Creative Mastery 3: Crafting the Shot

Beyond the fundamentals.

We’ve now explored the more fundamental aspects of creating the photograph and pieced together how the exposure triangle fits in with and becomes an integral part of what I call ‘the technical triangle’ which includes focus and sharpness. Now it’s time to begin to tread into the less logical and more conceptual, even philosophical realms of picture taking – composition.

So much is said about this already, in fact you may well be thinking you’ve heard it, read it and tried it all before so what’s new here! Perhaps there’s nothing new to be said, but then again I have pondered on the question of composition long and hard for years and have thoughts that may be of value to you.

male mallard at Yarrow Valley Park, (Birkacre)

Firstly – the rules.

Let’s get this thorny subject out of the way. Like most creative types I kick back against rules, but do realise that a certain amount of structure enables more creative freedom. It would be wrong of me to advise the dismissal of the rules of composition, after all they’ve been utilised in art of various forms for centuries, millenia even. Any study of the classics, the masterpieces in any visual art will show a certain amount of tipping of the hat to one accepted guideline or another.

The Golden Mean, rule of thirds, golden triangle, Fibbonacci principle, leading lines, diagonal structures and many more rules are touted as a way to get your audience to embrace your work. And do you know what, mostly they work. By and large, when I’m working with someone who is developing along their own creative path I suggest and recommend giving them a try as a first step towards a more considered approach to photography.

Without exception, everyone who applies these rules expresses surprise at the difference in the engagement of their work. However, it is vital to know that they are just guidelines and, for me, it’s important to get under the skin of them. Studying your own work, and that of your peers and the masters, spend some time assessing for yourself why the rule of thirds makes such a difference and why diagonals add dynamism (or not depending on the direction).

The Bones behind the Skin

Once we begin to see the bones behind the skin of these rules we can begin to apply the deeper principles, and will know when to  plot our own path through a photo. Pupilometry is a guiding principle for me – the science of grabbing a viewers pupils and guiding them along a predefined path through your image. Creating a map for their eyes.

Without a doubt, adhering slavishly to the rules is akin to painting by numbers. We may create a technically engaging photo but it’ll be full of ‘seen it befores' and ‘been there done thats'. Open any camera mag and you’ll see the pattern of ‘pictures by numbers’ repeated often, like a winning formula that becomes so common, formulaic. I don’t want my photos to ever be in that camp.

I’m sure you’ll agree it’s much better to arrest your viewer in some way, to shake them and to have them embrace the emotion that oozes from the frame. We can only do this if we explore the guidelines, study the works of those who have gone before and then forge our own path.

Feeling the Light

The same is true of crafting the light. I’m only going to touch on this and don’t want to talk of bad light and good light. Light is so much more complex. When you’re next out hold your palms up and try to feel the light. Let it wash into you. Sense the nuances of it and study how it plays with everything it touches. It’s not just light, it’s the lifeblood of our art.

Some light is easy to work with, some is tough. For me blue sky day light is the toughest, storm light can be the easiest. Rain light, wind light, mist light, almost no light, wood light, meadow light, mountain light, beach light – these are the descriptors that matter. Graze light, back light, side light and frontal light are mere technical terms.

Always be watching the light, even when you don’t have your camera with you. Befriend it. Get to know it and anticipate it’s moods, rhythms and cycles.

Next up we’ll be exploring the more sensual realms of photography, the deeper aspects within which is connection to our subject and our own self.

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