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A photographic journey of discovery.
I went on a photo shoot with a friend the other day and we started talking about composition. She asked me how I decide which composition is best when I have a series of photos of the same scene.
It was a difficult question to answer. I don’t claim to be a professional artist or photographer, but I’m always happy to share whatever little knowledge I have. When it comes to composition, I think I have spent a lifetime looking at great images – both paintings and photographs – and have acquired some sort of instinct about what I like. That doesn’t mean I always hit the nail on the head, it just means that I will gravitate toward compositions with certain basic elements. If I have multiple versions of a photo that are similar in composition, I will trust my initial instincts to pick the top few, then look closely at the details to decide what I like best.
As I was looking for some examples I found one scene I shot a number of years ago that has remained a perennial favorite of mine. Here is the scene I shot, starting with the first image I took. It was nice, but didn't quite match what I thought I saw.
Trees in SnowI spotted these trees on a snowy day and knew there was something about them I really liked, so I stopped to take some pictures. This is the first one I took, unedited. Trees converging in snow.This is the second image I shot, unedited. Notice the converging line in the composition? By simply moving left a few steps, I created a much more pleasing image.
In the second image (above), I moved a few steps and captured the composition I liked, but the final image still wasn't there.
Black and white trees in snow.The composition was there, but the image still wasn't what I was seeing in my mind's eye. I edited it into a black and white image and increased the highlights to help the white blow out a bit. This is what I saw in my mind's eye that the camera did not capture.
The final image (above) is the result of converting to black and white and editing. When I post that final image I get lots of "likes" on my fan page, so I know that it resonates with others as well. This image was shot well before I really had any idea what I was doing in digital photography. In fact, I believe the original image is a jpeg, not shot in RAW. I barely understood Lightroom and I certainly hadn't given a lot of thought to composition. It was just obvious to me which was the most pleasing image.
I believe it is the leading line + the asymmetrical rows + the high contrast. What do you think?
When it comes to abstracts, which are a new area of interest for me, I am still learning what I like. Here’s an image I composited and liked, but then I flipped it to portrait orientation and liked it much better.
There are plenty of books and basic courses on composition. This article has some good basics on composition with great examples. I suggest you do a search on YouTube for "composition basics" or "golden ratio in composition". There are dozens of tutorial videos available.
If you use Lightroom, there is a cropping tool overlay guide that will enable you to actually look at your images with these compositions in mind.
Be sure you are in Develop mode and have the Crop Guide on:
I don't pretend to be a great photographer or teacher, but since I have friends who ask me these types of questions, I'm happy to share the little bits of knowledge I have picked up. To learn more about Lightroom, I highly recommend these terrific resources:
Here’s a quick tip. Have you always wondered how photographers got that beautiful starburst effect in night shots and sunsets?
It’s simply shooting at f16. The basic explanation is that the aperture blades filter the light when you close down to a small aperture opening. Most lenses are sharpest in the f8 - f11 "sweet spot" range, so going beyond f16 to get a starburst may result in images that are a little less crisp than you want. So, if you’re shooting a sunset and you want to get those extra rays, set your camera to “aperture” priority, f16, and adjust accordingly.
We have had such miserable weather here lately, I have resorted to editing old images just to keep thinking about photography. I have shot a few things inside, that I don’t really like, so when the sun popped out on Christmas Eve I bolted out the door, camera in hand.
We have thousands of birds that overwinter in our valley, and I’m always looking for that elusive shot that captures the way I feel when I see them. As I’ve stated previously, I’m not a wildlife photographer, so capturing images of birds is outside my comfort zone. I don’t go on autopilot when I see a field of birds. I have to stop and think about what settings I want on my camera, what lens to use, whether or not to set up a tripod, etc. That’s not how I shoot when I am in a garden. I am on autopilot with my macro lens. I hardly think – I just act.
With the birds, it’s important to be aware of one’s impact. They are here to feed and get fat so they can make the long trek back to their summer homes. It’s important not to stress or disturb them.
Fortunately, I found a great gathering in a potato field next to a farm road. I drive a hybrid car, so when it goes into ‘stealth’ mode, it’s very quiet. I was able to pull over and let the birds get used to my presence before I stepped out of the car to take pictures.
It was great fun for me to try and capture the essence of what I could see and hear. The trumpeter swans are noisy, and the mallards in the field were jumpy and would take off in a heartbeat.
I stayed for about an hour, just trying to catch one or two good shots. I did finally get more comfortable with my camera, but just as I was relaxing into the shoot, a local farmer drove up to chat. He was a charming older gentleman who lived across the street from where I was shooting. We chatted for a while and he told me a funny story about being a kid and deciding he needed an ice cream cone, so he drove his tractor into our town.
This kind of spontaneous chat is one of the best things about living in a rural area. It’s also outside my comfort zone. I’m glad that I seem approachable enough to invite a chat. It happens a lot. But, as an introvert, I’m rarely going to initiate the conversation.
What’s my point? Sometimes you need to just step outside your comfort zone to crack open your creativity again. Go someplace different. Shoot alongside people you barely know. Shoot a subject that’s atypical for you. Take your camera off automatic and try it on manual or aperture priority. Whatever it is that holds you back – step up and try it. Maybe you’ll succeed. Maybe you will learn something new and valuable. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll make a new friend.
Getting the Whole Picture
A couple of weeks ago I took a two-day course from award-winning landscape photographer Tom Mangelsen. Because we were a studio audience for a live broadcast, some of the course was pre-shot in the field with Tom.
The pre-shot footage was interesting, but more interesting to me were the audience reactions to that footage. In the footage Tom takes a handful of students out into the landscape and assists them in getting the types of photos he likes to take – magnificent vistas with wildlife in their natural habitat. Not only was he able to describe to the students what animal behavior they would observe, but he taught them something about predictive observation by knowing their subject. He could tell them, for instance, when a male elk was likely to stand up and move based on where the females were. These insights were a revelation to the audience. People were genuinely surprised at the things he was thinking about when shooting.
It was obvious from his running monologue that he is deeply knowledgeable about his subject matter – and he sees the whole picture. Tom’s big on framing within camera, and not doing a lot of post production editing. Knowing one’s subject and being able to anticipate movement is a huge advantage for him.
I am completely on board with this approach. Who wants to spend a lot of time at the computer, editing? It’s the act of shooting pictures that is more fun.
Another thing Tom was able to do while shooting was talk through his ideas regarding what fstop, ISO and shutter speed he was using and why. He also made mistakes and talked about those. Sometimes when you are in the heat of a particularly photogenic moment, it’s pretty easy to make mistakes. I’ve certainly done it myself. Those are precious learning moments. You may not get the shot you wanted, but you won’t miss it the next time! And if you are observant, there really will be a next time.
One shot I get asked about a lot is this image of a California poppy with light streaming through the stem. When I have it displayed at shows I often hear people say “That was definitely ‘shopped!” – meaning they believe the image was Photoshopped. My response – “if I could use Photoshop that well, I wouldn’t need to take pictures!” Seriously, though, like Tom, except for certain images, I rarely touch a photo in Photoshop. I find Photoshop challenging to use, so I avoid it most of the time. I do some basic optimization in Lightroom and call it good for most things. California PoppyClose-up of a California poppy with sunlight streaming through its translucent stem.
But back to this poppy. This is an instance of composing in camera and getting the shot. I was actually on location to shoot bamboo, as this place had a wide variety of bamboo stands. And I did shoot some images of the bamboo, but they weren’t working for me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a bright spot of color – and small patch of poppies in the sun. I resisted at first, thinking I was really there to shoot bamboo, but, fortunately, realized this was an opportunity I ought to pursue. I walked over to the sunny patch of poppies blowing in the gentle breeze and I started shooting. I took my eye away from the viewfinder and saw there was a patch of brilliant pink flowers behind the poppies. I knew if I could find the right poppy and get myself into position, I could have an unusual and bright background. And this image is the result.
I have a number of other images in the series that are just fine. This one stands out because of that unusual background – and it’s likely the background that makes people think I did something in Photoshop. I didn’t. This is how the image looked through my viewfinder. I just looked for the whole picture. Sure, I could have used Photoshop to remove the ghostly stem of the other poppy in the background, but I opted to let it be because for me it captures the movement and the ethereal reality of the moment. Some people might prefer the image without that distraction. That's okay by me - everyone is entitled to their opinion, and to capture the image they see.
So, that’s my simple tip for improving your own photography. Don’t just look at your subject matter. Look at the background. Decide if you want that background in focus (if so, shoot at a higher depth of field, such as f8, f11, f16). If you want the background blurry behind your subject, shoot at a shallower depth of field f2.8, f4, even f5.6. If you don’t know the difference, shoot the same image in sequence – go from one extreme fstop to the other and then look at the difference in the images. The more you do this, the more you will begin to understand how to get the image you want to capture, whether you are shooting a landscape, a portrait, or a macro shot of an insect.
What do you look for when you shoot an image? Are you seeing the whole picture?
How Other Photographers Inspire Me
In my last post I talked about how I am in continuous learning mode when it comes to photography. While online courses and self-paced learning are great ways to get specific techniques down, I find it even more valuable to either attend workshops or go out shooting with other photographers.
I have spent the past two days at a CreativeLive.com workshop in the audience (very different from watching online, where you can easily get distracted or walk away). My fellow photographer and friend Kamriell Welty has an abiding passion for wildlife photography, so she invited me to join her in the class being taught by one of her favorite wildlife photographers, the legendary Tom Mangelsen. I jumped at the chance – both for the opportunity to spend time with Kami, talking about photography, and to learn from Tom.
I don’t aspire to be a wildlife photographer, but I live in a spectacular location where I often have the opportunity to shoot images of wildlife. Tom’s work is special because he not only shoots ‘portraits’ of wildlife, but also captures wildlife in landscapes. I knew I could learn something from the course, so why not?
So, I did not attend the course with the intention of duplicating Tom’s life or lifestyle, but simply to absorb inspiration and information from a very successful and talented photographer. And because I had that intention, I found the course fulfilled my expectations and went beyond what I had hoped to gain from it. I always think if I take one useful tip away from a workshop, it was worth it.
In this case, I had several takeaways I think are worth sharing. These are things I think everyone should keep in mind when they are working on their photography.
Snow Geese Some 30,000 snow geese over winter in the Skagit Valley of Washington state.
After two days of listening and talking to Tom, and chatting with other members of the audience, Kami and I headed home both excited and inspired. We talked about photography the entire way home. It's wonderful to share your passion with like-minded people.