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.