Art of Photography

Rob Townsend


Leave a comment

Exercise – Cropping

Brief:

Take three already-taken photographs of different subjects. Crop them to change the composition – to find the image inside the image. Explain the logic for the choice of crop in each case.

Results:

1: Cricket match

This shot of a game of cricket seemed to be too wide and distant to have enough interest; too much sky, too much grass, not enough cricket.

Cricket - before

Cricket – before

I decided to focus on fewer of the players and ensure that I had the bowler and the batsman both in shot. I cropped top and bottom to remove some of the expanses of blue and green.

Cricket - crop

Cricket – crop

The resultant shot is more about the players and the action while the original shot was more about the environment. It is in a wider ratio than the original, almost panoramic, but I think this works for the subject.

Cricket - after

Cricket – after

2. Street entertainer

I took this shot of an optical illusionist at Covent Garden in horizontal format on autopilot.

Street entertainer - before

Street entertainer – before

Looking at it again with a critical eye, it needed to have some of the distracting background cropped out so that it focuses the eye more on the man himself. Thus, a portrait crop was chosen.

Street entertainer - crop

Street entertainer – crop

I’m fine with the fact that one pedestrian is left in shot, as this gives the image some context, as does the reflection of other passersby in the shop window. But the emphasis is much more on the levitating gold man.

Street entertainer - after

Street entertainer – after

3. Tree

This wide landscape shot was one of a few that I took that day, not really thinking too much about composition or balance (before this course, obviously…).

Tree - before

Tree – before

It’s clear to me now that I should have peered over the hedge more to get this distraction out of the frame. I tried just a simple crop underneath the base of the tree at first, but the tree looked a little lost. I needed to crop out more sky and a little to the sides.

Tree - crop

Tree – crop

The final crop makes the tree fill the right amount of frame to be an appropriately eye-catching subject.

Tree - after

Tree – after

What I’ve learned:

Whilst I prefer to compose in-camera and get the right elements in the frame at the time of shooting, it’s evident that in some cases, the composition and balance of an image can be greatly improved be a judicious crop. In other cases a crop is necessary to remove a distracting element that wasn’t obvious at the time of the capture. I need to be careful, however, not to rely on cropping as a fallback, and to continue to strive to get it right in the viewfinder.


Leave a comment

Exercise – Vertical and horizontal frames

Brief:

Take 20 shots in vertical format. Review them to look for any similarities in the types of subject chosen. Then take shots of the same 20 subjects in horizontal format. Observe which pictures work better in each format.

Equipment:

Canon PowerShot S100.

Method:

I shot all these images in the space of about an hour as I wanted to maintain the shooting conditions (e.g. lighting) for comparison purposes. As instructed, I selected and shot the 20 vertical shots first, and only after reviewing what I’d shot in vertical format did I retrace my route and take the same 20 subjects in horizontal format.

Results:

Click on any image to go into slideshow view.

Looking back at the first set (the verticals) before I shot the horizontals, it became apparent that I had mostly sought out subjects that suited the format, such as buildings, trees, statues, various items of street furniture etc. In a few instances I chose subjects that I would have normally defaulted to horizontal but made a conscious decision to shoot vertical first.

  • Some of these (1, 7, 8, 10, 12, 15) suit the vertical format better in my opinion
  • Others (4, 5, 6, 9, 13, 14, 18) seemed to suit horizontal better
  • The remainder (2, 3, 11, 16, 17, 19, 20) looked equally balanced – albeit with a different ‘feel’ – in either format

What I’ve learned:

In this exercise it’s become apparent that some subjects can be much better served by shooting in a vertical format rather than the default horizontal. In my experience on this exercise, this is not simply that the objects themselves are tall/thin as opposed to short/wide, as in some cases a tall/thin subject works well in horizontal format if it is balanced with some other point(s) in the image that provide some context (e.g. 9, 13, 14, 17).

Similarly, some subjects that might initially seem more suited to horizontal, such as a landscape, can benefit from a vertical frame treatment if it helps to accentuate the perceived depth in the image (e.g. in image 10 with the view down the length of a river).

So this is another aspect of composition that I will take into account when framing images in future.


Leave a comment

Exercise – Positioning the horizon

Brief:

Find a view with a visible horizon line. Compose a series of shots placing the horizon in various positions from the top to the bottom of the frame. Note how well the horizon placement works in each instance.

Equipment:

Canon EOS 650D with EF 18-200mm f/3.5 lens.

Method:

Being in a capital city at the moment, clear horizons are quite hard to come by. After a bit of searching I found a relatively identifiable horizon line by shooting from a vantage point on a bridge over the river. I had to shoot handheld but tried to maintain broadly the same viewpoint as I changed the horizon position.

Results:

1. Horizon very high: this version seems unbalanced to me, as it squashes the detail of the landscape into too small a space at the top of the image. The vast expanse of water dominates the image yet doesn’t have any inherent interest to it.

Horizon 1

Horizon 1

2. Horizon about two-thirds of way up: an improvement on version 1, as now you can at least see a bit more sky above the buildings and they don’t appear as squashed or cut off. The bland expanse of water still takes up too much room without adding any interest.

Horizon 2

Horizon 2

3. Horizon in the middle: seeing more of the detail and texture in the sky makes this more interesting to look at. However, placing the horizon slap-bang in the middle vertically makes it look very static and uninvolving.

Horizon 3

Horizon 3

4. Horizon about a third of the way up: my personal opinion is that this is the most successful image. It looks balanced, and by placing the horizon relatively low it provides a ‘grounding’ effect that resembles the natural order of things as seen in real life. There is enough of the water to provide context and give a little reflection, but it doesn’t overwhelm the image like the earlier shots. There is enough sky above to prove scale, and the clouds add some textural interest.

Horizon 4

Horizon 4

5. Horizon close to bottom edge: this is less successful as the greater predominance of sky adds nothing while the detailed landscape layer is being squeezed as in the first couple of shots. There’s just enough water to provide the context but not enough to provide an adequate sense of balance.

Horizon 5

Horizon 5

6. Horizon very close to bottom edge: this is least successful image. It looks cropped too short, and all the interesting detail is compressed to a thin layer at the bottom. The lack of visible water robs the viewer of important context that this is a riverside scene.

Horizon 6

Horizon 6

What I’ve learned:

With this series of pictures, and with others that I’ve already taken (and other people’s photos) I am more naturally attracted to positioning the horizon higher or lower than the middle of the image. Central positioning is too static and undynamic, and extreme positioning top and bottom usually look too squashed and unbalanced. Whilst the ‘rule of thirds’ might be a principle rather than a rule per se, it does seem to have application in my experience of positioning the horizon. As per previous exercises in this section, it has emphasised to me how much you can change the look and feel of an image through exactly how you frame it in the viewfinder.


Leave a comment

Exercise – Balance

Brief:

Take six already-taken photographs and identify how the balance works in each one. Identify the dominant parts in each image, and sketch a ‘weighing scale’ diagram to depict the balance. Consider how easy or difficult you found it to identify the balance in different images.

Results:

1. Chimes: this is an obvious example of symmetry on multiple axes.

Chimes

Chimes

.

2. Gull: this is an example of static balance with symmetry on one axis:

Gull

Gull

.

3. Hay: a more interesting balance here, with the smaller bales further towards the top and right balancing the dominant one bottom left.

Hay

Hay

.

4. Roof: a similar balance of large / close to centre and small / further away from centre.

Roof

Roof

.

5. Trees: again a juxtaposition of large / close to centre and small / far away, this time more obvious as it is the same object in both cases.

Trees

Trees

.

6. Train: slightly less obvious than the others; I see the train as a sharp triangle shape dominating the left-hand side of the image, with the man at the end of the platform providing the counterbalance.

Train

Train

.

What I’ve learned:

I found it very easy with photos 1 and 2 to identify the balance, as they are both use symmetry in quite obvious ways. The others, less so; I needed to get my eyes (and my brain) into the zone of identifying the dominant items in pictures and looking for how in or out of balance they were. I was dismayed (but not surprised!) that a great many of my old photos aren’t really balanced at all – I selected this half-dozen as the stand-out examples of when I’d managed to achieve a reasonable balance.

This has been something of a revelation to me; one of the things I said I wanted to get out of the course was an understanding of why I find some images engaging and others not (or why some are very visually arresting / disorienting, and why some seem particularly calming and serene, and so on). I’m beginning to appreciate that part of this instinctive response is driven by the balance (or lack thereof) in the image.

An interesting exercise!


Leave a comment

Exercise – Focal lengths and different viewpoints

Brief:

Find a scene that has enough space in front of it to allow a choice of viewpoint, from near to far. Start with the longest telephoto lens and make a tightly framed composition. Then walk forwards in a straight line until you can fill the frame with the same subject at the widest angle setting, and take a second shot. Compare the two.

Equipment:

Canon EOS 650D with EF 18-200mm f/3.5 lens.

Method:

I chose the fountain in the grounds of Castle Howard and followed the straightforward instructions in the brief.

Results:

The first shot was at 200mm focal length, and it had the effect of dramatically compressing the distances between parts of the image; in reality the backdrop of the house itself was as far away from the fountain as I was on the other side, but in this image it appears to be immediately behind. Similarly, the water cherubs on each side look to be adjacent while in fact they were positioned one on each corner – so the true front-to-back distance was equivalent to the left-to-right distance you can see here.

200 mm

200mm

Filling the frame with the same subject with my lens at its widest focal length of 18mm gives a very different feel. The subject has gained more depth and more closely resembles its real-life dimensions. The cherubs are clearly spaced on each corner of the fountain base, and the house has receded into the distance, allowing a backdrop of sky. The relative position, size and distances in this image are much truer to life and therefore easier to assimilate.

18 mm

18mm

What I’ve learned:

Zooming in to a long focal length has a significant effect on the perceived depth in the image; it can produce a very flat image where the all parts of the image from foreground to background seem to be very close together. Wide-angle shots, on the other hand, more strongly convey a sense of depth. The resulting pictures from these two extremes are very different in feel and character. This is something I must start to take into account when deciding the focal length to use and the viewpoint from which I want to take a picture.


Leave a comment

Exercise – Focal lengths

Brief:

Choose a view that is open and at the same time has some details in the distance in the middle of the frame. Take a sequence of photographs from the same viewpoint at different focal lengths by zooming and/or changing lenses.

Equipment:

Canon EOS 650D with EF 24-105mm f/4.0 L IS USM lens, EF 80-200mm f/4.0 lens, tripod.

Method:

I chose the war memorial in Nice and set up my tripod on a plinth at the opposite side of the road to take in the entire monument in the wide angle shot. Then I proceeded to first zoom in and then change lens to follow the brief.

Results:

The first shot was at the widest my lens could go, namely 24mm (actually 24mm equivalent; as the camera body has a crop factor of 1.6x). Here you can see the entire monument in context, built into the rocky hillside.

24 mm

24mm

Zooming in to a focal length of 35mm, some of the distraction (e.g. the road) is removed to focus more of the monument itself.

35 mm

35mm

At 50 mm the framing starts to go slightly off as I’ve cut off the top and bottom of the monument.

50 mm

50mm

Zoomed to 70mm the balance is a little better, as I am clearly focusing on the central part of the monument and the framing looks more deliberate.

70 mm

70mm

At 105mm I hit the limits of my main lens. This is the first shot without the context of the rocks around the monument and so focuses on the monument in isolation, a subtle but significant framing difference.

105 mm

105mm

I switched to my longer telephoto lens at this point. At 135mm the wording at the top of the monument is becoming legible, yet the dome is still visible so you still get a good feel for the shape.

135 mm

135mm

The full extent of my zoom range. At 200mm the image focuses much more on the top segment of the monument and the place names inscribed. This gives a very different feel to the picture than the wide shots with the full monument in frame.

200 mm

200mm

As a comparison, and as suggested in the brief, I took a crop of the widest shot (24mm) in the centre of the frame to compare it to the longest focal length shot (200 mm). As expected, the content of the frames are the same – albeit the lighting and sharpness are different.

24 mm centre crop

24mm centre crop

What I’ve learned:

I’ve picked up two clear lessons from this exercise. Firstly, the obvious one that changing your focal length will narrow or widen the view that you can fit in the frame. Secondly, that choosing a focal length can also mean choosing what you include and exclude in the frame, which in turn can have an effect on the message you wish to get across, and the response you are aiming to elicit from the viewer.


Leave a comment

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.