Look for the results of our Redoubt Reporter Spring Photo Contest on May 9!
By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter
Although I’ve not yet seen the 2012 entries, our spring photo contest generally reminded me about the importance of ruthlessly editing your photos, selecting only the best.
Americans take about four hundred billion photos a year and not all of them are masterpieces. Personally, I think that photos generally fall into four groups: those that can only interest the photographer and perhaps some immediate family and friends, documentary photographs, “pretty pictures” and those that have a broader public appeal.
Most photographs basically document our lives and our immediate surroundings. They’re a treasure to us and our descendants. But other people are most likely to be more interested in their own families, friends and environment than in ours. This sort of photograph belongs in photo albums, as wallpaper for our office computer, and perhaps on Facebook to share with friends.
A second sort of photo has often been termed “pretty pictures.” I must admit that I was truly irritated the first time someone termed one of my early digital photos — a shaft of sunlight through the clouds onto Kenai Lake — to be a merely “pretty picture.” In retrospect, though, I’ve seen similar photos thousands of times and my photo did not blaze new ground by any means. It was, in fact, pretty, but also pretty interchangeable with thousands of other images.
So ask yourself, “Have I seen this picture a thousand times before?” If so, think twice or three times before selecting a shot for a larger audience. Something else that you’ve shot may be far more unique and interesting.
Documentary photography is fairly straightforward — think portraits, scientific and legal fact documentation, and photojournalism. Few of us are likely to do very much of this sort of photography because it’s done by working professionals in many fields. The accurate, clear, technically correct presentation of facts is key here.
Finally, there are the few remaining photographs that are unusually well done technically and of broader interest beyond our circle of family and friends. These are the photographs that should be seen by many people.
Carefully go through these photographs, selecting only the best and most interesting. Unless there’s some special effect that you’re seeking, your first cut should exclude any photographs that are cliche or not technically very good to excellent. Then, look for uniqueness, strong composition, interesting subject matter and emotional impact. From these few remaining photographs, choose only the few “best of the best.”
Don’t be discouraged if you have only five or seven really top photographs. That’s quite an achievement. I recall Ansel Adams’ observation that even a top fine-art photographer was lucky to get a dozen good images a year. One of the real problems facing photographers is the apparent ease with which modern equipment allows us to capture and print technically good digital images. As a result, there’s a lot of pressure on photographers to constantly produce exhibition-grade images. That level of visual inspiration is just not humanly possible, so don’t be discouraged when you have a dry patch but do continue to edit your images ruthlessly.
There is one sort of photography that’s probably beyond possibility for all but a very lucky few: photographing while in space. There are some surprising technical challenges but fabulous images. Check out this great recent article by Space Shuttle commander Capt. Alan Poindexter (USN): http://www.luminous-landscape.com/locations/photography_in_space.shtml.
Let’s look now at some aspects of composing photographic images. Photo composition is the art of seeing and capturing something in the visually strongest way. Composition includes ensuring that everything important is in the image and seen from a point of view that’s visually pleasing, or at least in strong relationship with everything else in the final image. You’ll need to think this through before you click the shutter.
Good composition can be reduced to two basic ideas: where you place the camera and where you place the edges of the picture. Camera placement and camera angle determine the photo’s subject and control how the different parts of the overall photograph relate to each other. Placing the frame edges, which is usually termed “cropping” the photograph, cuts away unnecessary parts.
Cropping is composition’s twin and probably the most important, but underrated, action occurring after you’ve clicked the shutter release. Cropping, in essence, involves removing whatever isn’t needed in a photo and adjusting the edges of the image to enhance a photo’s final appearance and impact.
Good cropping can strengthen your initial image by focusing the viewer’s attention on the most important parts of the photograph and strengthening how each part relates to the others.
Although you can tightly crop the image when you frame the subject in your camera’s viewfinder, I think that it’s best to avoid cropping too tightly when actually taking the photo. It’s the rare photographer whose images are so perfectly composed straight from the camera. You may need some flexibility when later cropping with your computer and printer.
My personal preference, based on sad experience, is thus to either physically move back from the subject or use a somewhat wider-angle zoom setting so there’s enough extra around the edges that I can later crop as desired. If you leave a bit extra around the subject when taking the photo, you can always crop out any slight excess, but if something important isn’t inside the frame and correctly positioned when you click the shutter, then it’s gone for good. Some may argue that, like bracketing exposures, allowing some slack around the edges for later cropping isn’t the purist’s preferred approach, but I prefer an approach that provides later flexibility and the best possible end result.
The original proportions of your image are controlled by the shape and dimensions of whatever image sensor that the manufacturer’s engineers chose, a decision that’s more a reflection of traditional film and computer screen proportions than any inherent artistic or engineering merit.
Your hardware configuration need not affect how you compose or crop a photo. If it works, then you turn a long rectangular initial image into a square or even vertical photo through careful cropping, assuming that you have enough image area left. On the other hand, you can simply turn a camera vertical and get in closer.
The proportion of the horizontal to the vertical sides is called the “aspect ratio.” Traditional 35-mm film format has an aspect ratio of 3:2, that is the frame’s width is 50 percent longer than the height, surprisingly close to the proportions of the “Golden Mean” so prevalent in classical art. Most digital SLR cameras continue to use the same 3:2 image proportions as traditional 35-mm film cameras but with a somewhat smaller sensor area.
Digital cameras aimed at a basic consumer audience usually have image proportions that are derived from the dimensions and proportions of computer monitors and widescreen television sets. Traditional television sets had a 4:3 aspect ratio, which was later copied by computer monitors and the makers of consumer digital cameras. Later, when most computer and television displays went to a widescreen, 16:9, movie-style format, many consumer digital cameras followed.
Personally, I like the 3:2 and 4:3 proportions for still photographs, whether printed out or displayed on a computer screen. These image proportions seem a better fit for most photographs and subjects. Widescreen 16:9 formats work well for movies but often don’t work very well for most still images. They often force the viewer’s eye off the print and usually don’t have enough negative space to clearly define the subject within its larger context.
There’s no foolproof guide to cropping. It is an aesthetic decision unique to each subject and each image. However, there are a few general factors to consider.
- Simplicity — show the story of the photograph and its subject as cleanly and simply as possible. Crop out whatever is distracting or that isn’t needed to show the subject as you visualized it.
- Incompleteness — you don’t have to show the entire subject. The viewer’s mind can complete the image. A partial view of an arched gate, for example, is all that most viewers need to complete the image in their mind and to understand it. Cropping out part of the gate may result in a visually stronger composition without loss of understanding by viewers.
- Meaning — Include enough of the subject’s surroundings so that viewers understand how your subject relates to its overall context. On the other hand, cropping so that you isolate a mundane subject from its surroundings can result in an image that seems abstract or mysterious.
- Composition conveys meaning — Where and how you place a subject within the image profoundly affects the meaning that most viewers project into the image. As an example, cropping so that the subject is near the bottom of the image and surrounded by a large amount of negative space conveys a very different meaning than tightly cropping the same subject. The tightly cropped image conveys warmth and closeness while the image in the middle of a vast space has a very different meaning, indeed, conveying either loss, depression, hopelessness or exhilaration, depending on the viewer.
Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.