Art of Photography

Rob Townsend


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Exercise – A sequence of composition

Brief:

Choose a situation that involves people and a mix of interesting potential subjects. Move through the scene looking through the viewfinder, taking a sequence of photos as you go along. Record all the images that you consider as possible photographs, culminating in the final shot that captures the scene best.

Equipment:

Canon EOS 650D with EF 40mm f/2.8 STM lens.

Method:

I chose the daily market on Cours Saleya in the old town in Nice, early in the morning while the sun was still quite low. The various stalls sell fresh fruit, veg and flowers, plus you get the local cafes setting up around the outside – so I thought there would be plenty of interesting photo opportunities.

Results:

The brief says to keep the viewfinder to your eye throughout, but I found this quite difficult, especially with all the people around! It felt like I was constantly in danger of bumping into something or someone… So I did intermittently lower the camera to navigate around.

The sequence is detailed below. Clicking on a thumbnail will open a slideshow view.

The photo that I landed on at the end of the sequence is one that I think best captures the sights and atmosphere of the market, with the colourful produce as a strong foreground and the people milling around in the background. Whilst the produce is clearly the focus, the background covers a cross-section of the types of people that frequent the market – stallholders, customers, commuters, cafe diners, even a cleaner. This may not mean much to most viewers, but to me it captures the atmosphere of the market really well.

The market at Cours Saleya, May 2013

The market at Cours Saleya, May 2013

In the final photo I reduced the highlights in the top portion of the image, as they were blown to white in the original.

What I’ve learned:

If you’ll pardon the pun, this was real eye-opener. I thought I already took in my surroundings looking for potential photo opportunities, but literally holding the viewfinder to your eye (even if it feels unnatural at first) gives you a much stronger feeling for how the image will turn out. By fixing a frame around the image before you even decide to click the shutter you realise how much or how little of the subject you’re going to get in shot, and what the end result is going to look like.

I found it a little odd to capture all the ‘not quite right’ shots as some of these I’d have rejected at the time. It felt even odder to post the ‘outtakes’ here as I’m usually quite selective about what I publish! But I appreciate that part of the exercise is to capture what didn’t work in addition to what did.


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Exercise – Object in different positions in the frame

Brief:

Choose a subject that is very clear in appearance and set in a large, even background. Take a baseline shot without pre-composing. Then position the subject in various parts of the frame. View the resultant pictures and rank them in order of visual appeal, observing how the subject and the background work together.

Equipment:

Canon EOS 650D with EF 24-105mm f/4.0 L IS USM lens.

Method:

As I am at the seaside at the moment, I correctly assumed that if I wandered up and down the promenade for long enough, I would see a stationary boat in a clear expanse of water. This particular vessel seemed to make the right kind of subject (with hindsight, what could have improved it would have been a boat facing the other way, as I for one seem to ‘read’ a photograph from left to right, so implied rightward movement seems more natural to my eyes).

As per the brief I took an ‘uncomposed’ shot as the benchmark, then proceeded to position the boat dead centre, lower right, close to the top edge, close to the bottom edge, and centred vertically but close to the left edge.

Results:

The starting shot, where I just pointed the camera and clicked, is below as the benchmark. It is almost, but not quite, dead centre. It’s slightly closer to the left edge, and the visual weight of the boat is left-leaning due to the white cabin at the front. I actually prefer this to my composed pictures 2-5; not because it is particularly good, more that I found greater fault with the others!

Uncomposed

Uncomposed

The specifically-composed shots follow in order of visual appeal and not in the order taken.

My clear preference is for the one below, where the boat is off-centre to the lower right. The eye seems to rest quite naturally here. The boat looks like it will move into the empty space to the left. The expanse of water above gives scale and context without distraction. It gives a sense of going on a journey.

1. Lower right

1. Lower right

I had misgivings about all the other four shots; the one I had least dislike for – and therefore default second place – was the one with the boat in the dead centre. Yes, it’s undynamic and unimaginative, but it just looks less uncomfortable to my eye than the other three.

2. Dead centre

2. Dead centre

In third place is this one with the boat centred vertically but close to the left edge. This feels like it’s pulling out of shot, fighting with the background, which to me makes it less comfortable to look at.

3. Centre left

3. Centre left

In fourth is this image with the boat close to the bottom edge but central across the frame. This to me makes the boat look ‘grounded’ and too static, in comparison with picture 1 where the horizontal placement gave the implication of movement.

4. Lower middle

4. Lower middle

The image I felt worked least well was this, where the boat is close to the top edge. It just looks very unbalanced and unnatural.

5. Upper middle

5. Upper middle

What I’ve learned:

Where you position the main subject of an image in the frame can make a significant difference to the impact it has on the viewer. While there may be no absolute right answers, it’s becoming clearer to me which executions work most comfortably and which are more jarring. This is not to say that all photos should make comfortable viewing; sometimes deliberately playing with how you think viewers will read the image will lead you to position elements in a more unconventional way.


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Exercise – Fitting the frame to the subject

Brief:

Choose a subject that is clear in appearance and compact in shape. Take four photos, (1) a general shot without any specific composition in mind, (2) filling the frame with the subject, (3) a close-up detail of part of the subject and (4) a wider shot showing the subject in context. Look at the resulting photos and experiment with different crops.

Equipment:

Canon EOS 650D with EF 24-105mm f/4.0 L IS USM lens.

Method:

The hardest part of this was finding the right subject; this was the successful one out of seven candidates, after I rejected the others mostly on the grounds of being too irregular-shaped to fill the frame properly. Anyway, once I found this postbox on a wall in the old town in Nice, I simply followed the brief.

Results:

The general shot is OK, nothing special: the subject is slap-bang in the middle of the frame, and it lacks interest and dynamism:

1. Standard view

1. Standard view

The second shot, filling the frame, gives it much more of a sense of presence and solidity; it’s clearer what the focus of the image is now:

2. Filling the frame

2. Filling the frame

The partial shot zones in on a specific detail, but it is still clear what the subject is; I think this particular detail evokes the sense of actually using the postbox, with the open slot and the arrow implying the activity of posting a letter:

3. Detail

3. Detail

The wide angle shot gives the context by revealing more of the wall and architectural features that give away that this is a postbox in an old quarter of town rather than a more contemporary urban setting:

4. Context

4. Context

The shots above are uncropped, as composed in camera. I went back to the photos and tweaked the cropping on 1 and 4 to what I thought was better in compositional terms.

For the general shot I removed some distracting elements towards the edges and straightened very slightly, and this had the effect of moving the postbox slightly off-centre, which looked more appealing that dead centre:

1. Standard view - crop

1. Standard view – crop

For the context shot, I tried a few crops; first I removed a few distracting elements towards the image edges and straightened by a couple of degrees. This to me represents a slight improvement on the generally favourable original, although the motorbike bottom right risks stealing your attention:

4. Context - crop

4. Context – crop slightly to tidy up

Then I tried a tighter crop but still in landscape format; this worked better for me, as you still get the texture and detail of the wall and window to help with the overall context, but you no longer have to decide whether to focus on the motorbike or the postbox:

4. Context - tighter crop

4. Context – tighter crop

The first of two portrait crops focuses on the position of the postbox up on the wall; I felt it started to lose something here, like it was just ‘floating’:

4. Context - portrait crop #1

4. Context – portrait crop #1

The second portrait format crop positioned the box higher in the frame, to depict its position from the pavement; this seemed more stable and ‘grounded’ to me than the previous crop, although losing the window and wall detail made it less contextually evocative:

4. Context - portrait crop #2

4. Context – portrait crop #2

What I’ve learned:

I’ve learned how to look at a potential subject from many different angles, at different focal lengths, using a greater or lesser amount of the frame to include the subject, in order to give different types of image. You can get a different message across or evoke different responses by pointing the camera at the same subject in a certain way, and using the viewfinder to select exactly what view you wish to capture. I’m reminded of the Garry Winogrand quote: “When you put four edges around some facts, you change those facts.” (date unknown).

Of the resultant pictures, I find I have a clear preference for two specific treatments here: firstly, the second (tighter) crop of number 4 where you see the postbox as a part of the wall, but without too many additional distractions; and secondly the number 2 shot that filled the frame, as here you can see the detail more clearly.