By MICHAEL PERKINS
ENTIRE BOOKSHELVES OF MATERIAL HAVE BEEN WRITTEN on the mysterious art of composition at it applies to photography. The variations are endless: what to shoot, how much to shoot, how to determine how little to shoot, theories on addition, subtraction, choice of subject, and so on. The only constant is that every compositional inclusion also embodies an exclusion. When you choose one thing, you un-choose everything else.
One such choice is that of color over monochrome, an argument which raged over a large part of the early 20th century, since, for many years, photographers thought they could rely upon black and white, even though an abstraction of reality, to convey a consistent feel, whereas early color films often produced uneven results. Some photographers decided to ban color altogether, to embrace the predictable un-reality of b&w rather than gamble on hues that might not be reproduced or printed with true fidelity, or worse, register as too brassy or garish. Today we seldom choose monochrome over color for the same reasons, but compositions still rise and fall on whether we use color, as well as what kind of color we use.
Sometimes, just as a photograph that’s poorly cropped or loosely composed can be too busy, a color scheme that has too much variety can prove distracting, actually diluting a picture’s impact. Occasionally, I like to see how few distinct colors I can use in an image and still consider it complete, as in the case of the tomatoes above, which makes it case with only red and green values. In this instance, adding extra space around the box holding the tomatoes, or expanding the frame to include other shapes, objects or hues, will do nothing to improve the strength of my composition, so why include them? This is an easy editing choice that occurs in real time in the framing of the shot, and, with the instant feedback afforded by digital, you know immediately if the picture is lacking anything.
The problem with a lot of photography is that we tend to go no further than framing up an “acceptable” picture, one that doesn’t overtly fail. However, the more we practice a mindful approach to composition, the more adept we get at putting just enough, from subject to hue, into the image, and not one item more. This gives our photographs a streamlined communicative power that directs the eye and conveys the story.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS ARE ADDICTED TO “INVISIBLE” STORYTELLING, to hinting at a context beyond what is actually shown in a given image. Sometimes our eyes arrive at a scene just seconds after something important has happened. Sometimes it’s just moments before. Sometimes we have to use emptiness to suggest how full something just was. And, most importantly, we need to determine if color will be a warm accompaniment to something magical, or an unwanted intruder in a scene where less is more.
Wonderfully, this choice has never been easier. Digital photography affords us the luxury of changing our strategy on the color of a shot from frame to frame in a way that film never could. It also allows us to delay the final choice of what works and what doesn’t, to live with an image for a while, and decide, further down the road, whether something needs to be re-ordered or altered, rendered either neutral or vivid. It is a great time to be a photographer. For those picking up a camera today, it must seem absurd that it was ever any other way. For those of us with a few more rings around the trunk, it can seem like a long promised miracle.
Color can be either addition or distraction to a shot, and usually you know, in an instant, whether to welcome or banish it for best effect. Two recent walk-bys afforded me the chance to see two extreme examples of this process. In the first, seen above, I am minutes too early to take in a small street circus, giving me nothing but the garish tones of the tents and staging areas to suggest the marvels that are to come. I need something beyond the props of people to say “circus” in a big way. Color must carry the message, maybe shouting at the top of its lungs. See what I mean? Easy call.
In the second image, which features a lone woman reading against a backdrop of largely featureless, uniform apartment cubes, I am off on an opposite errand. Here, I seem to be wondering why she is alone, who is waiting (or not waiting) for her, what her being in the picture means. The starkness of her isolation will never be served with anything “pretty” in the scene. The original frame, done in color, actually had the drama drained out of it by hues that were too warm. On a whim, I converted it to the look of an old red-sensitive black and white film. It gave me a sharp detailed edge on materials, enhanced contrast on shadows, and a coldness that I thought matched the feel of the image. In audio terms, I might compare it to preferring a punchy mono mix on a rock record to the open, more “airy” quality of stereo.
Dealer’s choice, but I think our photography gains a lot by weighing the color/no color choice a lot more frequently than we did in our film days. The choices are there.The technology could not be easier. Relative to earlier eras, we really do have wings now.
We just need to get used to flapping them more often.