One of the most common criticisms amateur photographers and non-photographers spout is, “You cut off their heads,” or, “I can’t believe you cut off the top of my head!”
The idea is that all images of people should always include the entire person, head to toe, I guess. It’s one of the dumbest criticisms we face. Composing a photograph as a work of art or self-expression is a lot different than shooting grade school head shots in front of a green screen. Take, for example, this image of my wife Abby, made many years ago…
But but but… where’s the top of her hair!?
Honestly, when people say this, politely walk away. Don’t accept their offers to hire you for their next wedding. They are visionless and uninspired. They expect your images to fit in their cookie cutters.
So why, Richard, did you crop this image the way you did? Simply put, intimacy. We, the viewers, are closer to her, and in particular, we are closer to her eyes. This composition invites you into the moment, like we just looked up and saw her smiling at us. And it works so well.
So if you face this kind of addle criticism, take heart. There are still those of us who understand how images really work.
There’s a lot of talk, usually to, rather than among, photographers, about angle. People on the street tell me they “loved the angle you got” in a photo on the sport page, or they’ll see me working and say, “trying to get just the right angle, huh?”
Honestly, the whole angle thing is made up by television. We photographers don’t ever use the word “angle” in our work, mostly because we don’t need to use it. Instead of thinking about an angle (15º, 37º, 55º, what?), real photographers decide where to be and move there much more organically, even instinctively. Instead of thinking “I need to shoot this from a high angle,” we just climb on something. Instead of thinking “I should move 30º to the left,” we just move and watch until the image comes together.
But with everything creative and artistic, there are exceptions, and the most important exception about angle in photography is in lighting. Sometimes the slightest change in the angle of the light, either by moving the light or moving the camera, can change the entire character of an image.
Consider then, the next two images, which I made after changing a small 12-volt light bulb and finding the burned out bulb visually interesting.
Both images are made at the same exposure, with the same lens, and without moving the lights. The only change was movement slightly down as I searched for exactly what I wanted, but as you can see, it didn’t change the composition much, but it did change the light, both in the subject, and in what was illuminated in the background.
As I might have mentioned before, I am in the process of editing, in my spare moments, the hundreds of images I shot on our October anniversary vacation, A Perfect Ten. Working on these images has been a very satisfying experience, since so many of my jaunts yielded excellent images, most of which I was not able to include in the trip report. I am, however, publishing many of them on my photo blog, and here on the teaching blog.
Today, as my wife sleeps in her recliner because snow and sleet kept her from going to work, I am again chewing on some of those images. In that process, I ran across one in particular that seemed to reach into my sense of adventure, an image I made in an area I visited for the first time, just north of Delicate Arch in the vicinity of Echo Arch (according to the kiosk at the visitor center – if you know better, please let me know.)
The reason I like this image so much is…
Its monochromatic lighting resulted in an excellent black-and-white red-filter rendering
It is an angle from which I never shot before and yields a new view of an old haunt
It shows Echo Arch at the very bottom of the frame and the Delicate Arch area (though the actual arch is concealed by terrain) at the top
It invites me to come and romp in the adventure playground of southern Utah
The utter complexity of the image is intriguing, and invites the eye to explore it
Editing these images is great fun. I’m sure I will come across many more teaching points as I explore them.
The photographer in the image in this post is using the latter-day technique of shooting from an angle that’s hard to get while looking through a viewfinder.
Looking up or down with a wide angle lens at a ladder, hillside, ski slope, swing set, church, Christmas tree, hiking trail, fountain, radio tower, Ferris wheel… you get the idea … anything that has lines and forms that can be used to invite our viewer into the image… can create very exciting compositions.
This was harder to do in the film days because the framing is just a guess, since the camera is so high or low that we can’t see what it’s seeing. But in the digital era, we can instantly review what we just shot and fit whatever might need to be fixed.
Don’t hesitate to play around with unusual angles and compositions. It can really pay off.
Years ago, Scott Andersen was working as a photography stringer (biz speak for freelancer) for the Associated Press in Oklahoma City. Since OKC isn’t too far off, our paths would cross when we were shooting, particularly when we were both working college sports. Once day at an Oklahoma University basketball game, he and I were shooting, and he looked over at me and incredulously asked, “You shoot basketball horizontal?”
Yes, I do hold my camera horizontally (landscape mode) rather than vertically for basketball. I’ve always been more comfortable shooting it that way, though I didn’t really analyze the mechanics of it until recently.
I was shooting a college basketball at ECU‘s Kerr Activities Center here in Ada and thought for a moment about what exactly I was doing, when I put it together: I hold the camera horizontally so I can lower it slightly and see the whole court so I can keep track of the action, which helps me decided when and where to shoot. I believe this is because I am a left-eyed shooter, so though it is open, my right eye is blocked by the camera body. Right-eyed people can see the court without moving their camera.
My results are a little different than those who hold vertically, but in all honesty, most of my action imagery is aimed at the moment of conflict, which includes moments like fast breaks and loose ball scrambles, and those kinds of plays often defy composition, so they might be horizontal, vertical, or square.
or How to Avoid Boring the Audience with Your Wide Angle Lens
Photography is a surprisingly complex visual puzzle. In addition to using a lot of numbers, it is rife with its own jargon: the inverse square law, the exposure triangle, circles of confusion, lighting ratios, the rule of thirds, and on and on.
One thing I see again and again, and hear described and debated, that is directly related to the geometry of photography, is the misuse of wide angle lenses. Many images that make very poor use of wide angle lenses pass through my hands every day. Not only do I see tons of images shot with wide angles that simply fail to fill the frame with a basic subject (like group photos with the group in the middle of a mostly empty frame), I also see wide angle images that fail to grasp the most fundamental concept in photography: storytelling.
Proper selection of focal length is one of the ways we tell the viewer our story, but it doesn’t end there. Once we have mounted our 18mm or our 85mm or our 300mm, we can’t just sit back and let it do the work. I see a lot of web forum posts with titles like, “What’s the best portrait lens (or wide angle, or telephoto, etc.) for my Camcon 9000?”
The answer is, of course, “that depends.” And it mostly depends on you.
The most important thing you can do with a wide-angle lens – and I can’t emphasize this enough – is use near-far relationships to invite the audience into your image. Without this essential storytelling element, wide angle shots, particularly landscapes, can easily bore the audience.
In the end, the success of your images made with a wide angle or ultra wide angle lens will sink or swim on how you use it. It requires a willingness to give up boring, easy perspectives and work to find ways to tell your story with the lines and angles that are available with these incredible tools.
I worked a baseball game in Asher, Oklahoma, yesterday, which is about 28 miles from our home in Byng. The light was nice and it was quite warm out. My route to the game took me past Konawa’s Violet Cemetery, noted for supposedly having a tombstone in it with the inscription, “Killed by Human Wolves.” I mostly regard it as a legend, but there was nice late afternoon light on my way home from the game, so I stopped to look for it.
I didn’t find the inscription, but I made a few nice photos. The light was very warm due to a combination of high cloud cover and smoke from distant grass fires.
As I shot, with my Sony F828, I felt certain that I would convert my images to black-and-white, since the color content was unimpressive and a little distracting, while the tones and textures provided a strong sense of mood.
I also noted three tombstones close together that read…
Our Baby, son of Buster and Tina Sharp, Sept. 17, 1920
Our Baby, son of Buster and Tina Sharp, June 21, 1923
Our Baby, son of Buster and Tina Sharp, July 2, 1926
I wondered how difficult it must have been for the Sharps.
Back at the office, I felt I had strong images, particularly one of a wooden cross on a granite grave stone. I did, as I had anticipated, render it in black-and-white, using Photoshop’s channel mixer dialog to simulate using a yellow filter with black-and-white film. I then used the levels dialog to fine tune the tones and make them deeper and bolder.
My wife Abby and I went to her hometown (link) of Ryan, Oklahoma, yesterday. After a nice lunch, she and her family caught up on the latest news about town, while I decided to walk toward the Red River, which is not far, and make some pictures.
The day was clear and warm.
The only DSLR we had with us was Abby’s Nikon D3000, which I like to shoot sometimes because it gives me a better perspective on the cameras I see in the hands of my students. On it was the Tamron 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3, a lens about which I have decidedly mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is convenient, but on the other hand, the wide end isn’t quite wide enough. It also suffers optically at the long end.
I didn’t make it as far as the River, but I followed a fence about half a mile into a pasture, where I found some steers grazing. I circled one of the ponds in the vicinity, and while I was at it I startled the steers enough to make them all gallop away to the west.
I moved along the ribbons of cattle trails, which made hiking easier than bushwhacking the rough terrain. I found some bones, which I photographed.
I came across a ravine, which I followed for some time. In it were numerous gnarled trees and low brush. Judging from the tracks, the cattle followed the ravine as well.
After an hour chasing the light and the features of the farm, I made my way back to the house.
The point of this post is that you can’t sit in the living room and let your camera collect dust. To make new pictures, you have to explore. The walk I made on this day was easy, fun, and quiet. The light was inviting. The air was clear. And the images I made were all very satisfying.
Since it is the Christmas season and the Christmas lights season, I thought I would share a couple of tips about photographing the tinsel and glitter.
Turn off that flash. If you shoot in AUTO (also know as “green box mode”) while trying to photograph a Christmas tree or a parade, your camera will probably respond to the relative darkness with flash. Pick another exposure mode (see The PASM) and turn off the flash.
See the light. Holiday lighting is very dim compared to normal lighting conditions. Prepare accordingly; you’re going to need a large-aperture lens (the 50mm f/1.8 in many camera bags is a great choice) or a tripod, or both.
Be aggressive with exposure compensation. The +/- selector is your best friend, and unless you are in manual mode (exposure compensation only effects automatic exposure modes), you’ll probably need a lot of +. The exposure sensors will see the bright lights and adjust accordingly, often resulting in pinpoint lights and large, black backgrounds. That doesn’t convey the sense of glowing light that makes Christmas beautiful.
Use aperture to your advantage. This is not the time to let the camera pick medium apertures. Go one way or the other all the way. Big apertures in the range of f/1.4 through f/2.8 can give you those shallow depths of field and powerful selective focus, while very small aperture like f/22 render most everything in focus, plus improve the look of points of light by emphasizing the “sunstar” effect.
Think high ISO. If shooting moving subjects like a Christmas parade or a child under a Christmas tree, add higher ISO to that large aperture. Trust me – these scenes are not as bright as they seem, and camera and subject motion will become a factor unless you crank open the lens and crank up the ISO. Think ISO 3200 at f/2.
Don’t forget to have Christmas. This is a big one, and it’s hard, since everyone seems to want to a be a photographer. Getting good pictures of Christmas memories is secondary to actually experiencing the event that becomes those memories. Put down the camera or let someone else take a few pictures and watch the parade, open your presents, drink your egg nog. It’s your holiday too.
Several years ago R. E. and I had an interesting conversation while photographing a decaying blue wall at a downtown Oklahoma City auto repair shop. The shop, and all the businesses around it, is gone due to construction of the crosstown expressway, so our images from that day can’t be reshot.
Robert shot with his Nikon F4 and a very old but excellent 20mm f/4 Nikkor. His setup was old school in the best sense of old school. One thing that is absolutely true about Robert is that his first priority is always imaging, not equipment.
He and I pondered that day the concept of decay, and why it is so photographically interesting…
It is visually complex; decay is full of tiny, chaotic details.
It is unusual, particularly to viewers who live and work in highly civilized environments.
It leads to unstructured composition, lines and areas that are beyond what we normally photograph, thus allowing us to break the rules of composition.
I am particularly attracted to decay that involves color, since I think it draws the viewer into the image more dramatically.
Maybe the most compelling aspect of making images of decay is that it represents our ultimately futile efforts to order our chaotic universe. It’s all food for thought, but as I think about it, I’ll continue to photograph it.
I live in the county, and springtime is everything you might imagine it is here. It’s a little like a Norman Rockwell painting, only without the Depression-era school children fishing from the pond.
We’ve had adequate rain this spring, and with that, everything has been green. In addition to the extra mowing that I need to do when there is enough rain, there are also more imaging opportunities. When I finished mowing the pasture tonight, the light was so nice and everything was so green that I grabbed a camera – the Nikon D80 with a Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 on it – and set out to make pictures of the iris (my favorite flower) that blooms on the other end of the patch where our defacto Mother-in-law Dorothy lived.
I like my D80s, although they aren’t as robustly built as the pro hardware I use at work every day. It’s a trade-off for their lightweight compactness. The Tamron is a capable lens, but it, too, isn’t built like the super-heavy Nikkor I use to shoot news day after day.
Initially, I had some success, especially with the deep purple iris along the fence by the barn. The maturing late afternoon light cooperated, and I was pleased. I also got some decent images of the gold-and-lilac colored iris near the rock wall by the road. It is a particularly photogenic color combination. I also noticed that the light purple/dark purple iris was blooming wildly, but was in full shadow. I almost gave up and went inside. I was covered in grass and dust from mowing. But I decided that the light might change in my favor, so I stuck around and watched as it crept into the rose garden and finally touched one iris, then another, just enough that it made beautiful, delicate images with much more evening-light subtlety that the solid-purple iris I’d photographed just 20 minutes earlier.
Before the night was over, I picked a red rose and a peace rose from Dorothy’s garden and brought them to my wife.
In previous entries I talked about some of my favorite portraits and some of my favorite travel images. Initially I wanted to cull them down to five top all-time images, but found I was unable because so many of my favorite images presented themselves for my consideration. Compared to that, this project is much more difficult: reducing my entire career in photojournalism to just a few dozen images.
When I started working on this post, I culled a number of images from over the years and put them in a folder called “Best of PJ.” When I opened the folder I found 128 images in it, so I made a folder called “Best of best of PJ,” and moved what seemed like my best images to it. I somehow managed to get that folder down to just 40 images. Most of them are from my time at The Ada News and Ada Magazine, since most of my career has been here. Many of the images in this entry won awards from organizations like the Associated Press and the Oklahoma Press Association.
The Oklahoma Daily and The Sooner Yearbook, Norman, Oklahoma, 1983-1985
When I was with Oklahoma University Student Publications, I focused more attention on the yearbook, since I believed, correctly so, that the quality of reproduction of my images in the yearbook would be higher. As the years passed at OU, however, I saw more opportunity to get into print from the daily. Once when I was in college, I was in Tulsa to see a couple of friends and I had a few extra minutes. I had some images with me, so I decided to run them past an editor at the Tulsa World. Not only was he impressed, he kept asking me, “You’re a student?” I have to admit, that was pretty flattering.
The Shawnee News-Star, Shawnee, Oklahoma, 1985-1988
An Associated Press photographer for whom I had been freelancing called me one morning in the fall of 1985 and said, “Get your butt over to the Shawnee paper and get that job,” and hung up. I started on the evening shift at the News-Star in November of 1985, where I was partnered with day-shift photographer Ed Blochowiak.
The Daily Times, Ottawa, Illinois, 1988
I was only in Illinois for a short time, but I was paired with a talented young photographer named Harold Krewer, and Harold and I often challenged each other to various “shoot-outs.” Harold is no longer in the news business, as last I heard he was following his dream of being curator at a railroad museum.
Ada Evening News, The Ada News, Ada Magazine, Ada, Oklahoma, 1988 to Present
In October of 1988 I returned to Oklahoma to work at my current newspaper, the Ada Evening News, which has since become The Ada News. Since I am the sole photographer, by default I am the Chief Photographer. A few of the significant milestones at our newspaper include the ability to produce our own color separations in 1991, our first use of digital imaging using a film scanner in 1998, and my first digital camera in 2001. In 2007 we started Ada Magazine, and I was named its editor.
Without a doubt I have omitted many great images, but hopefully these represent the character of my work. My photojournalism is a work in progress, so I intend to create a post similar to this at the end of 2012, and annually after that.
You can see a much larger collection of my photojournalism here.
Building a list of my top five favorite portraits was even more difficult than deciding on my top five travel images. For one thing, my portraiture spans a much longer period, reaching all the way back to the early 1980s. Another factor is that I married a woman, Abby, I consider to be among the most beautiful of all the women I have ever known, and images of her quickly overpopulated my list.
My portraits have always been of a fairly straightforward style. I realize that there are many hundreds of styles of portraiture in photography, and within those many are an almost infinite number of personal styles. There are also many non-stylized forms of portraiture in the world too, like the pictures you might get made of your two-year-old at Wal Mart’s front-of-the-store studio (at which the “photograpers” are literally trained not to be creative.)
I also make many images of people that I do not consider portraits, because they don’t express anything about the people except how their faces look; studio mug shots, guest speakers behind lecturnes, people making award presentations, etc., as part of my job as a newspaper photographer.
One important difference between much of my photojournalism and my portraiture is that in the first, I am trying to capture a moment, and in the second I am trying to capture a spirit. What really makes a portrait for me is capturing something about that spirit of the people I am photographing. For example, an image of a curious child captures something essential about that person. An image of a model for a magazine ad does not. Children are expressing themselves when they play, while models, for the most part, are just doing what they are told.
There are a lot of variables. In the end, I’ll say that the spirit I hope to capture is mostly revealed in the eyes of my subjects. They are known as “Windows of the Soul” for a reason, that they are the most emotionally revealing aspect of the human form.
As part of this discussion, I am including lens focal length in the captions, since it can be a significant, though not all-encompassing, factor in the creation of a portrait. You might notice that I tend toward the 85mm to 105mm region when choosing a portrait lens, focal lengths which are often regarded as “classic” portrait lenses, and for good reason. These focal lengths allow us to fill the frame with a human face while doing so at a natural, conversational distance.
Portraits aren’t always about flattering a subject or making a subject beautiful, although many of my images are of beautiful people. Sometimes they can be about ruggedness, loneliness, suffering, playfulness, sadness, companionship, and on and on. The only real requirement is that we see who is inside.
As with the travel photos before, I was able to cull this list down only so far, at which point I just couldn’t cut any more. The images collected here are the result after one round after another of editing, deleting, rethinking, etc. The “top five” changed as often as I looked at them. I’ll leave it to you to pick your top five.
My friend R. E. called me from San Diego the other day. He was selling a few of his fine art photographs at an arts festival. It was somewhat impromptu on his part, so he only had five images for sale. As we talked, he posed the question, “What are your five favorite images?”
Wow. Five. I’m not sure I could even get down to five categories. Nevertheless, in an effort to answer the challenge, I have been digging though my Image Archive hard drive as I write this. Since it is fairly unlikely I could get this down to five images from everything I’ve shot (I’m a professional photographer, after all), I’ll make this my first installment: travel photos. It still won’t be easy.
I should also add that a list like this is likely to change on an almost daily basis, and there are literally thousands more images I could sneak in here that I feel would be just as worthy. All of these images appear in our travel blog, The Traveller.
I created an entry similar to this two years ago, when I saw a blog entry by Los Angeles photographer and friend Tom Clark called “Eleven Images.” It inspired me, but I was only able to cull down to fifteen of my own images at the time.
I have to say that whenever I look through all these images, no matter the reason, I get very nostalgic about the places and times and moments. I want to go back and do it all again; it was that fun.
But back to the photos. As I cull, I dismiss most images, even ones I like. The only images I am dragging to my “Top 5?” folder are the ones I see and say, “I love that image!” After looking through all my travel photos from all our trips in the past 25 years, I got down to 28 images that I “love.” Hmm. It looks like I’ll have 23 honorable mentions.
If you’ve read this far, you probably realize that in spite of my quippy captions, all of these images warrant consideration. I am proud of the work I have created in my travels over the years, as proud as I am of the vast cadre of images I have provided as a news photographer. It is immensely satisfying, and it adjudicates all the hours of devotion, from the early days in the darkroom trying to get a decent black-and-white print, to all those long, lonely hikes in the wilderness that didn’t really offer any imaging potential, to the times I skimped and saved to afford photo gear.
Often when I read top five or top ten or top 25 lists, like of movies or CDs or books, I find myself strongly disagreeing with editor’s choices. That is certainly your prerogative as you read this. If you think one of these images belongs somewhere else, or you have seen an image on The Traveller you think belongs here, let me know. I might have overlooked something wonderful.
Finally, here are the top five images, not in any particular order:
One thing I tell my students is something Bill Dixon, chief photographer at the Lawton Constitution, told me in May 1982: fill up the frame.
There are a lot of good reasons to fill up the frame. In 1982, you filled up the frame so you wouldn’t have to enlarge (“blow up”) the useful area of the image as much. Enlarging a photographic negative also enlarges its flaws, like grain and dust, so filling up the frame makes sense.
In the digital age, filling up the frame has the advantage of actually using the pixels for which we paid so dearly. We were sold on pixels for years: “You need at least eight megapixels if you want to…” blah blah blah. So we’d buy an eight megapixel camera and immediately, and usually constantly, shoot images without filling up the frame, then crop out literally millions of those expensive pixels.
Possibly even more significant than the concept of preserving quality is the notion of preserving composition, particularly those often very-descriptive near/far relationships that help draw our viewers into the stories we hope to tell with our images. Particularly when we shoot with wide-angle lenses, we create lines and frames that invite the audience in to our images. We do that by filling up the frame in a very exact way (ideally), when we shoot the image. If we shoot too loose, then crop, those lines and frames can break down pretty quickly.