By MICHAEL PERKINS
COMPOSITION IN PHOTOGRAPHY, FOR MANY OF US, CAN OFTEN INVOLVE NOTHING MORE than finding a thing we want to capture and getting it all in the frame. Click and done. It’s only later that we sometimes realize that we should have, shall we say, shopped around for the best way, from angle to exposure, to get our quarry in frame. Or even look for a better frame.
One of the first tricks I learned in travel photography was from the old scenic shooters who created the travel titles for View-Master Reels, who always thought in terms of framing to maximize the image’s 3-d effect. For a start, since they were working in square format, they automatically had less real estate in which to compose. Secondly, they had to shoot in “layers”, since the idea was to have subject matter in multiple planes, for example, overhanging shade tree right at the front, a tourist midway into the shot, and Mount Rushmore at the back. They also learned to position things just inside the frame’s edge, what was called the “stereo window” to accentuate the sensation of looking into the photograph.
Thing is, all of these compositional techniques work exactly the same in a flat image, and can draw the viewer’s eye deeper into a picture, if used creatively. Certainly you can’t go wrong with a great exposure of a beautiful view. But experiment as well with things that force your audience to peer intently into that view. The image at the top is standard post-card, and works well enough. However, in the shot at left, in taking ten seconds to slip inside a gift shop that also looks out on the same view, I’ve tried to show how you can get an atmospheric framing that both accentuates depth and provides a bit more of a sense of destination. It all depends on what you’re looking to do, of course….but it makes sense to develop the habit of asking yourself how many different ways are available to tell the same story.
Editing a solid portfolio of shots can only begin with lots of choices. Hey, you’re there, anyway, so develop the habit of envisioning multiple versions of each picture, and weed out what doesn’t work. Remember again that the only picture that absolutely fails is the one you didn’t try to make.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OVER THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY, OUR CHOICES OF HOW TO PRESENT A PICTURE has changed as well as the means by which we shoot it. Certainly in the film era, sizes and formats shifted from square to landscape to portrait, and those shapes were reflected in the dimensions of the final prints or slides. You know, shoot it wide, print it wide. Somewhere between the waning days of prints and the first waves of pixels, however, the square nearly winked out for a while, and, with it, a particular way of composing a shot. Luckily, it’s back in full force.
It’s had help. Instagram and some retro-film cameras forced the square upon a new generation of shooters, and nearly all phones and phone apps readily offer it as a framing or editing choice. Strangely, manufacturers of DSLRs and other high-end cameras offer no option for shooting in square format, although they all include square cropping in their in-camera re-touch menus. This means that many photographers have to dream square but shoot otherwise, mentally composing the eventual square framing of their subjects in the moment, or even discovering, in edit sessions, that there is a decent square image inside their larger ones just waiting to be let out.
I have recently looked to deliberately edit in favor of the square, since I think that the format forces a kind of compact, centralized story-telling that might be diluted or weakened by wider or longer compositions. Looking at my initial landscape or portrait images, I ask myself if the entire force of the picture could be amped by squaring it off. Sometimes you think a shot calls for one orientation or the other, when the third channel of the square is actually a better tool. Hey, you can’t know everything at the moment of snap.
I do wish that DSLRs would routinely offer the chance to initially shoot in square, just as cheap hipster film cameras and phones already do. Not having every possible tool at your disposal seems wrong, somehow, and, with all the other gimmicks that are offered in higher-end cameras, from fake star twinkles to faux pencil-sketch effects, the inclusion of a third framing orientation just makes sense.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WE ALL WENT THROUGH THAT OLD PERSPECTIVE EXERCISE IN ART 101. You know, the one where we draw the train tracks trailing away to an imaginary horizon, compressing the distance between the tracks as they “recede” to suggest depth, or a simulation of the way our eyes perceive it. It’s a lesson that dances somewhere back in our lizard brain whenever we compose a shot to suggest three dimensions on a flat plane (film or sensor) that only possesses two. Ongoing challenge, etc., etc.
In composing a photograph, it’s pretty easy to decide which factors in the picture actually aid that illusion, creating a big fat neon arrow to the thing we’re want to draw attention to. And some ways are better than others at selling that idea. One of the strong myths about these kinds of shots is that you need a wide-angle to make the argument for depth. Of course, that’s like a lot of “rules” in photography. It’s always true, except in those cases when it’s kinda…not.
In the top image, shot with a 24mm lens, the building at the back of the shot is lit better than the two alley walls that lead to it….a basic no-brainer of a composition. Moving left or right a bit can put the major emphasis on one wall or the other to be the arrow pointing to that object, or you can make the shot even more compact, although no less effective, in the cropping process.
Of the two walls, the rows of trash cans and receding lines of windows on the left seem, at least to me, to lead more powerfully to the back building than the right, where detail is darker and objects that could act as a leading line are a little more angled and compressed. Just for kicks, I cropped the shot to a square you see just above, reframing the back building as the end of a straight, single diagonal along the left wall, making the instruction to the eye a lot more streamlined.
It’s not that the fuller frame is “wrong” per se, but I always believe that inside many shots just might be a better shot waiting to get out. Some photographs are full-born in-camera, while others emerge during what I call the “on second thought” phase.
Now to try this idea out at a railroad crossing….
By MICHAEL PERKINS
BETTER PHOTO HISTORIANS THAN ME WOULD BE ABLE to pinpoint the precise moment in time when the landscape-sized image first eclipsed the square image for most photo shooters. I’d tackle the search myself, but it’s late, and I’m about a martini and a half too far into relax mode, so there it is. But, regardless of the exact instant it first began to wane, the square is back, and bigger than ever, its refreshed use as a distinct mode of composition greeted like a revelation, rather than a return. Cool beans.
The unilateral quadrangle (I get wordy when I drink) managed to barely survive on the periphery of photography, even as the square-centric Polaroid print nearly wobbled out of existence, then came back, as hipsters in the lo-fi movement revived the use of instant print cameras. Then cel phones began offering a pre-selectable square setting for their cameras, and that became a thing. But the biggest boost for the square’s comeback came with a thing called Instagram. You may have heard about this quaint little app. I understand the developers made a few bucks on it.
Still, we are pretty universally conditioned to envision pictures in either “landscape” or (flip this up on its side) “portrait” modes, so much so that director Wes Anderson garnered as much press for his use of the old anamorphic aspect ratio in The Grand Budapest Hotel as he did for the movie’s content. Strangely, the square-format photograph is, upon its return, a bit of a retro novelty.
Composing a shot in roughly 1/3 less space than a landscape frame is a challenge, simply because we have fallen out of the habit for a few decades, but it does have a certain elegance. Lately, I have tried to use the square to effectively tell stories that I traditionally saw in vast or wide scenarios. Construction projects are one such case, in that they seem to call for wide angles and far reaching vistas, what we might call scope. The above image is my attempt to express most of what goes into a building project in what some would call cramped quarters. The main story elements, that is, the action, the range of tone, the compositional depth, are all present, but confined within the quadrangle. Of course, with a DSLR, I can’t start with a square, but I can envision where in the shot the best square is, and crop to it in post-processing.
Composing for a given dimension is a discipline, and, as such, it is valuable as a practice tool, since photographers should always be visualizing every possible way to get their story told. The square may be a prison. But it also may be an answer. The end result is what matters most.