The Tuesday Composition: New Perspectives

Aphid and Desert Sunflower. A ground up, rather than eye-level, perspective, was an essential part of making this image pop. © Joe Decker

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.

The week before last we talked about moving: about what a difference moving a foot to the left or right, forward or back can make in a composition. Today we’ll continue along that theme, talking about what a difference moving higher or lower can make.

We often photograph from “eye-level.” It’s a fairly natural tendency, if we make photographs after seeing things that move us, we’ll typically end up finding compositions at eye level. This is a good choice for point of view, photographing from “eye level” often produces images that read very naturally to the viewer.

But “eye level” isn’t always your best choice. (more…)

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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: 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: 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: 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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