Monday, March 10, 2014

Composition – The art of placing items in your images

It’s a grand hall. The long walls filled with portraits painted by great European painters.  Yet at each end, two of the youngest people in the room command everyone’s attention.  They stare across the room at one another, seemingly unaware of all the other guests in the room. 

Pinkie - her flowing pink hat ribbons blowing in the breeze, toes pointed forward seemingly ready to dance from the canvas that holds here. 

Blue Boy - standing proud like a statue in his unmistakable blue outfit. 

As I stand before Pinkie gazing at the artist’s portrait, there is far more to notice than just another pretty face.  The canvas holds some great examples of composition and what it can do to enhance an image.  One of Pinkie’s ribbons falls from her hat, blown by an imaginary breeze. The fabric swoops down across her body, our eyes following the cloth as it drifts.  Her left hand is held in front of her just below the ribbon.  Her hand/arm and ribbon never cross.  This slight gap between her hand and the textile is a great lesson for photographers; sometimes elements of and image look better with space between them.

In nature think of flowers.  In some of our compositions we need to put a bit of space between a focal point and other objects. Pinkie provides us with a lovely example of this in practice.  However, as photographers we cannot always decide where something is placed.  Sure, maybe we can do a bit of scenic horticulture in our own garden and nudge offending plants out of the way.  Not going to happen if I need a Giant Sequoia placed in a different location! 

Should we always separate elements?  Pinkie provides us with yet another example as her two ribbons cross paths just a short way down the painting.  Is this breaking a rule?  No, the connecting lines lead us to see that her other ribbon is actually following the flow of her right shoulder before wandering out to the edge of the painting.

Many other paintings provide us lessons, showing where and when elements should be separated and when they work well together.  Our own images can do the same thing.  Take a moment to look over some of your own images to see if this concept is at work.  Many times we just know that it is pleasing to the eye without following a “rule”.  Thomas Lawrence completed this painting over 200 years ago, yet it still provides a lesson in our digital world.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Painters Have it Easy!

I’ll admit it, sometimes I envy painters.  They are so fortunate when it comes to composition.  With a few strokes of the brush, the artist decides the location of a tree, excludes a distracting elements from the edge of the frame and places everything in exactly the perfect spot.  I mean, all they have to do is study and practice for years, learn how to mix colors, implement proper brush strokes and then spend days, weeks, months or longer on a project.  Okay, on second, my envy has subsided.

As photographers we can learn by studying painters and their craft.  During a recent visit to the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens I took a detour from my usual route, which is typically strait to one of the garden areas.  I’ll admit it, I was a member off and on for years before I actually set foot into one of the buildings.  Yes, I’m easily distracted by colorful, shiny things in nature.  Over the past few years I’ve been retracing my steps to enjoy, and learn from, the classic art inside the walls. 

I had to force myself into the doorway of one of the buildings at the Huntington after arriving for a week-long stay.  California “winter” weather – clear, sunny, 78 degrees.  Oregon weather when I left – lots of liquid sunshine and 48 degrees.  Still, there was much to see in the grand galleries.

Numerous techniques cross over from painting to photography.  Few, if any, of these skills are new.  Most are centuries old, perfected by great painters over generations.  This is one of the first attributes we can learn, patience.  Whether it’s a sable brush or a digital camera in our hands, our skill develops over time.  I strongly believe digital cameras have increased the speed of our learning curve immensely, but learning, improving and perfecting a method (and our eye) takes time.  Sometimes lots of it.

Over the next few posts I’m going to explore some of the ways painters use light, composition, framing, posing and other skills in their bag of tricks…and how we as photographers can borrow these for our images.  My goal is for each post to be a mini-lesson.  The topics may act as reminders of techniques we have used in the past but lost track of over the years.

Each is intended to be a bite-sized portion; something to try next time you venture out with your camera, but not too overwhelming in scope.  I hope you enjoy our walk with the painters!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Different Perspectives – Putting your camera (and yourself) in unique places

“The clouds look so much prettier from this side”, announced the voice of the teenager leaning forward in her seat, positioning her cell phone camera for a better look out of the airplane window.  As I listened to the simulated shutter click on her phone I already had mine out.  She was right.  As our Boeing 737 lowered into the clouds as we approached PDX the sight was stunning. 

It was later in the day, a little before sunset, when the light begins to improve with each passing minute.  The clouds were really more of the thick fog that had been covering the Willamette Valley since just north of Eugene on the flight from, a much sunnier, California.  But as the plane slowed approaching the airport, the hills of Portland came alive, poking out of the layer of cotton enveloping the city.  Sometimes it was a large estate surrounded by a large, green pasture and a white fence.  Next another summit would pop out with no evidence of the hand of man – just pristine wilderness minutes from, and five hundred feet above the busy city. 

Other times there was no evidence of earth, just a silky weave of textures stretching endlessly to the western horizon.  In just the few minutes of the descent, the light continued to change as subtle hues danced atop the fabric.  Suddenly all was white as we plunged into the clouds.

As we emerged below, stringy lengths of grey fog hung from the cloud above.  The ever important light now flat.  It now seem night time; a stark contrast from the bright show just a few hundred feet above.  Both my neighbor and I return our phones to our pockets (many airlines now allow you to keep your phone on and in “airplane” mode for the entire flight). 

The young lady seated next to me on the flight absolutely had it right; we get better photos when we place our cameras in places that are unique.  In this case it was above the clouds but it doesn’t need to be in a faraway location.  When photographing young children, we can get our cameras closer to their eye level by kneeling down.  When traveling, photographing from higher (or lower) vantage points can provide a welcome fresh perspective.  It doesn’t need to be difficult, just try to get your camera in a different place other than your eye level on the beaten path.  Even if you click the shutter, you might enjoy the view yourself!