“I like it, but not sure why”
Have you ever taken a picture and
liked it, but were not sure why? When
it comes to explaining why we like
pictures, the conversation gets a
bit murky. Sometimes we can
recognize a good picture, but
find it hard to explain.
On The Beach
While I was browsing Facebook one afternoon I stumbled upon an image posted by Marco Rodarte-Elias. We were not friends on FB and I had never heard the name before, but I liked his picture. “Two boys at the beach” stood out for its strong composition, balance, and simplicity. I thought it would be nice to congratulate Marco on his fine shot. After a few exchanges, I asked him why he liked the picture and he wasn’t sure. It was the leading photo in his album and he knew it was a strong shot. I asked him if I could take a shot at explaining why it was a strong image and asked him if it would be ok to analyze it on the site. Thankfully he agreed.
The Root 4
We have been looking at the Root 4 over the last few weeks. While I am sure there are still some questions about why we use two overlapping rectangles to analyze a photograph, today we are going to focus on the image and not on how to use the Root 4 as a technique.
This image uses one of the two Root 4′s, namely the upper one. The image was arranged on instinct, but fall very nicely on to the grid. In this case, we are not looking at the tools used to make the image, rather we are using the Root 4 to analyze why it works. Once the Root 4 is understood it becomes a guideline for arranging figures in a scene.
If there is one idea that every photographer should store in their tool box it would be “the diagonal.” The diagonal line is a powerful compositional tool that will bring action and vitality to any image. Even if your subject is sleeping they can be brought to life through the composition. In this picture, the sinister diagonal (running from the right side to the upper left) is the dominant force. This line connects the heads of both boys and links them in a relationship. When the subject of picture falls along a diagonal and is supported by its reciprocal ( the line interesting it at 90°), it will jump off of the screen as a dominant force.
There are three main vertical lines to choose from in a Root 4. Since the picture divides into quarters, we have a centerline, and two flanking verticals that we can use to arrange our figures. If we leave too much space in the middle, the figures will not relate to each other, and if we put them too close to each other, they will not read as separate forms. The division in quarters gives a good reference point for balancing figures between the edge and the center of a picture. Usually the center line is reserved for a figure in the distance, so it locks in our eye towards the horizon, without being too strong. The vertical lines here establish both of the boys and the wall on the back left. They are close enough to be connected on the same diagonal. Their connection makes the photo feel like a scene, rather than a snapshot of two random people. There is a small issue with the placement of the boy on the right and the wall, but we will get to that later.
Figure to Ground Relationship
We learned this in the Robert Capa article, but lets do it again. Squint your eyes and look at this picture. Can you see the subjects with the image blurred? Absolutely. There are two boys in a field of gray. When we squint our eyes and look at an image, we should be able to have a sense of the image. If we squint our eyes and the subject disappears into the background, chances are the image is not very good. But here we have a dark main figure on a light ground and a second light figure on a dark ground.
Taking pictures at the beach can be tough. The water and the sand are like huge reflector shields bouncing light every which way. This will cancel out the shadows or even tones that we need for a good picture. Marco did a nice job with this shot, because there is a good tonal range, which allowed for the dark shadow around the main figures head. Without that shadow the main boy would fade into the sky.
When lighting is taught for painters or photographers we are all shown Rembrandt lighting. When we work with a highlight, a shadow and reflected light we are able to emphasize a three dimensional volume on a two dimensional plane. When we do not use three quarter lighting images tend to be flat. If there is a highlight and a shadow, without reflected light we get images that look more like illustrations. Just think of Korda’s famous picture of Che Guevara. As an iconic image its fantastic, because Che looks like a poster. He is two dimensional, there is no depth to his face, but it is utterly recognizable. Two dimensional images can be very strong, but we need to use them sparingly because otherwise our work will start to look like a bunch of rally posters and not scenes captured in the real world.
Old Man, Young Body
How old are you? 20, 40, 80, 100? How often do you feel your age? I rarely feel my age. Most of the time I feel like I am either a 70 year old man or a fifteen year old disaster. Everything in between is just a fleeting moment. The pose of this young boy looks as if he is at least 60. Traveling around Europe especially, old men love to walk around with their hands behind their backs. Tipped slightly forward, they gaze out on the world, quietly observing the changing landscape. It is a distinguished pose, quite unlike any young boy. The contrast between his apparent youth and body language is amazing. I am not sure if this is Marco’s son, nephew, or just some random kid. But whoever he is, I hope he can look at this photo when he is 70 and say, “Wow, I had my age in me the whole time.”
There are a four things in this image I would change, can you guess what they are? Some of them are simple and can be achieved in post production, the others are permanently etched in the file (though with enough time on photoshop almost anything is possible, though I do not recommend plastic surgery for your photographs).
The Boy In White
White shirts are dangerous. They bounce back too much light. A white shirt in a sunny scene calls so much attention to itself that it needs to be dodged down. We need to remember that the boy in the front is our subject. There should be nothing competing with him. Marco was kind enough to share a larger file, so I went I made a few adjustments you can see at the bottom. I darkened the boy on the right, so his contrast does not become a distraction.
Hands, Always Include Them
A good rule thumb (no pun intended) is include your subject’s hands whenever possible and do not cut off their feet. If you cut them off, end the picture at the top third of their thigh. It will prevent them from looking chopped. The space left at the top of his head is a little heavy. For any of you watching Myron’s DVD series right now, just think of the bottles from the first few lessons. We need more space at the bottom and less space at the top. The boy’s shape is not much different from a bottle. His head can afford to be closer to the top and the inclusion of his hands will complete his posture.
Darken The Sky
I rarely see people using colored filters anymore. A decade ago a photographer would normally carry a yellow, orange, red, and often a blue filter for black and white work. While Tiffen has come out with a Lightroom Plug In, there is nothing like changing the amount of information entering the photo. Photographers like Ansel Adams used to love dark red filters because they would blacken a sky. In a situation like this a polarizing filter (for color images) or an orange filter would have helped to darken the sky.
Why do we need to darken the sky? Once the picture is switched to black and white, the main boys shirt and the sky are nearly the same value gray. His shoulder starts to get lost in the sky and we end up with a floating head. To combat this Marco increased the contrast on the face, but the end result brings a level of contrast that is a tad harsh.
The French used to promote an idea that an artist should handle a subject based on its nature. So soft things like satin pillows and lace trim were tenderly rendered while the ragged face of a general would be rough and scarred. Its a simple principle that makes sense because it links the conceptual parts of the subject to its physical parts. This boy, shaved head and cotton shirt are all “soft”. The light should dance gracefully over his form. By increasing the contrast of the image, to make him stand out from the sky, he is handled too firmly. It violates the inherent nature of a young boy.
This is new term that we have not discussed yet. A descending line happens when the line of one object coincides with another and merges into one form. The problem with descending lines is they destroy the illusion of depth. When two forms share the same line, we can’t tell if one is in front of the other, or if one is above the other. The effect is confusing. I added a simplistic drawing of two rectangles to illustrate the idea. When forms overlap, we get a clear sense that one is in front of the other. When they share a descending line, we will have trouble determining their position in space.
In this image the wall is set on the vertical of the Root 4. It is a great place to locate the wall, but the running boy was snapped about 1.5 seconds too late.
A good post analysis tool we can use is called “Notional space.” Notional space is the space an object or subject occupies if we were to pack them in a box. This will simplify any form and allow us to analyze its position in a picture. If we find the notional space of the boys head and his body, it is easy to see that the body is closer to us than the head. But when we look at the notional space of the wall, we see a problem. The edge of the wall coincides with the boys body. It explains why our eye flutters back and forth when we look at him. His body lines up almost along the edge of the wall, creating the temporary illusion that he and the wall are one form.
If you look through any book on Cartier-Bresson try this experiment. Grab a book from the library, it does not need to be fancy or even in good shape. Go through the pictures and cover the main subject with your hand. What you will find is that the scenes are beautifully composed. Its becomes obvious how Cartier-Bresson would find a scene and wait…and wait…and wait for something to happen. Then click! Once he knows the scene is right, its just a waiting game. I bet if we could ask him now, how many times he waited for a shot that never happened he would say “…Tout le temps.” (all the time)
Our ability to “see” is a practice that we must hone. It can be studied, exercised, and refined just like any skill. The instinct to press a shutter can get us most of the way there, but the differences between a good image and a great image lie in subtle changes.
“A photographer can bring coincidence of line simply by moving his head a fraction of a millimeter.”
I want to thank Marco for allowing his image to be used here. It is a fantastic shot and I hope to see him take more of these in the future. Its a very generous offer to have your pictured put up for critique, but I hope to have done it justice. In the end, we are growing, learning, and all making mistakes along that way. But hopefully we come out on the other end with a smile and some incredible images.