On seeing a photograph – Part 1 If you want to shoot something, just use a gun.

I’m a visual person. I learn quicker from one YouTube video than reading a stack of manuals. I like looking at pictures whether they’re drawings, paintings, or photographs. I look for several aspects of images; the locations, light quality, and creativity. As a photographer, I get inspiration from seeing other people’s work. I try to understand what the artist saw and learn, so I can blend those ideas into my work. As you would guess, a lot of frogs get tossed back in the water before a princess appears.

At times, when people find out that I’m a so-called photography expert, they’ll pull me aside to ask for my advice about cameras or shooting. I’m not a big equipment techie as I think most cameras are more capable than their users are, so when they ask me which body to buy, I just usually steer them to the brand they want. I really believe that newbies get more from learning technique first. Those skills transfer across camera brands. If my coaching is successful, the next thing that usually happens is that they treat me to a pile of their vacation photos (vacation, kids, pets, goats, etc. are all interchangeable here).

As I look through their image stack, I have so many suggestions that it’s hard to know where to start. A common thing I notice is subject placement, or more specifically, consistently centering the subject. It tells me that instead of composing, they’re aiming. I sometimes get in trouble when my stupid mouth automatically blurts, “Well, if you were using a gun, you would have killed (him, her, it).” As an example, I found an image on Flicker’s Public Commons section titled Christy Mahon on the Telephone. In spite of what I just said, I like this image; it works regardless of what I’m talking about, so I’ll use it to illustrate my point. As you can see from my markings, the poor ol’ railway signalman would have “taken-it” in the left nostril. The composition makes me wonder if the photo is a picture of the office or of Christy?

Christy Mahonin the cross hair.
In this photograph from the archives, the photographer has centered the subject’s head. Is this the best subject placement for the story you’re telling?

It’s easy to fall into this trap because cameras often have visual clues that trip you. The focus screen below is an example of what I mean. Although the circle is a focusing aid, it acts like the bull’s eye on a rifle scope urging you to center on your target. It’s a common beginner’s trap that photographers quickly learn to avoid.

Nikon Split Ring Focus Screen
Good or bad, many cameras have subtle cues that can encourage center placement.

So, what’s wrong with centering? Well, err … nothing, and if that’s what you want, then have at it. Centering is actually how we see. We go through life looking at a series of scenes on which our eyes stop for an instant before moving to the next. Our brain processes the information so fast that it seems to flow—like in a movie. We focus using our vision’s center, while our peripheral vision is fuzzy—out of focus. If we detect movement in the corner of our eye, our eyes instantly flick in that direction. For self-preservation, we need to know what was moving. If the movement’s not a threat, then all’s well and we relax. The brain is constantly centering the world around us. If a subject is centered and balanced in an image, we experience calm before we move on … or take a nap.

Now, if we move the subject off-center, our brain tries to restore equilibrium. In this micro-struggle we sense tension and that creates a wee bit of emotion. Remember back to your Psych 101 class when you learned that people remember things more intensely when there’s an emotional attachment. You want your viewers to stop in their tracks when looking at your work and that’s why artists have learned to intentionally use this tension in their work for centuries.

The point that I’m making is that the center of your viewfinder, screen, pad, paper, canvas, or whatever is unimportant. Instead, concentrate on how your subject relates to the edges or frame. Stop aiming and think about composing within that frame. Train yourself to scan the entire area and become aware of what you’re including in your composition. Equally important, is knowing what to leave out. Where are you placing your subject? Where is the horizon (if there is one)?

A question often asked at this point in this discussion is, “Where should my subject be if not centered?” Fortunately, it’s not a secret. Leonardo Da Vinci, Rembrandt, O’Keefe, et Al., used this technique. The ‘feel good’ spot is around the one-third mark, and recent scientific studies seem to confirm its validity (a topic I’ll save for another discussion). An accepted guideline is to divide your canvas into thirds—in a tick-tack-toe pattern. Where those lines intersect, are your composition’s power points and the most effective place for your subject. X marks the spot if you will.

Christy Mahone in vertical composition.
The shot is a vertical crop of the original moving the signal-man off-center. How does this story compare to the original?

Returning to the example photograph of Christy, I have two versions of the image cropped using the so-called Rule of Thirds; one horizontal and the other vertical. Look at the versions and see what you think. Each revision has the same two players; Christy and the depot. For you, how does the story change between the editions?

Christy Mahone in Horizontal Crop
In this version, I’ve cropped the original image horizontally while leaving Christy off-center. Has the story changed? Is it for the better or is it worse?

In this post, we’ve discussed the camera’s viewfinder. Every camera has one and often it’s misused to aim the lens at the subject. I argue that it is a more powerful tool when used to compose your image as intended. A first step in seeing a photograph is intentionally placing your subject for the best impact on the story you’re telling. By choosing where to frame your subject, you’re beginning to see like a photographer. I know, the process seems cumbersome and tedious, but you wouldn’t still be here if you weren’t willing to try. I assure you that with practice, this skill becomes ingrained and you’ll stop thinking about it.

Until next time … jw

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