In the daily push and shove of running a photographic business, it is easy to forget the basics of creativity and composition. Thus, it’s worth reminding ourselves of these principles from time to time, especially when feeling creatively blocked.
If you’re new to photography and have focused primarily on learning the technical basics of proper lighting and camera operation, then I would encourage you to spend some time learning about these principles of design and composition in more detail.
When your work is evaluated in a portfolio review, these are some of the underlying principles that will affect how your images are evaluated. Technical proficiency matters of course, but so does your knowledge of how to apply the timeless principles of good art and how people view images. There are many great books aimed at photographers, graphic designers and artists on composition. Same principles apply to all three. Start with what you can find in your local library and go from there.
Photographers work with a visual medium, and thus a visual language, and so use the same creative elements as painters, sculptors, and designers. So let's use this post to remind ourselves of some of the core aspects of our art. The core design elements and principles to work with are:
- Negative Space
- Repetition reinforces
- Rhythm makes you look for predicted occurrence
- Contrast or variety, in size or color, for example
- The Focal Point
- Controlling eye path
Some of these elements are more self-explanatory than others. For example, repetition of a certain element reinforces its visual power. Rhythm makes you look for the next predicted occurrence. Contrast or variety in size or color makes certain elements in the composition stand out.
Here are some other points to keep in mind:
Point placement: A single dominant object or element should be placed carefully. Multiple points compete and may create shapes with particular meaning (e.g, three points in an upside-down triangle can be dynamically unstable, and visually more interesting than a conventional triangle with a more stable, horizontal base).
Abstraction: Abstraction means eliminating everything from the image that is not necessary to your intent. By removing the clutter, you draw the viewers’ attention more closely to what you want to highlight. Removing color or blurring backgrounds are examples of some methods of abstraction.
Rule of thirds: When you frame the shot, visually divide the scene into thirds, vertically and horizontally. Imagine two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines. Align your points of main interest on one of these horizontal or vertical lines or where the lines would intersect. This creates a more interesting composition than simply centering the subject.
Opportunity: In any given location there are an infinite number of photos you could take. The light will vary. You can change positions, angles, or lenses. Or, you can move objects around to create different juxtapositions, etc. Since any given location has an infinite number of photo opportunities, why can’t you see them? The reality is that you will only see the opportunities that mesh with your photographic thinking at that particular time. This is why you can return to a familiar location much later and see completely new opportunities.
So you must try to expand your thinking about photography. You can do this by always trying to think of some of the possibilities listed below:
- Still life
- Low light
This list is far from complete. The more you expand your thinking about photography, the more possibilities you will consider.
Think About The End Use: If you know how you intend to use a given image it can affect how you shoot. For example:
Must the image be cropped in camera or can you crop later?
Will the shot be the whole image or will you be combining this shot with others?
What emotion do you want to convey?
What aspects do you want to show?
What do you definitely not want to show?
Overcoming Blocks: When you face the inevitable creative block, it can help to remind yourself of the concepts and ideas listed above. Often the best way to overcome a block is simply to try something new—or something that you were taught long ago but haven’t thought about lately.
So keep this list handy and when you feel creatively blocked, pick an element at random and try using it in your work. Simply trying something different will eventually get the creative juices flowing again.
A growing number of online photography magazines and websites publish images from emerging photographers (both amateur and professional). Sites are often themed toward a particular vision and welcome unexpected or unconventional images. Here are a few sites that have caught my eye.
The Flak Photo site features diverse work from a worldwide community of contributors and promotes a distinctive visual approach to seeing the world through photography. The site is produced by Andy Adams and features work from new photo essays, book projects and gallery exhibitions from both established and emerging photographers. Flak is updated frequently and open to submissions from the general public.
File describes its site as "A Collection of Unexpected Photography." According to the website "The purpose of FILE is to collect and display photographs that treat subjects in unexpected ways. Alternate takes, odd angles, unconventional observations—these are some of the ways photographs collected in FILE reinterpret traditional genres. We leave the Kodak Moments to the family album, the glossy fashion spreads to Vogue, and the photo finishes to ESPN. Rather than taking the well-trod paths, we veer off to get a different perspective. Confused? Browse The Collection. The photos say it better than we can." All amateur and professional photographers are encouraged to submit and can submit as often as they like.
F-STOP magazine is "an online photography magazine featuring contemporary photography from established and emerging photographers from around the world. Each issue has a theme or an idea that unites the photographs to create a dynamic dialog among the artists." F-Stop is published bi-monthly.
Lens Culture is an online magazine celebrating international contemporary photography, art, media, and world cultures. At Lens Culture you can read essays, analysis and criticism about photography and culture and listen to audio interviews with photographers. There are also reviews of exhibitions and photo books as well a way to buy very cool 21st Century photography via an online store. They also update via twitter @lensculture
Established in 2004, SeeSaw is an "online photography magazine dedicated to work that successfully captures, represents, and encourages acute observation, via the photographic medium." SeeSaw is unique in that it presents found photographs of anonymous photographers.
Foam Magazine is an international photography magazine published quarterly by Foam_Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam and Vandejong Communications. It is a distinctive and highly appreciated publication. Foam Magazine serves as an exhibition space that embraces every aspect of photography: from documentary to fashion, from contemporary to historical, from world-famous photographers to young talent. Each issue features a specific theme that unites six diverse 16-page portfolios.
There are many more than six sites to which you can submit your images but these sites are my favorites. If you have any favorite online magazines you’d like to share, please let us know.
The point really is to just submit your best images and see what happens. The pool of work is quite amazing and growing every day.
Entering a print competition can be one of the best ways to become a better photographer. Although winning awards and getting publicity can be gratifying, you don’t have to win the competition in order to benefit from it.
For example, here are just three of the valuable opportunities that entering a print competition can provide
· In a formal setting, you can see what many other photographers consider to be their best work.
· You can have your work evaluated and scored by a panel of judges. In some competitions, the judges will have microphones so you can hear their comments.
· The process of choosing which images to enter forces you to look more critically at your work. As you attempt to evaluate your work from the eyes of the judges, you will start to see each image in a whole new light.
Competitions are usually divided into categories. This gives you multiple opportunities to enter and win an award, but can make your image-selection process much tougher. A print competition might include the following categories:
· Photojournalism, Event and Editorial (includes weddings)
· Landscape Photography
· Nature Photography
· Close-Up & Macro Photography
· Architectural & Design Photography
· Digital Manipulation/Freestyle
Each competition may have slightly different criteria for judging and it’s important to know in advance what those criteria will be. For example, here are some of the criteria used by the group in which I am active: the Santa Clarita Photographers Association in Southern California.
Impact: Does this image grab my attention? Is its message understood immediately? Does this photograph hold my attention? Is it effective?
Style: This is an extension of impact but incorporates less tangible qualities. Does it seem to be an extension of the sensibilities of the photographer? Will this image hold up over time?
Composition: Look at the structure of the image. Is there movement or is it static? Is it balanced by way of effective use of negative space? Is the cropping correct? Does it have depth? Is there a primary focal point?
Creativity: Does this photograph indicate a deliberate effort? Did the photographer interact with or manipulate the elements of the photo with a specific outcome in mind? Is it innovative and unusual in some way?
Technique: Was this image created with the use of any treatments such as filtering or multiple exposures or Photoshop tricks? Does the technique support the image or does it seem misused?
Lighting: Akin to technique, lighting is the single most essential element aside from the content itself. Is the lighting appropriate? Does it upstage or complement the subject matter? If the lighting is artificial, is it well-executed?
Print Quality: Are there any obvious flaws in the print? Is it clean? Does it seem too light or dark? Are there printer marks or visible pixels? Is it printed in a way that supports or amplifies the content of the image?
Print Presentation: Does the presentation of the image support the image? Or does it upstage the image and drag it down? Would you be proud to see it displayed publicly?
As you can see, judges score prints on both objective and subjective elements. And yes, it is possible for a technically weak print to win an award if the image makes a strong emotional impact.
So now that we know what the judges are looking for, let’s tackle the really hard part: Picking which images to enter. I’m not joking, this step can make a strong photographer swoon. It is pretty easy to get down to your top ten, but top three? Ouch! And before you can even get down to your top ten, you have to decide: Which category? How many in each category? I’ve adopted a six-step process to narrow down my choices.
STEP 1: I ask myself: What are my business objectives? Would it help me build my business if I gained recognition in a particular category?
STEP 2: Or, I ask myself: What creative or developmental goals would I like to pursue? These can include almost anything, from learning how to create top-notch panoramas and HDR images to shooting celebrity portraits or weddings.
STEP 3: I go through my images in each segment. First, I pick the top two or three. Then, I eliminate as many sinkers as possible. An image that has a technical weakness must have other redeeming features, such as uniqueness or storytelling that keep it in the running
STEP 4: Now that I have whittled my collection down to the crème-de-la-crème, I review the leftovers that survived the cut. Of these, I will pick another two or three images.
STEP 5: I make some working prints (usually 8x10 or 8x12) and put them in a book. For a week or so, I show this book of prints to the most accomplished, opinionated, and contrary photographers I can find. This step helps me to: (1) identify those images that I personally like, but probably won’t cut it in competition; and (2) find images that I don’t like as much as everyone else does.
STEP 6: I make the final cut. I try to select only those images that convey an uncommon subject, feeling, or style or make a special impact. These are the images that I know will be competitive.
Once the final cut is made, I go into production. Print quality, mounting and presentation are also very important.
This image just won first place in the Portrait Category in a regional competition. From a technical standpoint, it is not very strong. In fact, I took it with a very small point-and-shoot camera, through my car window, while I was waiting in traffic. But the judges said that what carried it through was the emotional content—the storytelling
Amateurs and professionals are very different beasts. Amateurs can do whatever they want without the need to sell what they do. They can chop and change their focus (pun intended) as the mood suits them. Professionals must please their clients, even if that means doing work that they, themselves, don’t overly like. Although the conventional wisdom is that amateurs can learn a lot from pros, it actually works both ways.
In the time I have spent interviewing professional photographers I have come across many who have lost touch with what got them excited about photography in the first place. They have become jaded and tired. It is now just a job. And of course it is. It puts food on the table and roofs over their families’ heads.
But if it is only a job, how will they maintain the creative spark that makes their work stand out in a crowded and highly competitive marketplace? How will they keep their sanity as well?
Creative people can, in my experience, be perhaps more prone to depression than less creative types, especially when they are not creating. So professional photographers need to find a way to keep their creative juices flowing. One way to do this is to allocate some amount of time to shoot purely for themselves with absolutely no idea of selling the images. That may happen down the road, but selling the images shouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind.. Personal projects are essential. They provide some structure, some motivation.
Amateurs are often immensely undisciplined. They waft from one subject to another on a whim and their spouses are often critical that they bought gear that excites them for a month and then sits unused. Amateurs sometimes work on something for awhile, but when getting the results they want becomes too hard, they move on.
Thus, what amateurs sometimes need is discipline. They need the discipline to push a piece of gear as far as they possibly can before even thinking about something new. Discipline to keep pushing for results that may be hard to achieve but, once they break through, will move their work to a whole new level. And discipline to keep themselves on track despite what others may say.
Of course these examples are broad generalities, and don’t apply to all amateurs nor all professionals. But they do illustrate my point that not only can an amateur learn from a professional, but that a professional can also learn some things from the amateur.
I can think of other examples. Amateurs sometimes have very deep technical knowledge in a particular area because they can. The pro may stop learning a particular subject as soon as they know enough to get by with it in their work.
A pro often has a more critical eye because they have needed to develop one. Pros must identify issues and correct them before a picky client spots them. Amateurs can be sloppy in their self-assessment and can benefit from the pro’s eyes. And so it goes on.
As in other areas where there are both amateurs and professionals, such as astronomy, each can learn and benefit from the others. All that’s needed is an open mind.
I encourage those students who are waiting for their edit sessions to pull up a chair up and listen, because the advice given during every edit session can prove to be one of the most educational aspects of our, or any, workshop.
We also do a daily show of our students’ best work. It is mandatory that all students be present for this, and I really want them to bring their voices to this. The daily show can open your eyes and creative spirit, because you may see how another photographer shot the horse round-up at dawn in Dubois. He may have shot it in a way you hadn’t even considered.
At the end of each workshop week, we invite residents of the community to our print show so they can see how the photographers at the FirstLight Workshop have depicted their lives. These shows are wonderful! Jay Kinghorn (my co-author on Perfect Digital Photography, long-time FirstLight instructor, and our IT guy) uses our two 44-in. HP Designjet Z3100 printers to output large prints of each student’s best photos. Each student receives four or five 13 x 19-in. prints as well as one 18 x 24-in. print.We chose to use HP Professional Satin Photo Paper for all of the prints, after we discovered that prints with a lot of contrast or deep blacks didn’t look their best on the fine-art paper we’d been using for some prints.
Every photographer I know has favorite papers for different looks, but we wanted one paper surface that would provide the visual and surface feel we wanted for all the types of images our students were shooting. Our print shows generally feature a mix of black-and-white images, portraits, and landscapes, and HP’s Professional Satin Photo Paper really covers the bases beautifully. We have yet to find that image that doesn’t “glow” with this paper surface.
I rent/borrow gallery space in which to hang the show. Hanging the show is fairly simple. We inset the photos so the image has a one- to three-inch white border. This creates a simple matte feel without adding a mind-boggling amount of work! Our hanging system is usually equally simple: clear pushpins. Not fancy, but the images are so powerful that no one has yet to complain about this inexpensive, fast and non-obtrusive hanging method.We hang the show for the final night of the workshop. The students contribute elbow grease in cutting prints, organizing the groupings, and hanging the show.
In our Dubois workshop in Wyoming in July, I was up in the workshop HQ finalizing the show when Jeff Vanuga, one of our FirstLight instructors, came up to me to tell me we had a problem in the gallery. The students had finished hanging their work and were standing in front of their panels with big grins, not moving.
Initially, when we took the show down we would give the smaller 13x19 prints to the subjects who were in attendance the night of the show. Now, the shows have become so popular that we leave them hanging in the community for a week or two. Our students leave a self-addressed mailing tube and we send each of them their large print post-event.