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My wife can be very unkind about my photography. She’ll often flick through my edits and ask me where the good shots are… I don’t think she has cottoned on to the fact that us creative types are deeply sensitive.
She said to me recently:
Wouldn’t it be amazing to show people how many bad shots you take before you get any good ones?
She is most obviously not a photographer…
But then I started to think about how much time we photographers spend putting out our very best work, and only our best work – as we should!
I started to think that perhaps she was right. Maybe it would be good to show you the photos I took before I got the shot before I nailed it. Definitely a good teaching idea.
There’s a book I love by Magnum photographers who published a collection of their contact sheets. It shows all the mediocre shots of some of the great masters of the art. That is kind of reassuring, right? If even the masters can’t get it right with one shot, there’s hope for the rest of us!
But also shows the process of refining an interesting scene into a great shot.
Photographic composition is all about being able to see interesting elements out there in the world and arranging them in a pleasing, interesting way. That sounds easy enough, right?
Here are some examples of what kinds of things I notice – and how I work the shot from being a good to great composition.
I was in Hong Kong and I was totally awed by the density of skyscrapers, the busy port, intensely colorful lights and the tropical weather.
I am usually a great lover of capturing the emptiness of cities at first light – but for me, Hong Kong was all about evening and nighttime. The play of lights and finding intriguing moments to capture amongst the density of excitement of the city became my goal.
Walking around on my first evening in Hong Kong I saw a red sign in the blue twilight that caught my eye. It had a great contrast of colors. I noticed a nice shapely arrangement of skyscrapers in the distance that created an impressive background across the image.
I’d use a wide aperture to make them a bit soft and create more depth with my red sign. Good start, I’m thinking!
But this isn’t very interesting, right? So I tell myself, “Stop fixating on the red!” Red does tend to keep our attention longer than it really deserves. I start to look around for something else to add to the frame because the elements I have so far are not super-interesting.
I ask myself, “Where are the balance and harmony? Why did I cut my subject in half? Was I so drawn to the skyscrapers that my subject became a secondary thought?”
Yes, that is what I did. I fixated on the red sign and I took a rubbish shot because of it. Where was all my great compositional skill? The image could definitely be improved. So, I move around the scene and moved back.
Okay, this is getting better. Although – can you see in the top right-hand corner there is a little wedge of something. Now I know you can remove things in post-production – but I always aim to get the frame as perfect as possible in camera. It’s more fun for me that way. Plus, if you aren’t checking your corners you are not considering the whole frame, the whole composition.
There is one important point that is obvious here which I tell all of my students – check your corners! I am a believer that you will not create consistently great images if you do not practice total photography. Your subject is only one piece of the perfect puzzle you are attempting to create.
That image you have in your head needs to be constructed – all the pieces assembled with intent. This is a skill separate from camera skills that you must also practice. Just keep shooting with intent and it will come.
Getting back to my images, “Now I’m getting somewhere” I thought. These elements next to the sign, including the circular mirror (why didn’t I see that first? I blame the red!) and the orange light look very compelling to me. So I recompose ever so slightly…
That time though the orange light was off – it was blinking! It took me several frames to get the timing right and capture the orange light.
So after a few minutes of working the scene, I end up with this:
Bang! Now, this is the one. Can you see what’s different in this shot? What I got by moving a little more, and also by timing the shot just right?
You want to get the most impact with every element in your photo. And those details in the mirror are very cool. You can see how I made the reflection really pop in post-production by creating a circular mask just on the mirror and increasing the contrast, exposure, and clarity some. Sweet.
I was in a very industrial part of the city. There were shipping containers everywhere and signs of work around the port. It was an intriguing scene because the ubiquitous skyscrapers were looming in the background.
But the first shot I took, above, is not very interesting, even with decent composition (again it was me thinking that red is really good!) Can you see where I might have thought that there are some interesting elements here that I could work to juxtapose?
I walked up a little further and some vests caught my eye which could be juxtaposed with a backdrop of buildings. But the next shot is not right either.
I saw the work vests and the skyscrapers and thought of the disparity of wealth in this world, especially in cities like Hong Kong – it’s staggering! I got the idea to juxtapose these elements and work a narrative into the image (always a good idea).
I also like this contrast of imagery. You have the workers’ vests draped over the rails – almost like they are exhausted – with the strength and power of the vertical lined building next to them. There is lots of structure contrasted against the softness (weakness) of the workers’ vests.
Even if the narrative was coming together, the photo was not. So I moved around and see what else I could conjure up.
In the shot above I moved back and took in a wider view of the scene. I was really liking this now. The shape of the shipping containers shot at this angle, with the skyscrapers looming in the background works. I still had that strong structure but now with the addition of dynamic lines. Juicy!
I wasn’t totally happy yet – the balance was still not right between the foreground and the background. I needed balance to make the composition neutral and let the viewer pick a side, so to speak.
So I moved a bit more and then – bang – I got the shot.
I am proud of this shot because it displays some of my favourite techniques to compose with – line and form. These all help to construct a narrative.
I often see people on my workshops who will work a scene, but they stop before they have taken their very best shot because they are thinking “Oh, I can work this in post-production. I can crop it, etc.” Or they’re thinking that it’s “good enough”.
Working to find the very best composition definitely pays off. You will never regret spending those extra minutes just being still and looking at a scene for angles and new ideas. You need to make that kind of effort all of the time. And don’t forget to use your imagination. Make up a story. Open yourself to random crazy thoughts. You never know where they may take you creatively.
The cool thing is – you’re loving every moment because you’re out making images. What could be better right?
This last series of images was taken in Havana, Cuba. I was walking about with my assistant just absorbing some back streets when we came upon this scene with the factory smokestack over a residential neighborhood. Ouch! The light couldn’t have been better – it was just before sunset and the light was very warm.
My first instinct when I come upon something that strikes me is to take a shot. I think we all do it. But it is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you accept that there is more to be done.
So I took the reactionary shot above. Dull and uninspired I thought. After looking at the scene a little more I felt motivated to get something, anything else.
I had a dedicated flash on my camera for some other types of images I was making so took this next shot, with the idea of getting a great image with the smoke. But this too was more of a reaction to the young man in the frame – maybe if I timed it right I would get a good pose.
I realized at that point that I was shooting way too wide for what I saw in my head as a vision for this scene. It wasn’t totally clear what that was yet but I knew those first two shots were not it. No way.
I kept moving towards the smoke (at that point our eyes started to itch and our mouths had the taste of bad oil). Next, I took this image:
The man on the fourth floor stands out to me but not to my lens. Way too wide for that – still, this is somewhat better than the previous two shots. I didn’t really want to take an image of the old man sitting at the bottom left of the frame. It is really not my style to be invasive without being social to people first and I was interested in the smoke (fixated really).
At that point, though (a good 3-4 minutes since the first frame shot), I was after a great image. So I took one of the old guy sitting down (I said hello first):
Better. This is a very good image but I wanted one where the smoke was more prominent. I knew I could create that image in my head if I just kept looking for it. So I walked a bit more. I still had my 17-40mm on the camera (I believe it or not, that was all I had with me) and got really close to the smokestack, regardless of my burning eyes and itchy skin.
But right underneath the smokestack, it became substantially more ominous and horrible and I instantly knew how I felt about it – confused and frightened. So I took this last shot and was really pleased with it.
It is an odd composition without a lot of “rules”, which I feel is reflected well in the chaotic nature of the wires and the industrialness of the location, even though there were children practically under my feet. Finally, I got my smoke!
I hope you enjoyed that little meander through my shots. I like to think that turning my head inside out can give you a bit of insight into the creative process.
Here are the key ideas points covered in this article:
I would love to know if you found this process I go through to capture my shots useful? Does it help to see that we all take a bunch of boring shots? Taking photos is more than just pressing a shutter (anyone can do that), but an artist is something we all are inside and photography is our journey/path in finding that inner artist.
Please comment below and let me know what you have learned or how this might have helped you. Thanks!
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