I’ll sometimes return to a location I’ve previously photographed and discover it has irrevocably changed. What I mean is that what I had shot is no longer there. I'm not necessarily devastated by that, but I’ll often feel sad. Something that I thought was worth photographing - something others should have had a chance to see or photograph - is now no more. What makes me happy, on the other hand, is knowing that at least I have pictures of what was once there, and that others, hopefully, will get to see them.
This brings back memories of the flying monkeys from the film, The Wizard of Oz. The sign, now gone, was located on Main Street in Glastonbury, Connecticut, USA. It was positioned between the sidewalk's end and the beginning of a wooded area. It advertised the Flying Monkey Farm in Glastonbury. I suspect that those who saw the sign for the first time must have done a serious double take.
Since this museum gallery was being refurbished, all the paintings had been removed. Viewing the room this way puts the emphasis on it rather than on the artwork that normally would be hanging on the walls. To me, this image shows that even an empty space can have a beauty of its own. I found myself wishing that the room would remain as it was - bereft of any paintings. I really enjoyed seeing this portion of the museum in its raw state. Note: This picture was shot with a wide-angle lens and with an intentional slight blur.
I was photographing in a skate park that also included walls of gorgeous graffiti paintings (I think the graffiti was actually encouraged by the city). When I saw these Art Deco type numbers on the colored squares, I knew I wanted to photograph them. I also thought that adding a human element might make the picture even more interesting, so I made sure my legs and feet would be visible in the shot. When I returned to the skate park some months later, I was dismayed to discover that this entire section had been completely painted over.
Unlike the previous images, what you see in this photograph (at least as of this writing) still exists. What does not exist is the era that this picture hopefully represents - the 1930s or 1940s. With a bit of Photoshop finagling, I think I gave the picture an appearance of an America long since gone.
There’s a belief in photography that the eye is drawn to the brightest part of an image. This assumption most likely is correct. In fact, photographers and other artists have long used dark and light areas in their work for directing the eyes of their viewers. Think of a picture - a photograph or a painting - where the edges are darker than the interior portion. That dark area acts like a frame, subtlety telling the viewer where their eyes need to go, which is towards the interior where the subject lies.
So it would seem self-defeating to take a picture that includes bright and especially grossly overexposed areas that may distract the viewer from the photo’s main subject. But many photographers and artists do take pictures this way, including myself. It’s something that's always appealed to me. I’ve never been able to explain why and certainly have never been able to present a cogent argument rationalizing its inclusion in an image. But that is unimportant. I think the bottom line is that bright and ultra-bright areas, though they may be competing with the subject, can be dynamic in a photograph. I believe it’s the sheer intensity of the light, independent of whatever the subject is, that helps capture and hold my attention. The subject is still there and just as important. It’s just that now the whole image is more vibrant and exciting.
There are times when a bright light has a more practical purpose in a photograph. That's when it provides the illumination for the image. Without that light, there would be no picture. Of course, the light itself doesn’t have to be in the photo. Just the areas being lit can be included. But, as I’ve mentioned before, that bright area could be responsible for making the picture that much more appealing.
In addition, bright light can be used to hide an ugly or intrusive background. In the photos below, there were elements outside that I felt would hurt the photographs. Blowing out the backgrounds prevented this from happening.
Bright light works well as a clean, white, nonintrusive background for the subject. As seen in the image below, that and the odd highlighting around each chair help to define and separate each one. In addition, the overexposed areas adds some diffusion that softens the picture a bit.
I’ve seen many photographs where tunnels, corridors, passageways, and footpaths have ended in scary, mysterious, darkness. There seems to be a natural connection among those three qualities. It’s as if each one depends on the other two. However, replacing a dark area with a very bright one can often produce an equally scary and mysterious image. I think it’s the fact that whether an area is very dark or very bright, we just don’t know what awaits us there. But it’s interesting to consider how a grossly overexposed area also can connote heavenliness. It’s like people on the verge of death who see a bright light that pleasantly beckons them forward.
When photographing someone, veils and gauzy curtains can cover a multitude of sins such as messy hair, facial blemishes, bad lighting, lack of posing ability, and so on. And, depending how they're used, these accessories can help make images appear mysterious or even ghoulish.
I’ve never purchased actual veils for my subjects. Instead, I visit local craft supply stores for veil type material, in various colors and patterns, with weaves ranging from course to fine. The pieces I purchase are large so that there's enough material to cover the subject's head and upper torso. Also, I’ll iron or steam the cloth before the shoot to remove any wrinkles and creases.
Here’s Anabel wearing veils prepared from three very different materials. Each was carefully arranged after being placed over her head and shoulders. The veil was positioned so no opaque portion of it covered anything I wanted visible. I also made sure the material was not doubling up, but rather laying down as a single layer. I made a final check and, if necessary, adjustment just before taking each picture. With the materials being so different, with the variety in Anabel’s poses, and with the help of Photoshop, she almost appears to be three different people.
I had Elspeth sit on this window ledge, then covered her with the sheer curtain. I threw the lens a bit out-of-focus, thereby softening the picture. Tilting the camera meant Elspeth wouldn’t have to wait while I aligned the vertical and horizontal lines of the window panes, which I would have done had the camera been held in a normal horizontal manner. Barely visible, her expression shows a sweet smile.
Jaida appears to be struggling with an out-of-control veil, as if it's windy and she's trying to prevent it from blowing away. Actually, we were inside her house, and there was no air movement. Her convincing demeanor was the result of some good acting!
Linda is draped with a blanket instead of a veil. The covering serves the same purpose as a veil but evokes, perhaps, more humor than drama. The cigarette sticking out of her mouth adds some extra oddness to the picture.
Makenzie’s eyes are completely covered by her veil, and bare branches hang above her. Together, these details infuse the photo with a sense of mystery. After not viewing the photograph for several months, I found two details I’d never seen before. First, the picture appears to be divided equally into two sections - the model and far background trees in one and the horizontal tree branch and sky in the other. Second, the very bottom tree branch lines up almost perfectly with the top of the tree line in the far background.
I’m very happy when my models (or anyone else on the set with us) make suggestions about clothing, hair, makeup, and the like. In addition, when an interesting posing idea is brought up, I’m very happy to try it. However, in the past, if it was something that did not seem to have a chance of working, I’d quickly discard the suggestion. I was convinced I was the final authority on what poses would or would not work.
I still react that way occasionally. When it comes to positioning the model and helping her achieve an interesting facial expression, I pretty much know what I’m looking for. But this belief obviously has limitations. Making a snap judgment means I’ve thought little about what was suggested to me. Instead, if I spend a few moments fully considering the suggestion, I’ll often find that it indeed does have merit.
The end of our photo shoot was drawing near. Lexi had been a great model, and I wanted to reward her by taking some shots of a setup she had designed; something she’d been considering for a while. So, after she posed herself, I took a few pictures. I hadn’t been crazy about the setup and was sure none of the images would have any value for me. Boy, was I wrong! There’s so much I like about this particular photograph - the strong diagonal created by the tree branch, the angular bends of her arms and left leg, the contrast between her red dress and the green background, and her intense stare into the camera.
I had asked Cynthia to sit down. She did, but not the way I figured she would. I was about to ask that she move to the seat, but decided not to. This was our first time working together, and I didn’t want her thinking I was the dictatorial type. So I took a few shots, assuming none would be very good. I changed my mind when viewing the pictures on the full size monitor in my office. One of the things I really like is the bend of the knees, with one slightly below the other, and how that matches the bottom of her dress, with one side being a little lower than the other. In addition, I love the soft shadow surrounding her legs and chair, produced by the ring light attached to my camera. And I finally realized how charming it was that she had decided to sit on the chair this way.
Here’s another setup I was positive would fizzle. The young couple and I had spent a few hours photographing at a city park. They had been a delight to work with but now were itching to try a few setups of their own. After completing the shots I wanted, they led me to this merry-go-round. To the uninitiated, this old-fashioned device spins by having someone hold onto its railing while running. Once the ride gets moving, the runner jumps on. My role, of course, was to document this process. So, I hopped onto the device, and Kevin began spinning it while Ariana ran alongside. Though they were savvy enough to be aware of the camera and knew the importance of good expressions, I could tell they were genuinely excited and having a grand time. They never came aboard the spinning disk, but I was still getting some great images. It was also satisfying knowing I didn’t have to set up the shots, since I was now shooting documentary style - following and photographing what was directly in front of me. I was very happy with the results.
When searching for non-human subjects to photograph, I’m not usually drawn to the same objects or scenes that others may find appealing. Rather, I’m more attracted to the ordinary - things other photographers might never consider shooting. What I love photographing is the nondescript, the unremarkable, the plain. Things lacking visual appeal. It’s with these sorts of subjects that I can apply my trade, which is trying to make the commonplace interesting. I do this by playing with subject positioning, camera placement, camera angle, focal length selection, depth-of-field, lighting, and, sometimes, prop placement. I’ll also be considering what post-production changes to apply later on. I find this kind of photography far more appealing and challenging (in a good way) than merely recording the pretty things I come across.
Let me address that last point for a moment. I’m certainly not criticizing photographers, amateurs or professionals, who enjoy shooting sunsets, architecture, animals in the wild – the visually stunning items that easily catch the eye. I understand the appeal. But for me, it’s being able to take something most people would consider not worth shooting and coming up, hopefully, with a quality photograph.
I think many photographers don’t consider the possibilities of photographing the ordinary. They don’t realize the wonderful images that can result. That certainly makes sense if they’ve never done this type of shooting before.
For me, this shooting process involves two general steps:
After a while, the photographer will become more comfortable with this process – both with selecting the subjects and using the camera to mold them into appealing photographs. Then, instead of avoiding the mundane, they’ll be embracing it, knowing they have the ability to transform their subjects into wonderful images. It’s really a satisfying feeling, coming up with quality photographs that started with something very ordinary.
Here are some images I believe demonstrate this:
I sometimes wonder if those tasked with installing utility objects, such as these metal pipes, are aware of the beauty they’re creating. I’m intrigued by the straightness of the pipes and the angles produced by the various fittings (the joints that hold the pipes together). The brick background adds an interesting uniformity, color, and background to the pipes. I thought shooting straight-on would best show the pipes’ relationship to one another as well as emphasize the strong horizontal and vertical elements in the image. And then there’s this odd thing. The two diagonal pipes in the middle, bottom of the frame remind me of a person’s lower legs as he/she walks to the right.
I was wandering through a college cafeteria when I spotted this basket of apples. With nothing but the dark silver enclosure and the gray surrounding the apples, their roundness and saturated color really make them pop. I arranged the apples to my liking and darkened the edges of the picture in post-production.
I’ve come across many clotheslines in my wanderings, but none as perfect as this one. That’s because of the following elements: nothing in the background to pull the viewer’s attention away from the subject; colorful clothes with no distracting logos or printing on them; interesting arrangement of shirts and pants; lots of empty sky, helping to highlight the clothing. Furthermore, I like the balance created by having the clothes toward the left side and most of the empty lines toward the right side.
It’s important to keep one’s head up when wandering. Realizing these poles and crane could produce an engrossing photo, I searched for a spot to stand where all the elements would be visible - none being blocked by another. I was lucky that the poles, from my perspective, were all different heights, making them more interesting than if they had not been. Additionally, I was fortunate having beautiful soft and fluffy clouds as a backdrop.
This was shot from a city sidewalk through the window of a clothing store. It was the weird finger positioning of the right hand as well as the unnatural positioning of both hands that caught my attention.
Depth-of-field deals with how much of the area in front of and behind the object you focus on is also in (acceptable) focus.
“Great” or “Deep” or “More” depth-of-field means that a large area in front of and behind the object you focus on is in acceptable focus.
“Less” or “Shallow” depth-of-field means that very little area in front of and behind the object you focus on is in acceptable focus.
Depth-of field is determined primarily, but not only, by the f-stop (aperture) setting. The smaller the opening (the larger the number), the greater the depth-of-field. The larger the opening (the smaller the number), the shallower the depth-of-field. Here are the major factors that determine depth-of-field:
To produce a greater depth-of-field:
Use an aperture (f-stop) with a small opening
Use a wide-angle focal length (zoomed-out)
Move farther away from the subject
To produce a shallower depth-of-field:
Use an aperture (f-stop) with a large opening
Use a telephoto focal length (zoomed-in)
Move closer to the subject
The image below has a great depth-of-field. When first arriving to this location, I realized I wanted everything in the picture to be in focus - from extreme foreground to extreme background. With all the fascinating lines and angles created by the freeway section, I wanted every part of the picture to be sharp. The lens was set to 17mm at f13.
This image has a shallow depth-of-field. What’s interesting, at least to my eye, is not being able to determine which section of barbed wire is in which plane. To me, the center three wires seem to be next to each other, with only the middle wire being in focus. In reality, the wire to the right of the in-focus wire is closer to the camera and the wire to the left of the in-focus wire is farther away. The lens was set to 135mm at f5.6.
Here's what happens when the camera is placed very close to the object being photographed - in this case, a pen etched with lots of zeros. The depth-of-field becomes extremely shallow, almost nonexistent. Not only are most of the zeros and the pen out-of-focus, they're mostly unrecognizable. The lens was set to 105mm at f5.
The four pictures below are identical except that each was shot at a different aperture setting (listed under each image). Each picture was focused at the same point; the area between the numbers 81 and 82. The only difference among them is the depth-of-field. You can see the background becoming more out-of-focus as your eye moves from the top to the bottom photo.
The lens was set to 80mm at f11.
The lens was set to 80mm at f8.
The lens was set to 80mm at f5.6.
The lens was set to 80mm at f4.
Wonderful unexpected picture possibilities can occur any time during a photo shoot. I’ve noticed that they appear while I’m already in the process of taking a picture or while I'm setting up for a new shot. When an opportunity shows itself, this is what comes next:
Here are some examples of what I believe to be intriguing shots that came along quite unexpectedly.
Darla was joking with her daughter, Laurette. Having worked with them before, and knowing how wonderful an actor the girl was, I knew worthy things were on their way. I framed the shot and waited. Laurette was saying that her mother’s nose scared her (I don’t know how serious she was about that). When this interaction happened, I took the picture. Laurette's expression was perfect. It seems to show both fear and amusement. Also, each set of hands seems to show conflicting intentions - one pair reaches either lovingly or threateningly while the other pair emphasizes either anxiety or joy.
I was watching Kelly fix-up her daughter's hair. There was lots of energy flowing between the two. I knew if I paid attention, I’d be rewarded with some good photos. I wasn’t disappointed. The above image was far and away the best of the series. Both faces are vibrant, and the intensity of their excitement is wonderful.
A pet, usually a cat or dog, wondering onto the set can cause havoc or great picture possibilities. If the animal is fairly calm, is in an area of the set that works compositionally, and doesn’t have its butt facing the camera, the results can be rewarding.
For this picture of Meredith, I placed her alone against a wall and got ready to shoot. After a few moments, her cat wandered in. I waited to see what it would do. He began rubbing himself against her leg. Combined with the blindfolded Meredith, I think the result was an odd and amusing image. (”Odd” and “amusing”-a great combination for almost any picture). The presence of the cat, I believe, significantly improved my original shot idea.
Here’s another photo where the subject’s pet wandered into the shooting area. What’s noteworthy about this image is that we get a decent view of its face. And what’s truly amazing is how the cat’s position blocks part of the strobe illumination perfectly, creating a light pattern that dramatically highlights the model’s eyes.
My plan for the first of these two photographs was to have Anabel on the bed alone, with the “Private Property” sign covering her chest. As I was preparing to take the picture, however, the dog jumped up. I held off shooting for a moment, waiting to see what would happen. I’m glad I did. He ended up looking as if he was reading the sign. Then, as can be seen in the second photo, and to both our amazements, he began crawling under the top sheet. By the way, Anabel’s open-mouth surprise was quite real.
Joanna and I were photographing in an almost empty parking lot at a local beach. During a break, Joanna had turned and was adjusting her hair. Almost at the same moment, a car pulled up. I saw a perfect photo opportunity and quickly snapped a picture. I loved the results: a sparse composition showing a young woman and a car, both nicely positioned in this parking lot. Every time I look at this image, I wonder why the person in the car stopped right where he did. Perhaps to ogle Joanna?
When all the elements unexpectedly come together to produce a great shot, and when I had very little or no part in making that happen, I think of that image as a “gift”. I’ve read about other photographers using that same term when they’ve had the same experience. It’s in those moments, when the photographer is completely out of the equation, that the gods above have grabbed the reins and taken charge.
In the book “Looking At Photographs”, John Szarkowski writes about the famous photographer Jacob A. Riis: “Suffice it to say that Riis did not, through pride, reject chance; he knew the habits and habitat of the photographer’s luck, and he did his best to make himself available to its gifts.”
I would like to address the process of intentionally blurring an image. Blurring refers to observable movement in a photograph. Blur is usually created by a slow shutter speed, camera movement, and/or subject movement.
In the photo above, I panned (moved in a horizontal motion) my camera at the same speed Rebecca was walking, resulting in her head and torso being mostly sharp. But since the background was not moving, it appears blurry. This technique creates a sense of motion and helps the subject stand out from her surroundings (her dark dress helps too).
And there's an added benefit of being able to obscure an intrusive or unpleasant background - for example, a parking lot that's behind a field where kids are playing soccer. With the camera panning alongside the moving players, the blurred area behind them can become almost unidentifiable and, therefore, not intrude on the image of the players. In this photograph, there was no need for that. Her environment is appealing, and being able to identify what it is adds a sense of place to the image. The camera settings were 1/15 sec, f8. (click on photo to enlarge)
Occasionally, I’ll blur the whole image. Mentioning this to people often brings looks of bewilderment. So, I explain that the right amount of blur can produce a photograph that's both interesting and dynamic. It’s when there’s too much blur (making the subject unrecognizable) or just a little blur (making it look as if the photographer screwed-up) that causes problems. Properly done, the subject will still be identifiable, but rendered more diffusely, with softer tones, and hopefully more offbeat.
You’ll have to experiment with various shutter speeds and camera movements to determine what the appropriate amount of blur is. A relatively long shutter speed usually is enough to produce an effective blur. If I need more, I’ll use an even longer shutter speed or slightly move the camera up and down, side to side, or in a circular movement while shooting. Again, experimenting is key. In the photos below, each image has been blurred. (click on photos to enlarge)
Here Maggie is peering out her kitchen’s screen door. The camera settings were 1/10 sec, f4.5.
Kimberly is standing in front of her kitchen window and next to a hanging plant. The camera settings were 1/4 sec, f4.
I asked Danielle to bend slightly forward. The camera settings were 2 secs, f5.6.
A very pregnant Tabitha is standing in front of her bedroom window. The camera settings were 1.5 secs, f5.6.
This is Rebecca playing with her hair. It’s somewhat less blurry than the other pictures. The camera settings were 1/2 sec, f4.
Every once in awhile, some oddball reflection will catch my eye. That attraction might be due to one or more of the following:
The photographs below illustrate different reflection types (click on photos to enlarge).
This is a reflection of a skylight inside a shopping mall. Whenever I’m wandering through this mall, I’ll usually pass by this area. Because the reflection appears to have depth, and if I’m not paying attention, I’ll sometimes mistake it for a hole in the floor - something I need to avoid. It’s fun standing near the reflection, trying to see it not as three-dimensional, but as the flat surface it really is.
I was drawn to how this relatively new glass building was reflecting a much older building from across the street.
Looking at shiny polished metal like this, you realize that you’re not really seeing the pots themselves. What you’re actually viewing are reflections of everything surrounding the pots. It’s the same phenomenon as looking at yourself in a mirror. You’re not seeing the mirror - only your reflection.
It’s really the reflections that define this school hallway. The exterior light coming in through the doors and windows, given a fairly long camera exposure setting, would provide enough illumination for a picture to be taken. However, it’s the reflections on the lockers, walls, and floors that provide shape to this photograph. Without them, the image probably would be flat and dull.
I placed these kids’ blocks on a shiny conference table. It was only after several viewings that I noticed the reflection spells, in upper and lower case letters, “herb”.
I'll often harangue my students about the effect a picture’s background can have on the picture's subject. Every time they set up a shot, I tell them, they need to think not just about the subject, but also about the background. Subject and background are both equally important. A bland or lousy background can hurt the subject. An interesting background can greatly enhance the subject. The photographs below illustrate different background types (click on photos to enlarge).
There are times when it may be difficult distinguishing between subject and background. This can happen where little or no distinction exists between the two. An example would be train tracks, which seem to extend towards infinity.
Then there are instances where no background exists. Or more accurately, the background is pure white. This, by the way, can sometimes be a strong selling point for those wanting to market their images. It allows the buyer to easily drop-out the white background and insert one of their own choosing.
But for the majority of pictures, there likely will be a distinct subject and a distinct background.
I was very happy with both the woman's facial expression and the way her hand and arm were angled as she held her boyfriend's hand. In addition, I think the photo is enhanced by the extra light on her face (thanks to a small hand-held flash) and with me kneeling down and shooting upward to get a more dramatic angle. But I'm pretty sure it's the vibrant sky in the background that makes this photograph pop. Think how different the impact on the subject would have been had the sky been clear blue or overcast.
As I looked through the camera’s viewfinder, it struck me that the background resembled the aftermath of a forest fire - burnt branches and scorched earth. I figured that and the bent parking sign would work well together. To me, they combine to create a dark and foreboding scenario.
I think it’s the over-exposed windows and the wall in the background that make this picture work. There was nothing extraordinary about this potted plant, which is the subject of the photograph. But by centering the windows in the frame and placing the plant directly in the middle, a satisfying balance is established. Further, the bright outdoor lighting produces the following benefits: the outside distractions are hidden by the blown- out windows, the whiteness of the windows (with the wall too) provide a clean backdrop for the leaves, and the image is pleasantly soft and mildly desaturated because of the intense exterior illumination.