The Tuesday Composition: Both Near and Far

Bleached bush skeleton, Mono Lake, California
Bleached bush skeleton, Mono Lake, California. This image would have been more effective if I'd used a bit of flash to highlight the dead bush to emphasize that it's the subject of the image, I'll almost certainly dodge up (brighten) the bush in printing.

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 more common idioms in landscape of photography is the near-far composition, a powerful technique for creating depth and relationships within a photograph.

In a near-far composition, a small foreground element is emphasized and placed in a background that establishes context for that element. For example, the dead bush in Bleached Bush Skeleton, the bush remains are the subject of the photograph. The lake, the tufa in the lake and the Sierra Nevada all tell us something about the location the bush remains are in.

Put another way, if you were to try and write a sentence describing what a near-far photograph is about, it would usually be something like, “This foreground (thing) is in the background (environment).”  The foreground object is the subject of the sentence, it is in general the more important of the two elements in a near-far image.

When I say that the foreground is emphasized, it’s important to be clear about how that’s done. For the foreground to be comparable in size to the background, it needs to be much closer to the lens than the background. While it might seem in theory that this could be accomplished with almost any sort of lens, the smaller depth-of-field of telephoto lenses often make it impossible to keep near and far objects both in focus. As a result, the most dramatic near-far compositions are usually made with wide-angle lenses. Hyperfocal focusing is often used to create the greatest depth-of-field. (more…)

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Photographing Bodie

Bodie State Historic Park, California
Bodie State Historic Park, California

East of California’s Sierra Nevada, north of Mono Lake lies the abandoned mining town of Bodie, California. Bodie boomed after the discovery of gold ore in the 1870s, by 1920 the town was in a steep and never-reversed decline. In 1962 the area was designated a California state historic park and remains that today. Several aspects make Bodie a particularly interesting target for photographers intrigued by the Gold Rush era ghost towns.

First and foremost Bodie is maintained in a state of arrested decay, that is, the park attempts to maintain Bodie the way it was in 1962, repairing what’s necessary to maintain that state but no more so. Interiors of many of the town’s buildings buildings still contain original furniture and such. And because Bodie hasn’t been commercially developed, it’s easy to find many places to take unique, “timeless” photographs without anachronisms. (more…)

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Choosing a Print Technology

Kali Climber
Kali Climber, Buttermilks, Eastern Sierra, California

I’ve been thinking recently about digital printing technologies, and pondering possible changes in how I print my own images.

Most photographic printing today is done digitally. Digital printing excited me as a young photographer, promising a lot more control over the color of my prints, along with repeatability–promises that have been largely, if not entirely, honored over the years. Most digital printing today takes one of two forms. In inkjet (you may see the word “giclée”) printing, dyes or pigments are sprayed through nozzles onto paper or other surfaces. In what I often call “digital enlargement”, traditional light-sensitive “chromogenic” photographic papers (by traditional, I mean the papers and chemistry used in darkroom printing) are processed traditionally after having been exposed via digitally-controlled lasers or LEDs, rather than via projecting light through a slide or negative onto the paper.

I came to use the latter technology in the 1990s. At that point, the reasons for doing so were clear, inkjet technology was still in it’s infancy, and suffered from severe problems with longevity, making serious inkjet prints was out of the question. Early attempts to solve this ran into embarrassing ozone sensitivity and later metamerism.  Those troubles left me gun-shy; the chemistry, and therefore the longevity, of photographs using traditional chemistry was not perfect but was well-understood. Nothing wrong with sticking with something that works.

But over the years, much progress has been made. Epson and other vendors are now producing inkjet paper and ink combinations which are much better understood in terms of longevity. Moreover, most of the better inkjet processes avoid a longevity problem traditional photographic papers face–fading in the face of ultraviolet light from the sun or from florescent light bulbs. (When I frame prints I use ultraviolet-blocking glass, but not all framers will do this by default.) The increasing pressure to move to compact florescent bulbs represents a threat to the longevity of the photographs I sell, and is part of what has led me to look at inkjets. Additionally, chromogenic prints are somewhat acidic, and are best matted using mat board that isn’t chemically buffered, but such mat boards are less common. (more…)

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The Tuesday Composition: Scale

Tree Ballet and Pogonip, Mono Basin, Eastern Sierra, California.
Tree Ballet and Pogonip, Mono Basin, Eastern Sierra, California. At small image sizes, simple compositions are effective more often than complex ones.

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 axes on which I measure compositions is their degree of complexity–not just the complexity of the image itself but the complexity of the composition.

On one end, we have very simple, spare compositions that embody perhaps a couple of the compositional principles we’ve discussed.  On the other end of the spectrum, we have compositions that orchestrate a far greater number of these principles on a smaller scale.  Today I’d like to touch on some of the ways these differences affect the effectiveness of your images.

I’ll start by saying that my images tend very much towards the leaner side of this spectrum. One of my first teachers was the late Galen Rowell, who shared this affinity for simplicity. Galen had come to nature photography from mountain-climbing, and as a result had decided to work entirely with lightweight 35mm-format cameras in his own work. Both the smaller format of the slides themselves (compared with medium and large-format cameras) and the presentation of these images in smaller forms (at first, often magazines, I suspect) likely pushed him in the direction of simplicity–if the individual parts of a composition don’t render large enough to move your eye, they’re not going to have much of an effect on your image. While Galen’s images are fantastic even at large scale, their ability to feel compositionally strong even at smaller scales reflects the simplicity and directness of his compositions. (more…)

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The Tuesday Composition: Compositional Shapes

Layers, Yosemite NP, California
Layers, Yosemite NP, California

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.

In previous posts in this series, I’ve talked a lot about how the elements within an image play into how we view it. How lines guide our eye through images, how highlights in the image attract our eyes, how the direction things are moving, or looking into, play into composition. But for much of this conversation we’ve ignored one of the elephants in the compositional room–the shape of the image as a whole. Is it square or rectangular, landscape or portrait, thick or thin? For the rest of this article I’ll call this the “format” of the picture. (I apologize in advance for any confusion with other senses of the word format, e.g., medium-format.)

Often, the choice of what format to compose our image within isn’t made consciously. Instead, often we (and I include myself in this) are guided by what camera we use, and pragmatic considerations about presentation and framing. Most of my images have a 3:2 aspect ratio. It will come as no surprise that this is the same format as the sensor in my digital cameras, as well as the format of the openings in the standard window mats I buy in quantity. This isn’t entirely bad, it does help create a certain consistency of “look” to shows of my work. Still, it’s not a choice that should usually be made unconsciously.  Some images, some ideas just work better in different formats than others, and with the plethora of pixels that come out of modern digital SLRs, often little is lost when we crop an image to improve it. (more…)

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The Tuesday Composition: Repetition

Salt Polygons at Sunrise, Death Valley
Salt Polygons at Sunrise, Death Valley

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 while back we talked about visual echoes–and we primarily focused on repetitions of two similar or contrasting objects. Today I’m going to revisit that topic with a greater emphasis on repetition generally, whether two, eleven or a million similar image elements.  If you didn’t get a chance to read the echoes post, I suggest going back and and reading it now, many of the ideas in today’s post will relate to and reflect on the ideas I presented there.

Repetition is a powerful and amazingly versatile tool.

One of my favorite uses of repetition in composition is in simplifying an image. In general, images with many kinds of disparate elements can be harder for the viewer to make sense of–put enough elements together and you take away an easy sense of what elements of the image are important, dominant.

Repeating patterns in an image can help organize all of those elements into a pattern that’s easier for the viewer to understand. Salt Polygons at Sunrise has hundreds of elements, but our eye quickly integrates the underlying pattern of the salt polygons and makes sense of what’s going on in the image. A random collection of that many disparate elements in an image would feel much more chaotic. (Of course, that might be what you want, but more often, my own work tends towards less chaotic.) (more…)

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Additional Perspective on Tilt-Shift lenses

A Problem of Perspective
A Problem of Perspective. Notice that the posts nearest the left and right edges of the image do not appear vertical.

In my previous article on tilt-shift lenses I talked about tilt and how that affects the plane of focus.  It is a pretty great feature, and it is (I believe) behind the increased energy we’re seeing in the press and from camera manufacturers about these lenses. But it’s far from the only trick these little wonders can perform, today we’ll talk about the most basic use of  shift (including what the large format guys would call rise and fall), to correct perspective in a photograph.

Perspective control using shift has been a staple of architectural photography for decades. When photographing a building from ground level, perspective causes the top of the building (which is farther from the camera) to show smaller in the image than the bottom. In seeing the real world around us this effect appears quite natural, but in a photograph the effect often makes the building appear as if it were falling over backwards. What we need for the image to “appear” more natural is a way to reduce the perspective-induced distortion of the shape of the building. (more…)

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The Tuesday Composition: Circles

View to a Chill, Greenland
View to a Chill, Greenland

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 circle is the reflection of eternity. It has no beginning and it has no end – and if you put several circles over each other, then you get a spiral. –Maynard James Keenan

In previous weeks, we’ve talked a number of times about how the eye tends to follow along a line. We’ve usually talked about this in the context of the eye traveling from one part of an image to another, but circles are another variation on this theme. By bending a line back around to meet itself, we get a circle (or a similar closed curve). The eye tends to follow that circle, tracing around it one or more times, pulling attention both to the circle itself and whatever it encloses. (more…)

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The Tuesday Composition: Leading Lines, Perspective

Distant Thunder, Petrified Forest National Park.  (Image made during NPS artist residency at Petrified Forest.)
Distant Thunder, Petrified Forest National Park. (Image made during NPS artist residency at Petrified Forest.)

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.

Last week I talked about S-curves, today I’m going to talk about the related and more general idea of leading lines. Leading lines are one or more lines in an image, typically diagonal lines usually coming up from around the bottom corners of an image. In particularly lines such as those formed by streams, railway tracks, roads, or geology along the ground. S-curves are a type of leading line, but here I’ll be contrasting them with lines that are typically straight or more simply curved.

Many of the things we said about S-curves apply equally well here, the lines seem to draw the viewer into the image, bottom towards the top. Similarly, I find that images that bring at least one of these lines from the lower-left are a bit more likely to work better for me, again probably related to the idea that the way we perceive images may be influenced in part by reading direction. (more…)

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Tilting at Focus

Last week I wrote a bit about the reasons tilt-shift lenses were becoming more  popular in the DSLR world. This week I’d like to provide a simple example of using tilt in an image to increase effective depth-of-field, and offer a basic overview of how that’s done.

No tilt
No tilt, shot at f/3.5.

Tilt dialed in
Tilt dialed in, about three degrees. f/3.5. Focus is near the nearer of the two lens caps. If you look to the left of the table, you'll notice part of a cat tree, note that the upper parts of the cat tree are more in focus than the lower parts.

To demonstrate what a difference this can make, I ran a quick example with and without tilt using the older ::amazon(“B00009XVCD”,”Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L”)::. (To make the effect a little more apparent on these small screen samples I focused the image without tilt near the “near” lens cap. Of course, in that image I could have chosen to focus farther into the image–which would have blurred the near image somewhat to reduce the blurring in the far image, but both would have still been out of focus. Both images were taken at f/3.5 with a ::amazon(“B000V5LX00″,”Canon 1Ds Mark III.”):: (more…)

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