Thursday, October 16, 2008

Fill the frame

Probably the most important compositional rule you can learn (and probably the one I should have mentioned first! D'oh as my son would say) is to fill the frame.

Photography is a subtractive process, as opposed to something like painting which is an additive process. With a painting you gradually add things to a blank canvas. With photography you start off with a canvas that has way too much stuff in it and you have to crop out the unwanted so that all is left is the subject of your picture.

The famous photographer Robert Capa once said that if you don't like your photos get closer. Part of the photographic process is to really think about what it is you're photographing before you press the shutter. And then to get rid of everything else in the frame that isn't what you're photographing. If you can list four or five things that you want to put in the picture chances are you've got too many. Narrow it down to one, two or three at the very most.

But we don't all own $10,000 1200mm telephoto lenses and sometimes we can't get close enough to fill the frame, and sometimes we don't want to use a telephoto but want a wider view.

Take this picture here. This is the night view looking out over Hakodate, Hokkaido, Japan. From where the lookout was I could get a great view looking along the coast of the peninsula. I tried a couple of long telephoto shots concentrating on certain areas but I wanted a wider shot which showed the long stretch of coastline.

The only problem was when I did that I suddenly had a big black patch in the bottom of the frame where the mountain got in the way (what idiot put a mountain there anyway! :) ). I needed to fill that black with something. And then that something came along in the shape of a bus. I could see it moving up the mountain quite slowly and just sat there and waited until it came around the bend. A slow shutter speed ensured that you got the streaking lights, and it being a curved road means you get a nice shape and voila I've filled my frame with city skyline, and my blackness with bus lights.

Take a look at the photos you really admire and look at how the photographer has filled the frame and what with. Sometimes they deliberately walk up to something to get closer, or zoom into it. That's a really great way of ensuring you fill the frame. Or sometimes they have sat and waited until something has come into the frame to fill a blank part of a wide-angle shot. Either way works.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Leading you along

There's an often used compositonal tool called Leading Lines. They're called that because they are lines that lead your eye into the composition, to where the photographer wants you to look.

Take this example here. This pic was taken in the deep, humid jungles of central Africa. The Democratic Republic of Congo to be exact. And these dilapidated bridges were an hourly event on our crossing of this huge country.

The road was in such a bad state that we could often only travel less than 4 kilometres in a day - a day mind you, not an hour!

We came across a lot of small log bridges but only a few really substantial metal ones built by the Belgians. All of them had been looted for their wooden coverings meaning that you could see through to the river far below.

In this particular case I had a couple of choices. I could have chosen to look down through the bars to the river below, or I could do what I did. And that is to take the reader on a journey across the bridge to the rainforest on the other side.

The rails on which I put the viewer's eyes are the metal skeleton poles of the bridge. Because they are prominent in the foreground (a feature of the wide-angle lens) your eye looks straight at them and then follows them up the frame until you get to a part of the bridge where there is more substantial covering.

The other leading lines are those at the top of the bridge railings on either side. They focus your view even more to the very end point of the bridge, right at the base of the treeline. Having a couple of people in the frame shows how precarious the crossing is and by having a lot of empty space in the foreground (ie no bridge coverings) I have not only emphasised the leading lines but also how dangerous the bridge is.

So keep your eyes out for various lines that you can use to lead your viewer's eye through a photo. Just remember that one of the most important things about a leading line is it has to lead to SOMETHING. In other words you need something at the point where the viewer's eye will head to or else they'll feel ripped off having looked all that way to find nothing to look at.

Oh and if you're wondering how we got across the bridge...very slowly. We would creep forward in the truck, placing logs under the wheels. As the truck went over the logs we would take them from the back of the tyres and put them back in front of the tyres again. It was a very slow, arduous process. I really feel for the locals who have to cross these bridges every day.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Head for the light

No this isn't going to be a post about what you should do when you feel the Grim Reaper knocking on your door!

The title refers to what your viewer's eyes will be doing instinctively. Take a look at this picture of the Nijo Ichiba seafood market in Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan.

Firstly close your eyes for a second, open them up and then notice where your eyes go to first. I'm betting it was the rows of fish in the far left hand of the frame. Ever wondered why?

It's because they're the brightest part of the picture. Yes they are the subject of the image so, as in my previous posts, I deliberately kept them out of the centre of the frame so that you would look at them first and then follow the row of fish up to the rest of the frame.

But I also positioned myself so that the brightest bits of fish (directly under a light) were in that particular position to doubly enforce the idea that 'this is where I want you to look first'. I'm betting that quite a few of you didn't even notice that there was a man in the picture until a few seconds later.

The main aim of a good composition is to get the viewer to look where you want them to. One really effective tool to use is to have the main subject of the photo be brighter than the other bits around it. Here I've done it using natural light but you can also do it with a flash, a flashlight (or torch for those of us Commonwealthers!) or any other light-emitting gizmo.

Generally speaking you want to have the brightest part of the picture be not too close to the edge of the frame. The reason for that is that people will look at the bright part and then their eye will wander out of the frame. You want them to look at everything in the picture so keep the brightest part of the picture away from the edges, but not in the very centre, and people will look throughout the entire picture.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Breaking the rules - leaving the scene.

Last post I talked about having your subject looking into the frame, and here I go doing everything I told you not to. In this frame the egg seller of the volcano Mt Iozan in the Akan National Park, Hokkaido, Japan is not only looking out of the frame but he's about to walk out of the picture all together.

Do you think he's just arrived to put down a new batch of eggs, or is he just leaving after putting a new batch of eggs in and taking the cooked ones out?

The answer is he's just picking up the already cooked eggs, which he has just replaced with a new batch of eggs, and he's just about to leave. And that's why I put him in the far left hand corner of the frame looking like he's about to leave - because he is!

If I had moved the camera to the left and had him looking into the frame it would look like he had just arrived and was about to put a new box in, but that wasn't the case. So I positioned myself so that you could see the new eggs in the right hand side (to show what was going on and what he was doing on the side of a mountain with a basket of eggs!) and he was in the left hand side.

I then waited for a couple of things. Firstly I waited for him to pick up the cooked basket of eggs to give more of a sense of the action being finished and him getting ready to leave. Leaving the eggs on the ground would have looked like he was waiting for something. The second thing I had to wait for was for his head to come up a bit.

If you have a look at the silhouette of his face you can see the details in it because behind him there is sky. The light background plays against the dark face giving you a clear profile of his face. Until he reached that point, however, his face had the dark mountains behind it. Dark mountains and dark face equals no face. You wouldn't be able to see a thing and his head would just disappear into darkness.

One thing that beginning photographers often fail to notice is separation between objects in the frame. When shooting documentary you need to position yourself, or wait for moments, when the elements of the picture are separated from each other so each one is clear and stands on its own.

When you have two objects blending into one another so that you can't tell what each one is it takes away from the impact of the photo. It's a very subtle difference but if I hadn't waited for his face to be backlit by sky you wouldn't have seen it.

So here is an example of breaking the rules with a specific purpose in mind. As I talked about last post, when you have someone moving out of the frame it makes it look like you missed the shot and the person is leaving. In this case because I wanted to show that he was leaving I deliberately broke the rule of always having a person look into the frame, and put him in the 'wrong' place. As I wrote before, there are many compositional guidelines but you don't have to slavishly stick to them. What do you have to do, though, is know them so that you know what effect you get by sticking to them and what effect you can get by breaking them.