The Tuesday Composition: Lighting and Composition

Traces of the Ancient Thule
Traces of the Ancient Thule, Danmark Ø, Scoresbysund, East Greenland. I wanted more texture in the foreground, front-lighting and soft light from clouds kept the rocks from being visible. I couldn't move to the side, because I wanted to include the bay behind. I couldn't come back because of the constraints of getting to this location in Greenland. My only option for introducing texture and depth into the foreground rocks was adding some fill flash, which I did with the help of a reflector.

If you like this article, you can now get the book! Joe has expanded the “Tuesday Composition” series into an inspiring new ebook on composition, especially for nature photography. Check it out: The Tuesday Composition.

A few years back, Frans Lanting said something in passing that’s really stuck with me, I presume it’s an old studio lighting maxim:

Front-lighting for color, side-lighting for texture, back-lighting for form.

This line is pretty much a recipe for how to light an object in the studio depending on what aspect of it you want to emphasize. Got a colorful subject? Start by photographing from the same direction as the light is coming from. Want texture?  Make sure the light is coming in from the side, that way it’ll be raking across the front of the subject you’re looking at and showing shadows on even the smallest bits of texture. And want to show the shape of something? Backlight it, and create a silhouette.

Obviously it’s simplistic (as any nine words of advice must be), but it’s not a bad place to start when thinking about lighting.

In addition to light direction, we also talk about the difference between soft (wide) light sources and hard (tiny) light sources. Hard lighting tends to pick up more texture by creating better-defined shadows than soft lighting.

What does all of this have to do with composition?

While we have a great deal of flexibility in lighting subjects in the studio, many of us who photograph nature, or events, or sports often have a little less room to organize our environment the way we’d like. We might have a couple different objects in our scene, and perhaps we’d like the form of one of them juxtaposed with the color of another and the texture of a third, and the light might be doing something else entirely. (more…)

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Shooting Sports 1 – A Primer

Over the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to shoot a wide variety of sports. I am a people/portrait/event photographer in Frederick, MD, but I also have two active kids.

I also have a wide variety of friends who have kids active in sports, and who ask me to take pictures of their kids doing the things they do – which include sports. When you tote a camera everywhere, people assume you take pictures “everywhere”.

I was also fortunate enough to have the opportunity to serve as the Digital Media Director, responsible for photography and videography, for the U.S. Deaflympics Team at the recent Deaflympics in Taipei, Taiwan. (See the photos here.)

My goal with the next several articles is to help the budding sports photographer (or the involunteered sports photographer) get better pictures. In my experience, it usually takes two to three games of shooting before you learn the tempo of that particular game, and learn where to stand to improve your odds of getting a better shot. With proper instruction and guidance, my hope is that you will be walking away with keepers on the very first game. (more…)

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The Tuesday Composition: Working with Silhouettes

Crane Family Stroll, Sunrise, Bosque del Apache
Crane Family Stroll, Sunrise, Bosque del Apache. Generally, keeping silhouettes from merging makes a photograph easier to "read".

If you like this article, you can now get the book! Joe has expanded the “Tuesday Composition” series into an inspiring new ebook on composition, especially for nature photography. Check it out: The Tuesday Composition.

For the past week and a half, I’ve been shooting in New Mexico; and for the last few days I’ve been doing a lot of work at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Reserve. Sunrises and sunsets are magical there, and often end up involving silhouettes, which got me thinking again about composing with silhouettes. I’ve touched on the subject of shadows and silhouettes before. But today I’ll go into more depth on the subject.

Silhouettes abstract objects into a two-dimensional shape, eliminating their color and texture. That’s a powerful tool for those moments where the shape of an object can communicate your intent effectively. But with that power comes a danger of accidentally removing some information you really need for the image to make sense. (more…)

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Taking pictures of the cake, the dress and the rings at a wedding

One of the things that makes Wedding Photography such a challenge is that you have to be able to wear so many hats.   When I shoot a portrait session I have to be able to light and shoot a portrait session with a model (following directions) and retouch the images.

When I shoot a wedding, I have to be able to do the same thing as a portrait shoot …  as well as shoot in low-light in the church and at the reception, shoot action in low-light, shoot as a photojournalist and capture events that tell a story, shoot products, retouch everything and design an album that showcases the day. It’s a lot of hats.

What’s funny to me is how much of a kick I get out of “product” shots at a wedding. Don’t get me wrong, I love every element and get giddy as a schoolgirl when  I pull off an amazing shot, but I never thought I would enjoy the “product” shots as much as I do. “Product” shots are what I call the static shots of rings, flowers, tables, rooms, cakes, etc. that you have to take in order to capture everything about the day … the little details that people will be glad they have a picture of in years to come.

I can say with all sincerity that I would never want to be a catalog photographer. It would bore me to tears, I think. But I also think that I might understand the fellow photogs who do that work after seeing how excited I can get over a picture of a cake.

The trick is to approach the shot like it’s the most important one of the day. That way you really get a kick out of nailing it.

wedding photography tampa bay 10

This particular cake was in a hall that was completely white. White ceiling, white walls, white, white, white. However, there was one spot in the whole place with color and it happened to be right behind the cake. There were also some fake trees back there.

I shot this handheld with on-camera flash pointed off to my left. It really didn’t take much work at all but I just love it. I moved the trees a few times to see how I liked it but eventually ended up using the very first shot. Cake shots are probably the easiest of the “product” shots at a wedding.


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The Tuesday Composition: Live and In Color

Early light, Bodie
Early Light, Bodie. Purple and yellow form an effective color contrast here, incresing our sense of saturation in both colors. (Having them set against black also helps pump up the apparent saturation.)

If you like this article, you can now get the book! Joe has expanded the “Tuesday Composition” series into an inspiring new ebook on composition, especially for nature photography. Check it out: The Tuesday Composition.

Even though we’re twenty or so columns into this series, nearly everything I’ve said so far about composition applies equally to monochromatic and color images. Today I’m going to focus a on how color and color combinations play into compositions. We’ll revisit a few old topics, such as contrast, edges and balance, and we’ll talk about how color figures into them. I’ll also talk a little bit about color theory, without giving a full introduction to it.

Contrast is the first subject I’ll revisit. Just as tonal contrast can be created with lots of sharp transitions from dark to light, color contrast can be created with lots of sharp transitions from a color to the complement (opposite) of that color. I was taught color complements in grade school by looking at a color wheel: Yellow is opposite purple; red is opposite green; blue is opposite orange. But don’t think you need to use those precise combinations to get great color contrast, nearly-complementary color combinations, such as yellow and blue, often create very effective color contrasts as well (as in Aspens, Walker Creek, below). (more…)

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Balancing flash with ambient light outdoors

Trying to balance your flash with bright sunlight for an outdoor portrait scares the pants off people. It’s one of those things that seems so hard to do, especially if you are using off-camera flash without TTL. In that case, it’s all math and numbers and my head starts to hurt just thinking about it. Fortunately, it’s not really that difficult to do once you learn a few tricks.

tampa portrait photographer 1


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The Tuesday Composition: Composing Images with Water

Surf, Garrapata Beach
Surf, Garrapata Beach. Still images can't capture motion in water, but they can communicate the idea.

If you like this article, you can now get the book! Joe has expanded the “Tuesday Composition” series into an inspiring new ebook on composition, especially for nature photography. Check it out: The Tuesday Composition.

Like mist and fog, water is a subject that deserves it’s own consideration compositionally. With the exception of very still lakes and ponds, one of the things that makes water “look like water” to us is the way that it moves. We can’t present this movement in a still image to a viewer directly. Instead, we have to translate it into a still image by making an exposure; and we use a variety of controls such as shutter speed and composition to help communicate a sense of that motion.

When we want to capture a sense of movement in water there are several things to keep in mind. Shutter speed has a significant effect-a waterfall, cascade or even surf against a coastline will have a very soft, gentle feel if we use a long exposure. Faster exposures will stop individual droplets in air, creating a greater sense of energy.  Shutter speed isn’t the only thing to keep an eye on, though. The way we compose the path of water through a scene can also affect how viewers experience water moving through a scene. Where possible, try and make it easy for the viewer’s eye to trace along the lines of the water’s path. Your images will (all other things being equal) be more effective if the visual flow of the water isn’t interrupted by things that block the view of the water. Diagonals and  S-curves can also create an additional sense of motion. (more…)

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Wedding Photography and Bounce Flash

I’ve been trying to write about bounce flash at weddings for about an hour now. The problem with explaining bounce flash is that it seems simple at first (just point the flash over your shoulder!) but then there’s a snag … a situation where that doesn’t quite work. So, you talk about the snag, which leads you down another path (diffusers and bounce cards!) … which veers off into some other tangent (shadows and background!) and the next thing you know you’re typing the words “raccoon” and “inverse square law” in the same sentence and you just have to stop.

So, here’s what I’m going to do:   I’m going to post some pictures from a recent wedding and talk about the lighting in each one. Hopefully I will be able to stay on topic. (By the way, I am a wedding photographer in Tampa, FL and no raccoons were harmed in the writing of this article.)

tampa wedding photographer marriott 8

This particular wedding reception was in a small room with low ceilings that were white (mana from heaven for a bounce flash photographer). I was able to shoot with my flash pointed back over my left shoulder most of the night. I think a lot of people tend to believe that you either bounce off a wall or you bounce off the ceiling in front of you. It’s important to realize that you can bounce off the ceiling behind you as well (especially if it’s low). You will typically lose some light, since most of it will bounce to the back of the room but you’ll still get some back from the ceiling, tablecloths, walls, etc.   I had my flash dialed up to +1 most of the night. Could I have taken this shot with a diffuser or direct flash? Sure, but I would have lost contrast in the subject. The reason the dancing man stands out is because the light falls off across his body (notice the shadow on his face).


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The Tuesday Composition: Communicating Immensity

Cerro Torre
Cerro Torre, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina

If you like this article, you can now get the book! Joe has expanded the “Tuesday Composition” series into an inspiring new ebook on composition, especially for nature photography. Check it out: The Tuesday Composition.

One of the most common challenges in landscape photography communicating the scale of large objects. Photographs seem to resist conveying the sense of scale we often feel in a landscape. When we take the photograph, we have the opportunity to move around in the landscape, to hike a half-mile and notice that our view of the mountain hasn’t changed much. Our brains unconsciously integrate that information into our perceptions of the world around us. Viewers of our still photographs see things much differently.

Small prints and web images are particularly challenging. Our minds seem to resist  perceiving  a mountain that stretches a mile into the air within a photograph that fits inside a lunch box. Even large prints sometimes seem to lack any real ability to communicate the size of the landscape they portray.  As a result, rather than relying on making large prints, we have to understand how our brains perceive scale in still images, and take advantage of the cues our brains use in that process. (more…)

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The Tuesday Composition: Framed, Inside and Out

North Falls Canyon, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon
North Falls Canyon, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

If you like this article, you can now get the book! Joe has expanded the “Tuesday Composition” series into an inspiring new ebook on composition, especially for nature photography. Check it out: The Tuesday Composition.

Many of the topics we’ve discussed so far talk about the relationship between two objects in an image, from their relative distance from the camera to whether one is left or right of the other to visual similarity between two objects. Many of the cues we use to communicate using photographs stem from these sorts of signs. Today I’ll talk about another example: what happens when one image frames another within a photograph. I’ll say that the enclosing object “frames” the enclosed object, but here I’m not referring to picture frames, I’m still talking about parts of the photographic image itself.

These frames tend to serve two ends. Visually, frames in general (and darker frames in particular) often guide the eye toward the center of an image much in the same way that edge-burning does. As a matter of meaning,   framing often provides context for the enclosed subject of the image. I think it’s likely that these two effects are related; our eyes are pulled to the center,   the enclosed object in such a photograph, and as a result that object becomes the primary subject of the image. The frame itself speaks second, not first. (more…)

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