Monthly Archives: February 2011

Reality and photographs (rules, part 2)

When conspiracy theorists want to prove that the US never landed on the Moon, they attack the photographs from the Moon landing. The Soviet government censored and edited photographs based on their political needs over a substantial period of time. Britney Spears has shown that while she certainly is a gorgeous woman in real life, she looks substantially different in photos before and after airbrushing.

The list could go on and on, and ties into the old discussion of Art vs. Reality. Is photography a creative medium through which the photographer expresses herself, or a medium for faithful representation of reality? The answer to this question, obviously, is both, depending on your viewpoint. Me, I was struggling for a while to find out which viewpoint I wanted to take.

About two years ago, I discovered the HDR-ish editing effect in Picnik. HDR images were all over flickr, and I was thrilled to be able to get a similar look on my own images. Here is the image I posted:

Morning ritual

Nowadays, I find this image to be rather dreadful. At the time, however, I had come much shorter than now in developing my own photographic eye, and was drawn between, on the one hand, the excitement of all the different editing options available to me, and on the other hand, the percieved ideal of being able to produce images straight out of camera that would need little or no editing.

I have described before how my motivations for taking photos have changed, from wanting to preserve memories of holidays to creating stories with my images. As my visual storytelling skills develop, I have learned to use whatever editing tool I need to bring out the story. Equally important, I have stopped feeling guilty about editing my images.

In a sense, the Soviet censors did the same thing. They were storytellers too, and used their editing tools to present their political tales in the best way they could. The difference is, of course, that I have absolutely no desire to present my stories as “true” in any way when they are not.

One of my favourite stories is Dracula by Bram Stoker. Parts of this book takes place in Whitby in England:

There was undoubtedly something, long and black, bending over the half-reclining white figure. I called in fright, ‘Lucy! Lucy!’ and something raised a head, and from where I was I could see a white face and red, gleaming eyes. Lucy did not answer, and I ran on to the entrance of the churchyard. As I entered, the church was between me and the seat, and for a minute or so I lost sight of her. When I came in view again the cloud had passed, and the moonlight struck so brilliantly that I could see Lucy half-reclining with her head lying over the back of the seat. She was quite alone, and there was not a sign of any living thing about.

When we visited Whitby, we of course went to see the church outside which this scene takes place. Sitting in front of my computer at home with the images I took there, I edited one of them with the holga-ish effect in Picnik, to bring out in the image some of the mystery and spooky atmosphere present in the book:

St. Mary's Church, Whitby II

The Holga is an eighties toy camera that takes medium format film. I don’t have a Holga myself, but I do have a Diana+, a remake of a toy camera from the sixties very similar to the Holga. Using black and white film in my Diana, I get images in much the same style as with the digital holga-ish effect:

Fountain

In a sense, the digital Holga photo is a lie, just as much as the airbrushed photos of Britney Spears or any of the other examples mentioned above. Like other digital vintage effects, the holga-ish effect is intended to create digital images that resemble old-fashioned film photography. I see absolutely nothing wrong with this so long as the photographer is honest about how the image was created, just as I want to trust that news photos show reality and to know that celebrity photos are airbrushed.


Rules, part 1

I was a very obedient child – boring, according to my peers – since I understood early on that the rules the adults had placed on me, were for my own good. Brushing teeth prevented cavities, and we were not allowed to leave the kindergarten grounds by ourselves because we could lose our way or get hit by a car.

What about the rules of photography? In our society, we’re conditioned to think that there is some benefit or advantage to following a rule, either for ourselves or for the people we are trying to coexist peacefully with. In the same way, I believe the rules of photography are there for a reason. The difference is that photography is an art, and that art is cultural and subjective. So when a photographer is a strong believer in a certain rule, whether from habit, conditioning or ideology, she benefits from following it because her images improve in her own eyes and in the eyes of the people who believe in the same rule. Other people may believe differently.

Photographic rules is a subject I’ve come to feel strongly about, so this post is only the first of several I hope to write.

One excellent and thought-provoking example I would like to discuss, is found in Bryan Peterson’s book Learning to See Creatively. After presenting the rule of thirds, he describes how the subject should, as a main rule, be placed in the right third of the image. The reason for this, he suggests, is that it is natural for the eye to enter a space from the left and move towards the right. He calls this “almost a psychological ‘law’ ” [original emphasis].

I’ve been thinking about this when I shoot fences for Fence Friday.

In the image below, the line of the fence leads the eye smootly from the left to the right, by way of the main subject – the leaf. As Peterson also shows, the line leading from left to right may in fact be one reason to break the previously mentioned rule and place the subject in the left third of the image, like here.

Fence Friday

In fact, the image with the leaf works a lot better than the image below, where the composition is reversed. There is no good starting point to the left for the eye to enter the image here. Rather, the “sequence” of the image moves from the plant to the right and leftwards into the distance, a far less “natural” movement.

Fence Friday!

In sum, I tend to agree,* as a main rule, that the subject should be placed in the right third of the image, and that a line should lead from left to right rather than the other way around. But I can’t help but wonder how basic these rules really are. In particular, to what extent are they dependent on literacy? In the Western World, the majority of us learns to read from an early age, and our script is read from left to right. But what about the people who learned to read Arabic as a child, where the alphabeth is read from right to left? Do they experience visual elements differently? I don’t know, but I sure would like to find out!

 

*Whether I remember these rules when I’m out in the field shooting is a different story!


Change of focus

Focus is crucial in photography, both technically and artistically. This much is self-evident. But how to achieve the focus I want? How to portray my chosen subjects in such a way that there is a match between the camera’s focus and the focus of my inner vision?

I suspect I’ll never stop wondering about this question.

One of my favourite focus strategies has been to work with a shallow depth of field, making the subject of my image stand out against a blurred background.

I still remember the joy I felt when I first discovered that I, too, could get that blurred background and bokeh I had seen in other people’s images.The photo below is from the first time I explored this technique, spending forever moving the camera, the egg and the candle back and forth in relation to each other.

My very first attempt at bokeh

Reviewing my favourite images from the last three months, I am surprised to see that there are comparatively few images using a shallow depth of field. This is one of my absolute favourites of those I do find:

{36/365} Frost [B/W November 5]

So why am I shooting with a shallow depth of field less frequently now? It would seem there has been a change of focus in my photography, without me quite knowing about it.

There are various reasons for this change in my focus. For one thing, I have recently begun shooting specific themes. For two of these themes, stillness and thresholds, a shallow depth of field does not so far seem to play a big part of my creative vision. Also, I am shooting a lot with my cell phone these days, and the optics of the cell phone camera do not lend themselves well to shallow depth of field effects.

Finally, I have discovered the fact that a narrow aperture and corresponding deep depth of field will result in the starburst points of light that I enjoy so much – when I first looked closely at the image below, I was thrilled to discover that not only was the sun in a starburst shape, but I even caught a mini-starburst of reflected sunlight.

{126/365} I see the light

It seems that my creative photography skills are developing in their own direction and only partially as a result of conscious input from me. I just sit back and enjoy the ride.


Composition

I have a friend who paints, and the other day we were discussing composition from our differing viewpoints, her as a painter and me as a photographer. She told me about something that she had read recently, namely that there is a connection between musical composition and visual composition through the mathematical principles of Pythagoras. I have no idea about the details here, having never read up on this myself, but I’m very fascinated by this idea of a connection between music and photography.

It does make sense; after all, we use the same word to describe the creation of both types of art. While I listen to music a lot, I have no musical training. In other words, I enjoy the end result, but have no insight into the principles behind how the notes and instruments are put together to produce what I enjoy listening to.

In photography, I am beginning to get a feel for the principles behind composing an image. I have written before on the elements of design; in the following I review my favourite images from the last three months in order to highlight the compositional techniques I use both consciously and unconsciously.

I use portrait or landscape orientation as the subject warrants; far more interesting to me is my fondness for square images. I believe my interest in composing square images stems from my love affair with medium format film, and I almost always have a square crop when I shoot with my cellphone, since many of the camera effects on my phone are intended to mimic Lomography medium format type of images. When shooting with my dSLR, I find that it can be an interesting challenge to think in squares since the viewfinder, after all, shows me a rectangle.

I have used a square crop more rarely during the last few months. I think this is because I have started to use a fixed focal length lens (24mm 1:2,8). This lens is forcing me to compose my images much more deliberately in terms of the rectangular frame  shown in the viewfinder, since I have to ‘zoom with my feet’ instead of using the lens to get closer to my subject.

I’ve mentioned before that my subjects tend to be still lifes and details. I notice now that I rarely fill the frame with these objects. Rather, I tend to place them somewhere along the lines defined by the rule of thirds. This leaves a lot of space around my subject, which is filled by bokeh or other background parts of the scene. Clearly, this is a compositional approach that works for me at the moment.

(S)LAUGHTER

Square crop, shot with my cellphone. Love all the eerie green empty space here.

Stillness in the sun

Focus on the bench, but lots of light-filled space in front of it to give the viewer an impression of what it is like to sit down there.

{46/365} Early morning breakfast [B/W November 15]

Lots of dark space in the top part of the image, to give illustrate the darkness of early morning.

Having highlighted a compositional approach that tends to recur in my shooting, I am also able to spot interesting new angles to explore, namely filling the frame and centered compositions. The latter was a prompt in Picture Summer; I ended up with this image, but found it a difficult exercise to deliberately center my subject, and one I haven’t repeated much since, choosing rather to leave it until the time is right.