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

Follow sixstreetunder on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

See more about sixstreetunder at www.sixstreetunder.com.

Photographers, reframe your creative process

There’s a concept in photography that you might be familiar with. The ‘keeper ratio’ – the proportion of the photographs you take that you think are worth keeping and processing. It’s often thought of as a measure of your success rate, or probably more often of your failure rate. Either way, the concept is based on completely flawed logic. To let the idea of the keeper ratio direct your approach to photography is a massive hindrance to the artistic process.

Ludicrous logic

Following the logic of the keeper ratio to its conclusion, the best photographers must be able to turn up to a location, release the shutter once and go home with a great image. Of course, that’s ludicrous.

A painter doesn’t sit down and create a masterpiece straight off. He makes preliminary sketches, detail studies, and then makes repeated adjustments in the final painting, maybe even starts over multiple times. Neither does an author write a novel from start to finish without making changes, both to the plot and to the way they’ve written it. Why should a photographer be any different?

Iteration and improvement

Making a photograph that works the way you want it to is a process of iteration and improvement. Just as an artist might need several attempts to get the proportions and perspective of a scene right, a photographer might need to change lens and viewpoint, try different compositions, or go back to a subject when the light or the situation is different. In the process – particularly in the digital age – this photographer might make dozens, scores or even hundreds of photographs. The last one of 50 might be the only ‘keeper’, but she wouldn’t have got to that photograph without making the other 49 first.

A page from Magnum Contact Sheets showing ‘sketch images’ taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson and his two front-runners for a final image.

To prove this point, take a look at a book called Magnum Contact Sheets. This book contains dozens of iconic photographs by Magnum photographers (that is, some of the most highly regarded photographers in the world) alongside the other images they captured either side of those photographs, on the same film. It’s a striking demonstration of the iteration that the photographers worked through to make that one image, and that real photography isn’t about creating a great image with only one shot.

Sketch images

David DuChemin, an inspirational photographer and photography educator, refers to the process of iteration and improvement as making ‘sketch images’. The parallel with fine art couldn’t be any clearer. This terminology crystallizes the idea of photography as a creative process for me, and helps me feel that I’m engaged in art. It also melts away the underlying anxiety about whether my photographs that I rate are just down to the law of averages.

Similarly, in The Photographer’s Eye  and The Photographer’s Mind, photographer Michael Freeman shows sequences of images that he captured while working scenes. He also walks through his thinking during the process to refine his composition and the concept of the photograph. It’s a fascinating insight – reading these books led to my first realisation that my thinking was all wrong.

A gallery of sketch images I took while trying to make the most of these arches in Lisbon, Portugal. The black & white ones are images I thought were worth processing, but my choice of image was the one on the right. Click to see larger versions.
Post-sketching

Instinctively, the idea of making sketch images seems to be mostly about the camera work. Of course, this is the fundamental stage, but the idea of sketching can go beyond that and apply to post-processing too.

First, you need to take a step back and look at the sketches you’ve got. A crucial skill in photography is recognising a sketch image that stands out from the others, and why it stands out. Whether or not the reasons were apparent to you at the time of capturing the photograph is irrelevant – choosing images after the event is part of the process.

Then, when you process your selected images, you can try different colour treatments, exposures and contrast levels, different crops and different localised adjustments. You might well produce several different ‘sketches’ at this stage before settling on your ‘finished piece’. You might even play around with different versions of an image and then discard that frame completely. But still, that sketching process was necessary to explore the potential (or lack of it) in the image.

Deliberate sketching

In hindsight, I see that I’ve always done this sketching to some degree. But – as the existence of the keeper ratio concept suggests is the case for many – I saw it as a lack of skill, as fumbling around without knowing what I was doing. Maybe it’s been a bit of both, but the realisation that the sketching process is a necessary stage completely changed my psychological approach.

The process has become more deliberate, and rather than just trying different things as I feel like it, I’m more likely to think about why I’m trying those things. It becomes more deliberate and directed, with an ultimate aim that becomes refined along the way. Working like this, I’m also happier to fill up memory cards without getting downhearted at the prospect that only a handful – or perhaps even none – will be ‘keepers’.

Notes from Lisbon – 77 and 79

Doorways are great artistic subjects because they have inherent symbolism and you can’t help by look for clues and make guesses at what’s behind them. This natural inquisitiveness that doorways stir is the reason I have an almost accidental running project of photographing doorways. When you photograph doorways regularly, you also discover that they come in an incredible visual variety.

In the Alfama region of Lisbon, Portugal, the variety of doors was amazing. Each building is unique, and so are each of the doors – different sizes, shapes, designs, colours and states of disrepair. In amongst the tiny streets and cobbled pavements, each door seemed to hold something different behind it, creating an atmosphere of intrigue that was exaggerated by an absence of people outside (only mad dogs and Englishmen…).

The reasons I photographed these two doors were the light and the way the contrasts of light emphasized the geometry. It was a bright day shortly after noon, but many of the streets were too narrow to get any directional light in them at any other time. What I loved here was the way the strong shadows contributed to the composition – inside the rectangles inside rectangles was another rectangle of light that was offset from the centre. The shadows also emphasize the surrounds of the doors, and I think the depth of the shadows help to recreate the brightness of the midday light. The scene as a whole also summed up my feelings about the Alfama region – the run-down wall and the sloped, cobbled pavement at the bottom of the image sum up the aspects that were most prominent to me.

One other reason I love this picture, although it wasn’t so obvious at the time, is the disparities between the two doors. They’re right next to each other, and in my familiar context of modern UK developments, two doors so close to each other would be the same, or at least very similar. Here, the doors are different heights, different widths, and one is a double door. They have completely different designs, and their bottom thresholds are not even level. Yet they are the same colour, they have the same stone door frames and their number plaques are the same design. Are they a pair or not?

Notes from Lisbon – Praça do Comércio

Of my recent postcards from Lisbon, this image seems to be a favourite among viewers and has had the most love on my Instagram. I put quite a lot of time into this image, taking many sketch images to achieve the kind of image I had in mind.

The architecture is obviously the subject here. I love the visual effect of the perfect repetition in structures like these, and I can’t resist the diagonals that create the classical vanishing point perspective and such depth. I tried to emphasize these aspects by using a wide-angle lens (24mm), creating diagonals that pull your eye along the repeating columns and arches as well as giving a sense of depth, inviting you to walk into the image.

I also liked the strong light on the columns on the left and the alternation with the shadows on the unlit sides, which further emphasizes the repetition. This is one reason, along with wanting to keep the end of the walkway off centre, that I composed to make these left-hand columns so prominent. I also played around with different effects from different composition of the foreground – in particular, I tried including the lit face of the nearest column, but the column took too much of the frame. In this composition, the darkness of the closest pillar contains the image and moves the eye inside and along, while making clear that the pattern repeats beyond the frame and past the viewer at the side.

Taking the colour out of this image was the intention from the start. The image is about the lines, the patterns, the perspective and the depth, and the colour just didn’t contribute to these aspects. Also, although I didn’t see this consciously at the time, the combination of the lines and the light effectively divide the frame into four in the form of an X centred on the end of the walkway. Squint as you look at the image and you’ll see it. I think the monochrome conversion exaggerates this and results in a nice balance.

Once I’d got the composition of the architecture right, there was another decision to be made – whether or not to include people. I wanted to, partly for a sense of scale but also for the atmosphere. From experience, I find that desserted images of architecture like this feel cold and uninviting. At the same time though, I didn’t want anyone too close to the camera because they would immediately become the subject. For this reason, I spent a long time waiting for the right balance, and I took many shots. Perhaps some people a little closer would have been ideal, but I do like the fact that the people here appear small, exaggerating the scale, and I think the fact that they are far away helps the viewer feel that they want to walk along under the arches.

Notes from Lisbon – Cais das Colunas

The Cais das Colunas – two columns in the water of the Tagus river at Praço do Comércio (Commerce Square) in Lisbon. Pretty much the first thing I saw when I emerged from the Metro for my photography excursion in the Alfama district in Lisbon. There’s nothing spectacular about them, but they are unusual, and with the waves swirling around them, I found them quite mesmerizing. They proved a captivating photographic subject.

In line with the constraints I had set for my half day in Lisbon, I had my 50mm f/1.8 lens in the camera, and I kept it that way – at least at first – while making sketch images of the columns to see what looked right. I wanted the symmetrical, straight-on composition, because shooting from any angle would have put the focus on one column over the other, and I wanted to emphasize the gate-like appearance of them from square on. I tried various vantage points from different distances and with different amounts of foreground, and I did eventually break my lens constraint because I wanted to see if it would work with a wider angle of view. It didn’t – the distortion was extremely obvious, and the columns ended up too small in the frame anyway.

Once I settled on the composition I wanted, I also looked for nice moments in the water to add interest to the composition. The waves were approaching from two directions and breaking on each other around the middle, so once I’d found the angle of view and composition I liked, I focused on capturing this breaking in the centre of the image. I managed it a few times, but in the image I chose to process, I love the way the drops are suspended above the breaking wave.

The biggest creative choice I made in developing this image was obviously to convert it to black & white. I made the decision for two reasons. First, I felt the colour put too much emphasis on the sea and sky, so the impact of the composition was lost. Taking the colour away focuses the image on the strong geometry and the stature of the columns, and makes the most of the diagonal lines of the waves that lead you to the centre of the image. Second, the light was a bit harsh, and I felt the strong side lighting and hard shadows on the columns looked better in black & white. The contrast is such that the feeling of the bright sun and the warmth is not lost even without colour, and I adjusted the black & white mix and the contrast settings to maximize this. I also cropped to a slightly squarer format to avoid having too much empty space either side of the columns.

Postcards from Lisbon

I was in Lisbon, Portugal, for work, and had a limited time – a little more than half a day really – to explore and take photographs. It’s easy when you’ve got a limited time to try and photograph everything but end up coming away with nothing. So I decided to focus and give myself constraints other than the time – use only my 50mm prime lens for street photography in the Alfama district, the old area with lots of small streets and colourful buildings.

The idea of the 50mm lens was to make me think more about what I was photographing, and I did start off that way. The image of columns in the water was taken with the 50mm lens, and I stayed there for a while trying different shooting positions to find the image I wanted. But when I got among the buildings in Alfama, 50mm was just not wide enough for the tiny streets. So I quickly ended up changing to my 24-70mm lens, and all the other photographs are taken at either 24mm or 35mm.

I took a fair amount of photographs, but I wasn’t happy with many and I’ve edited hard. The two doorways is without a doubt my favourite image from the trip because I love the light and the feel, which sums up the feel of the Alfama district for me.

The district is on a hill, and so there were plenty of cobbly, crooked and narrow staircases – I have an ongoing project of staircases and steps, so this was ideal for me. The one above was my favourite – it’s on the corner of a sloping street where the pavement was a series of small steps, and I just love the way they go round the corner. I love the texture of the cobblestones too.

The tram? Well, that’s a bit of a cliche, but it’s a picture I couldn’t leave Lisbon without. I wasn’t too impressed with the advertising on the sides of the trams, which kind of grab the attention, and the light had gone quite flat by this time. The image above was the only one I thought was reasonable.