Photoessay: Recurring theme

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I was recently re-curating my set of work from Germany in late last year, when I found something I hadn’t previously noticed: this recurring theme of looking upwards (slightly, or a lot) at a building’s edge with a symmetrical midline and a graphically 3D left-right split formed of textures and light. I didn’t intentionally go out of my way to shoot any of these, nor did I have an intentional theme beyond whatever was already sitting in my subconscious – and being eleven out of 200 or so final images, is easily not noticed especially if not sequential – but somehow this compositional layout kept popping up. I have been having the nagging feeling of late that there are only a certain fixed number of compositional layouts for any given angle of view/focal length, and effetely all compositions shot with that can be distilled into one of these categories. I don’t have any concrete way of describing this yet, but I’ll put up a post once I do. As for this particular layout – my guess is there’s something about the converging lines that creates tension and draws your eyes into the centre of the image; the symmetry provides inherent balance which remains calm and aesthetically pleasing. Beyond that, microtextures in the subject itself leave points of interest to hold your attention and reward further viewing. Enjoy! MT

This series was shot with a Nikon Z7, the Z 24-70/4 S and my custom SOOC picture controls.

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  1. I do it differently. Where 2 sides of a building are visible, I strive for an asymmetric composition. The main vertical axis is placed to one side, often following the rule of thirds. More emphasis is given to one side of the building, usually the one that is better lit. I find this method of composition makes the image look more dynamic. As with your photos, the main vertical axis has to be dead vertical. To me, there is something unsettling about an image of the building when the main vertical axis is slightly askew. Perhaps it is to do with our inbuilt expectations of a building’s stability.

    • Depends if you want to emphasise dimensionality/depth or leave something to the imagination – for the former, you need less shadow and more light; the latter is the opposite. Not every composition works 50-50 or 1/3-2/3, it also depends on the shape and area of the lit/unlit faces to some degree. I agree with the main vertical axis being vertical – our eyes see convergence, but they also correct for skew (hence the need for straightness, but not keystoning).

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Thi dichotomy of views is entering into the minefield of “rules” of composition. Treated as “suggestions” or “principles”, they are helpful – especially for a person who has just started. But after a while, we realise there’s no absolute “rule”. And in fact if we don’t keep experimenting and trying something “different”, we run a very serious risk of becoming stale and boring.

  2. What are all the concrete boxes in shot 7?

  3. François Chambon says:

    Hi Ming

    I keep following you since a while, roughly 5 years and your articles and work are overall of interest to me.

    I own a Nikon D750 and I am interested in the d850. Did you ever do a full revier of this DSLR?

    Thanks and best regards.

    Bien à vous.

    François Chambon

    • No, sorry, I didn’t for several reasons – I was under contract with Hasselblad at the time, and I honestly didn’t have the free time or desire to deal with the inevitable torrent of fanboys and questions. In short – it’s probably the best DSLR they’ve ever made, but in practical shooting, for what I do, the Z7 has a much bigger envelope (and the Z6 even larger still, if you don’t need the resolution). Both of those we’ve reviewed here and here.

  4. Most pleasing. Beats the hell out of stretching all the vertical lines parallel to create broccoli buildings. Everything that rises should converge. Mostly.

    • That was oddly popular here about 20 years ago – you’d see a 30 story apartment building with a normal house peaked roof…or worse, a miniature Parthenon. Who knows what they were thinking.

  5. Nothing wrong with looking up – ever. I think it helps keeping the mind on the positive. So do bubbles! I wish you and everyone health and well-being. Thank you for your posts and photographs.

  6. Sandro Grundmann says:

    greetings from Berlin 🙂 Thx for sharing your impressions of our city.

  7. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Well, call me nuts – and it hasn’t followed through, it was simply something I felt while the “cover” shot was on my screen and I was reading your introduction/explanation. But it savoured of optical illusion – the shaded area seemed smaller than the bright area, so even though you split it in the middle, it emanated that “comfortable feeling” that you get when you divide the image into a one-third/two-thirds appointment. Looking upwards was a dramatic addition!

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