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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Taking pictures of the cake, the dress and the rings at a wedding

One of the things that makes Wedding Photography such a challenge is that you have to be able to wear so many hats.   When I shoot a portrait session I have to be able to light and shoot a portrait session with a model (following directions) and retouch the images.

When I shoot a wedding, I have to be able to do the same thing as a portrait shoot …  as well as shoot in low-light in the church and at the reception, shoot action in low-light, shoot as a photojournalist and capture events that tell a story, shoot products, retouch everything and design an album that showcases the day. It’s a lot of hats.

What’s funny to me is how much of a kick I get out of “product” shots at a wedding. Don’t get me wrong, I love every element and get giddy as a schoolgirl when  I pull off an amazing shot, but I never thought I would enjoy the “product” shots as much as I do. “Product” shots are what I call the static shots of rings, flowers, tables, rooms, cakes, etc. that you have to take in order to capture everything about the day … the little details that people will be glad they have a picture of in years to come.

I can say with all sincerity that I would never want to be a catalog photographer. It would bore me to tears, I think. But I also think that I might understand the fellow photogs who do that work after seeing how excited I can get over a picture of a cake.

The trick is to approach the shot like it’s the most important one of the day. That way you really get a kick out of nailing it.

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This particular cake was in a hall that was completely white. White ceiling, white walls, white, white, white. However, there was one spot in the whole place with color and it happened to be right behind the cake. There were also some fake trees back there.

I shot this handheld with on-camera flash pointed off to my left. It really didn’t take much work at all but I just love it. I moved the trees a few times to see how I liked it but eventually ended up using the very first shot. Cake shots are probably the easiest of the “product” shots at a wedding.

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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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Balancing flash with ambient light outdoors

Trying to balance your flash with bright sunlight for an outdoor portrait scares the pants off people. It’s one of those things that seems so hard to do, especially if you are using off-camera flash without TTL. In that case, it’s all math and numbers and my head starts to hurt just thinking about it. Fortunately, it’s not really that difficult to do once you learn a few tricks.

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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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Wedding Photography and Bounce Flash

I’ve been trying to write about bounce flash at weddings for about an hour now. The problem with explaining bounce flash is that it seems simple at first (just point the flash over your shoulder!) but then there’s a snag … a situation where that doesn’t quite work. So, you talk about the snag, which leads you down another path (diffusers and bounce cards!) … which veers off into some other tangent (shadows and background!) and the next thing you know you’re typing the words “raccoon” and “inverse square law” in the same sentence and you just have to stop.

So, here’s what I’m going to do:   I’m going to post some pictures from a recent wedding and talk about the lighting in each one. Hopefully I will be able to stay on topic. (By the way, I am a wedding photographer in Tampa, FL and no raccoons were harmed in the writing of this article.)

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This particular wedding reception was in a small room with low ceilings that were white (mana from heaven for a bounce flash photographer). I was able to shoot with my flash pointed back over my left shoulder most of the night. I think a lot of people tend to believe that you either bounce off a wall or you bounce off the ceiling in front of you. It’s important to realize that you can bounce off the ceiling behind you as well (especially if it’s low). You will typically lose some light, since most of it will bounce to the back of the room but you’ll still get some back from the ceiling, tablecloths, walls, etc.   I had my flash dialed up to +1 most of the night. Could I have taken this shot with a diffuser or direct flash? Sure, but I would have lost contrast in the subject. The reason the dancing man stands out is because the light falls off across his body (notice the shadow on his face).

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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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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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Traveling with Equipment

One requirement of being a corporate photographer is travel. Fortunately most of my travel is fairly local, or at least what I consider local, Philadelphia to Washington DC and on occasion, New York. I tend to be in DC a couple times a month, sometimes a couple times a week. Most of my trips are by train so I try to travel light, and by light I mean two Nikon bodies, four lenses, three speed lights, Pocket Wizards and batteries, so not really light. I needed to find an easier way to carry my gear. (more…)

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