The basics to photographic Composition

Much of the time the photographers I meet and talk to really have only one interest in photography and that is to discuss equipment.  Nowadays, especially, they are very excited about the newest products.  Photographers should be building a selection of equipment that will allow them to do photography the way they like and that works effectively for the subject they want to photograph.

As much as I do like talking about cameras, lenses, and other assorted equipment, what I really like to talk about is photographs.  So, last week, when a photographer stopped by my shop with some nice enlargements, I was pleased to say the least.  We talked about how successful her photographs were at capturing the viewer’s attention, where the photos were taken, her objectives for each, the colors, and why she cropped them the way she had.  They were good photographs and looking at good photos sometimes lets you know a bit about the person who took them.  We started talking about photographic composition; not so much of the photos we were looking at, but just a general discussion.  So today I thought I’d put some thoughts down that people could think about when composing a photograph.

A person painting or drawing can truly compose an image; they have total freedom to place, arrange and alter the appearance of visual elements.  Photographers are limited by the actual physical appearance of the subject being photographed and depend on using camera position, point of view or the perspective created by different focal lengths of their lenses.  With photography we try to produce exciting, well balanced images, depending on the subject and how we want to communicate with those elements in the photograph.

What is your photograph about?  Instead of shooting right away, stop to decide which part of the scene you really want to show. Let the content determine the size and importance of the objects.   Try what I call the apple technique:  You are driving along and see an inspiring scene. Don’t just point your camera out the car window!  

1. Stop the car.

2. Get out.

3. Leave the camera in your bag.

4. Get an apple and eat it as you are looking at that inspiring scene.   Think about what you like about it. Make some choices. What would you like to say to the viewer?

5. Then get your camera and make the picture.

As you are making your basic choices and deciding on what visual elements are important think about what the famous War photographer Robert Capra, known for the intensity and immediacy of his images, said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”  Getting closer eliminates distracting objects and simplifies the contents of a picture. It reduces busy backgrounds and focuses attention to the main subject or center of interest.

Another consideration is whether to photograph horizontal or vertical.  I listened to a discussion by successful magazine photographer, Scott Bourne.  He asked the question, “When do you take the horizontal?”  His answer was, “After you take the vertical.”

A final thought is to think about important visual elements and how best to arrange them in your photograph. The Rule of Thirds – Draw imaginary lines dividing the picture area into thirds horizontally, than vertically. Important subject areas should fall on the intersections of the lines.  For example, a photograph of an old barn in a field; move your viewfinder around to see how it would look placed in the upper right intersection the each other after that. If you take the time to decide and compose, your photographs will be much more successful.

What are your thoughts and opinions?


The Importance of Depth of Field

Depth of field is defined as, “that area around the subject that is in acceptably clear focus”.   

I chanced upon a copy of a local magazine and took the time to look through its pages. I always go through magazines by first glancing at all the pictures then go back and review select articles. This particular magazine interested me because some articles were accompanied by photographs that were not in focus.  At first, I put it to poor printing, but this particular issue had a cover and several photographs in it by a friend of mine and they were sharp.

So why were some images “soft” and others as good as those we regularly get from the lab when we take our memory cards in for printing?  Modern cameras do the focusing for us and it is fairly difficult to get several images of stationary subjects that aren’t sharp.

Now I’ll go back to why I opened this column with the definition of depth of field; and why I think there are lots of photographers that are either spending time adding sharpness using PhotoShop or printing images that lack that overall sharpness. 

The problem I see happening all too much is that many photographers forget that basic concept of how depth of field works with a given lens and think “a wider aperture gives me more light therefore I can shoot with a faster shutter speed” and therefore, “I don’t need a flash or a tripod”.  Well, they are right to a point and (I’m not going to discuss at this time why I think most photos of people benefit from camera flash.) I think that photographers need to be reminded that limited depth of field comes with problems.

When I looked at those images in the magazine I thought about depth of field and how, although the lens may have been very capable of producing sharp images at F2.8, it couldn’t overcome the basic rules of depth of field.  I found there were sharp elements in the pictures, but so much was just out of the “limited area of focus” around the subject that the “softness” affected how the entire image was viewed. 

If one reads the internet forums or asks photographers what lens would be their favourite, of course they would come up with many different choices of focal length, but more often than not they would also indicate they wanted an aperture of F2.8.  The reasons given for that small aperture are either so that the photographer can “shoot in low light or so they can soften the background”.  That’s good, however, one of the purposes of the aperture is to control depth of field. The smaller the aperture the wider is that in-focus area around the subject, and the larger the aperture the narrower that in-focus area around the subject is.  Remember that means that a smaller aperture has a higher number like F16, and a larger aperture has a lower number like F4.   

I think it is a good idea for photographers to have equipment that allows different perspective. I own lenses that have apertures of F2.8 and larger, but I do not take them for granted. I select lenses and use their different apertures to create the effect on my subjects that I want. My advice? One should think about the picture about to be taken and select an aperture that works for and not against the subject.

Predictions on photography from 1974

I happened on the May 1974 issue of Photo World Magazine, that in this day of fast changing camera technology and constant predictions in online photography forums was very interesting to read. In it was an article entitled “Tomorrow’s Camera: Report from Japan.”

The magazine article first discussed what would be the “next major technological breakthrough in Japanese-manufactured SLRs…a solid-state shutter, which would make cameras less prone to jamming, ”  and praised that break through. (That, of course happened years ago.)

The article was written by Tony Chiu and went on to discuss further topics. 

On Miniaturization – “The manufacturers had misgivings about reducing the current dimensions of their SLRs because the decreasing weight reduced protection against shutter vibration.”

On Lenses – “It is conceivable that 10 years from now a compound lens may weigh more than the SLR body. (my comment – a compound lens is one that has several elements, like all of our lenses have now) Although light weight plastic lenses have long been an industry dream, there is today no major research toward their development.” (Even now one really has to spend a lot of money to get a digicam with a real glass lens, and plastic non glass lenses are the norm.) 

The article also mentioned that electronic shutter cameras “in the next decade” would be an  “expensive option available only to top-of-the-line models.”  I am amazed at the changes that have happened since 1974 that the writer of that article, or any of the rest of us, never imagined that even inexpensive cameras would have electronics as they do today?

I found the next part is really interesting. Each of the companies was asked what their cameras of the future would be.

Canon – Suichi Ando visualized a portable camera small enough “to be carried in the pocket”, and capable of using 35mm film. Such an instrument would have a “universal lens, which can be changed by the flip of the finger from microphotography to telephotography.”

Nikon – Takateru Koakimoto said that the perfect camera would be one that excludes the chance of human error: “It will be fully automatic, perhaps with a small computer to control the exposure.”  I say that he wasn’t far off in his prediction. 

Olympus – Yoshihisa Maitanni believed the ideal camera would have a universal lens and one button will wind the film, focus the picture, frame the image and make the perfect exposure.  He also thought “Images will be projected directly on to a sensitized material, fully edited, and enlarged.”

Ricoh – Tomomasu Takeshita predicted that major advances in the film industry would reduce the film size. “Within 20 years the 16mm camera will replace today’s 35mm camera.” Such an instrument, as he saw it, would be considerably smaller and simpler – it would have a one-piece plastic lens in a partial return to the “pinhole concept” as well as an “electronic crystal” shutter.”


Yashica – Nobukazu Sato’s dream was one that would not utilize film. “Just put the paper into the camera, make the exposure, pull the paper out and spray it.” Such a camera would make use of ultraviolet rays, and would also feature a universal lens and a fully automatic focusing system.  (Both Ricoh and Yashica are no longer making cameras).

The writer of the article continued on to say “Will we see such marvels in or lifetime?”

“Perhaps by the end of this century” a photographer’s choice could be  “For the amateur, a single lightweight compound lens will replace three or four of today’s standard lenses. “And price – as it is today (1974) – will remain just within reach at the upper end of your budget.”

Digital camera technology wasn’t even a dream in 1974. Yes, photographers could have their photographs printing digitally, and I remember having that done by a local printer. The paper was flimsy, but the prints were very cheap and worked fine for the underground newspaper I took pictures for. However, there was no way to take pictures only reproduce them.  I can remember one of my first full time jobs working as a photographer for the California Office of Education in 1972 I bought myself the newest and coolest Pentax camera, a Spotmatic II.  There weren’t any zoom or auto focus lenses at that time and the batteries it used aren’t even made today. Will the cameras that we think are amazing today even be around in 20 years? I wonder what the future will bring?






How about telephoto Lenses for Scenic Photography


Last summer I wrote an article entitled, “What is the Best Lens for Scenics?” in which I discussed using different focal lengths, depth of field, and the effect upon perspective, however, I left the answer as to the preferred lens for each scenic location to individual photographers. My opinion then, as now, is that it really depends on what a photographer wants to say about a particular scene. I also said that I regularly used lenses such as my 24-120, or 18-200mm, because I like lightweight lenses if I have any distance to walk. Those two lenses offer lots of focal length choices that will allow me to include only whatever I want in a picture.

I thought about these comments earlier this week as I sold my 80-400mm lens.  My discussion with the new owner was mostly about the lens’ functions; its ability to produce sharp images, and how the vibration reduction mode easily allows handholding.  What we hadn’t talked about was what he intended to photograph with his new lens. I assumed he was into wildlife photography, but as we stood in my shop talking he mentioned that he would be going on a bit of a hike this next weekend and hoped it wasn’t going to be too cold. I mentioned that the cold weather might be good because it kept the bighorn sheep down in the valley west of the city. It was then that he said, “ I am mostly into scenics”.

Many photographers are of the opinion that scenic photography is about the landscape and needs to be as much of panorama as possible, and for that purpose, select wide-angle lenses as they trudge into the wilderness. They aren’t so much interested in what elements make up the scene they capture as to what the overall view is.  However, there are those photographers like the fellow who bought my 80-400mm lens that have discovered how to build exciting scenics with telephoto lenses.

A wide-angle lens has a curved front surface allowing for a wider view. The distance between the foreground and background subjects will seem extended, and objects closer to the lens will look much bigger in relation to those in the background. Whereas, with a long-focal-length lens like the 400mm all the elements will be compressed, depth of field reduced, and in the final image no one subject in the photograph gains significance over another.

Maybe it’s the compressed effect that makes scenic photographs made with telephoto lenses sometimes stand out, and I think the photograph is more dependent on how things front to back are placed. There seems to be more subject selection, or in artistic terms, a more specific visual discussion.

I don’t believe that every scenic photograph needs to be a wide landscape. I do, however, believe that successful scenic photographs need to say something and follow the rules of composition.

Using 300mm or 400mm telephoto lenses almost demands that a photographer slows down, and thinks about what one sees through the viewfinder as the image is composed. I am not saying that one can’t do that with a wide-angle lens, only that it is harder with a tight, cropped, limiting, and enlarged view from a long-focal-length telephoto lens.

If we think that the majority of successful scenic images are those that were photographed from the most interesting view, or where one sets the camera for the most pleasing perspective, why not try the longest focal length lens available, and take the time to move the viewfinder around to fill the frame while maintaining all the rules of composition?


A Modernist’s way to a view of photography

About the time of the of the First World War the presumption of art and photography exhibitions was shattered by innovations of modern painters like Picasso and Matisse. The fundamentally realistic medium of photography did not acknowledge that photographers could produce abstract or distortions to the extent that painters could and did. A growing number of artist-photographers like Alfred Stiegletz and Edward Steichen worked at bringing photography in line with modern painting by creating abstract images and processes.   They could be said to have “rediscovered” the “sharp focus realism” deemed unartistic by the then popular “Pictorialism” movement in photography. The pioneer of this “Modernist” movement in North America was Paul Strand.

The current age of digital photography seems to have vitalized photography more than any one could have guessed even ten years ago.  Attend any event and there will be lots of cameras ranging from little point and shoots to impressive DSLR’s (digital single lens reflex) documenting everything from every angle. The internet is packed with images, with all kinds of sites available for people to stack their documents of everyday life. 

In a moment of boredom I decided to do a search for a friend who lives in the US wondering if I would find his construction company. I not only found his company advertisement, but several pages of family Christmas photos he and his wife took of either daughter or son in-laws.  I browsed the site and will have to let him that I saw his photos.  My thoughts were that this is a reasonable document of people having fun; nothing creative, just a real nice family documentary.

Photographic documentation is more prolific than it has ever been, but I began to wonder about another creative part of photography; the abstract and the unusual.  There are lots of instances of PhotoShop manipulation one can find without looking very hard, yet I wonder at the style of abstract photography practiced by the greats like Stiegletz, Steichen, and Strand.  In my opinion, they were very much involved in looking at everyday subjects from different angles or perspectives. They photographed the usual in unique ways and photographed the unusual in unusual ways. They searched out things that many would ignore because they were ugly or boring, and chose diverse photographic views and visually discussed them in interesting and unconventional ways.

I am fortunate in that I get to see peoples’ photos all the time, landscapes, some portraits of people and animals, and a few close-up flower shots. Usually they are very nice and some are downright beautiful, but I think it is unusual and rare for someone to show me an abstract created by using their camera to photograph something using a unique view.

Abstract art and abstract photography may not be to everyone’s liking and I know when we show our photographs to other people we want them to comment favourably about our pictures. But when a photographer takes a chance and tries to visualize and photograph something differently, one cannot worry about whether or not one will receive praise or criticism.  Look for the unusual, the ugly, the boring, and the unique. Then contemplate about photographing it in a way personal to you. 

And if you have the interest, take some time and find out about those pioneer photographers Stiegletz, Steichen, and Strand.  Their photography is very interesting. 

A successful off-camera hotshoe flash workshop

The following is a quote credited to George Eastman, founder of Kodak. “Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”

On Sunday 30 October, fellow photographer and friend, Rick Tolhurst and I held the first in a series of local lighting workshops we will be providing. We called it “Dawn of Light”. Yes, it is a catchy, almost meaningless title at first, but it actually fits if one applies a dictionary definition.  The word dawn means, “the first appearance of light in the sky…figurative or the beginning of a phenomenon or period of time…” so, consequently, that title works well for those trying to help photographers enter the world of using and controlling off-camera flash for the first time.

Photographers all work with their subjects differently. Some might be portraitists, some call themselves glamour photographers, there are those that do boudoir, baby, or maternity sessions, some shoot family groups, and, of course, there are those that photograph weddings. The approach may be different, however, the one thing in common is the need to use additional lighting.

As instructors, we weren’t concerned about anyone being a beginner at lighting, or having never used a flash off-camera, because, the fact that these photographers were there showed they were ready.

The discussion and action packed day began with coffee, donuts and introductions.  We had advertised, “This one-day workshop is really about one thing: using off-camera hotshoe flash with a DSLR to move your photography to the next level.  The main objective for this session is using wireless, off-camera hotshoe flashes and balancing (controlling) light with ambient lighting.”

After the morning session of instruction, questions, and demonstrations, the participants grabbed their cameras, split into teams of two or three photographers and went at it. In a large room Tolhurst and I had set up three lighting stations; the first with a shoot-through umbrella and some reflectors, the second employed an umbrella/softbox brolly and another shoot-through, and for the third we had a 24” softbox and a 40” reflector type umbrella. We also placed a beauty dish on a boom stand.  There were more light stands, umbrellas, softboxes and reflectors lying around ready for anyone who wanted them.

All the lighting equipment was fitted with wireless receivers, and all the learners needed to do was to take turns mounting senders on their cameras, and the large room became an animated, action packed scene. At this moment I stepped back to watch the enthusiastic photography students apply the information from the morning session into what can only be described as an exhilarating application. When this occurs my role is to act as a guide, an equipment mover, a resource for any questions, and the guy that congratulates successes. Tolhurst and I were busy interacting with the participants for the remainder of the day.

Many classes that are advertised as “workshops” actually are nothing more than long lectures with handouts. That works out easier for those putting on the session, as they present the subject, give demonstrations, answer questions and wait for acclamation.  Many participants are so eager and hungry for information, or are at least enthused by what seem to be prophetic words, that they leave happy, but has learning occurred? Some even return home and try to do what was presented in the “workshop”.  To me a “workshop” should be the same as those high school days when I took wood shop. I want to touch, experiment, and challenge what I just heard in the instructor’s lecture.

For this session we wanted an interactive class and that is harder, for the presenters become participants and loose the celebrity of standing in front.  However, this workshop was about participants actually learning to use off-camera flash to combine ambient and electronic lighting in order to flatter subjects instead of just brightening them up.

Judging from the smiling faces of the group, and the images seen on camera LCD screens, and the follow up emails and Facebook messages I have received since Sunday, the “Dawn of Light” lighting workshop was a strong success. To make it more successful, those that attended should review their notes, find a subject, and spend some time reinforcing what they learned using off-camera flashes.

Retirement and Photography

Within the last few months I have been meeting recent retirees who have taken up photography as a way to fill anticipated free time and add an interesting challenge to their future.

I talked to a recently retired fellow last week about an expensive new lens he had purchased as a retirement present for himself. I was as excited as he is about his new lens and thought that it was a neat way to start his retirement. When I mentioned he will have lots of time to do photography, he made me laugh at his reply, “yes, as soon as it gets warmer”, but I know a bit of cold weather isn’t going to stop him. Anytime I get something new, I can’t wait to start using it. So, even though he complained about the cold, he’ll be out this week with his new telephoto lens putting it to use no matter the temperature. I know he wants to photograph birds, but I suggested he take a drive to a nearby area photograph the Bighorn sheep just for practice. 

Baby boomers are starting to retire and many are seriously taking up photography. I heard one fellow say, “I figure with the time I have I should enjoy every day.”  He had just retired and had spent well over $20K on a camera and lenses to set himself up for wildlife photography.  For those that gasp at that level of expenditure, be aware that his recreational investment won’t be taxed every year, won’t need expensive maintenance, and will give him years of enjoyment at no real additional cost, except perhaps expenses to drive to some exciting location.

Another retired friend just downsized to a small apartment, although an avid hunter all his life, he has given up packing a rifle, and instead packs a camera with a long lens attached. He explained to me that he really likes to hunt, but the fun ended and the work started when he shot something, however now it continues after the shutter is released and I expect he enjoys the compliments others given him when he displays a great photograph. He can hunt and photograph wildlife anytime and anywhere. His story of how he snuck up on an elk herd near Jasper by quietly wading a glacier fed river, and crawling through the underbrush, for many super images of majestic elk was superb. I can imagine him wet to his waist, covered with mud and pine needles, but happy and excited with the pictures he captured. Now that’s hunting.

Modern camera technology has freed photographers from equipment and production challenges of the past.  A photographer no longer is weighed down with heavy, metal-bodied SLR (single lens reflex) cameras, and lenses. Gone is the challenge of selecting the correct film for lighting conditions, and the need to worry about storage of film for long trips. Like me, those photographers with tired, old eyes now own cameras that quickly focus by themselves with focus assist indicators for fine detail. The days of returning home from vacation with film, and waiting for days to have it processed, or worrying about how to pay for the processing are happily long gone. Photographers immediately know if they got the shot right and can delete the errors.  We have passed the “click-and-pray” days.

Want to send a picture to the grandkids? It’s laughably easy.  I remember a three-month trip across Canada that I took in the 1970s. I would shoot slides, put them in mailers, and have them sent to my home address. My house-sitting friends would then get together and have slide shows wondering where I was when the picture was made. Today I could post my pictures for friends and family with commentary on a social network, or an image-sharing site like Flickr, from my motel room or while relaxing at Starbucks.

Photography is a tailor made pastime for retirement. It is supposed to be a great time of life and what better way to capture new memories, to be creative, to remain active, and to keep that brain stimulated by working with a camera.