In the past, I’ve written about the importance of conscious exclusion in the process of composition: you don’t want to confuse your audience by including elements that are irrelevant or worse, distracting and visually stronger than the main subject. As we know, the very act of composition itself is one of both cropping and curation: we are choosing what not to show as much as what to show, based on our own preferences and biases. How we structure the rest of the composition around that is very much up to us, and of course the intended story or message of the image. But where do we end things – and in what situations is a little trimming necessary? How can we achieve a clean frame and a clean idea?
This may seem like nitpicking, but I assure it isn’t. There is a fundamental difference between trimming and cropping; I had a lengthy email discussion with a reader recently on exactly why it makes a difference – both compositionally and conceptually. There’s a third ground too, which is very much intention-driven – and unlike situations that require attorneys, photographic/creative intention is much easier to prove.
Regular readers will know that I’ve distilled down four common traits of a strong image: quality of light, clarity of subject, balance of composition and ‘the idea’. The first is very simple: does the light present the subject in a flattering way or as you would desire? Is it directional (i.e. are there shadows) so that it’s possible to determine spatial layout of the scene? The last two require some practice, and the final one is really an never-ending quest for every photographer because there is no limit to the complexity of message that can be conveyed. Today, we will look at the easiest yet most commonly overlooked one of the four: subject isolation.
My eyes, my eyes! I had to work quite hard to make this as a) I don’t own any of those filter programs and b) I don’t do this kind of hyper toned, overlapping HDR. The actual, final version of this image is at the end of the article.
Note: I’m reposting this article as a refresher before I talk about something a little harder to define in the next one.
HDR/ High Dynamic Range photography is perhaps one of the greatest blessings and curses of the digital age of imaging. On one hand, we have retina-searing rubbish that’s put out by people who for some odd reason celebrate the unnaturalness of the images, encouraged by the companies who make the filters that make doing this kind of thing too easy – and on the other hand, there are a lot of HDR images out there that you probably wouldn’t have pegged as being anything other than natural. There is, of course, a way to do it right, and a way to do it wrong. I use HDR techniques in almost all of my images – I live in the tropics, remember, and noon contrast can exceed 16 stops from deep shadows to extreme highlights – we simply have no choice if you want to produce a natural-looking scene.
Part two: get creative (continued from part one)
The camera companies and retailers are going to hate me for writing this, because it’s not going to sell any more equipment. If you were hoping for a quick solution that involves a credit card, I’m sorry too – there is no substitute to better photographs other than hard work. But this doesn’t mean it can’t be fun or creatively liberating – after all, isn’t that one of the key reasons we shoot at all?
And now, for something a little different. We all fall into creative ruts occasionally, and we can all benefit from a little reboot from time to time. Think of it as the closest we’re going to get to a creative diet plan of sorts. It doesn’t involve more fibre, or workouts, or stairs, or eating things that might look healthy but taste terrible. I promise not to make you develop your own film, though you certainly can if you want. Read on if you want to tighten your photo-chops.
A couple of days ago, we looked at the inexact science of color and emotion: I don’t think anybody is going to argue that the mood and feeling of an image is influenced heavily by the dominant color palette, both in terms of the color of incident/reflected light and the color of the subject elements themselves. But how does this translate to black and white images? Obviously, it’s very possible to do since not every monochrome image feels the same. Even within the same sort of general lighting – say low key – it’s possible to produce variations in mood. How?
This article continues from a discourse of why a tripod is the most underrated piece of photographic equipment.
There is a lot of obsession online over whether camera and lens A is better than camera and lens B – forgetting entirely that the creative vision and shot discipline of the photographer using the equipment is not just a great equaliser, but can very well turn the tables entirely. Tripods and heads are one of the very few areas in which this is not actually true – i.e. better equipment is better equipment and there are no equalisers – and are almost completely ignored. No amount of creativity or technique can make up for a poor tripod, but poor technique can certainly spoil a good tripod.
Chances are, a tripod is actually one of the first bits of gear you got at the start of your photographic journey: they’re usually given away free with DSLR ‘kits’ as ‘value added’ freebies (you’re actually charged for them, of course). Like most people, you probably even carried it with you on every photographic excursion for a while, and then eventually got lazy or frustrated with it and gave up. At that point, you probably also wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between a good tripod and head and a poor one. I’m fully guilty of this, of course. I even bought my tripod – a relatively cheap Velbon thing for all of about $60 that included a head, and was light and relatively small but tall enough to be reasonably ergonomic and not induce too much back pain – jackpot! Of course, I would later learn that the only thing that’s worse than no tripod at all is a bad tripod.
With the previous article on HDR, the zone system and dynamic range as background, I can now explain exactly what my B&W discovery was: it’s mostly to do with the highlights, but only in certain areas. And to make things more confusing, creating a natural-looking – perhaps even filmic image – required me to take processing steps that were both highly counterintuitive, but also go against everything else I’ve done and used successfully in the past. Read on if you dare; I can’t promise enlightenment, but I can certainly try for insight.