A quest for the ultimate, beautiful, meaningful picture

composition

Winners World Press Photo 2013 :: nrc.nl

The winners of the best press photos of last year were announced today. Overall winner was Paul Hansen with a picture of a funeral in Gaza: two kids, killed in a rocket attack, are carried by men whose faces express terrible grief–and anger. Together with the almost haunting light, the atmosphere of the picture is very intense.

The light effect sets this picture apart for me. Of course, being a press photo, there is no elaborate studio lighting to create such an effect. If I see it right, the photographer made smart use of light falling through a (broken, or newly-built?) window on the left, while the grey concrete wall on the right helped light up the dark side, acting as a reflection screen. To see that light, while walking backwards, almost with your nose and your wide-angle lens in the faces of crying, angry men and–even worse–dead children!

Of course, the rest of the winners in the different categories are also worth looking at. You can see them here (captions in Dutch–sorry, folks!):
Winnaars World Press Photo 2013 :: nrc.nl.

But this overall winner will stay in my mind for a long time, I fear.

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Photo quotes

Here’s a link to 25 famous quotes about photography.

If you don’t read Dutch, don’t worry and just skip to the quotes–they’re all in English. (Though I bet Henri Cartier-Bresson’s must have been French in the original).


Hip to be square

A suggestion worth considering: don’t be afraid to play with your pictures afterwards, on your computer. Try and put them in square format, for instance. It may make a whole lot of difference! Good tip from the Facebook-page of photographer Dan Lindberg

And the title comes from a pop song by Huey Lewis & the News, of course 😉Image


Volcano sighted

The PUMA team in the Volvo Ocean Race may not have the best of luck, as their mast was broken, but they do seem to have the best of photographers on board. The team’s ‘media man’, Amory Ross, was featured in this blog before, and now he makes it again with a gorgeously simple photo of the volcano of Tristan de Cunha amid bands of clouds. The lonely island is the unplanned stop for the boat, from where it will be transported to Capetown for repair.

Volvo Ocean Race 2011-2012 | Golf and lobster on cards as PUMA reach Tristan.

The whole photograph is composed of horizontal bands in shades of blue with a hint of purple due to the setting sun: sea, clouds and sky. Only the volcano breaks the horizontals with its cone, drifting–it seems–on a band of clouds and all but touching the next band. To add to the peacefulness and harmony of the picture, the volcano is balanced, right in the middle of the photo.

A seascape picture (almost) as Mondrian could have painted it.


Famous photographers get away with anything? Nieuwe foto’s ‘prachtige Beethovenstraat-meisjes’ Ed van der Elsken gevonden – Cultuur – VK

Nieuwe foto’s ‘prachtige Beethovenstraat-meisjes’ Ed van der Elsken gevonden – Cultuur – VK.

A Dutch newspaper announces that more pictures in a famous series have been found from Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken. His three hip young women, crossing the street in stride, became a sort of icon of the sixties. Now more pictures from the series have been found, which may help to find the women who were in it.

I was too young to know about that iconic picture, I guess and saw it for the first time reproduced here in the newspaper. I agree, it was a snapshot taken at exactly the right moment.

But how can famous photographers get away with pictures where the feet are cut off? While the red and shoes certainly add to the picture! Or is it the bad lay out of the newspaper that did it? I am not sure, but a picture with such composition errors would not get through my selection for postprocessing, let alone showing to others…


Close to f/2.8


_DSC5461
Originally uploaded by DFW-Photo

The closest my standard lens comes to selective sharpness is f/4.5, so that’s what I used here.

The “composition” of the still life is just as they happened to be lying on the table. It is almost a matter of principle to me that I take reality as given and do not interfere to make compositions “better” than what fate gives me. Exception: blades of grass or dead leaves and similar small things that I can easily take away.

Looking at the photo, I don’t like the horizontals of the courgettes in the middle: they break the dominant verticals in the composition, and therefore take attention away from the area of sharpness, more in the foreground. Though that is a little better in the original large-size photo: there you see that the courgettes are really out of focus and the sunflowers stand out very clearly (or rather: sharply) from the dark-green background. (That effect is one of the reasons why you should never judge photos in the small screen on the back of your camera: sharpness and bokeh are very different in the original size.)


Between f/2.8 and f/64 (1)

At Earthboundlight a blog entry appeared this week to answer a reader’s question: ‘Why would you want to have an f/2.8 lens?’ Bob Johnson, the author of Earthboundlight, looked at this question from the landscape photographer’s point of view. In Ansel Adams’s days, with the big plate cameras, you needed f/64 to get the ‘grand vistas’ sharp from front to end—that’s why Ansel Adams was member of the Group f/64. Current lenses ‘only’ go to f/22 (sometimes f/32), so landscape photographers tend to use those small apertures—and a tripod, because you get long exposure time at small lens openings. Luckily landscapes tend to stay in place long enough 😉

What Johnson did not say was that at smaller formats, you get the same depth-of-field at lower aperture numbers. That is why it is so easy (relatively!) to make macro photos with compact cameras: with their tiny sensors, they get that flower detail all sharp at full opening, where a DSLR (especially a full-frame one) must stop down to f/22 to get the same. So for a landscape to be sharp from foreground to horizon, you can make do with f/22 rather than f/64 on a DSLR—if you want it all sharp.

It gives a classical look to—especially—landscape photos to have them sharp all over. Give it a sepia toning and you’d almost believe it was a 19th century picture! But most of the time, you don’t need sharpness all over to get the effect you want: selective sharpness is much more creative. You don’t need that grass and branch in the foreground to be sharp for them to have the effect of suggesting more depth to the photo with the manor house in the background.

Selective sharpness also works in close-up photos: this minuscule blueberry flower was all you need to see sharply—it conveys the spring feeling much better with the strong bokeh (‘unsharpness’) than a picture bewilderingly full of sharp details would have done.

Both these photos were taken at f/2.8—I only have one lens that opens so widely. The wide aperture has the advantage that you get more light into the viewfinder, so you see more clearly and you (or the camera) can focus more precisely. Moreover, f/2.8 often signals professional lenses, which also have other advantages, like minimum distortion of straight lines, minimum flare, minimum chromatic aberration and other flaws. Their only disadvantages are weight (that kept me from choosing one as my standard lens)—and price…


Yvonne van der Mey wins with photo "against the rules"

Yvonne van der Mey, who directed the workshops on nature photography that I followed the last two weekends, won a prize! The prize photo, entitled “Leopard male in the early morning, desperately looking for a female” she had shown to us during the workshop as one with which she was quite satisfied, although it went against a primary rule of composition, namely that you ought to see the subject’s eyes in a portrait-like picture. But here, clearly, that rule does not really apply: we as viewers are following the leopard’s gaze into the depth of the unknown, almost feeling his anxiousness.

That’s a point about so-called rules of composition: you have to adhere to most of them to avoid mistakes in your photo, but you must know when to break one of them to make a truly good shot.

By the way, I wonder if the title of the photo was really true: maybe the leopard was just looking for food, or was frightened through hearing a pride of lions roaring, rather than being on the lookout for a mate, but it is a nice title that adds to the picture’s meaning–it makes the animal more symphatetic to human viewers, and if that’s what gives you a prize, why not?


Dragonflies and the Japanese Flag

Question: What is the connection between dragonflies and the Japanese flag? Answer: a photo competition. The foundation for protection of butterflies and dragonflies in the Netherlands held a photo competition and in the article on the competition’s outcome in its magazine Vlinders, the jury said that it first ditched photos that were “like the Japanese flag”. No further explanation, so I had to think about if for a second or two, but then it dawned on me. The Japanese flag has a red circle in the middle of a white field, and that is–whatever else it may be in any type of symbolism or national honour and pride–not the model of a dynamic, interesting photo composition. So all photos with a butterfly or dragonlfly boringly in the middle of way too much space around it, did not make it to the second round of the competition.

I’d almost say that I wich I had that problem. I find it hard enough to get close enough to these fascinating insects to get a good picture (no, I would not settle for the amount of white of the Japanese flag) and then to have the luck that they sit still for long enough to et a sharp picture. All I can add to this first message in too many weeks on my blog is a testimony to my frustration, photographed in the Netherlands, last summer: some kind of a dragonfly that sat still for long enough, but I was too much in a hurry to push the button to take the time to make sure that I had enough sharpness and depth of field… Although it is red like the centre of the Japanese flag, at least it is not boringly in the middle and with a little cropping you can easily avoid the large (white) space around it. And then to see the amazingly good pictures that made it into the Vlinders magazine! Lots of room for improvement–let’s try this summer!


Composition with balls?

Sometimes, I don’t quite know what to do with a photo. Take this one. I was attracted by the bunch of balls lying on the training field–the sportsmen and -women were probably gone for a break, or the trainer was preparing for the next bunch of kids coming. It was a funny picure, I thought, with the uniform green (artificial ‘grass’), straight lines and the random composition of balls. But due to practical limitations (I had to take my pictures from the outside of the terrain, from the sidewalk in the street), I could not get a shot without the messy surroundings of the border of the field, stuff lying around, etc. And now I’m stuck for good ideas: how to maintain the feel of the area, and yet make it better than this messy snapshot? Cropping does not work well, I think, and that is the only trick I can think of. But I want to keep that one ball in the background, which gives some feeling of depth, or continuity that helps to make it authentic rather than a purpose-made composition. Wish I could go back, but the summer season is over around here, and anyway another time the trainer will not have had the same luck with his random throwing around of the balls.
If I succeed in making a better picture out of it, I’ll let you know! Just remind me if I forget…