On composition, part three: The crop

One of these days, I may start a new series of posts regarding compositional elements, because there are a lot of them, and knowing what they are can help you structure images instead of simply capturing them. But there’s a problem with this, because teaching composition is tricky – there are no rules, no formulas to follow every time. And many of the compositional elements that appear in my images are used because they appeal to me, and my (if you’ll pardon the phrase) artistic standards. I never want to bog people down with more photographic mumbo-jumbo, since there’s enough already in simply understanding how the camera works, and compositional elements are merely descriptions of something that “works” for our aesthetic sense. But for now, I’m simply going to talk about the ugly stepsister of composition, cropping.

This is an example image I took a few years back, and almost discarded. It was a grab shot as a pelican launched itself away at my approach, and the color in the original is truly hideous. But when I converted it into black & white and tweaked the contrast a little, it became much better. Then, I cropped it down to the horizontal composition you see here, from a frame that was probably 20-30% wider. Shooting animals from the back only works in limited circumstances, because as humans we prefer to see faces, and backs are, to us, a rejection. But here, it sends a message of heading out over rough seas, of isolation, and potentially of challenges ahead. I can’t be sure, because I know what conditions this was taken in and am thus biased, but the position of the pelican’s wings might say something about gusty winds, and the contrast may give the impression of overcast skies. Into the teeth of the gale, as it were.

I cropped to position the pelican at this point in the frame, with the wings working a line between opposite corners, something I’m fond of. The blotch at lower right, directly below the pelican, gains the appearance of a rock, and the legs and head position seem to say the pelican has just launched itself from there. It hasn’t, but in photography, what is actually the case and what the image seems to convey can be two different things – accuracy is not a necessity.

I included enough empty space around the pelican, especially above it, to communicate its isolation and to give it “space to move” (an important element for moving subjects,) and while the portion of water in the frame isn’t significant, it’s empty enough to serve the purpose. There’s not much more to be said than that.

And now we see a different crop. More of the waves below the pelican become visible, and these have an even rougher feel, and slightly confusing. Now we know we’re not dealing with a rock underneath, but the distinct shapes almost seem recognizable, and the viewer may take a moment to frown at them before deciding they really are just waves frozen in time. But in this crop, they have become an element of the scene, almost a subject in themselves.

Notice, now, that the lack of space ahead of the pelican takes away the idea of the beginning journey. Instead, the pelican being higher in the frame causes it to soar above the angry waves, untouched by the turmoil below. There’s even a break in contrast, occurring just underneath the bird, that mimics the ground and sky – and the bird rides firmly in the sky, brighter and by association more welcoming.

The vertical composition lends emphasis to height, as opposed to a horizontal which, of course, emphasizes a broader expanse, more of the open horizon, even with no horizon visible at all. So now, we don’t have a perilous journey like we did above, but the emotional idea of soaring above the turbulent, dangerous water. Both from the same photo, dependent only on the elements included and where in the frame they fall. The top composition has one subject, the pelican, in a setting that evokes condition. At bottom, there’s two subjects, the pelican and the angry waves, and these are selected and emphasized by the crop.

And there’s a more subtle lesson in here, too: don’t frame too tightly when taking the original photo, because you may eradicate useful elements or take away opportunities to reframe for a different emotional perspective. In fact, whenever you can, shoot a variety of layouts of a compelling subject, using your zoom lens to good advantage.

So, which is better? Well, that’s really up to the viewer, isn’t it? They might identify more with one emotional message than another. Your choice as a photographer is to decide if you want your own vision and message to be the only one the viewers see, or if you like the idea of seeing which one of several gets a better response from people on average. I’m fairly good about switching from horizontal to vertical layouts as I shoot, depending on what I think the subject warrants. But I’ve also, like in this case, tried switching after the fact and created some really interesting effects from experimenting.

One more thing. For typical sales, like to individuals for decorative purposes, you’re often much better off sticking to an aspect ratio that matches common frame sizes, so people can easily fit your image into an 11×14 frame, for example. This can be limiting. Many published sales don’t have such restrictions, except for cover shots, but it’s often better letting the editor do the deciding, and simply sending the entire image. If you’re framing your own, be it for a wall-hung print or on a website, you have the ultimate freedom in choosing an aspect ratio that works best for the image. Both images above are roughly 2×3 aspect, which works for very few commercially available frames – it’s equal to 8×12, or 11×16.5 inches, neither a common size. Trimming the image, of course, changes the purpose of the cropping to some extent, so it has to be done judiciously – or you include a custom-cut mat (not a bad idea.) Just something to bear in mind when doing your cropping.

If you look around the site, you may be able to recognize how the elements fit into the frame and what I was after. Most are cropped to some small extent, specifically to emphasize the elements I chose. It’s a tool that can do a lot for your photos.


Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy, in recognition of Caturday, posted a photo of one of his icks, so I had to throw up (heh!) this recent photo that I took.

I’ve never had an issue with mantises, and can usually handle them without too much difficulty. This one stopped for a quick brush-up while wandering on The Girlfriend’s hand – the pink form you see at lower left is her thumb (so don’t say I’ve never included a photo of her.) The fun part about mantises are their eyes – the black dot, while appearing to be a pupil to us because we expect one, is not anything of the sort, since praying mantises have compound eyes and see in many directions at once – both The Girlfriend and I are clearly in sight to the mantis in this photo. Instead, the black dot is a diffraction effect, and I think it actually indicates the part of the eye that is most flat to the observer. I’m trying to determine this for sure right now, but haven’t had it confirmed yet. This leads to lots of speculation that it’s a specific “eye” trait, like those displayed by some butterflies and caterpillars, that makes predators of mantises feel they are facing something dangerous – well, more dangerous, like an owl or snake, but seriously, do mantises need it? They seem to be quite capable of handling themselves.

I originally wondered about it disguising the reflection from the sun, thus avoiding cluing in a potential meal with the shine that plant leaves typically don’t have, but this doesn’t fit, since the surface that reflects sunlight is not usually the one closest to you, but at an angle between you and the sun. As seen here, both the sun and my flash throw their own white spots on the eyes. I’ll have to see what I can determine.

I always considered it “preying” mantis, by the way, but it seems this is not usually the case – it’s the shape of the forelegs, not the ability to eat any damn thing that moves, that provides the name. I have bigger issues with spiders, myself, something it’s taken me a while to reduce, and it’s not fully gone yet. The big ones won’t be perched on my hands (or The Girlfriend’s) for a photo anytime soon.

Just because, part two

The image above was originally selected to illustrate this post from last year, but for obvious reasons I decided on the image that now resides there (or whatever it is that photos attached to posts actually do.) But I keep running across it in my blog folder, and always stopping to look at it. So now I’m going to make you do it ;-)

This is not in any way an altered, ‘shopped, or tricked out image – this is a grab shot with a pretty outdated digital camera (a whopping 2.6 megapixels) as the moon rose one night. You can’t trust a camera’s meter to get the correct exposure of a bright object surrounded by darkness, so you resort to either calculating the exposure based on relative brightnesses, or in this case, knowing what it should be and bracketing the exposure. “Bracketing” means that you shoot a few frames, in a range of exposure on either side of what you think it should be – generally, one of them will give you what you want, if the camera is even capable of that.

That’s a key phrase right there – film and digital sensors cannot capture the wide range of light levels that we see with our eyes, and thus will let areas too bright bleach out into pure white, or areas too dark will become black, or both. Dealing with this increased contrast can be tricky, and there are lots of photographers’ tricks, including waiting on more even light levels, filling in the shadows with a flash or reflector, or resorting to something called High Dynamic Range editing.

HDR basically means taking multiple images of the same subject at various exposure levels (a tripod is necessary, unless you like serious headaches) and taking the areas of correct exposure from each image and combining them into one. What I find most amusing about it is, this is exactly the kind of editing that makes most people scream and whine, “Photoshopped!” yet it is now considered a legitimate digital technique, at least among some photographers. I’ve played with it myself, but consider it digital compositing (which it is,) and thus the same kind of shenanigans as painting over trash or inserting, I dunno, a moon into an image that had no moon to begin with. There may be artistic reasons to composite images, but these are digitally-altered images, and should be considered differently from images taken with the conditions “as is.”

Before digital, photographers dealt with the limitations of film emulsions in countless ways, and this was all part of being a photographer. You sought the right light conditions and angles, chose film with appropriate properties, and knew that some images were simply not going to be captured. Sometimes, photographers resorted to something called “graduated neutral density” filters, basically a fancy name for those sunglasses from the eighties that were darker on top than at the bottom, so the too-bright sky was reduced in light while the foreground at bottom was unaffected. But I’ll tell you a little secret, too: experienced photographers, and photo editors and art directors and similar, can spot both HDR images and graduated filters instantly, because they know what light does, and it doesn’t do that. Everyone has their own tastes and preferences, and I mess with digital editing from time to time, but it’s not exactly challenging, or says anything about your skill as a photographer.

I mentioned knowing what exposure I should be using, above, and then left you hanging – sorry about that. If you’ve heard of the “Sunny 16” rule, you know how to apply this, but instead think “Moony 11.” The Sunny 16 rule is a shortcut for estimating exposure when the camera meter isn’t an option, and means, on bright sunny days, set aperture for f16, and your shutter speed should then match your ISO (reasonably closely.) So, if you’re shooting at ISO 100, your shutter speed gets set to 1/100 (1/90 or 1/125 is fine,) your aperture to f16, and voila, you have the correct exposure without using any kind of exposure meter at all. The full moon itself is actually lit by direct sunlight, and is pretty medium-toned, so Sunny 16 applies just fine – but most people don’t like a grey moon, but want it to appear brighter like it seems to us at night, so you use f11 instead, same shutter speed setting, to increase the exposure a bit.

This applies only to a full moon well up into the sky – as the moon gets less full (and thus the sunlight less direct and reflecting back to us obliquely rather than directly) or is lower in the sky and cutting through more atmospheric haze, this changes significantly. A half moon (“quarter”) for instance, only reflects 1/4 as much light as a full moon – yes, that’s the way it works. The easiest thing to do is resort to Keith’s excellent moon photography page, since he’s taken the time to lay it all out in detail. You’ll find the exposures are related slightly differently from the way I did above, but they produce virtually the same result.

For the image above, some atmospheric haze provided just enough reflected light to silhouette the surrounding branches – a clear night would not have allowed this. The exposure of 1/25 second at f8, ISO 50 tells you that the moon being lower in the sky and dimmed by haze required some compensation, being two stops dimmer than the guidelines called for. It can be tricky, so experiment!

Do these plants make me look fat?

It’s funny, I never thought that a particular tree could be considered “junk food,” but it just goes to show…

I have no idea what tree it is, since I’m lousy at botany (or arbory or whatever,) but it’s the same one seen here and here – hey, some trees are handy for photo subjects. I just know that when I’m lost in the woods struggling to survive, I’ll avoid this one if I want to keep my svelte figure.

Meanwhile, I have some eggs to keep an eye on to try and capture the emergence. I have no idea what these are either, but they’re rather prominently displayed on a rock, so their tiny size (maybe just a tad larger than a pinhead) might not be enough to let them get to hatching.

The neighbors

Living on the edge of the woods is a good thing. For some reason, a small herd of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) has taken to visiting roughly around 2:30 PM some days, and when the temperature is cool enough that I can leave the window open, I can hear them foraging. This one was a little surprised to see someone appear in the doorway so close by, but I wasn’t moving enough to spook her off, and she provided several nice portrait poses.

Deer are foragers, rather than grazers, which means they don’t eat grasses like cows or sheep. Instead, they seek new saplings, leaves, vines, shoots, and berries – and on occasion, garden plants and The Girlfriend’s tomatoes and peppers. In this area, they make things a little more convenient for forest wanderers like myself, because they’ll keep “greenbrier” (the colloquial name, I’m not sure of the exact species) at bay, a tough wandering vine that sports large thorns. Greenbrier can quickly turn shaded woods into impenetrable thickets, and makes walking among the trees a chore at times, but deer like it and their regular visits will keep the vine from gaining a firm hold.

Yesterday afternoon, I added some water to the thirsty potted salvia I have sitting on my railing, and as the water pooled on the soil surface before soaking in, a tiny face appeared among the leaves, startled by the sudden flood. This began a tortuous session of macro photography, as the juvenile Common Grey Treefrog (Hyla versicolor) did not want to hold still for the giant lens looming in its face, and kept hiding under the leaves. Right now, as I type this, it has ventured out of the pot and is working its way along the railing. This has me a little curious, since both of these species are primarily nocturnal and the days have been unseasonably hot, all the more reason to hole up during the days. 6:30 PM is a little early to see treefrogs getting active – night won’t fall for about another two hours.

Treefrogs have distinctive toes, ending in a broad and moist pad that lets them cling to vertical surfaces effortlessly. In fact, it can be a little startling to see them jump against a wall and remain there instead of bouncing off. This trait lets them forage for food high in the tree canopies without needing claws, and also lets them scale rocks, leaves, and yes, even people that attempt to grab them. You can get an idea of the size of this specimen by my ugly thumb, included in this shot for scale. I normally see them much larger than this.

It’s a little late in the season for mating calls, so I’m not expecting to hear anything from my neighbor when it gets dark, but we’ll see what happens. I’ll probably leave a light on near the potted plant and railing, to attract the flying insects that serve as frog food. I might as well make it feel at home, since it provided enough photos for me – hey, I’m a dude ;-)

Odd memories, part two

A conversation with The Girlfriend this evening reminded me of something I hadn’t brought to mind in a long time, so this is simply one of those stories from my past. I doubt that it serves to help explain why I’m the way I am, but I’ll let you be the judge of that.

In 1991, I had moved to North Carolina exactly one year before, which I can say easily because both this event and the move occurred on my birthday. I had, after a false start working for an idiotic local printer, begun working for the local humane society, which ran the animal shelter (see here for a related story.) Among many other services, the shelter performed emergency animal rescue work in the off hours, nights and weekends, which is where I actually started. I’m not sure what made me acquiesce to working on my birthday, but this was just one of several events which made me resolve never to do this again. It took a few more years to solidify this resolve, though.

At that time, I was working a full-time shift at the shelter and then going “on call” for rescue work, usually one night a week. We had the whole schmeer: a fully-equipped van, pager, and mobile phone – “mobile” meaning, in 1991, almost a carryon bag by today’s definitions, roughly seven pounds and stored in a case with shoulder strap. Virtually any animal call was our responsibility, within the entire county, so some nights were fairly busy. This particular evening, I had received a call about an injured raccoon on campus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, quite close to where I lived, and I headed out in the early evening downpour to see what the situation was.

The raccoon had decided to seek shelter in a tree, and I was directed to the right one by the caller, otherwise I would likely never have spotted it. I was unable to see how mobile the critter was, and thus gauge the extent of any injuries, so I gathered a likely collection of equipment and started climbing the tree – luckily, it was a longneedle pine of the type so prevalent around here, with plenty of branches to assist the ascent. But this was perhaps the easiest part of this task.

Raccoons, to fill in the uninitiated, are actually fairly dangerous wildlife to handle, close to the top of the list for species around here. They’re aggressive when threatened, afraid of very little, and pack a lot of agility and a mouthful of sharp teeth. Even the heavy leather welder’s gloves we used for animal handling were insufficient to protect one’s hands from a determined bite. Usually, we used a net to capture animals like this, deep and broad like the landing net that fishermen use, but heavier material. Climbing a tree, however, meant that this would only be in the way, and I’d unlikely get a decent sweep anyway. So I was heading up with only a set of gloves and a small cat carrier strapped to my belt. I was realistic enough not to imagine this was sufficient equipment for the task, but what was I going to do? The idea was to either quickly scruff the raccoon, grasping it by the loose skin on the back of the neck where it (probably) could not reach me, and bundle it into the carrier; or, if it was close to incapacitated, coax it backwards into the carrier itself. Neither one of these filled me with confidence.

It was still raining, and the sun had set so twilight was fading fast. I wear glasses, so it was only a minute before I was looking through a combination of distorting water droplets and fog – I’m far too nearsighted to remove the glasses and have a better go without them. It was still warm, which helped, but this doesn’t mean much when the water is running down your back and into your pants. I got close enough to the raccoon to see that it was only limping, able to scoot easily away from me in the tree, and not happy with my approach – trying to get it would have been next to impossible, very dangerous, and probably unwarranted from the nature of its injuries. Wildlife medical care is a little tricky, because you have to balance the help you can provide with the mental state of the animal while you provide this care. Virtually no animal is going to benefit from bandages – they’ll be torn off in minutes. While handling it, and during a captive convalescence, the animal is going to be highly stressed from proximity to people, which isn’t a good thing to induce. And maintaining a full round of even antibiotics would mean ten days of captivity, during which it may not even want to eat, which will not help matters any. With an animal displaying no open wounds, no bleeding, and merely a limp, it can actually do more harm trying to treat this than simply leaving it be. And that was my decision.

When I looked down to begin descending, however, I got the chance to reflect on choices a little more. I was already using my birthday evening to climb trees in the rain, and now I found I couldn’t see well enough in the fading light to spot the branches which I’d need to get down. The descent was a mixture of shaking my head madly to try and clear the glasses a little, and swinging my legs while letting myself down gingerly, until I chanced upon a foothold. Getting down took twice as long as climbing up, but I made it without having to spend the night. I was soaked, scratched from branches, and long overdue for dinner, much less any celebration. Doing animal rescue usually means a certain mindset, ignoring personal comfort and convenience in favor of helping animals in need, but this doesn’t mean you won’t look back and wonder what the hell you were thinking at that time.

It’s also a little disturbing that this was nineteen years ago. A lot has happened since then, but I’m betting I can still find that tree on campus.

Heavy sigh

So not long back I talked about lightning photography in two separate posts, and presented some of my examples therein. A friend of mine named Jim Kramer, who recently moved to Kansas, sent me these two examples from his second night in the state, I suspect just to make me sick. Here I am struggling to get a solid bolt or two in the frame, and he’s closing the shutter before too many crowd in.

Yes, the midwestern states present some prime opportunities to get lightning photographs, due to their weather patterns and the relative flatness of the land, allowing for good views of approaching and receding storms. I expect, before too long, I’ll get to see (and mutter with jealousy over) some shots he’s gotten among some really sharp scenery or foreground interest. Lightning shots are great, but like everything, they work best if they’re situated among something else in the image that draws attention, creates a mood, or provides contrast. Many times, in order to achieve this, you need to provide some help – the storm itself will keep the skies too dark to provide any illumination of a foreground, so unless your complementary subject works well in silhouette, you need to provide some other light, or get your timing really bang on to catch the fading twilight at sunset to light up your frame, but not too much – remember, lightning usually takes long exposures while you wait for unpredictable bolts. An ideal balance is catching light immediately before sunset, peering in under the level of the storm clouds to throw some light on the ground, while the sky in your frame is darkened by the clouds themselves. Tricky, in many cases, since most storms in the US come from the west where your sunset would be. Such goes the planning of nature photography.

As an unrelated note, I’m about to upgrade my Atahualpa blog theme to see if it fixes some little quirks. This might mean the blog gets really funky looking at some point, or acts weird. Be patient, it’ll get back to normal shortly. I’ve been pleased with the theme, since it offers tons of options with a simple user interface, but there have been some glitchy issues recently that I’m hoping this corrects.

Unfair advantages

I know, this is taking advantage of my vast following on this blog to skew the results, but why else would I have a blog? The photo contest at Panda’s Thumb is entering Round Three, for invasive species, and one of my images is up there. Now, I wouldn’t dream of telling you who to vote for, and think you should just pick the best image, but hey, it’s the same result either way.

I took second in Round One, and you’ll notice I never mentioned it at all here. That’ll show me.

Be nice and fair, vote only once – and vote for, seriously, whichever you think is best. Part of being a photographer is seeing how your images honestly stack up against others. Cheers!

What is he talking about?

As I warned you about below, this is a continuation of the controversial “Don’t be a Dick” opera brought to us by Phil Plait, which I started from my perspective in this post. Phil has now posted Part Three, which goes on to explain, it seems, exactly what he was talking about. If you haven’t been following this, haven’t read my last entry, or couldn’t care less (and I don’t blame you, really,) then you can skip this post ;-). But if you want to see where even the more prominent skeptics can go astray, read on.

Continue reading “What is he talking about?”

I’m torn

Usually, I can look at an image I take and tell pretty quickly whether it works or not, and so far my judgment seems to be, if anything, a little harsher than the average viewer. But this image has me stumped.

I scanned it from slide some months back because I liked it, then decided it wasn’t working for my marketing materials and never did anything with it. From time to time since, I come across it in my scanned slide folder and immediately say, “Oh I like that,” – and then start to wonder why.

So, here it is, in all its glory or lack thereof. It is, by the way, a tight selection of some ripples at the base of Crabtree Falls in the mountains of North Carolina. The falls themselves are nice and scenic, pretty good as small falls go, and I have plenty of images framed differently that work just fine. Maybe my mistake is in knowing what else I have and how this one compares. If I had commenters, I’d invite them to chime in…

This also serves the purpose of making a break between windy opinionated posts, which means you know what’s coming up next…