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I don’t care about film, or megapixels, or raw files, or mirrors (or lack thereof). And I certainly don’t care about cameras. I’m not a ‘camera operator’ — I’m a photographer. I care about photographs. I care about seeing, noticing, paying attention, conveying mood, feeling, and conveying narrative through still images.

What sparked this sudden rant? Well, I sometimes get recommendations to switch camera makes, or I hear about the benefits of shooting film over digital, or raw over JPEG, or I get into a debate about black and white versus color, or get caught up in news of how one camera manufacturer is outselling another. In general, there seems to be an obsession amongst photographers, especially those up-and-coming, with the gear and technology that is peripheral to the act of photography. People fetishize cameras, and media, and the companies behind them as though that is the be all end all of the photographic genre of art.

Don’t get me wrong, of course the technical side of photography is important, since it’s the technology and its improvements over the years that has allowed the medium to flourish and expand into areas and forms unheard of in the past. I embrace the technology and its evolution. We also can’t ignore the fact that not all cameras and lenses are created equal. Sure, some are better than others in general, while other times the best options vary based on the circumstances. However, understanding and appreciating the gear is a slippery slope that can lead one to chase the numbers, the engineering, the tech, and lose sight of what photography is at its heart.

Long exposure composite from a rooftops in Tokyo.

The truth is cameras are mere tools. Film is a mere medium. Digital data is a mere medium. They do not define what we do, only how we do it. Most importantly, they do not define why we do it! I photograph to explore my world and plumb my mind and my creative spirit. I recommend you ask yourself the same: ‘why do I photograph?’

Interestingly, there is little about the act of photography that is physical. Sure, we have to move and position ourselves physically in space, hold and point the camera, and push the button. But this is all secondary. Whereas a painter or illustrator must have physical control of his or her implement—a brush, a pencil—we photographers do not need such a dexterous command of our instruments. The physical tools of photography are a very distant secondary element behind the conceptual and intellectual aspects of the art form. In that sense, we are much more like writers or poets, for whom the physical act of writing is merely a formality—a way to excise their ideas from their minds and preserve them on physical media.

Another composite, this one using an LED light with multiple passes in different colors. This could have been shot on any camera.

To me, the perfect camera would have no buttons, and would simply read my mind and get the settings perfectly every time. In fact, if I could have one built into my eye that takes photos at a thought—even better! If I had such a gadget, would that make me any less of a photographer? Does it matter if I shoot on M mode or full auto? I would argue that these things are irrelevant to the act itself. Of course, a lack of understanding of the camera and its functions can prevent one from capturing the images one seeks. But this is simply a necessary hurdle that we photographers must overcome in order to materialize concepts into images. It is not de rigueur.

Of course, if you love cameras and their physical nature, that’s great! I hate to belittle someone else’s preoccupations. I too must admit that there is something satisfyingly tactile about rotating a finely dampened focus ring or hearing and feeling the snap of a shutter. But ask yourself this: do writers talk endlessly about typewriters and pens and Moleskine notebooks? Then why should we as photographers obsess over such things? Don’t worry about cameras—focus on ideas. Get out and shoot.

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It goes without saying that if you want to get better at something you have to practice. Simple, right? The thing is, that unlike more structured pursuits such as sports or music, the idea of practicing street photography seems a bit hard to wrap one’s head around. But before we get into that, we should establish the best methodology for practice in in general.

A shot I’ve taken before many times (not in this spot, but the same idea) before getting this awesome opportunity.

Regular Practice vs. Deliberate Practice

Regular practice happens any time you do almost anything. If you think about it, that's how we learn most things in life, from using a fork, to talking, to tying our shoes. If you just do it, you’ll gradually get better at it. It applies to more specific skills as well. If you sit down to jam on guitar for 30 minutes, you just practiced a bit. Shoots hoops after school? Practice. And the same goes for street photography—shoot for an hour: that’s practice. You can certainly have revelations and make improvements with regular practice. And it’s a lot of fun! But there is a more refined approach, commonly called ‘Deliberate Practice.’

Deliberate practice is when you make a conscious effort to practice very specific skills in a targeted manner. It also includes feedback and consistent rules or a set of constraints. Let’s break all that down. To use analogies in sports and music again, it would be like running drills of very specific actions or movements, and in particular targeting ones where you think you have a weakness. In basketball it might be shooting from the free throw line, or perhaps it might be playing a particular part of a song again and again on guitar until that one part is perfect. Deliberate practice is about breaking skills down and targeting weaknesses. But how can we apply that to photography?

Orange stripes on a 28mm lens (Ricoh GR II)…

…and the same place a few weeks later on a 40mm lens (Nikon D4).

Constraints are the Key: Prime Lenses

In photography, especially street photography, it’s hard to break down skills into sub-skills and drill them. What are you going to do, run around with the camera like a soldier in boot camp? It sounds silly. For photography, it’s most useful to focus on the last part of deliberate practice: constraints.

We can put constraints on many aspects of our photography, the foremost being focal length. I believe this is why prime lenses are traditionally so highly praised by street photographers. The common wisdom is that prime lenses spur creativity, but I believe that beneath that commonly held notion is the fact that by constraining the field of view, the photographer must learn how to compose the frame by moving their body (the cliché of ‘zoom with your feet’) which results in a better spatial awareness and understanding of the effects of that particular focal length.

However, as mentioned above in regard to deliberate practice, it’s good to focus on weak points. If you’ve been shooting with a 35mm prime lens for years, perhaps trying a 28mm or a 50mm for a few weeks can help you improve your skill with those focal lengths as well. Eventually, using a zoom lens will become a more mindful and deliberate shooting experience where your own positioning (and therefore, your perspective) become less influenced by the lens. Instead, you will more easily be able to choose either a perspective and then match the focal length, or a focal length (effectively, a field of view) and then adjust your perspective to make it work.

I had my 28mm on the camera, but felt this would have been better with my trusty 40mm (this shot is cropped a bit). Nonetheless, I feel that having a prime lens helped me make an interesting composition in the heat of the moment. The constraint stimulated my creativity.

Of course, you could learn all this with a zoom lens, but it’s more efficient to apply the deliberate practice method by giving yourself this focal length constraint. And if you don’t have many (or any) prime lenses, that’s okay! Just tape your lens to a particular focal length and go out and shoot that way for a day or two. Bam! Instant prime lens!

After this kind of practice, I now think of a zoom lens more as a series of prime lenses than a single continuously zoomable lens. Of course, that is not to say that I look at the markings on the lens, set it to exactly 35mm or 50mm or whatever before I take each photo. It’s just that in my mind, I think to myself ‘I need about 35mm for this shot,’ or ‘around 50mm would suit my idea for this composition.’ And I got to that point by shooting on primes for a few years almost exclusively. I somehow instinctively knew that the simplicity of primes would force me think in a different way with them. It wasn’t until years later that I learned about deliberate practice (mostly when I read the book The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle) that it clicked for me: prime lenses create constraints, and that’s why they are a great tool to help us build an understanding of the relationship between focal length and field of view while developing spatial awareness.

Shot in Aperture Priority, this shot required a 3-stop underexposure, something I expected from having practiced with both Aperture mode and Manual mode for quite some time.

Constraints in Exposure: Manual Mode

By using prime lenses, we can apply a constraint to our field of view. Another way to constrain the way we shoot is to use Manual Mode. Generally, I don’t think Manual Mode is a must for street photography. Some photographers swear by it, but I feel in some cases it can be a hindrance, though in others it does allow for more precise, accurate, and most importantly, consistent exposure. However, for the most part, I use Aperture Priority when walking about town and shooting street photos. However, in the context of this article, I do feel that Manual Mode is a must for training one’s understanding of exposure. It applies a constraint in the sense that it forces the photographer to think about the three main settings that are available in almost every camera, shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, and understand how they relate.

It’s also possible to take it a step further and ‘lock’ one or two settings for a day. That is, you can choose a particular combination of settings for two of the three, and then only adjust the third one to maintain a correct exposure. For instance, on a sunny day you can select f/8 for the aperture, and 1/500 shutter speed, and the only adjust the ISO as needed in order to get the correct exposure. Similarly, on another occasion, say at night, you can choose f/2.8, 1600 ISO, and then adjust the shutter speed as needed. The point is to get an inherent understanding of how these settings work together and individually. Once you have this intuition, it becomes much more obvious what’s happening when shooting in semi-auto modes like Aperture Priority with Auto ISO enabled. The final goal of all this is to move beyond the phase where the camera’s operations are a kind of ‘black magic’ and move into a mindful awareness of what the camera is up to. This will allow for more consistent exposure when you’re out doing street photography, which is very beneficial in a photographic genre where speed is important and there are few second chances.

A shot inspired by the work of Siegfried Hansen…

…while I shot this one with Saul Leiter in mind.

Constraints in Theme: Emulate the Masters

So, we’ve talked about ways to constrain your framing and exposure. The third constraint that can be applied for the sake of deliberate practice is a constraint of style or theme. An easy and fun way to do this is to ‘emulate the masters.’ What that means is that you can find a photographer whose work you admire, or even simply whose work has certain aspects or qualities that you wish to include in your own work. Once you find such a body of work, identify the consistent themes and choices that the ‘master’ has made in his or her work. Then go out and keep these themes in mind, thinking always ‘what would _____ do in this case?’

I try to avoid pushing my specific preoccupations when giving ‘study’ advice for photographers, but I think it’s useful to illustrate this idea with a few example masters from whom I’ve drawn influence. The first is Alex Webb, whose work emphasizes multiple layers and subjects, all coming together to a single whole. Basically, he’s a master of having many individual subjects in one frame.

Something I learned from Saul Leiter, but made my own—obscuring subjects with bold splashes of color in the foreground.

The next is Saul Leiter, in whose work we can see an abstract approach to color and form. He sometimes avoids giving a direct portrayal of his human subjects instead opting for compositions that are more abstract, emphasizing splashes of colors, often blurred in the foreground. To the same end, he regularly employs reflections and glass in his images. Shooting in ‘bad’ weather is also common in his work.

Finally, I enjoy the work of Siegfried Hansen, who is a master of geometry and in particular utilizing lines and shapes in his work. Much of his work does not involve people, which is a bit unusual for most street photographers, yet he makes it work. All three of these photographers employ color to greatest degree, having little to no work in monochrome.

Of course, the work of each of these photographers can be summarized with more depth, but these visual elements and ideas are what I took from them and keep in mind when I am out shooting and practicing. Find the masters that inspire you and do the same!

I’m certainly a fan of Saul Leiter’s work…

Self-Feedback and Mentors

The last piece of this ‘deliberate practice’ puzzle is feedback. This is arguably the most important part, and in general it is not unique to the deliberate practice model. Everyone can agree that critiques and feedback are crucial for artistic growth. The problem arises when we can’t find a mentor to give us feedback—how can we get around this? What I’ve learned is that being your own mentor is possible… by channeling the masters. Just as I mentioned above, when you’re out shooting you can think to yourself “how would ‘so and so’ compose this scene?” Or even more concretely, you can focus on specific aspects of your composition: “what would ‘so and so’ say about this framing, or this element in the shot, or my timing?”

From this idea you can create for yourself a mental checklist of dos and don’ts. For example, here are some that I often keep in mind:

  1. What (if anything) can I remove from this frame to make the story stronger?

  2. What (if anything) is in the immediate vicinity that I can add to the frame to make the story stronger?

  3. Can I improve any leading lines in the scene, by moving them into the corners, etc.

  4. Is my timing as good as it can be? Did I catch the action in the perfect moment?

  5. Can I imagine a better subject here, that is, a more suitable passerby that would enhance my composition?

And so on… The mental checklist can be anything that you think you need to work on. You can, and should, think of specific weaknesses or aspects you would like to improve, and then keep those in mind. It’s totally fine to write these things down to help you remember them.

An example of more reps: I had plenty of time to shoot here, so I took quite a few frame of this scene. Notice the general idea is not much changed, but the composition changes quite a bit from shot to shot….

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Ah, the night, what a wonderful time to go out and do some street photography! As a photographer who got his start in the streets of Tokyo, it was inevitable that I would end up photographing mostly at night. To me, the city becomes its ‘true self’ when the sun sets, and the artificial lights come on and illuminate the metropolis. But let’s save my romanticism for another time. I hope to share with you my methodology, some tips and tricks, for night street photography. First off, please don’t expect any magic tips or secrets. I keep my photographic approach pretty simple, but fundamentals used well lead to great photography!

 

Colors emphasizes by fluorescent lights on the station platform.

Exposure, Noise, and Other Technical Mumbo Jumbo

First, let’s get into camera settings. Though I feel that photography 90% about perception, 9% about where you stand, and 1% about camera settings, the settings are the first thing we do before going on to the other 99% of the act. So, how do we set the camera optimally for night street photography? Well, it’s not much different from daytime (at least the way I do it) but the night leaves a bit less room for error. First, I generally always shoot in Aperture Priority (if you prefer Manual, that can work too, but that’s a discussion for another day). The reason is that it leaves the metering, that is, the selection of exposure, up to the camera but allows me control of the aperture, which is very important for two reasons: 1) it affects depth of field, and I want to be in charge of that, and 2) it allows me to let in more or less light depending in the situation.

First, a bit about metering modes. Generally, all cameras let you choose between an average metering, spot metering, and some options in between. At night, I highly recommend avoiding spot metering, and in my experience the wide/average/matrix (every camera calls it something else) metering modes are much more reliable. The reason for this is that at night in the city there are many extreme changes in the brightness of subjects, such as spotlights, car headlights, deep shadows, etc. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to land the spot on one of these things and get an exposure that’s way off from what you intended.

Having said that, even on the average metering mode, the camera can be thrown for a loop by those aforementioned bright or dark spots in a given scene. It’s important to learn how your camera ‘thinks.’ Well, the first thing to realize is that it doesn’t think at all, it’s actually quite dumb. There is no fancy AI predicting how to expose a scene. The camera just wants to end up with an average brightness that equals a certain preset value. So, you can try to predict how it will behave. If you point it at a scene that’s mostly very dark, the camera is likely to overexpose (and vice versa for very bright subjects).

A scene with a lot of dark areas—it was necessary to tell the camera to underexpose by 2 stops (exposure compensation set to -2). In the end, I set the exposure fully to manual for the sake of consistency.

To deal with this, we use Exposure Compensation, which is a setting often denoted by a little +/- icon. If we set the exposure to say +1, then the camera will set the exposure one stop brighter (one stop being always a factor of 2). Same goes if we set it to -1, but in the other direction. The camera will use any settings that have been left on auto to achieve this, and in the case of Aperture Priority, this means it will use the shutter speed (and ISO, if it is also on Auto). So, the gist of it is, if you are photographing in a place that’s extra dark, it might be good to set the compensation to a negative value, such as -.7 or even -1 to ensure the camera does not erroneously overexpose the scene. This is good to do pre-emptively since in street photography second chances are rare.

So, to recap: we are in Aperture Priority, with an average metering, and using exposure compensation when needed. Next, of course we need to set the aperture. I would choose a pretty wide aperture to let in plenty of light, but this does not mean we are constantly shooting at f/1.4. Of course, this is an option, but I regularly adjust my aperture between the max at going as small as f/4 in situation when there is plenty of light and not much motion. It also depends on how much Depth of Field I need, as aperture is one thing that affects how much will be in focus (the other two being focus distance, and focal length).

Deliberately slowing down the shutter speed to 1/30 of second in order to get the blurred lights in the background during a panning shot.

Speaking of motion, once we’ve set our aperture, the camera will choose a shutter speed to match (based on how it meters the scene). Generally, if we want to ‘freeze the action’ when photographing moving people (that is, getting little to no motion blur) I would recommend a shutter speed of at the very least 1/125 but more often 1/250 and as high as 1/500 in some special cases. But, since I recommended Aperture Priority, how can we control our shutter speed? Well, now we have to also talk about ISO. In addition to Aperture Priority, I also recommend using Auto ISO. This is because most cameras these days allow you to set a minimum shutter speed along with a max ISO. This is the crucial piece of the puzzle that will let us keep our shutter as fast as we want. I don’t want to get too much into the particulars of the settings on each and every camera, but the setting has the following names on the four most common maker’s cameras (and the Ricoh GR because it’s a great street photography camera which I often use):

  • Nikon: ISO Sensitivity Settings

  • Canon: ISO Speed Settings

  • Sony:  ISO Auto Min. SS

  • Fuji: ISO Auto Setting

  • Ricoh GR: ISO Auto-Hi Setting

To um it all up, here are my specific recommendations (settings that I use 99% of the time): Aperture mode, wide/area/matrix metering, max ISO set to 6400, min shutter speed set to 1/250. And that’s it.

Now, one last thing before leaving the topic of technical settings, I just want to mention noise reduction. I always have it turned off in the camera. Noise reduction reduces noise, but it also reduces details/sharpness, and this is something I don’t want. I also always shoot in raw format, so I can edit my photos easily in post. If necessary, I might add some noise reduction at this point. But even this is very rare for me. Noise is okay—embrace the noise.

 

Using a large, soft light source: the light coming from the storefront beautifully illuminated the passersby on the street.

Follow the Light

This single most important thing for shooting street photography at night is being very aware of light sources, their direction, intensity, and general ‘quality.’ Honestly, as I write this, I think this holds true in the daytime as well. But the difference is that at night, over the course of a short walk down a busy urban street the quality of the light might change dramatically multiple times, something that is a bit less likely during the day (for example, when it’s overcast). There is certainly ‘bad’ light at night, although I try to avoid making excuses like ‘the light is no good’ because I do feel that a good photo can be wrestled out of any kind of light. But why make it hard for yourself? Stick to places that have ‘good’ light.

So, what is good light? I try to look for light sources that give depth to my image. I want contrast, that is gradations from light to dark. In painting this is called ‘chiaroscuro.’ The dictionary defines it as ‘the treatment of light and shade in drawing and painting.’ Wikipedia describes it as ‘the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition.’

Essentially, I want my subject to be illuminated unevenly—I want light here, and shadow there. This gives the photo depth, a 3D ‘pop’ that helps draw the eye into the frame. If you want to avoid overly harsh shadow and stark contrasts, soft light sources are better. To this end, I seek out directional light sources that are large, and therefore soft. Shop windows with lit up displays are great for this. On the other hand, if I want very strong contrast, I might shoot a ‘backlit’ subject, where the light source is behind them, resulting in a silhouette in the most extreme cases. This can also have dramatic results in regard to the distribution of lights and darks, giving the image a more compressed or ‘flat’ look while still being visually engaging.

 

Different kinds of light sources combine for an interesting color-scape. The white balance was adjusted in post in this case, but it could have been done in camera.

Colors and White Balance

Still on the topic of light sources, it’s important to know that artificial lights often add a bit (or a lot) of color. This is because most artificial lights are not purely white. Incandescent lights cast a warm color, while fluorescent lights cast green tones. You should use these different colors to your advantage, emphasizing them to create visually interesting scenes. And this brings us to White Balance. First, I should say, that I typically don’t mess with White Balance while I’m out shooting, because as mentioned before, I shoot in raw, and I can simply change the while balance in post. I always feel that the less I’m messing with camera settings the better, so I can focus on perceiving the street. I just leave it on Auto.

Having said that, when I was learning the basics, I experimented with White Balance all the time! This let me get an intuition for the (sometimes subtle) colors of the nighttime in a city. So, it’s definitely fun to try out different settings at night (and it’s a must if you’re shooting in JPG). I recommend trying out Incandescent/Tungsten (some cameras use one name, some use the other, but it’s same thing) for a cooling effect on most colors in the photos, while leaving reds mostly untouched, allowing them to ‘pop’ more. I also recommend trying out the Fluorescent White Balance setting (many cameras have a few of these) to give images a slight magenta tint, while also turning some lights a bit greener.

In any case, colors are certainly your friend when doing street photography at night!

 

Plenty of sharp details on which to focus, such as the slide structure, or the fallen warrior. This photo was manually focused, but these details were still the main target of focus.

One More Thing Regarding Light: Focusing

Though cameras as getting better and better these days, something that is still a common problem is autofocus in low light conditions. Cameras generally use one of two methods to find focus, ‘phase detection’ or ‘contrast detection.’ Some use a combination of both systems. I won’t go into the nitty gritty details of these autofocus systems, but some basic awareness of them is important, so you can better strategize what to focus on. Really, really basically, in both cases the camera will be able to focus more quickly and more accurately if there are some ‘contrasty’ details for it to examine. So, try to be selective about where you focus. For example, if your subject is wearing a striped shirt, that’s an easy target for the autofocus system. Faces, of course, are a common target but not always, in which case you can look for other objects that have plenty of contrast.

A caveat for SLR users: SLR cameras tend to focus much better/faster when not using the live view. This is because on live view they use the aforementioned contrast detection, which is generally less quick, while normally they use phase detection, which is much faster in most cases. Mirrorless cameras are always in ‘live view mode’ so you don’t have a choice there, but they are made to be used in this mode so the autofocus should be pretty fast and accurate in most cases.

Briefly touching on focus modes, I much prefer to use a single point focus set to the center so that I always know where the camera will focus. I don’t like to let it choose for me (this goes for daytime and nighttime) but I do like to use tracking if it’s available. I shoot with a Ricoh GR II, which does not have any good tracking features, and a Nikon D4, which has an excellent tracking function called 3D Tracking. Finally, manual focus is a very viable option for street photography but that’s a very in-depth topic (which I have covered before).

 

A bit of motion blur introduced into a scene, something easy to do at night due to the low light conditions.

Night Street Photography Motifs

We’ve already covered a few useful motifs (silhouettes, directional light sources, creative use of color) for night street photography. Another one that I find really compelling at night is the use of reflections to create layered images. Of course, this idea is not limited to nighttime, but it works very well at night since reflections don’t get ‘washed out’ as easily night as they do by ambient daylight. Try to search for glass surfaces that do not have much light directly on them. This will help them act more like a mirror. By also finding places where there is something interesting behind the glass, you can use this to create multilayered photos that have a dreamlike quality. Similarly, metal surfaces can reflect and distort light source in surprising and unusual ways, so keep an eye out for such surfaces as well.

Rain creates reflective surfaces and emphasizes colors at night.

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Getting Over the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Ratio

There is a wealth of information on the internet about composition—endless blog posts about visual rules, geometrical concepts, and photos with all kinds of lines and shapes drawn over them to the prove the point. But all of this information focuses on the ‘what’ of composition rather than the ‘why.’ A photographer must stop and ask themselves: ‘why even bother following visual rules?’

Disclaimer: Should You Even Read All This?

First, a brief note on who this article is meant for… If you’re already well-versed in photography and have strong ideas about composition, then you might see my ideas and start having a debate in your head with me, calling me all sorts of names. And that’s okay! So, if you’re still interested in then what you’ll find is a compilation (of sorts) of concepts that I’ve picked up here and there throughout the years. I’ve filtered and digested them in my brain until I’m sharing them with you now. And so, the only ‘authority’ from which I state my ideas is my own. I do hope to shake up how you think about composition. If that sounds interesting you, please read on!

 

Diagonal lines convey a sense of motion, sympathizing with the actual motion of the woman and her yellow dress flowing through the air.

Doing Away with Abstract Geometric Concepts

Geometric ideas like the ‘rule’ of thirds, golden ratio, and others I won’t list here, are merely arbitrary concepts. Yes, the golden ratio is a mathematical construct, and it appears sometimes in nature. But more often than not examples of the golden ratio, such as galaxies and snail shells, are not in fact the golden ratio but rather one of many other mathematical ratios. The point is that in the end, it’s just about numbers and shapes, and bears no real meaning or emotional content. And in any case, who goes out there with a ruler and compass, measuring out ratios while composing their shots? Anyone? It’s only something we can do after the fact, and then go ‘ah yes, you see how the golden ratio is present in this image?’ It’s similar to the English major over-analyzing literary prose. Patterns can be found anywhere if you have the time to look for hours at a still image. But how do these abstractions help us when we are actually shooting in the field? They don’t.

Now, there certainly are simpler and more readily ‘functional’ concepts out there, the most famous one being the rule of thirds. Honestly, is a ‘suggestion’ of thirds at best… definitely not a ‘rule’ of any sort. Though easily applied in the moment, it’s even more arbitrary than mathematical ratios. Why thirds? Why not fourths, or fifths, or sixteenths? It’s a concept that can be used but when used for its own sake it misses the point (but more on that later). In the end, it’s a mere shortcut that works some of the time. But why does it work when it does? First some basic concepts…

 

An extreme case of ‘tension’ and ‘isolation’ induced by the narrow space and the subject’s position close to the edge of the frame. This is intended to give a feeling of being ‘trapped,’ as a Tokyo office worker might feel.

Now Some Composition Basics, and I Mean Really Basic

I’m sorry, I just bashed abstract concepts and now I’m going to expound abstract concepts. Don’t get me wrong, some abstraction and conceptual rules are unavoidable, in particular when discussing composition and framing. However, these concepts should be grounded in the frame of a camera as well as in the human perception of images—more psychology than mathematics. With that in mind, the most fundamental concept of composition (in my opinion, so if you disagree, that’s okay) is very simply put as ‘less is more.’

About as simple as an image can get.

One can’t help but look at the circle.

What I mean by this is that the simpler a photo is, the more impact is given to the elements that remain in the frame. The simplest image would be a single color, full frame. Bam… you know exactly what to look at it. It might be boring, but the visual focus is 100% clear to the viewer. Now add something right in the middle of the frame, perhaps a red circle, smack-dab-in-the-middle. Again, simplicity leads to a perfectly clear understanding of where the eye should rest. Almost anyone presented with the image described above would look immediately at the red circle. This is obvious.

There is one other place in the frame that might have nearly as much impact as the center—the extreme edge, and especially the corners. If we place a circle half-in and half-out of the frame, anywhere along the edge, this circle will very strongly draw the eye’s attention. There is something about ‘leaving’ the frame that is a bit eye-catching, like an itch that wants scratching. It induces… tension.

A bit uncomfortable here.

Ah, much better… a sweet spot.

I’ll explain tension in more detail later, but for now, know that one way to introduce ‘tension’ is to put subjects away from the center and towards the edge, especially the corners. And this is why the rule of thirds often works. Those places in the frame where the third lines intersect happen to be at a ‘sweet spot’ between the center and the corners. But there is nothing special about that spot. And it’s only one way of many to introduce ‘tension’ into a photograph (but more tension later).

So, in short, simpler images are easier to view. As the creator of the image, we can more accurately predict where the viewer will look. The viewer also has a better idea, or at least a more immediate idea, of what the photo is about. Consider a photo with a single person dead center, vs a photo of a many people scattered throughout the frame. Now, this does not mean that simpler photos are always better (take a look at the fantastic work of Alex Webb for an example of exquisite complexity in the frame). It just means, that when creating complex photos, we have to be careful in how we arrange the various subjects in the frame. To this end, simplicity is a very good starting point.

 

Isolation in a frame of static and dynamic lines.

Isolation and tension far in the corner.

The Story Comes First and Composition Should Serve the Story

Alright, so with that most basic idea out of the way, let’s actually get to the real thrust of this article: the ‘why’ of composition. Composition does not exist purely for itself (at least in most photographic genres). How the photographer composes the frame ought to always be subordinate to the narrative intention of the photographer. I say ‘ought’ because often this is not the case. Photographs can fail when arbitrary rules are applied to the composition without any though given to their meaning.

For example, a common ‘rule’ that is followed without question is having the horizon level. A tilted horizon is blasphemy! It goes against everything sacrosanct in photography, and spirit levels everywhere shudder at the thought of a tilted horizon. Yet, we do not ask ‘why’. A level horizon affords the photo stability, a static nature. On the other hand, a tilted horizon can imbue the image with dynamism. Neither is good or bad. Both concepts can be considered when telling your story (and there are other ways to imbue a photo with these characteristics). If we want to portray a mountain as monolithic, immovable, and eternal, then perhaps it should be framed perfectly level (and probably dead in the center). Yet, if our goal is to convey the chaotic motion of a city and give the viewer a sense that the camera itself is moving, then an angled frame can achieve that. Our narrative intent is what should drive our choices when it comes to composition.

 

Chromatic tension synergized with spatial tension.

Composition with the Story in Mind

So, now let’s get into some composition concepts that we can use to help support our intended narrative or feeling for the photograph. The first concept to consider is isolation. Keeping a subject separated from all other objects in the frame can bring attention to the subject, it can also underscore that the subject is strong, weak, big, small, unique, aloof, or any number of other feelings that might be pertinent to the scene at hand. Subjects can be isolated by being placed on neutral backgrounds (a visual concept called ‘figure to ground’) but they can also be isolated using distance in the frame, going even to the extreme of placing the subject in the very corner of the frame. Finally, emphasizing the difference in size of objects in the frame can also evoke a sense of isolation or separation between them.

More static…

More dynamic…

Another narrative concept, which I touched on above, is the ideas that objects in the frame can be static or dynamic. There are a number of ways than an image can appear to be either static or dynamic. Static images tend to have symmetry, straight lines going horizontally or vertically through the frame, and generally ‘squared’ up with the frame itself. Dynamic images, that is images that convey a sense of motion, can be achieved by implementing diagonal lines, or lines that lead the eye ‘into’ the frame (this being an illusion, since the image is, of course, a flat, 2-dimensional surface on which forms are projected). The short of it is that certain compositions evoke a sense of motion or energy (dynamic images), while others evoke a sense of stability (static images). It’s up to the photographer to decide which one is effective in a given context.

Isolation through position and size.

Tension through proximity.

As I already mentioned above, we also have..

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Episode 2 - Long Exposure Compositing - YouTube

So, I turns out I’ve been long dormant on my own personal blog. It’s not that I’m not busy—EYExplore, the company which I have been running for the past 4 years, has been growing and maturing steadily. Our photography workshops have multiplied and improved. And we have taken on a few auteur photographers to create unique and personal photo adventures for our clients. Finally, we have expanded to our first overseas location: London! How exciting!

However, on my personal front, I’ve let the ideas for essays and tutorials for this blog simply pile up. It’s my goal to start publishing them here. The next one is nearing completion and will appear here very soon. I never planned to blog on a regular basis, but when ideas appear, I should write them up and share them here. And that is something I have been neglecting. This blog is meant in a way to be my own personal meditation on photographer—perhaps more so than a set of prescriptions for others, the musings on this blog are reminders for myself.

Anyway, for now, I want to show the second photo editing tutorial video I created for the EYExplore YouTube channel. Please enjoy and feel free to ask any questions in the comments here or on the video page.

More to come soon!

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A couple months ago I made my first video tutorial about how I edit my street photographs. I get lots of questions on this topic so it's my pleasure to finally share my process with those who are interested. This is the first video and, though I've put it off for a while, there are mot to come!

Check it out on the EYExplore YouTube channel.

Photo Editing Episode 1 - Basics & Street Photography - YouTube
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