject you’re looking at and showing shadows on even the smallest bits of texture. And want to show the shape of something? Backlight it, and create a silhouette.

Obviously it’s simplistic (as any nine words of advice must be), but it’s not a bad place to start when thinking about lighting.

In addition to light direction, we also talk about the difference between soft (wide) light sources and hard (tiny) light sources. Hard lighting tends to pick up more texture by creating better-defined shadows than soft lighting.

What does all of this have to do with composition?

While we have a great deal of flexibility in lighting subjects in the studio, many of us who photograph nature, or events, or sports often have a little less room to organize our environment the way we’d like. We might have a couple different objects in our scene, and perhaps we’d like the form of one of them juxtaposed with the color of another and the texture of a third, and the light might be doing something else entirely. (more…)

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The Tuesday Composition: Working with Silhouettes

Crane Family Stroll, Sunrise, Bosque del Apache
Crane Family Stroll, Sunrise, Bosque del Apache. Generally, keeping silhouettes from merging makes a photograph easier to "read".

If you like this article, you can now get the book! Joe has expanded the “Tuesday Composition” series into an inspiring new ebook on composition, especially for nature photography. Check it out: The Tuesday Composition.

For the past week and a half, I’ve been shooting in New Mexico; and for the last few days I’ve been doing a lot of work at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Reserve. Sunrises and sunsets are magical there, and often end up involving silhouettes, which got me thinking again about composing with silhouettes. I’ve touched on the subject of shadows and silhouettes before. But today I’ll go into more depth on the subject.

Silhouettes abstract objects into a two-dimensional shape, eliminating their color and texture. That’s a powerful tool for those moments where the shape of an object can communicate your intent effectively. But with that power comes a danger of accidentally removing some information you really need for the image to make sense. (more…)

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The Tuesday Composition: Live and In Color

Early light, Bodie
Early Light, Bodie. Purple and yellow form an effective color contrast here, incresing our sense of saturation in both colors. (Having them set against black also helps pump up the apparent saturation.)

If you like this article, you can now get the book! Joe has expanded the “Tuesday Composition” series into an inspiring new ebook on composition, especially for nature photography. Check it out: The Tuesday Composition.

Even though we’re twenty or so columns into this series, nearly everything I’ve said so far about composition applies equally to monochromatic and color images. Today I’m going to focus a on how color and color combinations play into compositions. We’ll revisit a few old topics, such as contrast, edges and balance, and we’ll talk about how color figures into them. I’ll also talk a little bit about color theory, without giving a full introduction to it.

Contrast is the first subject I’ll revisit. Just as tonal contrast can be created with lots of sharp transitions from dark to light, color contrast can be created with lots of sharp transitions from a color to the complement (opposite) of that color. I was taught color complements in grade school by looking at a color wheel: Yellow is opposite purple; red is opposite green; blue is opposite orange. But don’t think you need to use those precise combinations to get great color contrast, nearly-complementary color combinations, such as yellow and blue, often create very effective color contrasts as well (as in Aspens, Walker Creek, below). (more…)

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The Tuesday Composition: Composing Images with Water

Surf, Garrapata Beach
Surf, Garrapata Beach. Still images can't capture motion in water, but they can communicate the idea.

If you like this article, you can now get the book! Joe has expanded the “Tuesday Composition” series into an inspiring new ebook on composition, especially for nature photography. Check it out: The Tuesday Composition.

Like mist and fog, water is a subject that deserves it’s own consideration compositionally. With the exception of very still lakes and ponds, one of the things that makes water “look like water” to us is the way that it moves. We can’t present this movement in a still image to a viewer directly. Instead, we have to translate it into a still image by making an exposure; and we use a variety of controls such as shutter speed and composition to help communicate a sense of that motion.

When we want to capture a sense of movement in water there are several things to keep in mind. Shutter speed has a significant effect-a waterfall, cascade or even surf against a coastline will have a very soft, gentle feel if we use a long exposure. Faster exposures will stop individual droplets in air, creating a greater sense of energy.  Shutter speed isn’t the only thing to keep an eye on, though. The way we compose the path of water through a scene can also affect how viewers experience water moving through a scene. Where possible, try and make it easy for the viewer’s eye to trace along the lines of the water’s path. Your images will (all other things being equal) be more effective if the visual flow of the water isn’t interrupted by things that block the view of the water. Diagonals and  S-curves can also create an additional sense of motion. (more…)

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The Tuesday Composition: Communicating Immensity

Cerro Torre
Cerro Torre, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

If you like this article, you can now get the book! Joe has expanded the “Tuesday Composition” series into an inspiring new ebook on composition, especially for nature photography. Check it out: The Tuesday Composition.

One of the most common challenges in landscape photography communicating the scale of large objects. Photographs seem to resist conveying the sense of scale we often feel in a landscape. When we take the photograph, we have the opportunity to move around in the landscape, to hike a half-mile and notice that our view of the mountain hasn’t changed much. Our brains unconsciously integrate that information into our perceptions of the world around us. Viewers of our still photographs see things much differently.

Small prints and web images are particularly challenging. Our minds seem to resist  perceiving  a mountain that stretches a mile into the air within a photograph that fits inside a lunch box. Even large prints sometimes seem to lack any real ability to communicate the size of the landscape they portray.  As a result, rather than relying on making large prints, we have to understand how our brains perceive scale in still images, and take advantage of the cues our brains use in that process. (more…)

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First Light: Canon EOS 7D

I’ve just started experimenting with the new ::amazon(“B002NEGTTW”, “Canon EOS 7D”)::, which is an interesting beast–an APS 1.6x crop camera with 18 megapixels. Many folks, some of whom don’t appear to have used the camera, have criticized this camera as going too far along the megapixel path at the expense of ISO. To me, the “right” trade-off between those two features depends a lot on the specific job you’re doing. One of the things that interests me about the 7D is that it can serve as a lightweight backup for shooting birds and for occasional wildlife work.

For that purpose, I want good high-ISO performance (but I may not need world-class). I also want a lot of cropably-delicious little pixels–for anything else I’ll do with the camera, I’ll have a tripod.

I don’t think of the 7D (as some have suggested) as a “bad upgrade to the 5D Mark II”, I think that misses the point of this camera entirely. I think of it sort of as a “1D lite” the way that the 5D Mark II is sort of a “1Ds lite”. Of course, I have yet to discover if the 7D lives up to that standard, but I have a few good first impressions.

First, let me share with you a few badly-controlled handheld shots from my living room. Before you go look, let me apologize that the 1600 image isn’t pin-sharp because of camera movement, you should be able to get a sense of the noise characteristics despite these flaws. (more…)

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The Tuesday Composition: Framed, Inside and Out

North Falls Canyon, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon
North Falls Canyon, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

If you like this article, you can now get the book! Joe has expanded the “Tuesday Composition” series into an inspiring new ebook on composition, especially for nature photography. Check it out: The Tuesday Composition.

Many of the topics we’ve discussed so far talk about the relationship between two objects in an image, from their relative distance from the camera to whether one is left or right of the other to visual similarity between two objects. Many of the cues we use to communicate using photographs stem from these sorts of signs. Today I’ll talk about another example: what happens when one image frames another within a photograph. I’ll say that the enclosing object “frames” the enclosed object, but here I’m not referring to picture frames, I’m still talking about parts of the photographic image itself.

These frames tend to serve two ends. Visually, frames in general (and darker frames in particular) often guide the eye toward the center of an image much in the same way that edge-burning does. As a matter of meaning,   framing often provides context for the enclosed subject of the image. I think it’s likely that these two effects are related; our eyes are pulled to the center,   the enclosed object in such a photograph, and as a result that object becomes the primary subject of the image. The frame itself speaks second, not first. (more…)

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Better Habits for Better Photography

Kali Climber
Kali Climber, Eastern Sierra, California. Developed habits allowed me to get this shot off quickly after diving for the dirt to create this unusual composition.

Today over on twitter someone reminded me of something Galen Rowell taught me many years ago, and I realized the subject required more than 140 characters to explain. The basic idea sounds simple to start with: Essentially, after you shoot, the idea is to leave the camera back at some “default” set of settings. In my case, that’s typically auto-focus, ISO 100, aperture-priority, f/16, RAW, mirror lockup enabled. (Except when it’s something else.)

At first glance that’s sensible enough on the face of it. Those are some pretty reasonable “will work with a lot of landscape images” sorts of settings, and having relatively reasonable settings in the camera will reduce the chance that I forget to change some setting (ISO 12800, or f/32) that I won’t want on the next shot.

But the benefits of this habit go deeper than that.

Galen took this idea to the next level, in what he described as expert systems for photography. If I know (because I have great habits) that my settings are what I’ve described above, I can respond more quickly. Imagine that I’m walking down the trail with my camera backpack, and I turn a corner, and there it is. “Celene Dion riding a unicorn through a field of baby animals under a big blue sky“, (warning: link is a silly video digression) and I’ve only got three seconds to get the shot. (more…)

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The Tuesday Composition: Telephoto Compression

Layers, Yosemite National Park, California
Layers, Yosemite National Park, California. A classic viewpoint, 300mm focal length. While we intellectually understand that the elements of this image are at quite different distances from the camera, telephoto compression seems to take away some of the cues our brain uses to perceive depth.

If you like this article, you can now get the book! Joe has expanded the “Tuesday Composition” series into an inspiring new ebook on composition, especially for nature photography. Check it out: The Tuesday Composition.

Just as I often turn to wide-angle lenses when I want to create images with a sense of depth and perspective, when I purposefully want to lose a sense of depth, when I want to compress elements of an image in order to abstract or combine them, then I’ll often look to the longer end of my over-abundant collection of lenses.

First, it’s worth acknowledging that, pedantically, telephoto lenses don’t change perspective (warning: PDF document).  Seen from the same point, two objects will change in size, but proportionally, when you change lenses. Of course, if you change your shooting position to compensate for the new focal length, that’s a different matter entirely. So I’ll avoid saying that telephoto lenses change the perspective in a scene.

But there is a real, identifiable “look” to images we extract out of a scene using a long telephoto lens. We often talk about telephoto images as looking “flat” or “compressed”, these images do not seem to trigger our visual system into perceiving an illusion of depth in the image the way that many wide-angle shots do. Where does that look come from? I believe it primarily comes from two factors. (more…)

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A First Glance at Lightroom 3.0 (Beta 1) Image Processing

Shot converted with LR2
Shot converted with LR2. Compare with the shot below, but bring both up-full size to see the differences I describe in the article.

A couple days ago, Adobe released Lightroom 3.0 Beta 1, which introduces a variety of new features, but also introduces a new RAW processing engine. While many of these features are fairly simple to appreciate, the changes to the RAW processing engine are just as exciting, and worth a look as well.

I will intentionally avoid talking about performance differences. While I haven’t noticed particular performance differences between LR2 and LR3B1, I haven’t looked and wouldn’t consider any such comparison valid until it was made on a “release version vs. release version” basis, the performance of beta versions often differ from that of release versions for a variety of reasons that I won’t belabor here.

But if history is any guide, we can start looking at image quality, particularly with promised improvements to noise reduction and sharpening. Be careful not to read too much into these results, Adobe has intentionally turned off luminance noise reduction in LR3B1. Since it’s off by default in LR2, that shouldn’t impair our comparisons too much, but it is something to keep in mind.

To compare the two, I looked at differences in the results of the raw processing engines on a few ISO 3200 images of a camera bracket from my Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III.  I’ve included a pair of 100% crops of raw conversions from the same file for your comparison. These samples are illustrative of the sorts of changes I’ve seen in the handful of other files I’ve examined so far. Both samples were converted entirely “as shot” with default settings for each version of Lightroom. (more…)

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