I love the composition technique of natural framing, and although it doesn’t crop up that much in my images, when it is the right technique for the shot I think it makes for very simple and elegant composition.
I’m not really a fan of the very obvious forms of natural framing – unlike many of the other rules of composition it is something to be use sparingly – because it will very quickly make your photos look samey. But when the situation is right, then it makes beautiful photos.
In this post I am going to explain natural framing but I am also going to give you some ideas so you can adapt and use it in more sophisticated ways.
Natural framing is when you use a natural element to ‘frame’ your subject. What this does is draw your eye into the photo and to the actual subject of the photo. Your eye doesn’t absorb the image all at once, it moves around the photo and your job as a photographer is to use the elements within the frame to direct the viewer’s eye. It also gives a photograph an added layer to add some complexity to what could end up being too flat or boring a photograph.
I think – like any technique – it has to feel like an inherent part of the image, not something you overlay as an afterthought.
You can use many things for your frame – like door frames, tunnels, tree branches, windows, caves, bodies of water, lines, fences, weather systems, light – anything that can form a frame-like shape – or a partial-frame like shape.
And very importantly to remember – it doesn’t have to be a complete frame around your image – in fact I am not really a fan of that – partial-framing on two or three sides is usually more compelling and less obvious.
This is a very straightforward use of natural farming:
I often use natural framing to frame buildings, statues or objects where there is nothing else interesting that is surrounding the subject. And I use is most often to obscure boring sky. Like in the photo above. It can also help to reduce any negative space in a photo, when it starts to detract from the image.
It’s important when you are using natural elements like tree branches, that you keep a very clear separation with your subject, otherwise it can all meld together and look messy. I like it to be ordered, but with an element of wildness.
The biggest disadvantage of natural framing is it can almost be too simple, too obvious. And like most things that are simple, it takes practise to make something simple appear compelling and interesting.
“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” Hans Hofmann
One thing I really like to do in my photography is contrast very solid human-made structures with the beautiful, light parts of nature. This is a good example. So I have framed the incredible pink sky with those pretty clouds – which even though they are stunning you do need something else to contrast it to really show off their beauty. Like maybe how you can’t really appreciate the amazingness of life if you haven’t experienced the dark parts of life!
So this has the very heavy, dark grey and solemn building framing the light. This time the ‘frame’, the building, is taking up a massive amount of the photo – and that’s because it has very interesting colour, light and textures. I think if the building had been half the photo that would have looked too obvious and not as compelling. And if the building was less than half of the photo I don’t think you would have felt it’s heavy, almost oppressiveness – and therefore you wouldn’t have had the lovely feeling of the etherealness of the light.
When discussing my photos it may seem that they fall into several techniques – and really some of these photos I’ve used could fall into other composition categories – like rule of thirds, leading lines etc. But what I think is important here is that one of things that I think is the hardest part of composition for people is to break the world down that we see in 3D, into elements and to arrange them accordingly. And analysing and practising using any compositional technique is a really good way to train your eye into recognising the elements in the world around us that can be organised into interesting compositions.
You can use natural framing to create a vignette in the edges of the image. A vignette is when the corners get gradually darker, so that your eye is drawn towards the centre, or the lightest part of the frame.
This photo above was one I processed quite significantly, really creating a lot of contrast and adding a vignette in Lightroom, you can see how I did it here.
Sometimes you can even use a frame as, well, a frame! Funnily enough with this photo if you didn’t have the frame within the image it wouldn’t look like enough of a photo. It needed the structure of being pulled together by the window and door frames.
I should call this the window of life! It’s almost like you are framing the most mundane and ordinary part of life. An empty shop with bad lighting.
Now here is a very subtle use of natural framing. My subject is the three people and their physical expressions. What is framing them, and emphasising the subject is the shadow all around them. That darkness in the photo allows your eye to immediately be drawn to the contrast of the bright light and the expressive shadows of the people – which is my subject. The impact of the subject is emphaised by the rest of the photo being in shadow.
This photo was a funny one. I took it on one of my dawn wandering in Istanbul, and there was no-one around on the streets at all. Then all of a sudden I saw this shadow – what a photographers dream! And I noticed behind me, out of nowhere, someone behind me also taking this photo. I wonder if his photo is also floating around the web, albeit at a slightly different angle!
Framing can be made from two or more different elements framing your subject. This photo below isn’t a traditional use of the technique, but can you see how the Galata Tower is the main subject, and the buildings and road are leading the eye towards it? A simple straight forward shot of the Galata Tower, without anything surrounding it, wouldn’t have proved to be as interesting.
This is a nice example of how you can sometimes combine two elements that are not interesting on their own, but together they make a nice composition. And reflections are an amazing composition tool.
And how about multiple frames within an image? Is this still natural framing? Not sure but – I like ideas taking shape in all kinds of different ways – and it sure is fun!
Another cool way to use natural framing is to have the frame be out of focus – and that will help create depth.
And by using elements that aren’t very structured or clear, like trees, leaves, bushes and natural elements, you get interesting textures and depth in the photo.
So I hope I’ve given you some ideas of how to use natural framing in your photos. This compositional technique really helped me when I was starting out – and I encourage you to practise this technique and learn how to bring it into some of your images in a creative, but subtle, way.
I’d love to know what you think about natural framing – have you used this technique before? Please do comment below And of course if you know someone who likes taking photos – please share this with them.
As some one who spends a lot of time photographing dawn, unsurprisingly my mind snaps awake very early. This morning I think it was about 5am. I slipped out of bed and sat in my living room by the window that faces the ocean.
Outside it is still dark, a vast inky blackness stretching out before me, with the sea and sky blending into one in the distance. The golden twinkle of stars, in the clear dark, endless sky feel like I am looking into galaxies and worlds far and away.
The world feels so big at this time. Like so much is happening beyond me and my little life. It feels startling to be alive at this time, and it reminds me of something I read by Richard Dawkins:
“After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it?”
And though I may not be taking in-depth looks at the universe, I do think paying attention to what’s around me and aiming to capture it in the best possible way to share with the world, is in itself a noble pursuit.
I’ve talked a lot in the past about my love of light. Light to me is mesmerising. I want to feel it, to capture it, to show it in all its glory. But colour to me is an equally beautiful thing, and totally connected to and affected by light. And because:
“Color is joy. One does not think joy. One is carried by it.” Ernst Haas
I love that thought – carried by colour and joy! Haas for me is king of capturing the feeling of colour and light.
This thinking about colour is in part inspired by the new Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition in London. I don’t know her work very well, but when I started to look at her paintings and how she talked about her work I got a little tingle of excited recognition, as this is how I feel about my photos:
“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.” Georgia O’Keefe
It has inspired me to think about how I teach people about colour, and I have started to plan a more in-depth post. But for this post I want to start by celebrating some of the sheer vibrancy that colour brings to our lives and how we capture that as photographers, as artists, as people who are paying attention to this wild and beautiful world.
I also just want to celebrate the amazing artist that Georgia O’Keeffe was, and I want to show you some of the work and how I feel her thoughts about her own art connect with some of my photos. (These excellent Brainpickings articles show deeper thoughts about her work, here and here. )
I want this to inspire you to look at how you capture colour in your photos too.
“I paint because colour is a significant language to me.” Georgia O’Keefe.
Colour is deeply affecting to us as humans. Think of all those colour charts – red signals danger, blue signals cold etc. The artist Wassily Kandinsky developed a colour theory that stated that colours made people feel certain ways.
“Colour is a power which directly influences the soul.”Wassily Kandinsky
The feelings and states he attached to colours were:
Yellow – warm, exciting, happy
Blue – deep, peaceful, supernatural
Green – peace, stillness, nature
White – harmony, silence, cleanliness
Black – grief, dark, unknown
Red – glowing, confidence, alive
Orange – radiant, healthy, serious
Here is a lovely little film animating Kandinsky’s colour theory. Plus an article about the artist that brings in the sound and musical elements of his work, as well as the feeling of colour.
Blue is a very significant colour for me (I’ve noticed). And I like that it connects me to the supernatural (according to Kandinsky :))
“I said to myself, I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me – shapes and ideas so near to me – so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down.” Georgia O’Keeffe
It doesn’t have to be vibrant colours. The depth and subtle variations of any colour is a mesmerising world of its own.
And it doesn’t have to be a fancy subject. Here is another of my, found on the street photos, that I love taking. Vibrant colours or what?!?
And if you want to be more artistic, more creative, more inspired, just follow O’Keeffe’s advice:
“I often lay on that bench looking up into the tree, past the trunk and up into the branches. It was particularly fine at night with the stars above the tree.”
I Iove to bring out the richness of the more muted subtle colours. Which I have to really be good at as winters are long in London, lol!
“I often painted fragments of things because it seemed to make my statement as well as or better than the whole could.” O’Keeffe
Capturing colour as your main subject of your photo is often easiest to start doing when you break down the elements, photographing parts of the subject and turning it into an abstraction:
I’ll end with a quote of O’Keeffe’s that isn’t about colour, but one that is always a good reminder that it is not just mere mortals like us that feel fear:
“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”
I would love to know – how does colour affect you? Let me know by commenting below. Love to hear from you guys.
Today’s idea is a simple concept that when properly grasped and practised will be a very powerful tool for you in your box of skills and ideas. It’s something you can use straight away when you are out in the thick of shooting and want some help composing.
It is, put simply, to learn to compose your photos using just three elements, so let’s start ‘thinking in threes.’ Let me explain.
Humans love a pattern and three is the smallest number that you can use to create a pattern. Patterns are pleasing to look at, we also like to talk in threes (‘small, medium, large’, ‘blood, sweat and tears’, ‘past, present, future.’) and they are interesting to create with.
When I am composing in threes I am trying to keep things simple. An element can be weather, textures, lines, shapes…things! Anything that is strong within the frame that contributes significantly to the balance and relationships and is enhancing your subject. Remember, the only purpose of supporting elements is to make your SUBJECT look better.
Now if you can learn to compose really simple photos, using only three elements (one subject and two supporting elements) it will also enhance your photos when you take on more complex compositions. You will be more confident in organising and placing your elements.
“What’s really important is to simplify. The work of most photographers would be improved immensely if they could do one thing: get rid of the extraneous. If you strive for simplicity, you are more likely to reach the viewer.” William Albert Allard
Why three elements?
In a lot of photography I see from people the subject is drowning in complexity. It’s all alone in a sea of confusion with nothing to save it. No support, no lifejacket to be had. There is just too much going on for the eye to focus on the subject. In most of my favourite compositions there are only three things in them. I start with 1) a subject and 2) one or two supporting things (elements).
(And for inspiration from the masters, have a look at some of Edward Weston’s still lives, especially the pepper and the cabbage leaf. Wow. Or Imogen Cunningham’s still lives of plants. Also Edward Weston’s son, Brett Weston had a beautiful way with photographing simple subjects like plants.)
When you are looking at these photos, or my photos below, I really want to encourage you to think – what are the elements at work here?
(An aside, but slightly relevant to that last point, I’ve been reading my daughter an excellent children’s book about Imogen Cunningham which she loves because Imogen is a photographer like me 🙂 Even better is the same author’s book about Georgia O’Keeffe, sub-titled ‘When Georgia O’Keeffe painted what she pleased.’ I’m always looking to promote a bit of rebel spirit to my daughter.)
Now – this is not a simple concept to put into practise, because the less you have in a photo the more significant it is. The louder the voice of each element really becomes. But it is the most excellent training for your eye (and your feet!) – and most of all when you find a subject or an element that you really love, that you really want to show off, creating a simple composition around it is the best way to do so.
So let’s look at some examples.
Now, what do we think are the three elements are here? Well, we have the lovely pretty pink cloudy sky, and then it’s the heavy grey columns creating a fantastic frame for the sky. All pretty cool. Now the third element – that oval shape at the top of the image that’s created partly by the light coming through the roof. If you took that away the image would be much flatter, but instead the contrasting textures, sky and bricks, distinctly improve the image.
And this photo is a great of example of how you can truly see that a third element gives the image a bit of added complexity so that it’s not too simple, but in reverse there isn’t too much to overload the image. It’s a perfect balance of three.
Now to the photo below. This was taken in Paris when I was wandering around the grounds of the Science Museum, which is more than a little eerie at dawn. It looks post-apocalyptic. I was walking around not really finding anything when I walked past this. I liked that this giant silver ball ( The Geode) was cut off by the leaves. And with this beautiful framing of bare branches seen in real detail on the soft, almost transparent sky. There is a lot, a lot you can do with bare branches – and here they are framing the photo really nicely – always look out for them when you are outside in the winter and need another element to add something interesting.
Now below, I am going to say that this is very typical subject for me – beautiful cloudy sky. I have hundreds, maybe even thousands of photos where cloud and the colour of the sky are the subject. But the sky is almost never on its own. I always need a third element. And I will say that here what’s effective is that the third element is very small, contrasting so nicely with the vastness of sky.
I think I am drawn quite often to the macabre. I like that interplay of beauty and desolate. Here we have almost a painterly blue sky. And then this dead tree. Bleak man. And then the last element is the ground. It’s almost the same composition as the photo above, but instead of going dead centre with the tree, I placed it along one of the ‘rule of thirds’ points of interest (if you want to know more about rule of thirds check this out.)
This was taken in Joshua Tree National Park in my native California. It’s a weird place, baking hot desert full of all these gnarly, stumpy cacti. I liked this one in particular because it sort of looks like a fighter or a belly dancer leaning backwards. There is beautiful movement in this tree – and you know what, I think there is a lot of suggestion of movement in trees.
In this photo below the three elements are – the building, the sky and the window washers. I think what works here is this contrast of the small men and the vast tower. But what makes it so pleasing to the eye is the two colours of blue and yellow, along with the epic pattern of lines. See – eyes love repetitive patterns!
As you can see from a bunch of my photos I love weather and I love colour. So here below I have my perfect combination. But the third element that brings it all together is the ships. You almost need a break in all that wispy floaty colour. You need something solid in there as a contrast. This is a great example of how a subject does not need to dominate the frame.
A young swan in a Hackney canal, early one Sunday morning. Clearly the swan is one element, and then you have the swampy looking water as the second. And as the last element you have the building, which when meeting the water, creates a strong line. Because the colours are quite subtle there needed to be something strong pulling it all together and I think the line in the horizon does that.
One day I found a skeleton of a horse. It was such a weird thing to see and so I just had to shoot it (can’t think of a single TOG who would pass this up). So the three things here are obviously the skeleton, then the lush green of the grass and then the sky. Very simple, clean and impactful.
I am probably a biggest fan of this ‘thinking in threes’ when it comes to portraits. Simple, colorful backgrounds are probably my favourite types of backgrounds.
And what I liked about this portrait is that the subject is in a shallow depth of field, creating a strong focus on her face. And then you have these big green colours behind her that contrast nicely with her skin tone. The third element is the train track leading her away.
When you have very simple elements that are well organised, it gives a photo a sense of balance and order. You can then have a little fun – adding your own little quirks, like having your subject facing away from you.
I love this portrait, it shows what a couple of simple colours and shapes can do to create something fun and lively. I saw the wall and the sign together and immediately thought – brilliant. It was one of those strokes of luck that I was walking past it with this lady in her perfect stripey jumper. Sometimes the universe just gives us these great shots!
Now once you’ve mastered this ‘thinking in threes’, you can start building up your compositions and adding more complexity to your photos with more elements. Once you have that ability to organise your elements in shot, really the sky’s your limit. You will be able to create photos that have more elements but they will still be simple, strong and striking.
Here are two photos where there is a strong fourth or fifth element, which work really nicely.
Here the elements are the man, the blue blue sky, the lines, clouds and then finally the structure that I’ve used as a counterpoint to the man. There is a lot of complexity in this image but it still is a simple composition.
And lastly, I love the colours on my final image. I would say this is a photo all about colour and shape.
Can you see that without the blue this photo wouldn’t have popped in the way that it did? And similarly I think if the background was only blue it wouldn’t have had that sense of balance that the yellow brings?
So here you have the man, the blue rectangles behind and the yellow frame. The fourth element is the floor, and that’s pretty strong even though it’s not colourful; the line that it creates is strong, and then lastly – the little lamp above his head. A final little flourish almost. There is great symmetry in this image – another thing the eye likes. This was a situation where I found a background I loved and waited and waited until I saw someone I liked, then talking them into standing in exactly that spot. Patience people. Patience….and coffee.
I don’t go around counting these elements when I am taking photos because I have been doing this for so many years and these things become instinctive with enough practise. But when you are developing techniques like this it wouldn’t be a bad idea to count your elements as you go, really examine what they are and ask yourself – what is every single thing in my frame doing? Is it adding to my subject, or not? What is going to happen to my element relationships if I move over to the left a bit? (for example).
So that’s it for today. Thank you so much for reading. I hope there were some useful ideas in there for you. And as always I love hearing what you think – please comment below.
And – please do share with any of your photo-lovin buddies, sharing is much appreciated.
This week we are launching a celebration of super simple ideas that will a create super-sized impact on your compositions.
One abidingly strong concept in all of my teachings is to help people get beyond the ordinary in their photos, beyond the obvious shot that everyone else is taking, and into the extra-ordinary.
Over the years I have developed several different techniques to help people and so over the next couple of days I want to explore some of these techniques in more depth. My desire is that you can walk away with some really awesome ideas to practise with straightaway (maybe even this weekend!).
And this is because – as my regular readers know – I really believe that prioritising your creative practice is something that significantly contributes to having an awesomely interesting, amazing life. Although you might regret those delicious beers you knocked back at that fun party last night, or the abundance of hours spent working last week so you missed your kids’ bedtimes – no-one regrets going out with their camera to explore, to examine the world and to let their creativity have free rein. It’s like money in the bank for a happy life.
So anything that motivates you to get out the house (even on a bitterly cold morning) is what I most want to do for you.
And now to the first of my great techniques, which I am going to explore in depth today.
Have you ever had those moments when you’re perusing the back of your camera (a.k.a. chimping) and wondered why that amazing shot that you thought was going to be, well, AMAZING, just isn’t.
Your exposure was right – check; white balance – check; aperture – check; shutter – check. Lens…hmm. Let’s see. Lens? Yes, I shot with the right lens. If you are shooting competently and things are still not working out like you would want them to, I have a great piece of advice for you.
There is a tool in your kit that people rarely use to full advantage. You may not go out with your camera some days – but you will always have this tool with you. I’m talking about your feet. At first they may not seem like critical kit but let me assure you – they are. And here’s why.
“A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” – Ansel Adams
If you ever had the awesome experience of watching a pro shoot, you will notice a common character trait they all share. They move, a lot. They are trying to get their movement and positioning just perfect. Now we all move and position ourselves when photographing but what a pro knows and you may not, is the exact spot to be for the best shot. (OK – so maybe we can’t all be as elegant as this guy, but you know, just keep it moving).
Knowing where to be is part of creating an attractive background, of getting a great angle in a portrait, and something of interest in a landscape foreground. These can all be fixed by your position – where you are in relation to your subject.
It can happen like this (and I see it happen on almost every workshop of mine). You spot the shot and think great, that’s a great shot, hurrah! You raise your camera and capture the moment. Then you bow your head to view your prize and …what the hell happened? That’s not what I saw in my head. What I have is, well, a dud. Boring and not quite what you literally had “in mind”.
So what went wrong? It is highly likely you were in the wrong spot. Think of it this way – for every image that you “see” there is going to be one, and just one, perfect spot to get that image. And finding that sacred spot requires you to move your feet almost every time.
Positioning mistakes and cures
1. When you see a subject at a distance
Ever done this? You’re walking along and up ahead you see a really interesting subject sitting on a crate smoking a cigar against a red wall, a beautiful cliche and you must have it (I would). You are still approaching and still haven’t passed her yet, and better still, she hasn’t seen you! What a opportunity, you think.. You take the shot before she notices. Later your chimping and thinking “eh…It’s ok” but not what I saw.
So what happened? Position happened. And this time your position was wrong due to – fear. You let your fear get the better of you and you made a panic shot. Think of the shots you would be able to take if you’d engaged her and started to chat or just smile and point at your camera. You could stand in front of her and kneel, you could get close ups of her face and expressions. The possibilities are endless if you overcame your fear and got closer.
Robert Capa said – “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you are not close enough.”
2. Zoom zoom zoom
If you constantly put your camera to your eye, then zoom, you are almost certainly not in the right spot. That’s not how to use a zoom lens in my opinion. A lot has been said about primes vs zoom lens regarding quality, weight, coating and other tech stuff, but what I find is the biggest failing of the zoom lens is they make you lazy. They don’t demand you move. It can bring your subject to you. Right? Wrong. Most of the time this is just wrong. It is one of the reasons your great shot was a dud. Seeing an image in the mind’s eye is the image you want to capture. It is. Trust me. When you zoom perspective is changed, the angle is changed, along with depth and supporting environmental elements. The list is long. I’m not saying zooms are bad, they just can make you lazy.
I own one zoom and I love it. But I probably don’t use it the same way as you do. I have a really good understanding of focal lengths. What 35mm will get me. What a 17mm is going to capture. So when I am using my lovely zoom I don’t go through the whole range of focal lengths (17-40m) when I put it to my eye. I know which one I will need and leave it there. Then you know what I do? I move my feet to the position I need to be in.
3. Not taking your time
This happens to us all, believe me. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a situation where things are static and not moving, or going to fly away, take your time and try to see things from all angles. This will make your photos much better if you are making the effort to deconstruct a scene – break down the elements, change the relationship between them using perspective or just stop and THINK about it for a moment. Figure out where you need to be, how high you should be standing and how to eliminate clutter from the background. Make it simple.
4. Just being lazy
Again, this happens a lot. I’m guilty more times then I’d like to admit (good thing I put so many hours into my photography, huh!). It happens like this. You’re tired, bored, hungry (this is the one that gets me), or whatever it is that is making you lazy. But you still want to take photos to make you feel at least you got something, even if it’s just “eh..”. So you come to a scene and you start snapping away, uninspired and restless for some food. Either you should quit for the day or just stop and think and ask yourself: “what if I went over there to see?”
Now for some examples
People spend acres and acres of time and words trying to explain what makes one picture more special than others. Maybe someone has a formula, but I don’t. To me knowing that something is special, getting to that point where you think – oh wow – that is something that a combination of your heart and soul and eyes is telling you. This is something that is just not ordinary any more.
“It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
There is nothing mathematical or technical about that deep stirring inside you that says – yes! – when you see something beautiful or wonderful. So although you can rely on some pretty mathematical and technical concepts to help you get there – rule of thirds, fibonacci numbers, leading lines etc. – in the end it comes down to you pushing yourself to finding a photo that when you capture it on camera, makes your heart pulse that little bit stronger.
So here we are in Paris. It was a beautiful spring morning, lovely light, and I found myself behind Notre Dame Cathedral where there was an array of cherry blossom trees in bloom. Very pretty. So this was my first shot. Pretty nice. But the bench, the sandiness, somewhat lacking impact wouldn’t you agree?
It’s too dark under the tree, it’s like is a vacant hole of un-interestingness.
So here’s my next shot.
Again, perfectly lovely and pretty, but nothing wow about it. Why? There is nice light but there is too much shadow. There is good contrast there – one that I use in a lot of my photos – of contrasting materials. The pale sandy brown permanent solidity of the church against the delicate, pink, joyful impermanence of the flowers. But this contrast is sort of spoiled by the railing and the low angle which brings in too much of the dark path.
And now to the shot I liked. I decided that bringing in other elements wasn’t going to work – I just had to go full on into the prettiness of the trees. That’s where the light was (always follow good light!). And so I like this shot a lot because you have all the loveliness of the flowers contrasting with the dark, strong, old branches of the tree, stretching outwards. Of course there is also the lovely element of the light.
So these three photos are a perfect example of what to do when you’ve found a great subject but everything around it that you are trying to bring into the photo won’t play ball. And so you have to go full on into examining the main subject and see what you can make from that.
These things aren’t always obvious – not even to professional photographers – so always be thinking around your subject – think in 3D!
Let’s now head to East London. Another dawn and I come across this lovely light on this building. Isn’t it pretty? It’s all dappled over this cool looking wall.
But that wasn’t a compelling shot, the building was just not interesting enough. But I don’t like to waste nice light so I went closer.
Oooooh, I liked that much better. I love a wall with interesting textures. You’ve got the paint, the graffiti, the different shades of brick, the glass, the pipes – all these interesting things made quite touchable-looking by this lovely light. Now I could have stopped there..
But one very important thing to know about light is that if it’s doing something interesting to what you are looking at – it’s highly likely to be doing interesting things to many other things around you. Don’t get dazzled by the first bit of lovely light you see, go further and explore.
So I went around to the front of the building and immediately I got a much much better shot.
The low light that had made the back of the building so pretty was now creating a totally different sensation from the front. I love the low shadows of this shot, and there is enough light so that you have this nice cool blue thing going on at the front of the building, with this warm diffused light coming in to contrast it.
I was hanging out with these guys in Istanbul. I liked the dynamic between them, and they both had interesting faces
But I couldn’t get a shot of the two of them that worked.
I decided to focus on the younger man as he was more animated. I felt like that there was further to go with him. So I went in closer.
Almost….am liking the intensity of his eyes.
And then bang, there’s my shot.
When you get the feeling that people are really comfortable in front of the camera (and these people do exist I promise you. I am in fact married to one and my son is one), then just let them be themselves and go for it. Move through any uncomfortable feelings you may have of pointing your camera at them – and remember that most people loved being noticed. It’s a compliment.
One thing I love about London is the random craziness of very old next to very new. And that is often what I’m looking out for, especially in East London and The City. It’s really extreme there.
I was walking around and saw this particular contrast of old church and one of those new ‘temples to business’. And I thought that’s my subject – that old/new contrast. But this came out pretty boring.
And then I tried this:
Better, but still not great, and I am starting to notice that actually there is a better subject in this scene. Can you spot what it is?
Lines and shapes! The church is almost irrelevant. Not quite, but it’s not a subject at all now, but a slightly supporting element.
And you know what? I have been to this particular spot a zillion times and never noticed these cool lines leading up to the cool shapes of those tall shiny buildings.
And now a question for you – do you think the trees enhance or detract from this photo?
One wintry morning I am in Venice on the northern edge of the Island. It’s a beautiful morning, as you can witness from the sky. I am looking out at these interesting things in the water – lights and a little jetty. But so far nothing is striking enough.
I turn my camera inland and start to see more potential. Some nice looking shapes in the water. I can sort of make out that there is some pretty coloured glass in the top of that building. But everything is in shadow, so pretty dull.
I am now seeing that with more light not only would we get something interesting happening on the water, lighting everything up that’s currently in shadow, but there is also that lovely coloured glass. What I am doing here with this scene is anticipating what the light will do, once it rises a bit higher and comes out of the cloud.
About ten minutes later – wowwee, the sun changes everything!
This is a building near my office in Waterloo. I like the boring, repetitiveness of the windows. I saw this shiny piece of building near it and I thought, hmmmmmm……I wonder. But this photo, erh! Too much going on. I see immediately that the tree doesn’t fit with the other elements.
So I try it this way:
I was pretty convinced that I needed to have the criss cross of the railway line in the photo. But now that wall beneath, too much, it doesn’t add. I remove it.
Now I thinking, – no, not quite right either. Do I have to lose that lovely criss cross? It’s too heavy.
But I’m liking the blue of the sky against the little box window shapes. And so finally I arrive at this…
Simple! So you can see the process of refining and removing elements here is really important. If you find an element or two that you like – stick with it. Keep removing things from your composition, keep moving around your subject until you get to something that fits the impact that that element had on you in the first place.
I hope that’s been a helpful demonstration on the importance of always moving, always searching for that killer angle.
It should be an exciting thought for you because it shows that even when you have a great subject and you haven’t got a great photo, there is still buckets of potential to work the scene and find something special.
I would love to know what you think – and if you found this helpful – please comment on my blog below. And of course – please share with anyone who you think would find this useful. Sharing is super useful!
I’ve got another super simple but really impactual idea for you tomorrow! Until then…
Anthony (photo man and ideas) and Diana (wordsmith and Anthony’s concept explainer extraordinaire)
“A city does not mean a couple of windows and a door frame. A city means a place where people love to live, where people get a certain flavor out of living. Those are the places I love to photograph.” Ara Güler
As a photographer of cities, Istanbul has everything I could ever want. I am completely and totally in awe of this place. The incredible light, the complex history, beautiful buildings, the seas, the people, the culture, street sellers… it’s packed with incredibleness (a technical term).
In this post I wanted to pick one theme of what I like to shoot in Istanbul – with the hope that if you make your way over here it will give you some ideas on how to get a handle on this intense and bustling city. The two easiest things to photograph in Istanbul are the monumentally beautiful vistas and the people. Because Istanbul is laid out over seven (very steep) hills it’s easy to capture epic views over the city. And the people here are stunningly friendly and warm, so ditto very easy to photograph. But I will pick up those two themes later in another post.
What I want to do with this post is go a little off the beaten track. I want to bring together some of my photos of the streets of Istanbul. Some of the details, the scenes that I saw that are away from the epic and grand and impressive. My aim here is for more of the every day. I want to find some of the flavour of the city, the city that people live in and give you some ideas on how to photograph those parts. Most of these shots are from my dawn wanderings, but a few are from later in the day.
There is so much to shoot here. It is so easy to get overwhelmed by all of the potential, and to go at shooting like a rabid bunny. Don’t shoot like that. I guarantee, my friend, if you are shooting too much, then you won’t be able to truly get into the vibe of the city – slow down and pace yourself. Shooting a city, especially this city, is not the same as feeling a city. Work with all of your senses: really look at it, smell it, listen, and look again.
It’s good to remember that interesting light can make most subjects look interesting. Boring light can make even the most compelling subject look dull and flat. A semi-interesting wall brought to life by the light and shadows:
But it doesn’t have to be intense light. Here we have some much much softer light and it works to beautifully enhance the building, just look at all of those textures!
For me the things that I am aiming for in my photos is clarity and simplicity. I am always looking to remove things from my photo, break down the elements even further so that I can create something appealing to the eye.
Now that’s my aesthetic. I am sometimes a bit too austere – we should always be pushing ourselves and developing our style – but the concept of simplicity is very useful in a place like Istanbul where the city is just so packed with complex backgrounds and interesting things to photograph.
Look for elements that interest you and build your photo from there.
The photo below was shot in Tarlabasi, where I stayed for a few weeks earlier this year. It’s a very run down area, lots of poverty and considered quite rough. It’s worth wandering through though, particularly on a Sunday when there is a great market (This is a great blog post about the market and area). The area is a mass of historical buildings and is undergoing huge, controversial redevelopment. Lots of people are battling to keep their homes, so it’s going to be changing dramatically soon.
In many neighbourhoods that I visited, next to a new building there could be one that is abandoned, windowless and rotting. That could sound depressing, but it actually makes the city feel very ancient and in constant flux.
When you want to capture depth: think in layers. The camera can’t distinguish depth in an image, like the human eye can, and if there are too many things going on within the image it will look flat and messy. A good way to think of it is in layers. Each layer should be distinct from the previous layer, and therefore allows the eye to mentally build up the depth. This photo below has several distinct layers, but it feels very simple doesn’t it? At the front it’s the green, then the building, then more green, then the clouds and finally a wash of blue sky.
The elements that make the photo below work are the mixture of natural and artificial lighting; the contrasting colours and shapes of the buildings. Between the green building and the ones behind it there is a subtle layer created by the tungsten lights of the shops. It’s not a great feature of the shot, it’s just something that adds another layer and a feeling of depth so that it doesn’t all blend into each other. And of course the last element is that it’s bathed in the soft blue light of early morning.
The photo below has more layers. First I’d like to say that if the photo didn’t have the man on the balcony it wouldn’t have the great sense of scale that it has. The buildings would look quite flat. The man is almost the first layer, then you have the buildings, then the sea, the boat and the far shore. A mixture of people and landscape/buildings are really effective if used simply and purposefully to create depth.
I wasn’t sure about this photo below but my wife loved it. Much of the city is filled with tall buildings and apartment blocks where the dawn light only barely enters, and so there is not much dramatic morning light (which I love photographing). But this photo has a suggestion of it, as well as some artificial light which adds really nicely to the photo.
Here is another shot that could have been too busy and therefore looked flat (isn’t it funny that when a scene becomes too busy it looks flat rather than chaotic). The three significant elements I focused on were the mural on the broken building (amazing!), the man’s head below (great expression!) and the contrast of the modern and colourful buildings behind.
Istanbul is great for contrasts, and it’s worth looking for contrasting details when you are wandering around. Again – both of these photos below focusing on artificial lights’ are about simplicity in the face of busyness.
Remember to strip out the elements that aren’t enhancing your photo.
In this photo the area around the street vendor was busy, but for me the crowds were too distracting, so I waited until there was a lull before taking this shot.
A few more things:
Where to shoot: I will put together a list of my favourite spots but in the meantime I really like this. It’s recommendations from seven famous photographers from Istanbul and where they like to shoot in the city.
Ara Güler: I’ve mentioned Istanbul’s most famous photographer before (his book of black and white photos of old Istanbul is great), but I just bought a lesser known book of his colour work of the city called Vanished Colours, which is amazing. These photos remind me a lot of Ernst Haas’s feel for colour. Beautiful book. You can check out Ara Güler’s site for his work. He also owns a cafe, Kafe Ara, here in Istanbul, and I hear he’s often there hanging out. Generally I prefer colour photography because it’s more real, there is more feeling to me and it’s actually harder to capture something interesting.
Yildiz Moran: I was also happy to come across Yildiz Moran, an underrated but interesting photographer, one of the first famous female Turkish photographers.
Rule of Thirds: I just wrote a post for Digital Photography School on the Rule of Thirds – which you might like to check out. It was great fun to write, I love that rule! And it has over 4,000 shares already 🙂
I’d love to know what you think of this week’s post – what do you love to photograph in Istanbul? Comment here or drop me an email – I love hearing from you.
Here in London the rains have come and autumn has truly pushed summer away. It’s my son’s favourite time of year, increasingly cold and dark days, time to be cosy at home. I must say the cold and the rain are severely testing for me. And so I have to constantly remind myself of what can be found out there in the weather that I instinctively reject. I have to work harder finding the things are that inspiring when it’s grey. I don’t mind the cold; in fact if the light is good, a cold day can be magnificent (any day when the light is good is magnificent.)
BTW – the rains HAD come when I started writing this post which, as you can tell if you are in London, takes me a long time to get together. We are now in the middle of an Indian Summer it seems, but I was too excited about this post about reflections to shelve it, so let’s pretend it’s raining OK?
But what the rains bring to mind the most is…reflections. Where there is water there are reflections. Of course we have other types of reflections too. I will explore as many reflections as my photographs will show, and that is what I want to discuss today.
Because reflections are fun! To me they say – I am playing! And after my recent heavy posts of – get your butt of your couch and get photographing! – I thought it was time for some fun.
So here are some ideas on why I think reflections are so awesome – and some of the myriad of things reflections will do for your photos.
The next six photos are all of things are of things I saw when looking down. When walking around and taking photos, many people don’t look up but even fewer people look down. Basically – you need to look everywhere.
This photo sums up London for me – rain, dirty pavements, a wandering and slightly deformed pigeon – and the promise of mind-bending fun in the form of garish, crazy colours.
This pigeon and I had a lot of fun together:
Until it wandered off, and I was left with just the floor.
See how much fun you can have with a reflections! And we have barely started….
Playing with light
My favourite thing, light. So here is a simple light reflection (simple always the hardest, right?)
Look at how the water becomes just a texture. An undulating texture. By being narrow and cutting it out of the context of what it’s really made of. It’s like staring at your hand for ages and becoming totally tripped out on the texture of your skin, the bones beneath it, the blood… Focusing on the details do crazy things to your eyes, so photograph them!
Let us all remember that it doesn’t require big light, dramatic weather events, to play with reflections. Very subtle light, very small events can create interesting photos.
Another opportunity to drill that point in: the simple illumination of the human footprint by some (artificial) light.
I like that reflections can trick the eye and create really abstract images. Here I’ve just got a couple of elements – the shapes, the texture of the background with its holes and the look – of confusion? sadness? – on the man’s face.
So this is a different kind of abstraction in the sense that you can totally see what it is, but I’ve broken down the scene into elements, which move it into the world of the abstract.
One thing about taking things smaller is that I would say everyone can take a photo of a beautiful or interesting scene. Come across a sunset over a valley or a epic cloudy sky over a row of houses: we are good at that. But when I ask people to refine the scale of their beauty, find beauty or something really interesting in a smaller area, then people tend to struggle. It’s not going quite down to single element shots – like taking a photo of a funny looking dog or a nice looking flower. It is somewhere in between – so maybe a door frame, a wall and a human walking past. That sort of scale.
Remember to move and always be asking yourself what’s my angle here?
“Best wide-angle lens? Two steps backward. Look for the ‘ah-ha’.” Ernst Haas
So let’s look at the photo below. I think most people would have done this photo more of a dead centre, straight reflection. I think playing with your angle can create some really fun results. I like that the reflection looks like it was ripped out of a magazine. Or maybe it’s a subterranean world??
Reflections on glass
I love a big shiny glass building! This is where you can really go to town with reflections. Especially when the sun is low in the sky and reflecting more directly, almost dancing, on the building (this is generally early mornings, evenings and most of winter if you’re somewhere like England)
I love playing with shapes, creating disorder where before there was order. Here we’ve got that great contrast of strong diagonal lines made weaker by the chaotic, persistent bursts of the lights. And in there somewhere is a lady. I am a bit freaked out by this photo, but it intrigues me all the same, so thought you’d like to see it.
You can use a subtle reflection to create the sensation of depth, the feeling of something going on below. Can you see how without it the photo below would be quite flat? There wouldn’t be enough contrasting elements within the photo to make it pop?
In the photo below – I think the subtle reflection is creating a depth to the photo which is what makes it work overall. But the reflection is also reinforcing the interestingness of the original elements. Look at those windows! Look at that odd looking door! And the brick coming through the plaster. And to top it off you have a great street name, worn like the rest of the scene. The cherry on top is the lady walking quickly – it adds a little modernity, a little energy which goes against the old, crumbling Venice architecture.
Great photos are often great because there are two or three good elements playing together. If I see one really interesting element (for me the windows and door would be enough to stop and look around), I’ll look around for something else. Maybe something that reinforces that element (the door, the windows and the sign, yes!) And then hope for something contrasting or different to add something else to the photo (above, of course, the movement AND the rainy reflection.)
That’s when you are taking your photos to another level, when you can start to bring together multiple elements to do something interesting together. Could you say it’s like adding a really amazing sauce to a really good steak (and maybe a really good glass of red wine too?) All really good elements on their own but together – but wow, together, they make your eye/palette jump for joy.
What do you think of the elements I’ve chosen in this photo?
What enhances or detracts? Is there a reason for all of the elements? I think having a look at photos that are good but not amazing is also a great training for the eye. I think this photo has some interesting qualities – but what could have been better? More interesting?
Easy way to create a new perspective
I thought this was a fun photo, and an interesting way to show how reflections can give you an opportunity to photograph something really iconic, but in a different way.
After all that abstraction and interestingness, I would also like to say I also love a good, straight reflection. I do. Very pleasing to the eye. When bodies of water are very still (usually in the night or early early in the morning), when there is no wind rippling the surface or humans interfering with it, you have a perfect surface for very symmetrical and striking reflections. I like that you are creating something strong and ordered in our otherwise chaotic world.
I like what reflections say about the subject. For example, in Paris one beautiful dawn morning I shot this by Canal St Martin.
Paris is a very ordered city I would say. It was rebuilt by Haussmann in the 1850’s. And although I initially felt it was too samey, when you embrace the order of the city it can create something really special.
The history of Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris is super fascinating (here is a 3 minute film explaining the renovation, and look here for a written history. And if you are into Paris the book Parisians is really good. It’s a fun collection of stories about odd things you never knew about the city, like the fact there are hundreds of tunnels and mines under the city that have created tons of sinkholes over the past few hundred years).
In contrast – Istanbul is not what you’d call an ordered city and so the reflection can be used to create order from that more wild side of humanity.
You see how soothing to the eye the reflection of symmetry is, especially when it’s of something super symmetrical?
I had to put this photo – above – in because my daughter said it was her favourite photo ever. I hope that really is ever, and not just of mine. How is this for a reflection, applying it to an insane degree?! (I like that the water is not quite clean, you’ll see at the bottom there is some kind of pink tissue. For those of you who would encourage me to Photoshop this out, I say no. I like to have a bit of human incongruity in my photos. I have a photo where a tiny slit of cloud looks like a bit of dirt, but I refuse to take it out. Imperfection is more compelling that total perfection. Says I. Perfection looks like a computer, not a human.)
OK – so wow, that was a lot on reflections, and I have barely scratched the surface of my reflection archives. I would LOVE to hear if you are a reflection lover – comment below.
And – I am really happy to have heard from some of you with your five best photos from this year. Please carry on sending them in (to firstname.lastname@example.org). I’ll be putting together a gallery of my favourite submissions at the end of November. So be brave, review your photos from this year with a hawk like gaze and send me your very best.
I like to use the leading lines technique because the world is just chock full of lines and so it just can’t be helped – but I also like to think it’s because it makes me feel that my photo is going to take you somewhere. Sometimes the destination is not so important, it’s the journey that counts. And don’t we all like that feeling like we are actuallygoing somewhere? So, be it a road, or a dotted line, or the sweep of an arc, a line will take you places.
A lot of photographers do reject these rules though. Ansel Adams, for example, (who I would actually argue was more of a master in printing than a master in composition) said: “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”
Or how about another non-fan of the rules:
“To consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk.” Edward Weston
I suppose the point of putting these quotes up front, apart from the fact that they make me laugh, is everyone has their own path, what they love to shoot and their way of pursuing excellence. I like to pepper all of my teaching with the idea that there is always another way of thinking and doing things.
There are always new (and old) ideas to challenge yourself with and take your photography further. So follow what feels right for you – learning photography should never be a dogmatic experience. Practising, exploring and committing to developing your photography is really what is most important.
As a slight deviation, but not really, this is a great 2 minute video from Jason Silva about Creative Flow states and how when you are in the creative zone or the creative flow state the part of your brain responsible for self-editing goes dim. That’s when pushing past rules or bending them can really pay off. Perfection is not just about control, says Silva, but also about letting go.
So now let’s get totally into those lines…
What’s exciting about leading lines is that even though I’ve been using it for twenty years, it has developed with my work over the years so that I have been able to become much more sophisticated in my use of the technique. It’s like the idea that in order to express simplicity you need to practice and practise and practise.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Leonardo da Vinci
So – I don’t want to just use the most obvious examples of leading lines in this guide. Subtly using composition techniques is a great way to enhance your photos, although when you start out you’ll probably be making really obvious uses of these techniques as you get familiar with them.
Leading lines has given me some really awesome photos that I am very proud of. With rules I suggest:
Embed them into your photography by practising them madly
They will become an automatic way of seeing for you which then helps you to:
Bend and develop them into your own practise and then finally
Break them at will, when it’s right for the photo
I think Picasso sums it up really well (as usual):
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
Photographs are not just a collection of elements that are flat and are easily read. Photography has a myriad of ways to tell stories, to express multiple ideas and to take you places both physically and into your imagination. It does this with as much as you include in the photo as what you leave out.
Leading lines can:
Take your eye on a journey – either through the photo or out of it completely (and with roads and paths, often to infinity)
Direct your eye to the main subject of the photo
Direct your eye in a specific order through various elements of a photo
Lines create depth in a photo – and this is a really fun idea to play with
All compositional techniques help you tell a story
Think of lines as a tool to help you tell a story in your photograph. When you find your subject, ask yourself – are there any ways that a narrative can be created by enhancing it with lines? Usually when I find something I want to shoot I will move around it looking for angles and lines and a secondary element to support it. Take time to really look and see all the elements in your composition. Make every element matter.
Where I stop to take the photo all depends on what I am trying to say. Diagonal lines, horizontal lines, vertical lines all convey different feelings.
Are great for bringing energy and movement into an image. They can express a variety of messages. These neatly stacked diagonals are juxtaposed with the energy of the trees. Perhaps the rigidity and force of man next to nature’s wild beauty? Nature has a uniformity that is totally different from man’s, perhaps?
For a sense of calm and peace. Our eyes seem to find this direction the most reassuring. This one is obvious:
But how about this one? Horizontal lines still, but a very different subject – urban, a bit grimy and messy. Still calming? I would say yes. I think the eye likes a bit of order.
Are pleasing to the eye – they can create dynamic look and convey energy. Here I think the curved lines are more subtly leading the eye through the photo. I love the strength the lines convey next the luxuriously light and ethereal sky.
Another curvy line, this time, a road!
Portray structure and strength. And power?! Both in the man made world:
And in nature (at one of the worlds greatest forests in my opinion, The Lady Bird Johnson trail in the Redwood National Park in my home state of California) :
Or how about a bit of both – horizon and vertical? This was shot at La Defense in Paris. If you love playing with reflections and the hard lines of new buildings it’s an awesome place to shoot.
Here’s another from my La Defense phase:
Some lines are just implied– but they can still be impactful. See here too how the space is what creates the impact, the story of the photo?
Some other ideas of lines…
Lines of chaos?
I’m not sure what to call this one, or even if anyone would classify it as leading lines. But I think it is, because at first you just see the chaos of the tree branches. And then your eye is lead up the tree towards the two people. (I think I invented that term lines of chaos, so can someone enter it into the great canon of photo vocabulary please? :))
Fading or incomplete lines
Lines don’t always have to be clear or complete to communicate a feeling. I like the fact here that you can’t see the end of the track; it enhances how nature has taken over. Nature will always win in the end, won’t it!
Using motion or light to create lines
Lines don’t have to be found, they can be created by using long exposures on motion and lights. This can create a sense of power and speed as it has below. And I like in this image that I have a stationary motorbike as a contrast. I love using contrast or juxtaposition with lines.
I love a nice simple, but strong background for portraits. Something that is going to say something about the person, their expression, perhaps their stance. I think this is a good combo:
Lines at your feet
I have an obsession with photographing things on the street. Like chewing gum trodden into the tar or lines and arrows doing strange things. You can call it my Ernst Haas phase. I think particularly with things on the road and street you’ve got a great opportunity to practise this technique and learn to really play with lines. Remove the lines, arrows and directions painted onto our streets from their context and they become really fun and interesting to look at.
Mix of line types for added complexity
So ask yourself – what’s the feeling the lines are provoking?
I find many photographers are more interested in composition elements than thinking about what the story or feeling the photo they are taking is communicating. OK – I don’t want to load too much onto your shoulders here, but the feeling that the photo is evoking in the viewer is extremely important. If it evokes no feeling, no interest, curiosity, nostalgia, desire, whatever it may be, no matter how well composed, then that photo will be flicked over and forgotten.
“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.” Don McCullin.
Compositional techniques are a means to an end, not the end in itself. So think about how the lines in the photo are making you feel. In this image below, which I particularly love because when my family and I were staying in Paris for several months working on my book my son was going through his train obsession era. So I spent many, many, many hours at Parisian stations watching trains with him (and talking about them, filming them, looking them up etc.) This image is in my book and really, it’s for him. I should call it, Ode to my son, age 7.
Can you see how in this image the lines give a different sensation because they don’t start within the photo? Leading lines often don’t end within a photo, creating a feeling of endlessness or infinity, but the eye is always looking for somewhere to at least begin its journey.
And a few final thoughts / ideas / inspirations / links:
Strong subjects: If you have a strong subject there is no need to worry that lines will overpower it. Lines are strongest in a supporting role but rarely have the power to take over an image.
Arrows: your eyes will naturally follow the point of an arrow. And there is something quite interesting about arrows competing for your attention by pointing in different directions.
Opposition: Using lines to create opposition/juxtaposition is always interesting.
Angle and perspective: If you find some interesting lines but it’s not working in your composition try playing around with your angle and perspective. Get high, get low, move around. As the master Haas says: “Best wide-angle lens? Two steps backward. Look for the ‘ah-ha’.”
An aid to simplicity: leading lines helps you focus on simplicity – most photographers are too complex in their expectations. simplicity and strength.
“What’s really important is to simplify. The work of most photographers would be improved immensely if they could do one thing: get rid of the extraneous. If you strive for simplicity, you are more likely to reach the viewer. ” William Albert Allard
Last very important point In this post you’re seeing my photos, my style and how I’ve brought leading lines into my work. You’re style of shooting, what you choose to look at and shoot will mean it will look totally different in your work.
So play with it. Have fun.
I’d love to know what you think of leading lines – do you use it in your photography? Will you start now? Please post your thoughts below. I love hearing from you and it’s great to know what you think.
Do you know someone who loves taking photos? It would be amazingly awesome if you could send them my blog. Sharing is caring as I keep saying to my fierce toddler daughter 🙂 I’ve been getting amazing feedback on it so far so if you think it might benefit or inspire a friend /loved one / colleague / neighbour I’d love it if you could pass it on.
As always get in touch with me if you have any burning photo questions or you need anything at all.
I came to London in 2000 from Los Angeles. I followed a girl and a book deal, two excellent reasons to move continents, and I’ve lived here ever since. London is such a crazy, huge, messy city, and it’s endlessly interesting to photograph. But the vastness can be intimidating. A lot of people say to me they just don’t know where to start, or how to find a ‘way in’ to shooting here; how to get a handle on the city. So I thought it would be helpful to offer up some of the things, or themes, I love about London.
Unlike cities like Paris or Venice which were built in a certain style at a similar (ish) sort of time, London’s architecture and history is all mixed up, layered, piled on top of each other. I love that constant sense of juxtaposition of old and new and so I wanted to explore juxtaposition as a general theme this week – particularly when shooting cities. I want to show you some of the ways I’ve used it in my work to help you think about the myriad of ways you can bring the concept of juxtaposition into your work.
What is juxtaposition in photography?
Collins Dictionary says – If you juxtapose two contrasting objects, images, or ideas, you place them together or describe them together, so that the differences between them are emphasized.
Why use juxtaposition?
The reason to seek out juxtapositions is because by placing contrasting elements next to each other you instantly create a story, express an idea or create humour within an image. It’s great to use juxtaposition to photograph a city, because cities are a massive jumble of elements, and creating interesting photographs that are clear is tough in a city so full (and sort of messy) of elements.
Juxtaposition gives your eye something clear and easy to read. It’s a really fun concept to play with and it’s a way to make something instantly interesting or intriguing (as an aside I really like what photographer Joel Loengard said, that it’s more important that photographers are interesting than good.)
Ways to use juxtaposition
I seem to be writing juxtaposition a lot in this post because I just think it’s such an awesome looking word. I hope it’s not making your eyes hurt.
So some good ways to start using juxtaposition is contrasting things like:
Old & new
Colour e.g. warm colours next to cool colours
Moving & still
Textures e.g. natural against man made
Old & new
It can be really obvious, like here where you have the bottom half filled with green grass and old buildings, and the new shiny buildings almost floating in the clouds.
London, particularly moving East, is full of really stark contrasts like this:
In the photo above you’ve got not just the contrast of old and new but the lines of the building which are rigid, straight, organised and made-made with the chaotic, bendy and wild lines of the trees.
And it can also be very subtle…
The photo below is one of the first shots I ever took in London during my first week here in August 2000. I can’t tell you the excitement I felt when I walked around the corner and encountered this view. It was at this moment that I knew I had made the right decision in moving to London. To me this typifies the capital – the mix of new bland office buildings, old Victorian buildings (now offices or flats), the looming grandeur of an old building (St Paul’s Cathedral) – and of course a pub, with its hanging baskets.
The contrast of the men moving with their gorilla with the man who is standing still (exhausted? fed up?) and his gorilla, who is also unmoving:
Sometimes it’s almost as though the contrasting elements start a little conversation in the image. They provoke little questions.
Moving & still
I think this image also has the contrast of old & new – so feel free to play with multiple ideas of juxtapositions in the same photo.
A more subtle example, the moving clouds reflected in the window next to the solid wall and the rigid fence:
Here I like the contrast of the garish colours of the graffiti on the brick wall against the wild red poppies and grass.
This image above is dominated by lines (love lines!), but of two distinct types: the rigidity of the man-made against the wildness of nature’s lines.
And lastly adding humour using the ‘j’ word
A few years ago I shot a portrait project of bellies. One thing that came out as a strong theme was by contrasting someone’s belly with an element that was very different from their belly, it created a humorous tone to the photo.
A very pregnant belly of a lady who was standing up, with two young men, sitting down:
Contrasting a huge belly with two slim ones:
Contrasting the very open gesture of showing your belly, with the closed gesture of someone with their head in their hands:
I shot these mainly out on the street in London, and I have to say I was super encouraged by how many people were friendly and let me shoot a very intimate part of their body – on the street! So if you have any fear of shooting strangers in this city – remember my project and it should give you a bit of encouragement.
A couple more ideas….
Street photography is a particularly good way to use juxtaposition. I think the work of Joel Meyerowitz is particularly good demonstration of successfully contrasting elements in your work – particularly his early street photography and his projects such as Fire/Air and for colour contrasting the project he did on Ground Zero after 9/11. Interesting interview with him here on his work.
I love Elliot Erwitt, particularly his project on dogs. He is also a good photographer to explore on the subject of juxtaposition. You can’t pigeonhole any photographer with this theme but some people use it more interestingly than others. Good to check out regardless.
How do you use juxtaposition in your photography? I’d love to hear your ideas – please comment below or email me directly.
“The question is not what you look at but what you see.”
Henry David Thoreau
When we are confronted with a beautiful scene our first reaction is to take a photo. “Done – can’t wait to show my friends. Let’s get lunch.” This is what I would call the obvious photo. A snapshot.
What do I mean by the ‘obvious’? Well, in photographic terms (mine) the ‘obvious’ is what is seen and taken as a snapshot by 95% of the population (or 100% of tourists!) It is what is right in front of you, not what is behind, above, below, beneath and all around you. It is usually very beautiful and worth a snap, but like most things that are beautiful, it may have many parts and aspects that make it so.
Most of my work is shot in cities, where people with camera phones and other photographers are in abundance. Cities create a good tension because I am always aware that every view or building that I photograph has not only been copiously photographed, but is probably being photographed at the very second I am pushing the shutter button. It reminds me to push myself further, to see something new, to find a different photographic path.
So what can we do to obtain that special shot that no one else will? Here are a few super simple tips I like to use:
1. Deconstruct the scene
My favourite thing to do is to de-construct a beautiful scene and make it my own. A simple example is a landscape, say with a vast range of smoky mist-capped mountains beyond a winding river valley (Ansel Adams comes to mind). Really nice you say. Indeed it is. Who wouldn’t want that photo – it’s what we are there for, right?
Now stop. Look again ‘inside’ the scene: see that tree with light playing just on the top half and the way the light reflecting from the water illuminates the shadowed side of the tree opening up the dark. If I captured just that small part of the scene wouldn’t that also be a good photo? Maybe even better?
The only difference between the two photos is you. You make it yours by seeing it. And your vision is like no one else’s. You have made something special because you are ‘seeing’, and you saw when everyone else was enraptured by the obvious. Most people won’t see that tree or the light play on it. Most people are not aware that there is more to the scene for whatever reason; time, interest, mood, etc. As a good photographer you cannot help but to ‘see’ that piece of the obvious and make it yours.
2. Look in the opposite direction
Here’s another way. One late sunny afternoon I found myself on Westminster Bridge with twenty other photographers and we are all taking the photo (below) because well, the light was awesome.
I then started to look around as the light was fading. To my left, I saw this ice cream kiosk and behind me St Thomas’ Hospital in that epic light, but it had a different quality as it fell on the buildings and the people scattering in different directions.
I thought to myself how beautiful the hospital looked as the sun faded. And I loved how the light inside the ice cream kiosk began to get brighter relative to the daylight, like it was glowing. Which is a better photo? It all comes down to personal taste, but for me the better photo is the one only I saw.
3. Look for the photographers
Although Venice is one of the top touristy cities, I was really surprised (or am I, having spent many years dodging them?) that tourists seem to confine themselves to a few well worn routes. Venice still has a quite serenity. But what happens if you want to shoot St Mark’s Square, for example? My dawn advantage was, for once, limited. It was the one place where photographers were already up and shooting. One morning I shot the square with the most spectacular sunrise I had ever seen. A few Venetian Carnevale characters emerged, posing in front of the canal, bathed in pink light. In front of them was a scrum of photographers, snapping away like paparazzi. I didn’t want to miss this incredible light, and looking around I realised the best photo for me was of the photographers photographing. The less obvious.
(By the way, I went back to St Marks Square after a night’s rain and got a lovely shot. Rain puts photographers off in a big way!)
4. Shoot the third thing
I came across this quote about writing a few years ago and it struck me as a concept that could also apply to photography. Victoria Coren wrote about advice she had received from her father, the late writer Alan Coren:
“Don’t write the first thought that comes into your head, because that is what everyone will write. And don’t write the second thought that comes into your head, because that is what the clever people will write. When you hit on a third thought, pick up the pen. That one is just yours.”
5. Don’t be afraid not to shoot
Sometimes I go out with the intention of shooting, particularly for my dawn projects, and never take any photos. I took my family to Paris for several months to shoot my book Paris at Dawn and each morning I’d arrive home with warm fresh croissants. The first thing my wife would say was, not thank you for the croissants (!) but how many shots did you get? I think she was computing it all in her head, like hours worked = shots taken = % of project finished. I would often say none, didn’t even take out my camera, and her face would fall. Over time she realised what was going on. I did get all the photographs in the end. Some mornings there would be 3 rolls of film, sometimes none, and sometimes just a couple of shots.
Unless you are on assignment there is no pressure to shoot. I think telling yourself you will only shoot something that really inspires you is a great discipline and makes you work harder to find something unique and original. Getting you beyond ‘the obvious’.
One of my favourite ways to compose is with the leading lines technique. This may be because the world is just chock full of lines and so it just can’t be helped – but I like to think it’s because it makes me feel that my photo is going to take you somewhere. Sometimes the destination is not so important, it’s the journey that counts. So, be it a road, or a dotted line, or the sweep of an arc, a line will take you places.
Think of lines as a tool to help you tell a story in your photograph. When you find your subject ask yourself – are there any ways that a narrative can be created by enhancing it with lines? Usually when I find something I want to shoot I will move around it looking for angles and lines and a secondary element to support it. Where I stop to take the photo all depends on what I am trying to say. Diagonal lines, horizontal lines, vertical lines all convey different feelings.
Horizontal for peace and calm, verticals for strength and structure, diagonals for energy and movement. If you have a strong subject there is no need to worry that lines will overpower it. Lines are strongest in a supporting role but rarely have the power to take over an image.
I’ve put a few examples below of the different types of lines I like to use.