The Tuesday Composition: Case Study: Petroglyphs

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.

Over the past few months I’ve noted a couple dozen compositional “ideas”, not so much rules as tools that you can use to make more effective photographs. But this leaves a question hanging: How do I actually use all these ideas in practice?

Petroglyphs
Petroglyphs. © Joe Decker

I wish I had a pithy answer for that, but I don’t think there is one. In practice, the right way to approach a new situation comes from intuition and experience, learned by example after example after example. Some of the next few posts in this series, including this one, will take a single image and try and dissect my process, my thinking, when I was creating the image.

I’ll start with a petroglyph image I made in the Eastern Sierra during a visit last month for workshop scouting.

First, let me set the scene: The petroglyph panel in the foreground of this image is nearly horizontal and quite large, with well over one hundred glyphs. It is not well-protected. As such, the ways in which I’m willing to work this panel are strongly constrained by the desire to protect the panel-from vandalism, from damage that might occur if someone were to walk on the panel (scuffing, etc.), and from the damage that even skin oils can do to the “varnish” the glyphs are carved into. This limited my vantage points to places I could get to without damaging the panel, and views that don’t “give away” precisely where the panel is located.

While this is an extreme example, as photographers we are often constrained (by fences, physics, law or ethics) in what compositions we can make. Those constraints are often part of the dance of composition.

Trying to not show a lot of detail (save for distant mountains) beyond the panel meant shooting low, close to the panel. I did want to include the snow-covered mountains, which forced the choice of a particular side of the panel to work from. “Shooting low” suggested a near-far composition, which meant selecting a couple of particularly interesting glyphs (concentric circles, and the square grid) to serve as foreground anchors.

In short, the constraints on taking the photograph suggested a style of composition, and that style led me by the hand to keep in mind a particular guideline (interesting foregrounds are a must for near-far compositions.) (more…)

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The Tuesday Composition: Just Move!

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.

Keep moving!

Skägafoss Detail
Skägafoss Detail

One of the best things about giving “shoot and critique” workshops is that I get the opportunity to see what participants can make out of a given situation. It’s great to see how different and interesting their visions are-I constantly learn things from my students by observing their photographic vision. But it’s also a great environment for me to be able to give knowledgeable feedback. Over the years, one of the most common themes I’ve seen in my feedback, particularly to beginning photographers, is suggesting that the image might have improved if the photographer had moved a little-whether left, right, forward, back, up or down.

Every movement of the camera and photographer changes the “choreography” of the images, some subjects get bigger, some smaller, and the position of the elements involved changes as well. Perhaps some appear – or disappear – around other objects. The positioning of the objects in the frame changes as well, movement is a powerful photographic tool. (more…)

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The Tuesday Composition: Live from Iceland!

Godafoss Detail
Godafoss Detail

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.

I’m about five days into a trip through parts of Iceland (yes, in January and February), and thought I would share couple of short thoughts that have come up this week as I’ve been working, along with a few unfinished images from the trip.

First, yes, it is in fact cold here. Most of the areas I’ve been working in are relatively coastal (save for the Myvatn area), and so temperatures aren’t quite as cold as you might think: The coldest temperatures I’ve worked in this trip have been about -13C (or 9 degrees F). I’ve worked at lower temperatures in Mono Lake. Still, it is noticeably brisk. One thing that’s been on my mind, as a result, is thinking about how to communicate the sense of that cold in an image.

In most of my images on this trip, communicating “cold” has come down to one of two ideas (or both)–color, and the presence of ice or snow.
(more…)

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The Tuesday Composition: Patterns

#3
Desert Rhythms III

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.

I can’t say that they’re best sellers for me, but I really enjoy pattern shots. Nature often offers us regular and irregular patterns of exciting, dizzying complexity. I just can’t get enough of ’em.

There are several thing to keep in mind when working to create a great pattern shot.

The simplest is to remember that, in making a pattern shot, you’re often working to maximize abstraction. The simplicity and repeititon of a pattern shot makes it easy for the viewer’s eye to notice imperfections and intrusions, so eliminating unwanted details from a pattern shot is even more criticial than it would be in a more conventional landscape image.

If you’ve got a location that has some great looking patterns, first identify areas where the pattern is strongest. Then use don’t just zoom into the pattern to eliminate distractions, explore the scene by both moving your camera position and zooming in to find the cleanest perspective. Your feet are two of your most valuable photographic assets. (more…)

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The Tuesday Composition: Anatomy of a Puffin

Puffin IV
Puffin IV. Látrabjarg, Iceland.

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.

I was recently struck by the fact that one of my puffin images, Puffin IV, had been selected into two different shows by two different groups of jurors for two quite competitive shows. I was a little surprised–I would not have thought, of my various images that have been included in shows in the last year, that it would be this particular image that fared best of the images I submitted.

My surprise, plus a sale or two, led me to “take another look” at the image. As you might expect (it is, after all, Tuesday), composition was at the heart of my surprise. If the main parts of a photograph are subject, light and composition (I think beginning photographers often focus too much on subject)   it’s light on the subject and composition that really tend to pull together an effective photograph. There are far more interesting photographs of mundane subjects in interesting light and/or interesting compositions than the other way around. (more…)

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How to take great family pictures

I think that most people believe that the key to taking good pictures is mostly technical. First you need a good camera and then you need to learn all the advanced trigonometry and physics necessary to use said camera. (“So, a higher ISO means more light but a higher shutter speed means less light?   What?)   All that stuff is necessary, sure, but let’s not overlook the thing that’s really important:   Memories.

Always ask “Why?”
Every time you reach for your camera, ask yourself, “Why am I taking a picture? Why did I reach for my camera?” Most of the time it’s one of two things: Either you want to preserve a memory, or you saw something that sparked a memory in you and you want to record it. If you approach the picture with that in mind, you will take better, more meaningful pictures of your family.

photocrati how to take family pictures 1

My kids were putting out Halloween decorations last year and I grabbed my camera to record the memory. Don’t stand your kids up and take a snapshot. You have thousands of snapshots of your kids and they all look the same. Instead, ask “Why?” In this case, the reason I was taking pictures was because my children were putting out decorations. The decorations were the memory… the process. So, I focused on the decorations, not the children. My technical knowledge allows me to take the picture from the proper angle with the proper light, etc, but it’s my desire to preserve the memory of my children decorating the house that leads me to create an image that is unique and so much better than a snapshot.

(more…)

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The Tuesday Composition: Not so much rules…

And thirdly, the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules
–Barbossa, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

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.

Today I’m going to take a brief digression from specific compositional topics, back up, and talk about compositional “rules”.  I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating.

They’re not rules.

Lithodendron Wash Abstract
Lithodendron Wash Abstract. I didn't shoot this based on "rules", I shot it based on intuition. (Image created as part of the National Park Service Artist-in-Residence Program at Petrified Forest NP.)

By this point in the Tuesday Composition series I’ve written about almost thirty ideas, each of which could be thought of as one (or perhaps a couple of) rules. But using them as rules will, in the end, limit your creative reach as a photographer. I urge you, in fact, I beg you not to use them as rules, either when you create your own images or, just as importantly, you look at an image of another photographer.

Let’s talk about that. It’s easier to begin this discussion by thinking not only about our own work but someone else’s. When I see a new image from a book, an advertisement, whatever, the first thing I do is to look at it, to see it. I do not drag out my list of rules and walk through it adding up a score. Instead, I look, and feel what I feel, notice what I feel. I don’t start with an analytical process, I start with an intuitive, visual process. (more…)

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The Tuesday Composition: Diptychs and More

Chiricahua Sunset.  The combination of the positioning of the pieces and the positioning of the views (see text) combines to create a sense of movement.
Chiricahua Sunset. The combination of the positioning of the pieces and the positioning of the views (see text) combines to create a sense of movement.

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.

So far in this series we’ve discussed images “in the box” of a single rectangular frame. Today, I’ll talk a little about ways to “think outside the box” and use multiple images together as part of a single artwork.

First, a few words of terminology. Diptychs were traditionally any sort of artwork or other object with two plates connected together with a hinge. These days the hinge is optional, and the term is applied to any sort of art in which two pieces are meant to be hung together (usually in a particular arrangement). Triptych refers to the same idea with three images. Polyptych is the general term for two or more pieces. Multiples is sometimes used similarly to polyptych (although the former might be two images printed separately on the same piece of paper). I’m going to stick with “multiples” here as the most inclusive term.

In nearly every multiple, we’re encouraged to consider the relationship between the individual parts of the artwork. The relative placement of the different parts within the artwork is one part of this; if the two halves of a diptych are laid out left to right, we’ll be far more likely to “read” the left image first and the right image second. To the extent that the images combine to tell a story, the left segment of the image will usually tell an earlier part of the story, the right segment the latter part. Not every multiple tells a story (Andy Warhol’s famous silk-screened multiples of Marilyn Monroe don’t seem to really imply a sequence in time), but many do. (more…)

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The Tuesday Composition: The Attraction of Opposites

The contrast between the size and age of the guanaco calls our attention to not only to the difference, but to the relationship between the two.
Guanaco Anticipating the Future. The contrast between the size and age of the guanaco calls our attention not only to the difference, but also to the relationship between the two.

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.

Opposites attract ... our attention.

Opposition is one of the primary themes in photographic composition, one which was first emphasized to me by Frans Lanting, the powerfully talented photographic storyteller. At the simplest level, putting together two areas of different tone (brightness) forms a contrast which pulls our eyes toward the boundary between them. Contrasting opposing colors has a similar effect, attracting our attention and actually enhancing the saturation and power of the individual colors.

But using contrast and opposition in composition goes far beyond that, contrasting concepts can be a very powerful tool for composing a photography to communicate a particular message. Contrasting concepts, much as with contrasting colors, has two effects.

First, the viewer’s attention is drawn to the nature of the contrast. The black and white of a yin-yang symbol draws our attention to tones, the difference between light and dark.  Similarly, a photograph of an infant and an adult leads the viewer to think about age, and as a result, perhaps issues of family relationships and parenting. It’s almost impossible to view Guanaco Anticipating the Future without thinking about the relationship between the two animals (we assume that one is the parent of the other), a concept that wouldn’t come to mind nearly as quickly if I’d only included one animal (or two of the same age and size).

Pink Morning Mists
Pink Morning Mists, Torres del Paine.

Second, contrasting two things seems to often exaggerate each of them. If we put a smooth texture next to a rough texture, both the smoothness and the roughness are stronger, more apparent. If we put a moving object (perhaps communicated with motion blur) in an unmoving scene the sense of motion may be enhanced. (more…)

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The Tuesday Composition: Photographing the Familiar and the Unfamiliar

Rainbow Whirlwind, Seljalandfoss, Iceland
Rainbow Whirlwind, Seljalandfoss, Iceland. I don't need to show much of the waterfall, or the water at the bottom of the fall, to give you a sense that this is a waterfall--and a very large one at that.

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.

It is all too easy to forget that when we photograph that we are usually photographing for someone, even if only ourselves. Photography is a type of communication, and the best way to compose a photograph to communicate someone depends on both what you’re trying to communicate and who you are trying to communicate it to. Familiarity is key–if you’re trying to photograph a particular type of animal, if your viewer is likely to be familiar with the animal you’ll want to approach photographing it differently than if they aren’t likely to have seen one before.

It’s helpful to draw an analogy with a dinner party conversation. If you and I are chatting and I start talking about Death Valley, I’ll probably guess that you’ll have heard of Death Valley.  I’ll guess that you’ll know it’s a large desert area in California, that it gets very hot there, and perhaps that it has sand dunes. If I start off the conversation by reiterating a bunch of stuff you already know about Death Valley, you’re going to get bored pretty quickly. On the other hand, if I start talking to you about the Aeolian Buttes, I’m probably going to start with an assumption that you know a little less about it, and start with a more basic information.

Of course, when I’m talking to someone, I have the opportunity to adjust this on the fly, if you say “Oh, I love that part of the Mono Basin”, I can move along. But in photography (and writing as well), I don’t have that flexibility. I have to choose up-front how much to say in my photograph, and how much not to say.

Noa Lake, East Greenland
Noa Lake, East Greenland

If I don’t say enough, I may not actually “get across” whatever it is I want to get across. If I really want to show you how cool the oddly pink Noa Lake is in East Greenland is, a little detail of pink water may be aesthetic, that may be a great piece of art, but if I’m trying to tell you about the lake in general I’m going to have to include the whole lake, the surrounding landscape, mountains and lichen. I’m going to have to establish a sense of scale, I’m going to have to use the other parts of the photograph to help you realize that the pink stuff is pink translucent water and not just a trick of the light.

On the other hand, If I say too much, if I “overexplain” something in a photograph by showing you to much of it and/or by emphasizing it, you may not be insulted but you’ll certainly not be particularly interested. (more…)

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