Travelling with your camera.

Sunday, Jun 22, 2014 at 11:58


Travelling with your camera.

Digital cameras are great! In days of old, every shot on film had to wait to be processed, and if it didn’t work as you’d hoped there was often no chance to go back and try again. And of course every shot, good and bad, cost lots. I remember returning from one trip with 17 rolls of film and it really cost to have so many processed and printed! In those days, every shot had to be carefully thought through, the composition, optimising focus, the depth of field, (consequently the required lens aperture and consequently exposure time), could we handhold or should we use a tripod on this one….. which lens.…, and is it really worth the cost of film and processing.

Now it’s easy – the digital camera lenses with their huge zoom range and computers to optimise focus, exposure and even compensate for shaking hands, even take multiple shots so at least one of them should be ok. And the final result is there immediately and at zero cost! Remember the family portrait and Aunt Fanny had her eyes closed! A near disaster on film but no problem with digital and a computer with a free editing program.

But there are downsides to the digital revolution. Many cameras lack the wide aperture lenses that could be used so creatively on our film cameras. But one of the biggest downsides...We have become lazy in composing our images. Although we have lots of megapixels to be creative with, and a millionzillion possible colours for each one, we ignore such simple options as using monochrome for dramatic effect or checking that the background doesn’t detract from the subject matter. It’s so easy to let the camera do the thinking that we give very little thought to optimising our photographic creations. Of course we can edit our photos later to enhance them….. if we can be bothered! But how much better to simply take a good photo in the first place.

There is another unfortunate consequence of handing our creative endeavours over to technology. Because it is so easy to press the button and rely on the camera to do the rest, we spare very little thought for composition and as a result we are forgetting how to look, how to observe, how to judge our view of the world around us. As travellers, we move through a stream of visual images, often so fast that they simply become a blur. If we ask a fellow traveller “Did you see the blossom on that gum back near the creek where the dead lizard was on the road?” Many would respond “What lizard?” “What gum tree?” “I didn’t see any creek”. A lot of people seem to have lost, or have never developed, the art of seeing the richness and detail in the world around them. And without detail much of the beauty and wonder are lost to us. Our cameras have contributed to this loss and have been allowed to usurp too much of our visual creativity. Can we imagine an artist creating a painting with as little thought as we give to pressing the button on our camera? The artist examines the minutiae of his subject, its highlights, its contrasts, its emotional impact – is it threatening, joyous, sombre, does it attract or repel, exude charm or pathos?

So how do we reclaim from our digital cameras the role of artist and use them as an immensely powerful tool to enhance our own creative endeavours? Perhaps even more importantly, can we use them to grow our own powers of observation and our appreciation of what we observe?

Yes we can!

So what are the artistic rules for composing a good photo? Most reference books on photographic artistry start out by saying that there are NO rules, but that there are some valuable and well established guidelines that help in composing an image.

So, what are these artistic guidelines? These relate to our composition. They apply both to setting up the image and later to editing using our computer.

(Note - all of the images here can be enlarged simply by clicking - to close the enlargements use your ESC key (top left on most keyboards.))

Perhaps the most fundamental guideline is known as the RULE OF THIRDS. This one goes back to classical Greece and is derived from the Grecian Golden Number or the Golden Ratio 1:1.618 (which is roughly the ratio of height to width in our photos). For now though, let’s simplify from this ideal. Imagine that our image is divided into 9 equal sized blocks by two vertical and two horizontal lines. The principal subject of our photo should be positioned on one of those lines and preferably at an intersection of a horizontal and a vertical line. This means NOT in the centre! This creates a more interesting picture and allows space for providing a context for our subject, a suitable background which should preferably act as a kind of counterbalance for the subject. (Purists will argue that we should be more mindful of the golden ratio, which yields unequal spacings for those magic lines. Equal spacing is a great starting point for most of us though!)

Here our attention is initially grabbed by Stephen's bright shirt, then he directs it to the plant. A less dominant figure entering from the right provides balance and is clearly heading to that same plant. Both are on the "third" lines.

Again the bright shirt is the starting point and it's positioned on a line of thirds.
There are some other positive factors at work here too. Val is moving INTO the image and looking ahead of her; it's clear that her destination is the cave. This is reinforced by the tree on the right creating a strong boundary on that side.

As travellers we are accustomed to being drawn into our immediate world by the road ahead – it creates a line perhaps running all the way to our present horizon. LEADING LINES can draw us into an image, can lend it a third dimension, depth, and attract our interest.

Here the size of the rig is exaggerated by the depth created by the Leading Line, the long line of wheels. The prominent word "TRAIN" too adds to the size - we expect trains to be long!

SYMMETRY can add interest. The close-up structure of a flower for example can have a special impact because of its symmetry or pattern. This can be exaggerated by a discordant departure from symmetry, eg the presence of a bee on the flower. Symmetry of course flies in the face of the Rule of Thirds – remember these aren’t rules, just guidelines!

Carefully selecting our viewpoint can add drama and interest to our creation – aiming upwards or downwards or even angling the camera, zooming to exaggerate distance, can all add interest and all expand our own perception and enrich our experience of the moment too.

But this is a bit overdone here on the left! Our immediate response is rejection - "a lighthouse can't have a slope like this". Symmetry on the right looks better. Or maybe one of those below would be more interesting?

How about this seascape - would it be easier to accept if the horizon was horizontal?

With a moving subject, try forcing the camera to use a slow shutter speed and following the subject so that while the subject remains in sharp detail the background becomes a blur.

Selecting background is important. Your image should have a single well defined subject and while the background may be used to subtly support the subject, it should never compete.

Framing your subject is a good way of confining attention to it. The frame defines the boundary and helps draw the eye to the subject.

Now, a few subtleties that can enhance our efforts… or undermine them!

Our primary aim is to convey a particular message to the viewer, and we want them to get the message we intend, not just something they’ve managed to deduce from our image. We need to make it easy for the viewer to know just what we are trying to convey to them. We must avoid confusing them. We must focus their attention on our subject and mustn’t clutter the image with excessive peripheral material that might draw their attention away. We must have only one dominant subject.

Here's a pretty picture, but what is the subject - the birds or the sunrise? Both are on those special "thirds" lines. The brightness of the sunrise draws us, while in fact the birds may have been the intended subject. The slow shutter speed has blurred the bird's wings implying movement - a nice touch.

If our subject is moving across the image, allow space for them to move into. If they are moving left to right as here, position them in the left third, leaving space for them to move into on the right. This helps to imply movement. In the second picture our pelican has nowhere to go yet is still paddling!

With human subjects especially, beware of background that may appear part of the subject. The classic “don’t do this” picture is often of a pretty girl with a tree or a church steeple growing out of her head! Waiting just half a second would have avoided this problem for the pelican.

Lighting is important. The eye is attracted to bright elements of an image and in landscape pictures, too much bright sky is a common mistake. That said, features in the sky, cloud formations or sunset colours, can make it a very special backdrop.

Now a few final thoughts - We started by wondering about the way we've allowed our high technology cameras to usurp our role as artists. I reckon though that we can take back that role and use them as very capable assistants rather than masters.

And the really big win?

By looking to manage our cameras we become much more observant of our surroundings, of the drama, the wonder, the richness and beauty around us.

J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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