Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Composition in photography

This is a brief summary of how I currently see composition and its importance in photography. I am documenting my current feelings together with some points that I've noted from analysing photographs and paintings. I'm making no attempt to create a 'kit' or set approach for people to use in creating compositions. Formulaic approaches can't be applied to all situations, and besides, composition has to be personal. We are all calibrated differently and need to develop our own form of expression in order to express a personal perspective on a subject.

Red Pike, Mick's BG
Is this and example of balance or imbalance? They guys are all off to the right of the image, yet there is a large mass of mountain to the left to balance the image - and the light source is pretty much central

My at a glance approach to composition
The rules of composition

My at a glance approach to composition:

1. Subject - decide on what the subject of the image is, or how to combine multiple subjects so that they work together.
2. Backgrounds - backgrounds often make the difference between a successful photograph and a snapshot. When we look at something with our eyes we tend to focus intently at the main subject and filter out what else is happening around. The camera is more literal and less forgiving. Everything that the camera sees in the frame is captured in the final shot. Not all elements may be in sharp focus, so with control over depth of field we can control the emphasis in the finished image - but distractions are generally to be avoided. A slight step in any direction may help to eliminate a distraction, either by moving it out of shot, or behind the main subject.
3. Edges - distractions lead the viewer's attention from the main subject, and if distractions fall at the edge of the image the composition is usually weakened considerably. Another example of a weak composition is when the main subject is placed so that part of it is juuuuust kissing the edge of the image. Items touching the edge of an image set up a bond which is difficult to escape. Curved subjects are especially prone to this effect. Rather than just kissing the frame, most subjects benefit from what I refer to as a decisive crop.
4. Corners - if the edges were bad places for distractions, just wait until they fall in the corners! Corners form visual hotspots in a composition - a distraction in a corner inevitably leads the viewer away from the subject. Though I do not believe in the concept of leading lines in composition, I do agree with Andreas Finninger in his book 'Composition in Photography' that lines exiting the frame at the corner lead a viewer out of an image. Other people think the exact opposite and feel the best exit for a line in an image is the corner...

There are always exceptions. Each shot is individual, none of the above may matter. For instance, images with very strong geometrical shapes can often exploit the edges and corners of a frame to good effect.

Hot tips
1. Especially in landscape/still life /formal portrait images, get into the habit of checking all four corners of the frame and right around the edges before committing to the shot. These areas are every bit as important as the main subject - possibly more so.
2. If you are starting out in composition, try turning the image upside down, either on your monitor or as a print. By doing this you take the emphasis and power away from the main subject and see the more abstract qualities of an image - the pure compositional elements. It helps to determine which components are visually dominant. You can then decide what is distracting from your real subject.
3. The best tip is to experiment. This is one of the real joys of working digitally, it is so easy to take an extra shot or hundred, or to try different crops on your monitor back on the computer.
4. Beware of overcropping in-camera. You can always crop on the computer, but it can be very difficult to add something back in if you missed it out in the first instance! As you develop your sense of composition you will find determining your crop and composition on location far easier and the number of shots you take will decrease.

The rules of composition

There is only one rule in composition:


There are plenty of principles - but rules? Rules are too prescriptive and lead to ludicrous statements such as:

'You've got to understand the rules to break them.'

Err - no you don't. I can't think of any area of society where this is true - and I certainly oppose the idea when it comes to composition. Principles often work in pairs, each principle having a counter principle which can be an equally valid approach to composition.

Balance v Imbalance
Balance creates calm and harmony in an image. Imbalance creates tension and can add to drama.

Maryport Harbour, Cumbria Coast with Scottish Mountains of the Solway Firth in the distance
The main visual interest it pushed to the top right, but the mass of dark mud attempts to balance the overall composition. 

Centred v off centre
Centring a subject or working with symmetry in an image will lead to a strong sense of balance. The vertical axis tends to be the key one for symmetry, but why not the horizontal axis as well? A vertically centred composition usually calls for absolute precision - slightly off centre often looks wrong. A horizontally centred composition has more flexibility.

All Alone
Another Place art installation by Anthony Gormley, Crosby, Liverpool
Centred composition with some asymmetry from the Welsh hills in the background

Another Place art installation by Anthony Gormley, Crosby, Liverpool
This time off centre, same subject but a slightly different mood. Same location but a different context.

Big sky v little sky
Big skies often give a feeling of vastness and can add huge scale to an image. Thin strips of sky can help anchor an image and make it feel whole, though keep the emphasis firmly on the other content in the frame.

Distant Howgills
I tried several compositions of this tree, but found the distant hills and wafer thin slice of sky essential to bring the image together and give the tree context. 

Wispies over the Knot
These wispy clouds take up most of the frame but the thin line of cloud near the base and the line of dark hills anchor the shot and stop it drifting away.

Simplification v complexity
Keep it simple, stupid. KISS, a principle adopted by lots of photographers. Few elements, simple relationships, no clutter or distractions. If the elements are resolved and working together the resulting image will be easy to look at and the photographer should be able to guide the viewer through the image.

The Promenade, Scarborough. An example of the KISS principle of composition - Keep It Simple, Stupid

Breakfast at the Hotel Florida, Biarritz, France
Maybe not that complex as most elements are repeated in a simple pattern. Plenty of room for the viewer to roam around until they latch onto the solitary couple sat on their balcony enjoying breakfast. 

A complex image takes the opposite approach. There may be key elements in the composition which required careful positioning, but they could equally be such a confusion elements the exact composition is quite arbitrary. The idea here is that there's such a lot to look at the viewer wants to roam freely and discover something new each time they see the image.

Put simply, work out the full subject, then make sure you include it all. So if you are shooting your dog sprawled on a rug don't just ponk its cute little face right in the centre spot of your viewfinder and press the button. You will end up with at least half its legs chopped off, yet a great space of nothingness above its head.

But this is where completeness gets more complicated. You may decide that its cute little face is the bit that really matters - so want to zoom right in on that. Make a decisive crop and all should be fine.

Zooming in on his cute little(!) head. Looking at this shot again, the toy cropped on the left of frame is incomplete and does weaken the composition, as does the overly large gap at the base. 
The opposite, incompleteness doesn't quite work as a concept - it simply implies a crop, where the real use of incompleteness should really be to create intrigue in a shot. Something missing, but the viewer's attention is drawn into the image and a story starts to formulate in the viewer's mind.

Street photography (and to some extent sports photography) is an excellent example of creating intrigue. Strange crops, crooked frames, tangents, corners, edges - its all fair game in Street photography, pretty much essential. All these features add to the spontaneity of the finished image and lead viewers to believe that the images were pure luck!

Emphasis can be achieved in composition, lighting, depth of field, motion blur and/or post processing. One of the great aims and reasons for black and white conversions is to control the emphasis of different elements of an image, for example the stark tree set against the Howgill Fells photograph above.


So what is good composition? Having looked at thousands of images through my work I've come to the conclusion that there isn't any such thing as good composition, unless good composition is defined as a composition without weaknesses. Ideally, all the elements work together and there are no distractions - the viewer is left to enjoy the subject and purpose of the image.

No rules, just a handful of principles to consider and adopt if they fit.

Rock tree study, Hampsfell, Grange over Sands

Promart, Grange over Sands

The first Promart event took place about 5 years ago to realise the dream of Robert Leach (no relation - different spelling!), our mayor at the time. Robert was inspired by seeing art displayed in the open air by the banks of the Seine in Paris. He wouldn't be deterred by people pointing out that although Grange is lovingly referred to as the Lake District Riviera, we all know its not quite Paris.

My set of black and white greetings cards -
trees and landscapes plus one of Another Place, the Anthony Gormley installation at Crosby, Liverpool 
I designed posters and leaflets for the event, and rented a space for the day, as did about 30 other artists. It was a great opportunity to show my watercolour paintings, chat with people and meet other artists. The day proved a success, the visitors all enjoying a fine day out in Grange and a pleasant walk along the prom despite the final half hour being washed out by a sudden rainstorm! Promart has now become a feature of Grange one the last Sunday of each month from April to September.

This year I decided to show my photographs at all 6 of the Promart events. The fair takes place on the final Sunday of each month, last Sunday marking the half way point, three Sundays left including the final event for 2011 on the 25th September. I'm displaying my black and white landscape photographs including a set of postcards and greetings cards.
Set of 8 black and white landscape postcards featuring Grange over Sands and the Lake District
The set includes Cyborg Kiss, my portrait of the Lloyds Building in London
A constant stream of people walked along the prom, enjoying the variety of the displays and chatting with the stall holders. I finally met Sara from The Tinner's Rabbit gallery in Ulverston, and pleased to say she has taken a full set of my postcards for the gallery.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Sunset glow over Silverdale

Sunset glow over Silverdale (click on the photograph for a larger version)

The sun rises across the bay from Grange over Sands, then sets behind the hills at the back of our house. We don't see the sun go down, but when the conditions are right we often get a warm glow on the opposite side of the bay. I was working at the computer and missed most of the show tonight until Sue called out to look at the clouds. The hills behind us had already cast their shadow across the water and was reach up into the cloud, but enough sun was still reaching in creating a fiery glow which appears to emanate from inside the clouds themselves.

Knowing the effect wouldn't last very long I dashed to the upper windows of the house. The buildings and trees across the road from us interfere with wider views, I had to get above those for a clear shot. Needless to say, my 10 stop filter was still mounted, card not present, half the settings left for anything by what I required. Joe Cornish uses the phrase 'if you can see it, you've missed it' and this always rattles through my mind as I watch special light slowly changing. Time to ditch the tripod and get on with shooting what was left - catching the tail end of the show.

One of the advantages of shooting away from a sunrise or sunset is the dynamic range is usually quite small, there were no tricky exposure problems with this shot or desperate need for graduated filters. I did darken the top of the frame slightly in pp, so maybe a 1 stop grad would have had its use, though I wasn't about to turn my back and run around the house looking for that! A quick check of the histogram, the main point to watch is the right side of the red channel. Sunrises and sunsets are notoriously difficult to hold the red highlights, but no problems here, a combination of low dynamic range and orangey values rather than outright reds.

The shutter speed was slower than I'd like for hand holding at 1/50th, but with both elbows firmly planted on the window ledge and using mirror lock-up it proved adequate. I use mirror lock-up frequently for hand held shots, especially when well braced against a solid object. It means you aren't 100% sure of what is in the frame when you open the shutter, but its one less source of camera movement. OK for landscapes, I can't see it catching on in sports photography or if precise edge detail is required.

Balancing colours is always a bit of a game with sunsets, though somewhat easier when the computer is only seconds away from where the photograph was taken and memories still fresh. My studio site is dedicated to black and white photography - although this would have made a dramatic black and white shot I felt it was important to retain the colour - making use of LAB colour processing to separate the colour values from contrast while working on the final image.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Aira Force, Ullswater

Aira Force is a dramatic waterfall near the Glenridding end of Ullswater in the Lake District, England. Ullswater is more of a journey from where we live at the southern end of the Lakes, but even so, I still wonder why its taken me so long to visit the falls. They are managed by the National Trust with easy parking and a nearby cafe. A short steep walk (wet and slippery on places) from the carpark takes you to the bottom of the falls, and a further loop takes you to the bridge at the top. However, we walked there from Glenridding, misjudged the distance, and didn't have time to complete the circuit. Walking from Glenridding along the main road is not recommended. It is busy in both directions and although the first couple of miles is very pleasant if you walk along paths to the lakes edge the latter section is on the road itself, not pleasant, fast cars, too many blind bends.

The lake side walk is thoroughly recommended. Some pebbly beaches and dramatic rocky areas, lots of overhanging trees and wonderful views across the lake itself. I could have spent a day scouting the area for photos, but as we were walking as a four it was unfair to pause for too long. This old oak tree stood out as a subject worth revisiting. I took this quick snapshot, but I will return to make a more considered study when I have more time. I haven't spent much time processing this version.

Onward to Aira Force. We arrived with just 20 minutes to see the falls and get back to Glenridding to meet the rest of the family for a barbecue. No phone signal, no chance of sorting out a lift. I took photos of a Monkey Puzzle tree before catching up with the others at the base of the falls. Its quite a popular spot and not much choice over where you can set up a tripod, no wonder that all the shots you see are a similar composition. Lighting was tricky, it is inevitable that the light at the top of the falls would be many times brighter than deep in the gorge. Even with 5 stops of graduated ND filters the dynamic range of the scene was greater than I'd like. An initial exposure was made to check light levels and composition, then a follow up exposure with a 10 stop ND added to the grads. A 3 minute exposure had the sky right on the edge of blowing out, yet the shadows were still filling (though I didn't see that as a real problem). Click on the photograph to see a larger version.

Aira Force, Ullswater, The Lake District
The processing was quite involved. Although I had plenty of detail in the vegetation to either side of the waterfall I decided that I only wanted the shaft of water cascading through the image. The bridge is obviously an important element and what gives Aira force its unique character. I eventually forced the sky darker allowing the bridge to dominate the top section, then endless tweaks to get the balance between the three elements working together - the lower portion of the falls proving tricky. The final step was to repeat the whole process at higher resolution - I had batch processed a set of photographs for web use last week so changed the defaults on ACR in order to save time... and forgotten to return the settings to what I'm used to!

Now we have our camper van I aim to return to the falls before too long. I'd like to see them near to the ends of the day to see how the lighting changes, though I suspect the evening light will be far too dark down there to be of value. One of the main benefits of visiting this location in anti-social hours will be avoiding other visitors which will give more flexibility in viewpoints and compositions.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Ghostly yew trees above Grasmere

This is the first post on my new blog to accompany my black and white photography website, www.johnleechstudio.co.uk. My intention is to give more information about photographic days out and a some insight to my approach to photography and processing. Feedback is always welcome. 

Click on the photographs to see larger versions. 

Distant Howgills

In May I took this photograph of a twisted tree on Whitbarrow Scar. I'd spent most of the walk looking for shapes in the limetone pavement, then saw the tree with the distant Howgill Fells forming a suitable backdrop. Several exposures were made - access was a little awkward, a prickly bush having grown in the exact spot I wanted to stand. This composition was by far the best of the outing, though the processing proved quite difficult - just how much emphasis to place on the background and how bright to make the main subject. I was pleased with the end result. Trees are a favourite subject and I have a few tree themes which I'm constantly looking to expand upon. I'm now looking for similar trees that will process to a bright ghostly foreground then a subdued background to create depth and mood.

Above Grasmere, Study 3

A familiar area of fell south of Silver How between Grasmere and Great Langdale is peppered with wonderful old yew trees. I've often run over the ground, The Old Counties Tops and John Broxhap's secret race (!) both cross here. The trees always attract my attention, yet I've rarely walked the area looking for compositions. A few weeks ago I was up there looking for an improved race line and I noticed an uprooted tree which had long since died. It seemed to have some potential, but I hadn't time to look closely. A mental note of its location was made before I ran off to join the rest of our group. My mental note drawer is overflowing with potential shots from fell running locations!

A couple of weeks later the evening light looked promising for a return to the tree. Sue and I walked up onto the ridge from the Elterwater side, though Sue then went back to the car as the weather started to look a bit grim. Not so bad if you're the one doing the photographing, but tedious as a bystander! I pressed on, pausing as several trees on my way, looking for compositions. The relationship between the trees and the Fairfield ridge beyond wasn't easy to work with. Having recently broken my 10-20 zoom lens I was restricted to a maximum width of 17mm. However, with so much subject choice there were compositions available for pretty much any focal length.

Above Grasmere, Study 2

Here's the shot I went up there to take. There's obviously a lot of processing on all these shots, making use of the colour differences between the wood and the background grasses to achieve strong contrast - the yellow slider in the black and white converter being pushed pretty much to the extreme to darken the background. The sky needed some more subtle handing, I was keen to underplay the sky in order for it to recede, maximising the impact of the branches. 

I was pleased with the shots of my target tree, the others were a bonus. This last one is my fave from the evening. The light of the evening didn't quite work as hoped and the resultant processing proved quite tricky. I've revisited each shot several times to arrive at the photographs displayed here. 

Above Grasmere, Study 4