Composing a photograph includes eliminating the irrelevant   





Years ago the Hasselblad camera company published a series of photography pamphlets. While I had my Hasselblad I collected and studied the information contained in them.

Recently I thumbed through one titled “The Eye, The Camera, The Image”.  Although meant for medium format film cameras it’s filled with information that is still appropriate for digital camera users.

I skimmed over topics like Using the focusing hood magnifier, Colour film and colour balance, Types of exposure measurement, Double exposure and Polaroid film, all are interesting reads if one is concerned with photographic history, however, not practical or useful for those searching to be a better photographer in our modern digital age.

However the topic, “We see far to much” caught my attention and it said,

“The eye is our organ of sight. It’s lens has a focal length of about 17mm and covers a 150-degree vertical and 120 degree horizontal field; the binocular vision provided by our two eyes gives a 180-degree angular field. We seldom have any need for images encompassing so wide a field. The wealth of detail in such a field would be rendered small and insignificant when reduced to images formed in a camera when composing a photograph outdoors or elsewhere. We always need to crop our field of view.”

In my experience, most successful photographers want to “tighten up” on their composition, by that; I mean they only include those elements that add to the visual discussion of a photograph. Beginners are apt to aim with only the excitement of their subject in mind and don’t pay attention to other additional features captured by the sensor.

Photographers printing or posting their photos are surprised when they look and find a picture filled with irrelevant and disruptive items they wished they hadn’t included.

Hasselblad continues, “This elimination of irrelevance is vital. The trick often involves excluding most of what you see. Making a selection is a basic feature of all art, whether it is painting, drawing or photography. Art consists of picking out the most interesting, most illustrative, most instructive, the loveliest or most emotional components among a myriad of components in a subject.”

Photographers should train themselves to be specific with a subject, only showing the viewer what is important. How do we slow down to do this in an age of auto focus, auto aperture and rapid-fire shutter release? I have an easy answer – get a good tripod!

I know many photographers have never owned or used a tripod and some have only experienced rickety, inexpensive models. Using a sturdy, well-made tripod makes one slow down and pay attention to the subject in the viewfinder or LCD. In addition, the process of setting up the tripod and attaching a camera gives photographers time to think about composition.

I agree with Hasselblad’s contention that “we see far to much” and need to eliminate irrelevant items in our photos.

When an interesting subject is seen, stop the car and get out. Don’t be lazy and merely hunker down against the window to take the shot. Get that sturdy tripod out of the trunk; and as you do that think about, or “previsualize”, the photograph about to be made.

Set up the tripod, attach the camera and look through the viewfinder. I suggest making several shots starting from a narrow, limited view and zooming the lens out to a wide-angle view. That way there will be several choices for that picture.




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To sum up, eliminate those elements inconsequential to the picture and compose for only those items important to the final photograph, not by looking at the subject and snapping away in a hurried fashion to include everything seen in the viewfinder, and take my advice, use a tripod.

Reflections on the Medium of Photography


This morning as I sat on our front deck I could feel a warm summer like breeze. I drank my coffee, I was reading, and I mused on how much fun spring photography is.  I like to take scenic pictures anytime, whether winter, spring, summer or fall and I feel that with each season’s change comes excitement.

The night before I had been moving some books around in my overflowing photographic library, and I came across an older stack of little booklets distributed by the Hasselblad camera company, and thought I’d review one in particular entitled “Black and White Photography” by Ansel Adams.  I enjoy looking at his photography and especially reading his essays and thoughts on photography.

So as I sat enjoying my coffee it was from that booklet that I chose to read about what Ansel Adams had to say about photography, and I began to reflect on the exciting medium of photography so many of us are passionately involved in.

I don’t know about my regular readers, but I am continually composing pictures of everything, whether I have my camera or not. I see light and shadow and put subjects together mentally in a photograph thinking about what would work in my composition and what wouldn’t.  I also enjoy looking at other photographers’ work, and I thumb through books and choose websites that have photographers’ galleries. Of course that is a great way to learn, but I like looking at photographs and reading what other photographers have to say about photography.

Here is a quote I borrowed from Hasselblad’s “ Black and White Photography” booklet printed in 1980.  While discussing the Art of Photography, Adams explains, “Photography is an analytic medium. Painting is a synthetic medium (in the best sense of the term). Photography is primarily an act of discovery and recognition (based on intention, experience, function, and ego). The photographer cannot escape the world around him. The image of the lens is a dominant factor. His viewpoint, his visualization of the final image and the particular technical procedures necessary to make this visualization valid and effective – these are the essential elements of photography.”

Currently, it is an exciting time period with continual leaps being made in camera technology and both Nikon and Canon have just released spectacular new models. However, I have concern that so many photographers spend so much time talking about equipment and the acquisition of it and that they often forget to think about the photograph.  A friend that I hadn’t seen in months stopped by the other day and all he could talk about was the latest cameras and hoped he had the money to get the newest Nikon.  When I asked him if he had been out doing any interesting photography all he said was “I haven’t really had the time,” and turned the discussion back to camera equipment. I was disappointed that he was more interested in the equipment than about photography.

The latest cameras and lenses are really fun to talk about, but one needs to leave some time to talk about personal photographs made with their cameras and also find more time to actually make those photographs.

In the Hasselblad booklet Adams also discussed black and white photography, but the information on black and white printmaking isn’t applicable to current digital technology. Personally, I really enjoy converting images to black and white, and so for those that are also interested in converting their images to black and white I recommend readers try the computer program Silver EFX pro by

For those who don’t know who Ansel Adams was they should go to and Those readers curious about Hasselblad cameras should go to

I enjoy almost anything about photography. Talking about it, reading about it, looking at other photographer’s work, and of course, pointing my own camera and releasing the shutter to make my own pictures. In closing here are the words of one of Adam’s contemporaries, Edward Weston. “Photography suits the temper of this age – of active bodies and minds. It is a perfect medium for one whose mind is teeming with ideas, imagery, for a prolific worker who would be slowed down by painting or sculpting, for one who sees quickly and acts decisively, accurately.”

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Photographers talk about how wedding photography has changed.

My long time friend, and photographer, Alex Neidbala stopped by my shop. Who, until his formal retirement in 2005 owned and operated Billows Photography in Kamloops, British Columbia. 

As we talked about how we thought that changes in photography might affect the photographic art in the upcoming exhibition he had agreed to be one of the judges for, our conversation drifted into how we had photographed weddings in the 1980s and 1990s and how much different that is from today. 

If one wanted superior quality enlargements greater than 8×10 the only option was medium format film, and that meant using film that produced 2¼ x 2¼ negatives.  Medium format film could be purchased in rolls; mostly 120mm film size, and mostly 12 or 16 frames (pictures) per roll, depending on the camera.

At that time we both used a camera called a Hasselblad.  A roll of film was loaded in a 12-exposure film magazine and attached to the camera. When 12 exposures were taken another loaded magazine was exchanged for more photography.  This is one of the most significant changes and very different from the 190-image, 4GB memory card I normally use today.

Neidbala felt that our goal in those days was much harder than photographers have today, in that modern photographers can waste images, or give a client ten or twenty portraits of the same grouping to select from, without worrying about the cost of processing worthless prints.  When a photographer is limited to changing film every twelve frames at such an important event as a wedding, every shot had to count.  In addition, it took time to change film magazines, so photographers had to be prepared for every shot. 

The Hasselblad didn’t have auto focus lenses or any other programmable modes for that matter.  Photographers had to slowly change the manual focusing lenses that were much bigger, and heavier, in size then current DSLR lenses.  A metered focusing head that could be attached to the camera body was available for use, but most used a hand-held light meter and the heavy motorized model advanced film at a “sizzling one-frame-per-second”. 

Wedding albums contained either 5X5 or 8X8 and sometimes even 11X11 inch prints. The total number of prints shot was usually much less than 100 pictures, and each enlargement was printed in a custom lab, and any retouching was done by hand.

In modern photography we are able to take major risks with our photography; and if a creative shot didn’t work, delete it and try again.  Instead of being limited to 12 permanent exposures for a family grouping, one is able to make multiple exposures, select the best photo; with everyone smiling and eyes open, no grimaces or funny faces, and then delete the rest.  Retouching is no longer a long and laborious task with Photoshop; and even though there are custom labs high quality enlargements can be made at home; and the thought of less than 100 photographs in a wedding album is laughable. 

Because digital cameras can produce images that don’t cost anything until they are printed, photographers don’t hesitate to make multiple exposures of every subject.  It is not unusual for some photographers to arrive home from a wedding with over 1000 images stored on memory cards waiting for final selection.

Photography has been exciting for both Neidbala and I all these years because it has been an ever-changing medium, not only with the film and equipment we used, but also in the way we put that equipment to use working as professional photographers. I recall photographers older than me marvelling on my Hasselblad.  Some were intrigued while others, much like some I still meet today, felt it was better to hold on to the tried-and-true technology of years gone by. Both Alex and I sold our Hasselblads and purchased digital cameras over ten years ago and are happy we did. I wonder what the camera of choice will be for photographers ten years in the future.