Photography and fear

I am afraid. Creative work makes me afraid.

I am afraid that people will judge my work unfavourably and judge me for thinking I am any good as an artist. Because I am afraid I am not.

I am afraid that people won’t judge my work at all. That they just won’t care. That my creative efforts will echo in a void of indifference.

I am afraid of liking my work. What does it matter if I like it? That means nothing.

I am afraid of not liking my work. If I don’t like it, how can I expect other people to like it?

I am afraid of not knowing if I like my work. How can I tell if I like it? I’m biased.

I am afraid that I will reveal too much of myself, and judgement of my work becomes judgement of me.

I am afraid of revealing too little of myself, so that my work is meaningless.

I am afraid that I have got it wrong, and it’s obvious from my work.

I am afraid to fail. Whatever that means.

I am afraid of not creating. But my fear stops me.

Notes from the Aegean – ground tree

Some of my postcards from the Aegean were taken at the top of the highest point on the tiny island of Iraklia – I hesitate to call it a mountain at 400 metres, but that’s what it seems like in the context of the island. Anyway, the photograph above is one of many many small tree-like, shrub-type things that grow almost flat to the ground at the peak. Clearly I don’t know what they are or whether they are alive or frazzled in the Greek sun (I’ll refer to the them as trees), but I really liked what they looked like, and I decided to photograph them. I had in mind to make a small collection of black & white images, focusing on the twisted forms and the coarse textures. Neither the collection nor the black & white worked out!

When I opened the images of these trees on screen (I could barely see them on the camera LCD because the sun was so bright), I didn’t like most of them. When I took them, it was around midday and the sun was high, creating harsh shadows if the trees weren’t completely flat to the ground. What’s more, in most images, the textures of the ground were too similar to those of the plants, so what was intended as my subject didn’t really stand out. Only this one image above worked for me, so that was the end of a collection.

I think this one image works better because the plant is closer to the ground so there are fewer shadows, and those that there are are at the edges and blend in with the texture of the tree itself. Also, this tree was sitting on a relatively flat rock, so there is a contrast of texture between subject and background. However, when I converted to black & white (below), I didn’t like it at all. The colours were all too similar across the frame to create much contrast with the colour mixers in Lightroom, and the textures really didn’t stand out like I wanted them to.

So I turned to my backup plan when I want the effect of black & white (greater focus on lines, shapes and textures than on colours) but simple monochrome doesn’t quite work – partial desaturation. I find this works well when colour is necessary but you don’t want it to dominate.

Doing this here reduced the strength of the colours, preventing the orange hues from dominating and actually revealing subtle complementary blueish and orange hues. This makes the image pop and emphasizes the textures as I wanted to. In addition to the diagonal that the plant makes from bottom right to top left, the desaturation created a lovely balance in the image.

Image analysis – breaking the rules for balance and tension

A lone cyclist, making his way into the city on a misty morning. One of my favourite photographs, made in 2013. I love this photograph because it has atmosphere. The cyclist seems isolated and you feel remote from him as the viewer, yet you know how he feels. There’s an overall feeling of peace, but there’s also a balance and tension that creates a sense of movement and urgency – where’s he going? It seems like a simple photograph, but when you look into it closely, there are some interesting things happening.

Two distinct layers

The mist has a fair amount to do with the atmosphere. This image wasn’t made early in the morning, it was just a foggy day, but it conjures up that feeling of an early winter morning. I used the mist in a very deliberate way to maximise its impact. I positioned myself so that the people walking and cycling along the path were just in front of the haze so that they were dark but everything behind them was hazy. This creates two distinct layers – the background is effectively flattened to a single layer dominated by the misty outline of the city scape, and the cyclist is in front. This separation, along with the fact that no other people appear in the frame (I was there some time for the perfect subject and no-one else to be in my viewfinder), this creates the feeling of isolation and peace.

The most interesting part of this photograph to me though is that, although there’s essentially one point of focus – the cyclist – it’s dynamic. There’s a trade-off between balance and tension, and this is all down to the composition.

Balance

The cyclist is placed precisely on the right hand third of the frame (below), adhering neatly to the classic rule of thirds, at least in one dimension. However, the placement of the cyclist breaks more ‘rules’ than it adheres to, and this is where it starts to get interesting.

The cyclist is not on the vertical third of the frame, but is low. Had he been placed on the intersection of thirds a little higher, there would have been too much foreground. What allows this placement to work is the compositional element that, for me, trumps everything else – balance.

The misty church spire provides the balance for the cyclist here. This works in two ways. First, their relative positions create an implied diagonal in the image (below), and the spire balances out the visual mass of the cyclist. I’ll come back to that diagonal in a moment.

Second, they serve the same function in the top and bottom halves of the image. If you divide the frame into two, it’s almost exactly divided along the top of the buildings in the background, creating a light top half and darker bottom half (below). The church spire and the cyclist are both darker blocks in their respective halves of the image, so they draw the eye, emphasizing the diagonal between them.

Tension

The placement of the cyclist not only creates the balance with the church spire, but also creates tension. Rather, the direction he’s facing creates tension. The rule book says to give moving subjects space to move into the frame, and the cyclist facing the edge of the frame implies movement that pulls the eye out of the image. So why does this rule-breaking work here?

To think about this, let’s turn the cyclist to face the other way. I’ve done that (very crudely) below, and cropped the frame a little at the right – that crop is needed to maintain the balance between the church and the cyclist, and that’s an important clue to what’s going on here.

When the cyclist’s facing the opposite direction, it’s a very different image. The diagonal between the spire and cyclist is now joined by a horizontal underneath that’s implied by the cyclist’s movement. Effectively, these implied lines create a triangle (below), leading to a closed image that’s well balanced but without much tension.

Going back to the original, that could be cropped in the same way to create a squarer frame.

The balance between the cyclist and church spire is still there, but the image doesn’t work, because the cyclist is too close to the edge. That triangle is still there, but the movement of the cyclist away from it means it’s just an empty space in the image.

Put that space on the right back, though, and the cyclist suddenly has space to move into (below). What’s happening here is that the diagonal between the church spire and cyclist implies a ‘frame within a frame’, and the space to the right of that is now sufficient for the cyclist to move into.

Rather than creating the triangle, the diagonal and the horizontal movement creates an open line that adds dynamism, creates tension, and leads the eye right across the image in the direction that the bike is going. This line creates movement and that sense of urgency.

Sketch images – a case study

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about making sketch images and making a photograph is a creative process. This sketching process was central to arriving at the two images of Ermoupolis that I posted my notes on few days later, so I thought I’d demonstrate by showing the full set of sketch images. Here they are, in the order they were taken working down the columns and if you click to open the gallery slideshow. Some are processed, some are not, thereby taking in the whole sketching process.

As I mentioned in my notes on the two photos, my aims were to convey the crowdedness of the buildings in the village and to show how these villages on the cycladic islands are clustered close to the port but have an ‘edge’ beyond which there’s often nothing. I had to take the photographs from the ferry while docking, during the time we docked and then as we were leaving the port. As the boat moved and I got different viewpoints, I tried different things – here are a few images with some thoughts that give some more insight into why they didn’t make the cut and how they helped direct me in reaching the two images I chose.

Not dissimilar to one of the final images, and it does show distinct edges of the village nicely. However, I don’t like the empty space on the right hand side, which I think draws the eye away from the buildings.

 

This image is actually quite close to what I was looking for, and close enough to process. However, there isn’t really an anchor point in this image, so nothing to really direct the eye.

 

When we were in the port and therefore close to the village, I used a wide-angle lens to see how that worked. The idea here was to emphasize the diagonals created by the buildings nestled between the hills, but this created depth that I didn’t really want. The exaggerated perspective also puts the focus on the foreground and what’s happening at the bottom in the port when I wanted the focus to be on the village as a whole. The same goes for all the similar images taken with a wider angle of view.

 

I think this is a very nice image, and the diagonals work well. As a picture postcard view of Syros, I like it a lot, but it doesn’t get across the crowdedness I was looking for.

 

I really like this image and I thought hard about whether to include this in my final set. After consideration, though, I think it’s more easily read as being about how the church sits above the village, and that’s not what I intended it to be about. The eye is pulled up to the church and takes attention away from the crowding of the buildings below.

 

Here, I started to feel I was close to the kind of image I wanted. Again, the church in the top left becomes the main anchor point, and its separation from the rest of the buildings seems to make it more about that separation than anything else. This image first suggested to me the possibility of zooming right in to isolate a section of buildings.

 

This image was the same idea as the close-in final image I chose. In this frame, the anchor point is the columned building in the bottom right, but this isn’t as strong as the blue dome of the church in the other image.

 

Very close, but again it’s that separation of the church at the top left that bothers me. Also, when it came to it, I didn’t feel that the portrait format of this frame suited the subject.

 

In this images, I felt I’d found a good distance and focal length, and it was a matter of finding the right area to include to create a composition I was happy with.

 

This is my ‘finished piece’ – the image that I was aiming for. You can see the similarities with the previous image, it’s just the area that I’ve included that makes the difference. This wasn’t the last image I took, but the rest were very similar and from different distances as we moved away from the port, because I knew this was roughly the image I wanted.

 

 

Image analysis – making a splash

We all made hundreds of photographs of ducks when we were new to photography, didn’t we? Well, I did. They’re one of the most accessible forms of wildlife to practice photographing, and they’re pretty nice to look at too. My early archive folders are full of duck photographs, 99.9999% of which are boring at best. But this one isn’t. Eight years after I made this photograph, I still love it. When an image stands the test of time like that, it’s worth taking a closer look and thinking about why.

I’ve made several iterations of this image to adjust the contrast and the colours. Looking at it again now, I think the colours could still probably do with some tweaking, but it’s the composition and the lines that make this image for me.

The placement of the duck in the frame (I say placement, but given that it was the sixth day after I’d got my first DLSR, it’s really just where it ended up) leaves a nice amount of empty space to the left (above). This is the direction the duck is facing, and the space gives it room to ‘move’ into – it implies the movement and adds dynamism to the image. This is especially important because the duck is clearly moving, so needs this space. A square crop (below), for example, cuts off this space and restrains the duck so that the image feels unbalanced.

The placement of the duck also roughly adheres to one of the staple ‘rules’ of composition – the rule of thirds (below). I had never heard of this at the time I took the image, so I can’t pretend it was intentional, but the main vertical of the duck’s body sits roughly one third of the way into the frame from the right hand edge.

What’s more, the duck’s face is close to the intersection of the top and right thirds of the frame – prime position for the main point of interest according to composition textbooks. I don’t have a lot of time for such rules, but this image is an illustration that the rule of thirds is a good guide.

Looking at the blue lines in the grid overlay above (which is based on the golden ratio), what’s very obvious is that the wing in the top right sits exactly on the main diagonal of the frame, and the beak is aligned parallel to this diagonal. The diagonal that these two elements imply is strengthened by another diagonal created by the other wing and the bird’s back. This second diagonal sits perpendicular to the first and creates multiple triangles in the frame (below).

In combination, the diagonal implied by the wing and beak and the negative space on the left, create tension in the image. Given that the viewer’s eye is naturally drawn to the duck’s face and eye, this diagonal then directs the eye down and to the left, into the empty space. Except the empty space isn’t so empty, and I think this is the key to this image.

When the eye moves down, directed by the beak, it meets the curves of the ripples in the water. These curves pull the eye round, back into the image, around the duck and over the dramatic splashes of the water (above). The momentum of the eye along with the second diagonal takes the eye back up to the main diagonal of the wing in the top right, which directs it back to the duck’s face. This creates a loop that keeps the eye moving, and on the second time round, the viewer might notice the small water drops throughout the image, which increase the dynamism.

The final visual element that I think adds strength to this image is the movement of the wings and in the splashes of water. This movement makes the image more more dynamic than it would have been if the movement had been frozen. This was obviously the result of a relatively slow shutter speed, although again, I can’t say this this was deliberate at the time.

Something I’ve always had a problem with in this image is the green of the water on the left. I find the green too dominant when the focus should be on the duck. I’ve had various attempts to alter the balance of the colours, but never quite got it as I’d like. It’s not helped by the fact that the image was recorded only as a JPEG file, so post-processing options are a little limited. Desaturating the greens too much creates an odd look though, and there is potential to make good use of the complementary green and red–orange of the duck’s breast. Perhaps I’ll have a another go.

Does the image work for you? Why? If not, what is it that isn’t right for you?

As a photographer, it’s crucial to look back at your images and think about them, asking yourself not whether you like them or not, but why you like them or, equally importantly, why you don’t like them. Inspired by the #ThrowbackThursday hashtag, I’ve decided to look back through my collections and do just that in an image analysis project.

Notes from the Aegean – Ermoupolis, Syros

Take a boat from Athens to an island in the Aegean Sea, and you will more than likely call at several small island ports before you get off. If you’re out on deck to watch the arrivals and departures, you’ll notice that the scene at each island is very similar – white (or at least light) buildings crowded around the port in a village that is pretty small, sometimes tiny. Behind the village, nothing but arid land, some olive trees and maybe the odd goat. Each is different, but somehow the same, and all are irresistible photographic subjects.

In the two pictures above, taken during travels in the Aegean this year, I was trying to capture firstly the experience of seeing these isolated and (to an Englishman) unusual-looking villages as you approach, and secondly the crowding of the buildings in what is one of the biggest island villages I have seen in my Greek island travels – Ermoupolis on the island of Syros. We didn’t get off on this island, so they were taken from the back of the ferry.

For both images, I used the long end of a 70-300mm zoom. This was a deliberate decision because I knew the long focal length would flatten the perspective and emphasize the crowdedness. Obviously I was limited in terms of view point given that I had only the width of the boat’s deck to move on. I was also limited to the light that we happened upon. Predictably for Greece in July, there was strong, harsh sunlight. That might not seem ideal, but a shallower angle of light would have created more separation between the buildings as a result of shadows – traditionally, this is what a photographer would want, but it’s the opposite to the effect I wanted to create, so the harsh light worked in my favour. In any case, I took many sketch images to make the most of the situation as it was, and the two images above made the cut after editing. I think they both work, but in different ways.

The main difference is in the composition. The first provides a very literal view of the number of buildings in a small area, and this, together with the flattened perspective, conveys the crowdedness I was looking for. Inclusion of the water also provides more context, as does inclusion of the ‘edge’ of the village at the top, which hints at the sudden empty space behind, and therefore the isolation of the village.

The much tighter composition of the second image also conveys the crowdedness. Filling the frame in this way implies continuation beyond the edges, thereby also hinting at the number of buildings in a small space. What this image doesn’t really do though is convey the isolation of the village, as there is nothing to show the edges. Perhaps the sky at the top provides a hint in this direction, but a very similar type of image could be taken in a city to imply a never-ending metropolis.

What is common between the two images is the use of colour. The blue domes of the orthodox churches are ubiquitous in the Cycladic islands, and are symbolic of Greece as a whole. However, on most of these islands, all the buildings are white. By a happy accident, I chose to make this image at Syros, where many of the buildings are orange or peach. This means that the blue domes of the churches are complementary to the overall orange hue, meaning they are even stronger focal points than they might have been among white buildings. These colours also help to make the images less of a Greek cliché.

Which image do I prefer? It’s a tricky one, because I love both. But if you made me choose, I would pick the first one. It conveys more completely the ideas that I wanted to get across. The second image captures the crowdedness, but not the isolation. The first also says more about the context of the village and the limits of this crowding. Which do you prefer?

Sixstreetunder – master of street moments

Craig Whitehead – better known as Sixstreetunder on Instagram – is a street photographer based in Cambridge, UK. His work is fantastic. I love his photographs, and he’s the kind of photographer that makes me want to sit down, look through his images and work out what it is that makes them so brilliant. The answer is a lot, but I think it comes down to two main aspects.

The first aspect is the visual design of the images and the fantastic eye for composition. Whitehead uses strong lines and their intersections, along with powerful natural lighting to capture and direct the eye.  His images often contain a single figure that acts as the focal point, and the effect is similar to the ‘figure on ground’ style of composition. Except the ‘ground’ in these images is multilayered and complex, making the image much more engaging. People are, of course, crucial in street photography, and Whitehead’s inclusion of figures adds a human element, but his images usually seem to be much more about the visual effect than the human story.

In this image, the intersection of lines, the layers and the placement of the reflected figure, make for a fantastic composition.

Colour is another major element in Whitehead’s images – “the colour so many seem to overlook in the everyday” is the way he describes it on his website. He also often uses clever devices such as reflections and frames within frames. One of the most creative of these recurring devices is shooting through windows that have strong reflections, condensation or frosting, which partially obscure or distort the shapes of the subjects.

The steamed up window obscures the figures just enough to create a sense of mystery without obscuring what is happening.

The other reason I like Sixstreetunder’s work is that he brings out my favourite aspect of photography – the ability to create a visually striking piece of art directly from the ever-changing world around us. Nothing is static on the street, and it takes a huge amount of anticipation, visualization, patience and skill to conceive and execute an image from a passing moment that will never be recreated. Yet Sixstreetunder is a master at anticipating moments where life and visual design coincide perfectly, and is there, ready to record them. I think there’s a lot to learn from his work.

All images reproduced with permission from Craig Whitehead sixstreetunder.com | instagram.com/sixstreetunder

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See more about sixstreetunder at www.sixstreetunder.com.