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.


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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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Wedding album design

This may sound strange, but designing a wedding album can be more stressful than actually taking the pictures. When you’re  shooting a wedding,  you try all sorts of different techniques to get the shot.   That way  you have a lot of options available to  you later when designing the album. However, when designing the album, you don’t have the luxury of “covering  your bases,” so to speak. You have to take 700 images and eliminate down to 60-100. There are a lot of criteria to meet:

  • Do these images tell the story of the day?
  • Do you have all the formal and family shots that the client wants?
  • Does this client like big pictures or lots of small ones?
  • What’s more important to the client: beautiful formal pictures or candid fun ones?


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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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Depth of field and light at a Wedding or Bar Mitzvah

Many wedding and Bar Mitzvah photographers find themselves in a bit of a pickle when they are first starting out.  You’ve looked at hundreds of websites and seen all these incredible, artistic wedding pictures and decided “I want to do that.”   So, you buy all the equipment, flashes and fast lenses that you can afford and set out to create beautiful, moving images.   You spend all this time and energy in pursuit of the artistic and then suddenly discover that you can’t shoot the mundane … and let me tell you, there is a lot of mundane to shoot at a 7-hour wedding.  

It’s not our fault that we don’t always learn how to take these shots.   They aren’t the sort of shots that get featured on the web or in the pages of a magazine.  It’s great to see those beautiful shots of an outdoor wedding and the incredible formals but  what about  the other 500 pictures  the photographer  took? You know, the ones in the dark hall with the dancing people? You don’t see many of those on the ol’ website because they aren’t quite as dynamic.  Still, being able to take a good table shot or dancing shot is every bit as important as the perfectly lit formal.  For some clients it may be more important, depending on who is sitting at the table or dancing on the floor.  

My first rule of photography is this: Get the shot. First, learn how to get the shot, any shot, in any situation.  Then, learn how to get it in an artistic and creative way (if needed). Don’t spend so much time learning the “hard” shots that you neglect to learn the “easy” ones.  You may find that the “easy” ones aren’t so easy after all.

Let’s take a look at  some pictures from a recent Bat Mitzvah that I photographed in Tampa.  I’ll start with a “hard” one:

tampa bat mitzvah photographer 18


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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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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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Shooting Sports 1 – A Primer

Over the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to shoot a wide variety of sports. I am a people/portrait/event photographer in Frederick, MD, but I also have two active kids.

I also have a wide variety of friends who have kids active in sports, and who ask me to take pictures of their kids doing the things they do – which include sports. When you tote a camera everywhere, people assume you take pictures “everywhere”.

I was also fortunate enough to have the opportunity to serve as the Digital Media Director, responsible for photography and videography, for the U.S. Deaflympics Team at the recent Deaflympics in Taipei, Taiwan. (See the photos here.)

My goal with the next several articles is to help the budding sports photographer (or the involunteered sports photographer) get better pictures. In my experience, it usually takes two to three games of shooting before you learn the tempo of that particular game, and learn where to stand to improve your odds of getting a better shot. With proper instruction and guidance, my hope is that you will be walking away with keepers on the very first game. (more…)

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