By MICHAEL PERKINS
I TEND TO LOOK MOST KINDLY ON THOSE LENSES that will perform the widest variety of tasks. Over time, photography can easily experience what the military call mission creep, with equipment escalating in both cost and complexity as the hobby sinks its roots into the bedrock of our little shooter’s souls. This can contribute to an ever-escalating array of specialized tools, or what I call more and more of things that do less and less. Over the decades, my aching back and wounded wallet have conspired to make me seek out optics that can handle macro, landscape, street and portrait work all by themselves, shrinking the number of instances in which I have to switch to hyper-dedicated gizmos, thus increasing how much I lug about with me. That said (don’t you hate sentences that begin this way?), there are times when you need a scalpel instead of a Swiss army knife.
A fisheye is the textbook example of an over-specialized lens, a hunk of glass that delivers a very distinctive, very controversial view of the world. To some, they are the gateway to innovation, to viewpoints beyond the power of the human eye. To others, they’re a gimmicky abomination. They’re really just ultra wide-angles that take in such a vast view (anywhere from 120 to 180 degrees or even wider) that they literally bend the field of vision, encompassing shots within an actual circle in full-frame cameras or what’s called a diagonal fisheye in cropped sensors. In both cases, the shot features dark vignettes at the corners in images where proportions are nearly normal at the center, then increasingly bowed-out closer to the edge of the shot. They are still in the minority as far as general lens use is concerned for a variety of reasons, including the rarity of cases in which they can be truly appropriate or effective, the heinous cost of the good ones, and the heinous artifacts in the cheap ones.
I happened to have lucked out with a fisheye that is fairly crisp and free of chroma flaring at f/16 or smaller, although the accompanying need for increased ISO bears watching. I shoot on a crop, so I don’t worry about maintaining the “encircled” look since I can’t get it anyway, allowing me to crop to wherever the frame is strongest. In the “before” shot of a strange but huge art installation at Phoenix’ Desert Botanical Garden (see above), you see what a standard 18mm wide-angle will do. Given that I had very limited space either behind or above me, there was no way to back up in order to include the entire scene, and so, out came the fisheye, shooting at about 12mm and taking in a 160mm field of view (see below).
Now, standing in exactly the same place, I could see where the “yellow wave” of straw-like fibers originated at the far end of the shot, while the distortion factor in the lens gave the flow of straws a kind of “S” curve as it made its way to the foreground. Other considerations: super-wides exaggerate the distance between front and back, making the whole installation seem more vast than it was in reality; and also, by keeping most of the crucial action in the center, I kept the image’s most radical distortion (like on the footbridge at upper left) confined to the outer edge of the composition.
Would I, for this shot, have resorted to the fisheye except out of desperation? Unlikely. It is not a “go to” tool in any real way, since like all gimmick glass tends to pull attention away from the subject and toward itself. However, even though I love to head out with “one lens to rule them all”, I find, like any good sawbones, that I will, occasionally, need that scalpel.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN BEGINNING FORMAL INSTRUCTION IN PHOTOGRAPHY, students are typically steeped in whole systems of procedure on the creation of a composition. In this pursuit, we’ve all trudged through swamps of techno-sludge, from “golden triangle” to “rule of thirds” to “leading lines”, along with dozens of other schemes for organizing visual information within the frame. Many of these credos are, in fact, valuable in training the eye to prioritize the data in their pictures and streamline their effectiveness, and I applaud their use. What irks the semanticist within me, however, is when these tips are referred to as rules. That’s when things wander into the weeds.
This is not mere finicky wordplay on my part; first, the idea of the word “rules” being applied to something as mutative as art makes no sense to me. It is in the defiance of accepted norms that art fully triumphs, and photography cannot breathe if it’s drowning in its own catechism. I understand that we humans love to list things, to map steps out in order of perceived importance. However, when it comes to arranging the photographic frame, I contend that all the approaches we learn about are merely that…approaches, and that, were I to grudgingly use the word rule in regard to composition, that there would only be one: engage the eye.
What else is there? Photographs begin as one person’s vision sent forth with the aspiration of becoming a shared experience. To that end, everything is about grabbing the viewer’s eye and effectively saying, here is where I want you to look; here is the order of importance among the things in this picture. All of the tricks taught about composition are merely a means to acheiving, by many roads, this one objective. Use whatever graphs, spirals, force perspectives or focus tricks you like, or mix them all together; if they don’t result in a conversation between you, the picture and the audience, then you have nothing except mere technical mastery. And just as there are paintings that are more expert in execution than in emotional effect, there are millions of wondrous exposures that communicate nothing.
In the inset above, the original of a street scene image is an attempt to express the size and energy of an urban neighborhood. There’s nothing technically wrong with the picture, but, after looking at it for several weeks, I decided that the energy of the shot lay not in the car traffic or even the height of the buildings, but in the conversation between the two men at left. In the cropped version of the shot, seen directly above, this relationship is pushed to the foreground, without losing the feel of the city’s busy energy or scope. Certainly, basic compositional rules might have pronounced the first shot “balanced”, but it’s the deliberate intervention taken to create the tighter version that is an act of composition. And, of course, this is not meant to hold my own work out as an example to be followed. It’s just an illustration of the point that rule-breaking is where pictures begin, not where they go to die. Even though a picture is mounted on a wall with the help of a hammer and nail, no one would argue that either the hammer or the nail is what makes the picture compelling. Engage the eye, and you will have faithfully executed the only compositional “rule” that matters.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ABILITY OF A PHOTOGRAPH TO PRETTY MUCH ILLUSTRATE EVERYTHING IN LIFE can tempt shooters to try to do exactly that; to pack a universe of stuff into every frame. In the minds of some of us, the camera is an information-gathering machine, and so, the more information, the better. But if we call to mind the photographs that have affected us most profoundly, we may see that there’s a hierarchy in the way information is presented in many of those uber-keeper photos. Everything in the world is not a number one priority; events and experiences are always ranked higher in importance than some and lower than others. And the photograph that shows too much may actually not communicate anything particularly well. Things need to be chosen and unchosen in order for a picture to breathe.
As a consequence, rather than showing four hundred trees of equal size and detail in a frame, we deputize one or several trees to stand for the entire forest. In any routine edit, we decide to crop out things which are part of the scene but which either don’t, narratively speaking, carry their weight, or, worse, act as distractions. It’s not only all right not to show everything, it’s a really important part of the covenant between artist and audience.
When you leave out some kinds of information, you’re respecting your viewer’s intelligence, since you’re recognizing that you both share a vast store of common experience, some of it so obvious that it can merely be implied and yet understood. As a very simple example, in the image seen here of a young boy running through the woods, his body language conveys all that’s needed for a complete understanding of the scene. Every part of his physical energy advertises the freedom and excitement he is experiencing, even though the picture provides little more than his silhouette and nothing whatever of his features. Would he be any more clearly delineated as a happy young boy if you were to show his smiling face? And as to the surrounding trees; they are, in life, rich in texture, but the prevailing shadow doesn’t keep them from being identified as trees, and so, really, how much better could that work, even if they were all in complete sunlight?
I’m only occasionally an advocate of minimalism for its own sake, mainly because in many cases it’s not the right approach. But over-delivering on information, while creating a thorough “document” of a scene, also has the potential for short-circuiting an image’s impact. As is often the cases, the best rules are the ones that come equipped with tons of exceptions.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’M A BIG FAN OF THE PRACTICE of distancing yourself from photographs that didn’t immediately connect with you. Some of our images just don’t register with us at first glance, however, in many cases, they can be approached with a fresh eye if you just shove them in a shoebox (digitally speaking) for a time, giving them a second hearing somewhere down the road.
Of course, once you get down that road, you may conclude that your first impression was correct, and that something in the picture was off, or just ineffective. But then there are the late-arriving miracles, the photographs that had to wait until your mind was right to reveal their best truths, eliciting some reaction like “that’s not so bad, after all.” In other words, the ones you’re now glad you didn’t delete in a fit of initial disappointment. The late bloomers.
Often I find that a simple cropping reveals that there really was a decent picture in there all the time, but that it was being eclipsed by all the extra dead space, props or distractions that were also captured in the moment. In such cases, the entire apple wasn’t rotten; it merely needed a few brown spots to be pared away. The trick is to think of cropping not as an admission of failure but as an opportunity.
Few of us have the chops to perfectly frame a great story in an instant. There are a few among us with that talent, and they are the ones enshrined in museums and textbooks. The rest of us can often capture a great picture within a larger picture, however, and in eliminating the fluff and filler we actually redeem it instead of writing it off as defective. One old-school photo editor was famous for telling his shooters to “crop ’til it hurts”, revealing his own belief that, if you kept wielding the scissors without mercy, good pictures would often be freed from the junk that surrounded them. Taking an understandable amount of ownership in our own work, we can often become overly attached to the first version of a project. We protect it like a young mother who cries the first time her baby gets his hair cut. But while great pictures are often “taken” (see earlier remark about the people in museums), many more are revealed by merely peeling away a few dead leaves.
The candid seen here retains less than 50% of the content that surrounded it, which originally included additional people and most of the interior of a good-sized cafe. Given the chance to add all that other clutter back in, I would issue a hard “no” and be grateful for having hacked at the task until I found the real essence of the picture. You have no doubt experienced the same Christmas-morning unwrapping thrill in your own pix. We need to remember that what comes out of the camera is often just the first draft of history, and that helping the best part of it be amplified is not cheating, or “making the best of a bad situation” but staging, directing our dramas for the audience’s best experience.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS PHOTOGRAPHERS, WE ALL HAVE THEM, whether we parade them defiantly or sequester them in locked drawers. “They” are our Orphan Images, the photos that never quite made it to the finals. Our strange little camera creatures, the ones that fall outside every arbitrary category of success. Our guilty pleasures. Or, in most cases, concepts that Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time.
We’ve written about these underloved ones before here in The Normal Eye, these pictures that may not even be technical failures but which somehow qualify as….odd. So. Very. Odd. And still I come back to the subject because there is something addictive about even our mistakes. Maybe especially our mistakes.
Many of them frustrate us. The compositions that didn’t quite sell our idea. The light that failed. The idea we didn’t take quite far enough. Did I mention bad light?
Strangely, we harbor a special warmth toward our orphans. We may even convince ourselves that they really are “great”. Or that they’re misunderstood, which means that they somehow failed to make themselves understood. Sometimes an idea that comes close, but still comes up short, inspires a bittersweet affection in us. They are the kids that got cut from Little League at the last second. We, or the pictures, tried so very hard. To be in the presence of greatness is breathtaking, while being in the presence of almost-greatness is often heartbreaking.
After you’ve been shooting for a while, you seldom take any picture without some kind of basic intention. And that means that the resulting image can’t really stand alone anymore. It’s always linked, and contrasted, with the thing we wish we had done. If we missed by a mile, we can accept that perfection is a journey and be a bit philosophical about the whole thing. Missing by inches…well, that’s another thing entirely.
I don’t know why I like this picture. I mean, I understand completely the mix of components I was going for. And yet, I can’t defend it vigorously to anyone else. I know it’s…off. But not far enough off to land in the junk bin. Just off enough to drive me a little bit crazy.
Ella Fitzgerald once said that the only thing that’s better than singing is more singing. And I guess I feel the same about making pictures. Whatever’s wrong with your photos can, or might, be cured by your very next one. Or not. That’s the tantalizing, and maddening part of the photographic learning curve. It’s complicated further by the fact that you’re not merely trying to master your gear, but yourself. Seeing how very close you came to being the best you is tough. But most failures are not outright flops but qualified successes, and that little tweak in how we perceive our imperfect work is the only thing that also makes the whole deal worthwhile.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALL REAL ESTATE IN A PHOTOGRAPH IS PRIME REAL ESTATE.
Space within a composed frame must be earned. Every element that doesn’t strengthen or streamline a picture’s narrative power is detracting from it. Remembering this simple rule makes editing as easy as it is essential.
It’s usually true that you add something to an image by taking something away from it. This can seem counter-intuitive when shooting landscapes, epic-sized collections of scenic…stuff, where wide-angle lenses rule the roost and it seems to just make sense to crowbar as many trees, mountains, and waves as possible into the scene, as if more will automatically be better. However, the same thing is true of vast vistas that is true of smaller ones: there are few photographs which are uniformly strong from top to bottom, end to end. You have to find the strongest core within the larger picture and pare the rest away.
I call attention to this because, slow learner that I am, I can often spend years coming to the conclusion that one of my pictures has been weakened or held back by a hyper-abundance of information. The topmost shot, an original from a 2008 trip to Carmel, California, is a case in point. None of the visual elements are particularly wrong: it’s more like they are simply too plentiful. There’s just too much sky, sea, and stone…..that is, far more than is needed to sell the story.
Worse, the grouping of birds at the center of the frame, which is potentially strong enough to economically make smarter use of all those other elements, is being buried under all the surrounding… padding. The eye is being asked what to prioritize as it wanders its way through too much picture. By comparison, in the second shot, reframed as a mostly horizontal composition with the birds bumped up to prominence, the picture is now telling the eye what to see.
Which only serves to illustrate that what is left out of an image is just as important as what is left in it. Just like you can muck up a story with too many plot lines, you can get in a picture’s way by making its narrative take too many detours. Say what you have to say in the cleanest way possible, and then drop the mic.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HUMANS HAVE A DEFINITE ANTHROPOMORPHIC BIAS when it comes to faces. From dancing Disney flowers to Pixar office lamps, we tend to project our features onto nearly every kind of object or entity. And, as a photographer, I fall prey to that selfsame bias, especially when it comes to making pictures of buildings.
It’s isn’t much of a stretch, really. Windows become eyes. Doors assume the role of both noses and mouths. Overhangs and pitched rooves take on the appearance of eyebrows. And so on. For a variety of reasons, I tend to position houses in the same way I might shoot the most basic human portrait. Eyes facing straight toward the camera, face centered in the shot. No arty angles, no three quarter views. As clinical as a mug shot, or, in architectural terms, the plainspoken exposition of Walker Evans’ studies of houses and businesses in days of the New Deal.
And, like the aforementioned mug shot, I tend to frame the picture as close as I dare without sacrificing either context or impact. Again, the human face is the template, with the same decisions to be made about cropping. Do you need the top of the hair, the width of both ears? Should the shot stop at the bottom of the chin? Below the shoulders? Does any surrounding information add to the selling of the picture?
Does the traditional rectangular framing of the house in the top shot feel roomy, or merely loose? Is the square re-cropping of the same image, seen just overhead, simplified, or cramped? If the front of a building truly has the same potential impact as that of a face, it would follow that a building study might benefit from the same compositional criteria. That means that, like a face, a building has to earn every inch it occupies within the frame.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF A STREET PHOTOGRAPHER IS GOING TO ASK HIS AUDIENCE TO EXTRACT A STORY FROM AN IMAGE, then he must ensure that he is putting that same story into his pictures. Just suggesting a narrative, especially in a photograph, is not the same as conveying one. In legal terms, you are asking your viewers to “assume facts not in evidence.”
Do you have to spell everything out, like an S.O.S. in a bowl of alphabet soup? No, but just pointing your camera at just anything happening “on the street” doesn’t guarantee emotional impact, either. Nor does it imbue your pix with profundity, irony, or anything else that wasn’t happening through your eyes before it went through the lens. No street shot is guaranteed “authenticity” just because you were on the street when you pressed the shutter.
Look at the image at left, which I snapped rather accidentally while taking a lot of images of a crowded food market. I did not mean for the gentleman in the wheelchair to be the main appeal of this frame, but even though he’s been cropped to now be central to the shot, there is no clear narrative that “saves” this photo, or makes it compelling on its own terms.
Let’s dissect the picture to see why it fails. What it is, in raw terms, is a man in a wheelchair, sitting alone, wearing dark clothing, his face hidden.That is all that’s absolutely proven in the picture. Now, let’s assume that I was going for something poignant, a human “moment” if you will. Such moments are the heart and soul of great street shots, but this one is missing far too much vital information. If the man is “sad”, is it because he’s in a wheelchair? Why, and who am I to say so? After all, maybe he just had some restorative surgery which, after a month in the chair, will restore him to star-athlete status. Or maybe he is in the wheelchair for life and yet enjoys a richer existence than I do.
Let’s go farther. His face is hidden, but what story can I make the viewer believe is true about that? Is he catching a cat nap while his pile scores him a slice of pizza? Is he doing special exercises? Praying? Does his hat fit badly? Is he depressed, or actually a master of meditation who’s more connected to the cosmos than I can even dream of? And then there’s the monochrome. This picture began as a color shot, but I certainly didn’t increase its impact merely by sucking out the hues. That is, there isn’t some clear message that was being muffled by color which now speaks in a clear voice in mono. Finally, the cropping makes him the prominent feature in the photo without making him the dominant one. The background of the original was distracting, to be sure, but, as with the color, taking it away didn’t add to the picture’s force. If anything, it made it weaker. The man can’t be ironic or poignant since I’ve now cut him off from everything that provides context to his role in the picture.
You get the idea of the exercise. This shot, color or mono, cropped or wide, had nothing clear to say about the human condition. It was taken on the street but it ain’t “street” in effect. Try the same ruthless analysis with your own “near-miss” shots. It’s a humbling but educational process.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SAY THE WORD “MINIMALISM” TO SOME PHOTOGRAPHERS, and you conjure visions of stark and spare compositions: random arrangements of light blobs, stray streaks of shadow, or scattered slivers of light, each conveying mood more than content. For some, these images are a kind of “pure” photography, while, for others, they are, to use a nice word, incoherent. Part of us always wants a picture to be, in some way, about something, and the word minimalism is charged, positively or negatively, depending on whether that “narrative thing” happens.
I actually associate minimalism with the formal storytelling process, but doing so with the fewest elements possible. It seems like a natural evolution to me, as I age, to make pictures talk louder with fewer parts. Simple cropping shows you how much more you can bring to an image by taking more of it away, and, with closeups and macro work, the message seems even clearer. Why show an entire machine when a cog carries the same impact? Why show everything when suggesting things, even leaving them out entirely, actually amps up the narrative power of a photograph?
Of course there are times when mere shape and shadow can be beautiful in themselves, and it doesn’t require a lot of windy theorizing to justify or rationalize that. Some things just are visually strong, even if they are non-objective. But minimalism based on our impressions or memory of very real objects, from a pocket watch to a piece of fruit, can allow us to tell a story with suggestions or highlights alone. If something is understood well enough, just showing a selectively framed slice of it, rather than the thing in its entirety, can be subtly effective and is worth exploring.
In the above image, you certainly understand the concept of a tape recorder well enough for me to excise the device’s chassis, controls, even half of its reel mechanism and still leave it “readable” as a tape recorder. You may find, upon looking at the picture, that I could have gone even farther in simplifying the story, and in your own work, you can almost certainly suggest vast ideas while using very small bits of visual information. Knowing the cultural cues and clues that we bring with us to the viewing process tells you how far you can stretch the concept.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S ENTIRELY POSSIBLE THAT MANY A WORKABLE PHOTOGRAPH HAS ONLY BEEN RENDERED SO BECAUSE OF SHEER BOREDOM. Face it: there are bound to be days when nothing fresh is flowing from one’s fingers, when, through lack of anything else to do, you find yourself revisiting shots that you 1) originally ignored, 2) originally rejected, or 3) were totally confounded by. Poring over yester-images can occasionally reveal something salvageable, either through processing or cropping, just as they can more often lead one to want to seal them up behind a wall. Even so, editing is a kind of retro-fitted variation on composition, and sometimes coming back around to a picture that was in conceptual limbo can yield a surprise or two.
I’m not suggesting that, if you stare long enough at an image, a little golden easter egg will routinely emerge from it. No, this is where luck, accident, and willpower usually converge to sometimes produce…..a hot mess, and nothing more. But leaving a picture for a while and returning to it makes you see with the eye of the outsider, and that can potentially prove valuable.
In the above shot, taken a few months go, I had all this wonderful gridded shadow texture presenting itself, shading what was otherwise a very ordinary stretch of sidewalk. A thought emerged that the stripes in the woman’s short might make an interesting contrast with the pattern of the shadows, but, after cranking off a frame or two, I abandoned the idea, just as I abandoned the shot, upon first review.
Months later, I decided to try to re-frame the shot to create a composition of one force against another…..in this case, the verticality of the lady’s legs against the diagonal slant of the shadows. That meant paring about two-thirds of the image away. Originally I had cropped it to a square with her lower torso at dead center, but there seemed to be no directional flow, so I cropped again, this time to a shorter, wider frame with the woman’s form reduced to the lower half of her legs and re-positioned to the leftward edge of the picture. Creating this imbalance in the composition, which plays to the human habit of reading from left to right along horizontal lines, seemed to give her a sense of leaving the shadows behind her, kind of in her wake if you will. At least a little sense of movement had been introduced.
I felt that now, I had the tug of forces I had been seeking in contrasting her blouse to the opposing grid in the master shot. I’m still not sure whether this image qualifies as having been “rescued”, but it’s a lot less busy, and actually directs the eye in a specific way. It will never be a masterpiece, but with the second sight of latter-day editing, you can at least have a second swipe at making something happen.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NEIGHBORHOODS HAVE THEIR OWN VISUAL SIGNATURES, and photographers looking to tap into the energy of streets do well to give their locales a bit of advance study, the better to try to read an area’s particular identity. Sometimes the storytelling potential lies in a single building, even a part of a building. Other times it’s the mix of foot traffic. And, every once in a while, the saga of a street lies in the pavement itself.
New York City’s South Street Seaport district is drenched in local lore, tracing the contours of its alleys and warehouses to the beginnings of Manhattan’s first days as an international shipping destination. From the times of the Dutch’s tall-masted sailing vessels to the present mix of museum and modern retail, the port, on a typical day, offers color, texture, and a feeling of deeply rooted history that is a goldmine for photographers.
Of course, every neighborhood has its off days, and, on my recent trek to the area, a persistent, wind-driven rain had chased all but the hardiest locals off the streets and into the oaky timbers of the port’s quaint shops. Life on the street slowed to a crawl as iron-grey skies robbed the scene of its bolder hues. It was a day to huddle indoors with a good read and a hot cuppa anything. My camera, usually an unfelt burden around my beltline, began to drag like an anchor, stuffed into my woolen jacket to ward off the pelting drizzle, giving me the appearance of someone in sore need of a hip replacement.
Despairing of finding any vital activity along the street, I turned in desperation to the pavement itself, realizing that, in this eastward edge of Manhattan, the texture of the roads abandons the even concrete of most of the island and reverts to the cobbled brick textures of Melville’s time, with many old waterfront fixtures installed at curbside for extra atmosphere. Suddenly I had a little story to tell. The varied mix of firings in the brick, along with the steady rain, delivered the vivid color that was lacking in the area’s shops, allowing me to create an entire frame from just the street itself. Finding that some scale was needed, I sought out an old iron fixture for the left edge of the photo with just the legs and feet of two passing girls to balance out the right side. Suddenly there was enough, just enough of something to make a picture.
Obviously, if the street had been mere wet concrete or blacktop, the impact would have been different, and, were I in a different neighborhood, the street itself might have been unable to compete with the businesses for color or interest. On that morning, however, simple worked best, and my camera, at least for a moment, felt less like an anchor and more like a sailing ship.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE WONDERFUL THING ABOUT COMPOSITION IN PHOTOGRAPHY is that you always, always, have a backup plan. What you don’t frame correctly in the actual shooting of an image can be corrected in post-editing cropping, the use of “framing” within the composition itself, or even how you finally matte the picture before hanging it on the wall. This is as it should be since many pictures are not so much born as re-imagined.
Once you frame a photo, you’re giving the viewer the first visual cue as to what to regard as important. If I included it, you should notice it. If I excluded it, it’s either to set loose your imagination on why I defined this world within these parameters, or because I, as the narrator, am telling you it just don’t matter. You can even further enhance the effectiveness of the frame by its shape. A rectangle might enforce the reading of information left-to-right, for example, while a square might force the eye toward dead center. The original framing is your own best call to action in a photograph.
And even after you’ve defined the frame, you can still add a second directive within it to hyper-focus attention in a very specific space. The use of arches, building overhangs, edges of windows, cliffs, shadows or other secondary “frames” provides even greater cues to the eye, and also adds an illusion of dimension and depth.
In the above shot, the old stone basilica is obviously the main feature of the image, and so was cropped from a wider original to eliminate distracting foreground shrubbery on the right. However, the arch through which the building is viewed was retained, to act as a “secondary frame” and as a way to illustrate scale. The first frame says what information is important, while the second frame makes sure we get to the heart of the image more efficiently.
Using all framing devices available in an image is like using caps, lower case and italicised letters in the same sentence. Composition is about yelling to get people over to your picture, then whispering, as you gently guide them toward its heart.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PEOPLE ARE ONE OF THE MOST COMPLICATED ELEMENTS in a photographic composition. Unlike furniture, foliage or flotsam, humans are the one “prop” in an image which convey associations and meanings that render a photo complex, troubling, intriguing. Put a person in your picture and you have changed the terms upon which you engage the audience.
At the very least, you have posed a series of questions which color the viewer’s reaction to your work. What is that person doing there? What does he wish for, or intend? What are his dreams, his goals? Is she merely in the picture, or in some way a commentary on her context within it? You can move things around in the name of composition alone, but move a person and you have started a conversation.
The placement of people in a frame creates speculation about the motives and origins of those people before they were in the frame. A man shown standing at the platform at a train station could be eagerly awaiting an arrival, sneaking out of town, or merely wandering around. The mind starts to supply his backstory, if you like, his actions before appearing in the finite world of the frame. Put two people side by side, and you have, according to your viewer’s whim, a rendezvous, a goodbye, a conspiracy, a reunion, a chance meeting. People change the perceived intention of a photograph as a storyboard, either in the original framing or in the cropping afterwards.
The above image is the final crop of what was, originally, a scenic overview, taken at a large campus of museum buildings on a hillside. The image, as first conceived, was an overall “postcard” with the restaurant in only the lower right quarter of the frame. Later, I became aware that a single woman was visible in the cafe. Now, it’s not that she was actually the only person inside, but the photograph could be cropped to make her seem like it, meanwhile accentuating the emptiness in her immediate area.
As a consequence, instead of a lady who is merely alone, the image can make her seem “lonely”. Or perhaps you disagree. The point is that, by changing the human information in the frame (note that, in the original of the cropped shot, there is also a man standing outside the restaurant), we’ve re-drawn its narrative.
What gets left out of a picture, then, sparks speculation by the viewer, based on what has been left in.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.
PHOTOGRAPHERS LOVE TO COMPILE LISTS OF LAWS that must be obeyed to ensure the capture of great images. Bookshelves are jammed to fracturing with the collected works of wizards large and small who contend that all of this art stuff is really about craft, or adherence to techniques that are the equivalent of Einstein’s law. And, of course, with every fresh generation, a new slew of shooters come sneering along to deride this starched and stuffy discipline. All that matters, these young turks snigger, is my grand vision.
Let me again re-state the obvious, which is that both viewpoints are correct and/or totally wrong. And since Mr. Weston has introduced the subject of composition, let us consider the special task of seasonal photos, specifically, arrangements of yuletide objects. The classic rule on still-life shots is that less is more, that it’s better to perfectly light and expose three pieces of fruit than whole baskets of the stuff. Meanwhile the festive, instinctual artist concedes that many holiday scenes are mad with detail and crammed with more, more, more…..and that’s okay.
The unique thing about Christmas decor is that in many cases, you not creating the compositions, but merely reacting to someone else’s creations…in nativity scenes, churches, and especially in retail environments. Obviously your local department store doesn’t adhere to the admonition “keep it simple”; quite the opposite. Seasonal trim in most stores is served up not by the spoonful but by the truckload. Anything less than overkill seems skimpy to many yuletide decorators, and so, if you favor basic subject matter, you’re either going to have to mount your own arrangements or selectively zoom and crop the more congested scenes. If, however, you already subscribe to the idea that more is better, then life gets easy fast.
Holidays come layered in much that is intensely personal, and that makes clean compositional judgements about “how much” or “how little” tricky at best. Just get the feelings right and let your regular rules relax into guidelines.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MORE COMPOSITIONS IN PHOTOGRAPHY ARE CRAFTED AFTER THE SNAP than naturally spring forward, fully formed, out of the camera. Frame as carefully as you may, you often find that something needs to change to help your image’s story fully emerge. This usually means taking something away, cleaning things up…and that means cropping. I think it’s fair to say that, more often than not, we start with pictures that contain too much and carve out the core picture that deserves to survive, to be pushed to the front.
Sometimes a proportionate tightening is all that a picture needs, so that a large, busy rectangle becomes a streamlined, smaller rectangle. This can clear away extraneous objects like phone poles, wires, extra buildings, any distracting junk that pulls the eye away from the important stuff. But it isn’t always things: it can also be people, surplus bodies which, like extraneous elements of any kind, change the narrative, or keep it from connecting. Think of the picture as a theatrical production and yourself as the casting director. Anyone on the set who doesn’t move the story forward is not playing a part that we need. See the girl at the office for your check, so long.
In the picture above, the cropping seems to create the story of a mother and her children taking in the view from New York’s Highline Park onto a city street below. In the original shot, seen at left, she seems less like a mother and more like just another bystander. The crop has suggested a relationship or a role for her. The woman to her right (in the original), unlike the “mother” figure, is not acting as our surrogate, seemingly looking with us at the scene. She is on her cel phone, and therefore registers as more detached than her neighbor, whose face, since it’s invisible to us, could contain anything we want it to. To the right of the cel user, we see additional people who don’t subtract from the picture, but also don’t add anything. They are extras that we, the director, have decided we don’t need to cast.
Also, structurally speaking, the “mother” is arranged so that the diagonal line from the foreground building to her right seems to proceed into the picture from around the area of her right shoulder, so that she sort of anchors the leading line and sends your eye along it to the street below. None of this, mind you, was obvious in the shooting of the original shot, which is not terrible as a composition, only compromised by the inclusion of information that simply doesn’t advance the logic of the picture. I only use it as an example of how I was able to question the “casting” of the original frame and make a conscious decision to cut away things that slowed everything down.
If you can tell a story with two people better than you can with four or five, ask yourself if you really need them. Cropping isn’t an admission that you made a bad photograph. It’s confirmation that your first draft is worth taking to a second one.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
NO DOUBT YOU KNOW WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO SEE A PICTURE IN YOUR MIND that, for some reason, doesn’t make it into the camera.
It’s maddening. That fumbling few inches between success and failure that cannot always even be sensed during the taking of an image, but which, somehow, is as wide as a river gorge once the picture comes out. Dammit, you saw it. More importantly, you felt it. But something in perhaps a technically perfect photograph fails to engage, and the thing just can’t close the sale.
Going further with the metaphor of salesmanship for a moment, there are pictures which, in a manner of speaking, don’t “ask for the order”. They don’t effectively say, here is the main point of interest. Look here, then there. The best photos are triptychs in that they have a sense of inevitable direction. Your eye senses where to travel with the frame.
In the above forest scene, I nearly failed to provide that impetus because, in my first few shots, I was overly centered on getting the contrasty elements of the picture from fighting each other. Some trees came out like silhouettes. Some parts of the forest floor were way too bright. Somewhere along the line, I had decided that the picture was about solving those purely technical problems. Check those items off, I thought, and you’d have a real nice nature scene, or so it seemed at the time. Only one lucky thing intervened to change my mind and save the picture.
This comes under my general belief that most of the things you need to fix a composition are mere inches away from where you’re already standing. In this case, I moved a bit to the left of several trees and two small children swung into view, both of them representing a dynamic dollop of color in an overly bland palette of shades. Suddenly the picture was about these kids stealing away, inhabiting a quiet, separate world, their size dwarfed by the pines while giving measurable scale to the entire woods. They had found a complete reality away from everyone, and it would be easy to show that. Cropping to have them enter the frame at the bottom left corner helped direct the eye where I needed it to go first. Start here, and then look beyond.
It’s helpful to regularly dissect the pictures that almost had enough story to sell themselves. What stakes could I have pounded into the ground to mark the outline of the idea? Where did I fail to lay out the territory of the story?
It’s all about getting that image from your mind into the camera. That’s everything. That is, ever and always, the problem to be solved.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BEING A MULTI-TASKER IS NO LONGER A MATTER OF CHOICE. We love to pretend that we’re adept at turning off selective parts of the hurricane of sensory input that comprises the whole of our daily life, but, fact is, we cannnot. You might be able to do as few as three things at a time in this world, but only if you struggle against a constant cacophony of sensations.
Unfortunately, creating art sometimes requires quiet, clarity, the ability to edit out unwanted sights and sounds in order to find a clear path toward a coherent vision. And this impacts photography as well as any other creative enterprise.
Urban life presents an especially big challenge to this urge to “get clear”, to untangle conflicting stories and draw out clean, direct messages for our images. Major cities are like 24-hour whistle factories, with thousands of things screaming for our attention. Thing is, there just isn’t enough attention to go around. Often, in poring over old projects, we find that a fourth, a third, even half of the information in a picture can be extracted in the editing process and still leave more than enough data to get our point across. And herein lies a problem.
If it’s getting harder and harder to edit in the moment to boil a photograph down to its essence, the editing phase becomes more crucial than ever before. You either get the best picture in the taking or in the remaking. It can be argued that practice helps the photographer learn to quickly ferret out simple stories within a mass of visual noise, and, of course, the more you shoot, the more you learn what not to shoot. But it seems inevitable that editing, and re-editing, will become a bigger part of the overall task of making pictures.
If the weakest of your photographic skills is post-processing, you might strongly consider upping that particular part of your game. The world isn’t slowing down anytime soon. It’s great to know, in an instant, how to make a strong image. But, as my dad always said, that’s why God put erasers on pencils. Editing can be where acceptable pictures buff up into contenders.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR ME, ONE OF THE GREATEST ANCILLARY BENEFITS of doing historical research has been the privilege of poring over old files of newspaper and magazine photographs, in many cases viewing original, pre-publication master shots. It’s truly an exercise in reading between the “lines”, those hurried slashes of white grease pencil applied by editors as cropping instructions on shots that were too big, too busy, too slow in getting to the point. In many cases, you realize that, while the photographer may have taken the picture, it was the editor who found the picture.
Of course, no amount of cutting can improve a shot if there is not already a core story hiding within it. You can pare away the skin and seed of an apple, but some apples prove themselves rotten through and through. It’s the same with a photograph. However, if you teach yourself how to spot what, within a frame, is fighting with the central strength of a photo, it becomes obvious where to wield your scissors.
In the master shot image at top, the symmetry of the left and right groups of park visitors is blunted in its effect by the unneeded information along the top and bottom thirds of the frame. The shot is not really about the museum in the distance nor the ground in front of the benches. They just don’t help the flow of the picture, so losing them seems like the easiest way to boost the overall composition.
Now the shot is essentially a wide-angle, and, absent the earlier distractions, a kind of horseshoe curve emerges, tying the two benches together. You might even think of it as an arch shape, with the walking woman at the top acting as a keystone. She now draws attention first to the center, then around the curve, so that getting people to see what I am seeing becomes a lot easier. Finally, there is still a very loud distraction from the color in the shot, so a black-and-white remix keeps the reds and louder colors from “showing off” and lessening the impact of the story. The final result is still no masterpiece, but it does demonstrate that there was a very different picture hiding within the master shot, one that was certainly worth going after.
One of the downsides of being an amateur shooter is not reaping the benefit of a ruthless photo editor. However, learning to spot the weaknesses in potentially effective shots can be learned, most importantly the “ruthless” part. If you believe in an image, you won’t shy away from trimming its fingernails a bit to give it a chance to shine.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT IS SAID THAT THE GODDESS ATHENA WAS BORN, FULLY GROWN AND ARMORED, out of the forehead of Zeus. Other than being the only case where a man experienced anything that approached labor pain, the story always reminds me that ideas rarely arrive in their final form, especially in photography. If Athena had a Leica, she probably could have taken perfect shots without needing to compose or plan. We mere mortals are forced to either (a) report to hate-crazed photo editors, or (b) learn how to crop.
Many shots are created in stages, and there’s no shame in the game, since our original conception undergoes many phases from the first spark to something we’d actually hang on a wall. Creation itself is a process, which is why photographers should actually embrace the stages their work will pass through. The more thought that is applied to making an image, the better chance that the best way of doing something will reveal itself. Of course, it can also reveal the fact that there is nothing really to work with, in which case, hey, the bar should be open now, let’s go lick our wounds.
The original shot shown above is not yet a good photograph, but a good beginning for a photograph. The lady bathed in light seems certainly to have been pre-selected to be the focal point of the picture, but there are way too many competing elements around her, robbing her of the prominence she deserves in the final frame. So let’s get after it.
First, none of the information on the left side of the frame makes it any clearer that she’s alone or that she’s on the second floor of the building. We can make that plain with half the acreage, so snip. Similarly, the guys in shadow to her right aren’t part of the story we are crafting for her. If she’s isolated, let’s make her isolated and be unmistakable about it. She’s “apart” already from the sea of people below her. She’s geographically and physically separated from them, but the extra guys make the argument weaker, so, snip, away they go.
Finally, the entire upper-floor/lower-floor line of sight will be accentuated if we crop for a portrait orientation and move the frame so she is on the upper-right-hand corner of it. It forces the eye to discover the story of the picture vertically, so snip and we’re done.
So, at the end, we did not make any changes via processing, only the old scissors. Taking things away, not adding them on, actually made the picture work better. Fate gave me the girl and the wonderful light she was bathed in, but there was work to do. She didn’t arrive, ready to party, like Athena, but she’s a little closer to goddess status after some adjustment.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOU CANNOT BECOME A GREAT PHOTOGRAPHER WITHOUT BEING YOUR OWN BEST EDITOR, no matter how brilliant or instinctual your shooter’s eye may be. Art is both addition and subtraction, and the image frame is about both inclusion and exclusion. You get your viewers’ attention by knowing what to show. You hold that attention, and burn your images into their minds, by learning what to pare away.
I’ve written several variations on this theme, so the best way to restate it is in the voice of the truly visionary godfather of street photography, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Ironically, this master of in-camera composition (he is reputed never to have cropped a single shot after it was taken) was nonetheless remarkably aware of what most of us must do to improve an image through post-editing:
This recognition, in real life, of a rhythm of surfaces, lines, and values is for me the essence of photography; composition should be a constant of preoccupation, being a simultaneous coalition – an organic coordination of visual elements. We must avoid snapping away, shooting quickly and without thought, overloading ourselves with unnecessary images that clutter our memory and diminish the clarity of the whole.
Insert whatever is French for “Amen” here.
I often find that up to 50% of some of my original shots can later be excised without doing any harm to the core of the photograph, and that, in many cases, actually improving them. Does that mean that my original concept was wrong? Not so much, although there are times when that’s absolutely true. The daunting thing is that the 50% floats around. Sometimes you need to cut the fat in the edges: other times the dead center of the shot is flabby. Sometimes the 50 is aggregate, with 25% trimmed from two different areas of the overall composition.
On occasion, as with the above picture (see the original off to the left), the entire bottom half of the shot drags down the top. In the cropped shot, the long lateral line between indoors and outdoors is much more unbroken, making for a more “readable” shot from left to right. The disappearance of the dark furniture at the bottom of the master shot creates no problems, and actually solves a few. Do a disciplined search of the nobler near-misses in your own work and see how many floating 50’s you discover. Freeing your shots of the things that “clutter our memory and diminish the clarity of the whole” is humbling, but it’s also a revelation.