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Composition: Part III

Author: Wendy Folse
First published on: June 17, 2001


Perspective can be a tricky thing to understand and yet it is really quite simple. The confusion arises from the word's two different definitions, both of which are relevant in photography. In composition, both meanings must be given some thought.

Let's start with the second definition first, since it is the one that most people will concern themselves with first. This definition of perspective deals with the aspect in which a subject or it's parts are mentally viewed. What does that have to do with composition? Everything. The perspective of the subject is how the photographer wants the subject to be viewed mentally by others, or perhaps, how the subject wants to be viewed mentally by others in the case of a portrait. What is the photographer trying to tell the viewers about the subject? What is he trying to show?

Say for instance that the photographer wants to show how hikers litter our streams and damage the environment. He may choose to shoot from a low angle and have an empty soda can floating in the stream as his main focal point. Or he may choose to shoot a wide angle shot and include the heap of trash around the picnic site.

On the other hand, suppose he wants to portray the peacefulness of the stream in all its beauty. In this case, the photographer is likely to choose to exclude anything that looks like humans have been there. The subject may be the same exact stream in the same exact location but each shot from a different perspective. This is where the photographer inserts his own views of the subject and says to the viewer, "From my perspective this is how I see the situation."

Now for the other definition of perspective. As an art term, perspective means the science of painting or drawing so that objects represented have apparent depth and distance. In photography, the photographer paints with light instead of pigments. How does he show that an object has depth and distance? The absence of light is shadow. The photographer balances highlights with shadows to show apparent depth. If you have ever looked at a photo that failed to capture your attention or one that looked dull and lifeless, it was probably due to a lack of contrast between light and dark. People will often talk about a photo being flat or the lighting being flat. This is what they are referring to, the lack of contrast.

The human eye distinguishes the difference between a circle and a ball by the degree of light and shadow. How round is something? How thick is the object? How many sides are showing? Representing three-dimensional shapes in a one-dimensional picture is the challenge and photographers use light or the absence of it to show depth.

What about distance? How does the photographer show distance? Distance is most often manipulated by the use of different lenses. A wide-angle lens will cause the linear perspective to be over emphasized, while a long telephoto will reduce the sense of distance. Most often distance is portrayed by the placement of objects in the scene. For example, in a landscape shot, choosing to include objects in the foreground, middle ground and background establishes the apparent distances. Where the photographer chooses to place the focal point also establishes distance. Linear perspective is another important topic that we will cover in a future article.

Focal point

Focal point is the exact point at which the camera is focused at maximum sharpness. When looking into the viewfinder it is usually marked in the center with either a circle or a set of brackets. It is also the point at which the eye of the viewer looking at the photo should travel to first. It is what the photographer wants the viewer to look at and understand. It is not necessary to place the focal point dead center of the composition, nor is it desirable at all times.

Sometimes the photographer may wish to place the focal point off to one side and not have it in the center of the frame. However, with an autofocus camera the critical focus point must be in the center. The technique for doing this is found in the camera's manual. It will usually tell you to press the shutter button halfway to lock the focus on the subject, then while still holding the button in you can now reposition the composition before finally pressing the button all the way.

The lack of an obvious focal point is generally the biggest mistake found in amateur snapshots. The viewer looks at the photo and can't find one thing of obvious interest to look at. What was the photographer thinking? What was he looking at because the viewer can't figure out why the photographer snapped the shutter.

In-camera cropping

In-camera cropping means getting rid of the things that distract from the subject. So many times we get our pictures back and see all sorts of things that we wish were not there. In the printing stage of a picture, the technician can choose to do the cropping for us, but do they really know what we wanted. The answer is no, which is the reason that it is standard practice at most amateur labs to always print the negative straight with no cropping. After you receive the prints you can have them cropped to your specifications but that means paying additional fees to have the prints redone. Why not just get it right the first time, in the camera. Why waste film and money on things that shouldn't be in the picture anyhow?

Let's look at the picture to the right. Is there anything in the photo that shouldn't be there? First, let's "read" the photo to see what is there and what does it tell us. The people tell us that they are ranchers. The truck tells us that they are modern ranchers and probably rely as much on their vehicles in their work as they do their horses. Do they have horses? The saddles in the back of the truck tells us that they have either just finished riding or that they will ride. The ice chest in the truck tells us that they have probably been out there all day or will be out their all day and need to eat and drink. The long shadows and glare on the window tell us that it is probably late in the afternoon. The position of the people and the way the photo is cropped shows us that the focus of their attention is off somewhere in the distance to the left. Everything in the photo tells some part of the story. The cropping is tight and gives us just enough information so that we the viewers, can understand what the photographer was trying to show. The title of this photo is "Work's Done". Did the photographer do his job? Does the photo stand up to the caption?

How do we do this? Simple, use the viewfinder before you start clicking the shutter. Look around the subject to see if there are things present that will distract from the subject such as tree or telephone pole sticking out of a person's head. If it doesn't look good in the viewfinder, it definitely isn't going to look good on the print. Reposition the subject if you have to, in order to remove the unsightly obstacles. Look really closely at the subject, is there anything that looks out of place? Is their tie crooked, or maybe lint on their jacket, or maybe a spot on their jeans? Reposition or rearrange the composition to crop these things out of the photo. Perhaps you are taking a beautiful picture of the Grand Canyon and you look through the viewfinder and spot a roadside garbage can right in plain sight. What do you do? Trust me, that garbage can will ruin your picture forever. Move around to different locations. Walk around and view the scene from different angles until the garbage can is out of the viewfinder.

Let's look at another example of a typical vacation photo. What does this photo tell the viewer? What is the subject? Who is the subject? Where are they? What was the photographer trying to show? Is it a candid photo where the subject was unaware of the photographer? As we start to "read" the photo we can see that the woman has a backpack on her shoulder and a small fanny pack wallet as well. Would she be carrying these to a restaurant, a ball, a wedding? Perhaps but not likely. She looks like she is on vacation. Where? Since the horseman in the background is wearing full regalia and carrying a lance we can assume certain things about the location. Like its not at a football game for sure. The tropical plants in the background also tells us something, so does her clothes and sunglasses. So far our picture story reads like this: A woman is likely on vacation at some sort of medieval affair in a warm tropical place. She seems to be enjoying herself and is in a relaxed posture telling us that the pace is slow. She appears to know the photographer and seems not to mind the camera.

Did the photographer just snap the picture without thinking? I don't think so. Take a look at the composition. The placement of the subject to the right allowing a clear view of the horseman on the left tells us that the photographer chose the composition carefully. Also the fact that she appearsto be so relaxed says that the photographer did not pose the picture nor force her to stand there for 20min while he fiddled with the camera. He probably had the composition and camera settings all preplanned before she ever turned around. How do we know she turned around to face the photographer. Look at her body position. This is not a typical "Look at me---take a picture" pose. The fact that the horseman is looking to the left and her body is facing the left says that the center of attention is over to the left. But look at the horse. He is staring straight ahead with his ears forward meaning that he saw something that caught his attention, probably the photographer. This was a well thought out photo and the photographer had only to wait for the exact moment before releasing the shutter.

That's the key! Pre-thought, pre-planning, pre-setting, and then pressing the shutter at the exact moment at the height of the action in order to get the desired results. Snapshots are just clicking the shutter without any thought to the outcome.

Always be on the lookout for things that will ruin the image. Move around, survey different angles and think about what your doing before snapping the picture. Sometimes the best vantage point may be only a step away. Learn to crop out things in the viewfinder before they find their way into the picture. With these simple techniques, your images will start to improve drastically.

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