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The following tip on photographing outdoor sculpture was submitted by Dianne Durante from Forgotten Delights.
For my website, www.ForgottenDelights.com, I’ve taken thousands of photos of outdoor sculptures in Manhattan – a tough job given the erratic weather, extreme congestion, and a recent ruling restricting use of tripods in public places. The following techniques have helped me greatly improve my photos over the past years, and should help you take great photos of outdoor sculpture wherever you happen to be.
1. Wait out the weather – Overcast skies are the best: no camera can cope with the extreme contrasts of light and shadow that the sun makes on polished bronze or bright white marble. [See photos of the Washington Arch and Ericsson at Battery Park.] If it’s a sunny day, try looking for a sculpture that’s completely in shadow, not merely dappled shade. That may mean shooting in the afternoon rather than the morning, or vice versa, or waiting until a neighboring building conveniently casts a shadow over the sculpture.
2. Look first – Getting a good angle on a sculptured face is just as important as getting a good angle when taking a formal portrait of a live person. Walk all around the sculpture and figure out the most interesting angles before you look through the viewfinder and get side-tracked by apertures and exposures. Usually the most interesting angle for a face will be a profile view or a 3/4 view, rather than a full-frontal mug shot. But perhaps you’ll find you want to look at a skyscraper over the sculpture’s shoulder, or focus on one detail.
3. Zoom – Many sculptures are on pedestals, so if you stand close to them to shoot, your photo will be filled with legs and feet. To compensate, back up as much as you can (without backing into the street!) and use your optical zoom to fill the frame. If possible, stand on a bench or a slight hill – anything that brings your eye level closer to that of the sculpture.
4. Background Check – Look methodically for distractions. In New York, the most frequent offenders are street signs, pigeons, and tree branches. [See William Earl Dodge in Bryant Park.] Consider the texture as well as the shape and color of objects behind the sculptures: a shiny face may disappear against a mirrored background. [See Jackie Gleason / Ralph Kramden.] Shift your position to remove as many distractions as possible.
5. Spot metering (Center-weighted metering) – Once you’ve found a good angle and distance, set your camera to meter the light only at the center of the frame. Aim the center mark on your viewfinder at a big, sold chunk of statue such as the torso; the sky behind the statue may fade almost to white. Press the shutter halfway down to hold the setting and shift your camera back to pointing at the treeless, pigeonless, signless image you composed before. If this doesn’t get you an image with good detail, trying using the exposure bracketing function (still center-weighted), if your camera has one. [See Lincoln at Union Square, with normal vs. center-weighted metering.]
6. Simplify, simplify, simplify – If there are too many distractions around a particular sculpture, you may have to settle for several close-up shots rather than one photo of the whole sculpture. Try a different view of the face, face and torso, hands, or supporting elements. Also experiment with shooting in B&W or sepia tone: a “no parking” sign is often less offensive if it’s not red. [See Lincoln at Union Square.]