climbing on glacier

Photo Tip of the Day: What Makes this Photo Work… And What Doesn’t?

This picture was taken while on a hike up Heliotrope Ridge, Mount Baker. Forested switchbacks suddenly give way to a ridge that looks straight across a chasm at the glacier you see here.  Hikers can follow the ridge all the way around (to the right) until it ends at the glacier, from which they can make their ascent to the top of Mount Baker. I took the picture with a Canon 7D, and my 28-135mm kit lens zoomed in all the way.  I want to use this shot as an example of a few compositional techniques you can keep in mind the next time you get behind a camera’s viewfinder.

Composition

Composition and lighting are the two ingredients that make or break great photographs.  There are “rules” for composing your shots, but all rules can be broken at appropriate times.  I’m sure that some experts would look at this picture subjectively and pick some things apart, based on their own uses of composition.  That said, there are some basic principles that do come into play here.

Rule of Thirds:

If you’ve been into photography for long, you’ve heard this term a lot, and probably know exactly what I’m talking about. You have full permission to skip this paragraph if that is the case. The rule of thirds basically suggests that photos are most interesting and attractive to the viewer when the main subject(s) or lines, such as horizons, are not dead-center in the middle of the frame.  It is usually agreed that placing subjects and lines along an imaginary grid that divides the frame into thirds is most effective. In this case, I find that there are two main subjects that make this photo interesting: The climbers at the top left, and the vibrant blue crevice to the lower right. Neither of these subjects are placed in the middle of the frame. While they may not be placed exactly at 1/3 of the frame, the basic concept still applies.

Compose to imply a sense of “scope.”

I’ll admit I probably did this unintentionally, but it was a deciding factor in choosing this shot over others that I took. There’s a sense in which the glacier, especially the large crevice to the right, appears immense in size.  Well, it is huge, but that sense of vastness, while obvious to the naked eye, can easily be lost in a photograph. The key to giving a large object a sizable impression is, ironically, to not include the entire object in the frame. If you were to see the bottom of the crevice in this shot, it actually wouldn’t seem as large.  The same goes for trees.  If you’re ever photographing trees in the forest, experiment between including the base, where trunk meets dirt, and shooting just above that, so as to not include it.  You’ll find it interesting how it changes your perception of size.

Perspective

I’ll speak to this in a couple of ways, but basically, the idea is that if you take a picture of the Grand Canyon, it’s not going to look like what you saw, unless your picture includes some object that gives it a sense of perspective. In this case, the climbers in the top left immediately communicate to your brain that you are not looking at a dirty cup of shaved ice. The human element gives the rest of the image some perspective.

Secondly, perspective comes into play when deciding where to place subjects. In this case, I placed the people high in the frame to communicate a sense of danger being overcome.  I also did this because for the most part, the ice below was more interesting than the ice above. I could have placed them lower in the frame to communicate a sense of the challenge that is yet to be overcome.  I experimented with this, and it didn’t work quite as well.  I also kept them well off to the side to again show some sense of how far they had come… or perhaps where they still had yet to go.

Thirdly, and this is where some with a more critical eye would find a bit of fault in this image, is that the focal length of a lens can lend to a greater or lesser sense of perspective.  A zoom lens doesn’t just zoom in on a subject – it also flattens the image out.  Objects appear more close together, and the overall picture appears more and more “2-D.”  On the other hand, with a wide-angle lens, objects appear to be farther apart.  Notice that the ice protrudes out towards the viewer, giving a sense of foreground that blends to background in the photo (having a foreground subject is, by the way, another valuable composition technique). This sense of 3-D depth would be much more felt if I had somehow been able to hover through the air, getting much closer to the glacier, and snapping the image with a wider focal length or even a different lens (e.g. 18mm instead of 135mm).  Try messing with focal lengths and see how they not only zoom in and out, but actually change the perspective, or sense of depth and distance, between objects in a photograph. The more zoomed in, the less 3-D, and more 2-D.

Post-Processing

The best pictures are always the ones that were captured correctly in the camera. In other words, proper exposure, sharpness, etc. are post-production techniques that can be applied using programs like Photoshop, but are most effective when not required.  That said, I did the usual tweaking to this image (exposure, sharpness, clarity, etc.), but I also tried something a little different…

Selective Coloring

One of the most eye-catching qualities of glacial ice is that vibrant blue color that can be seen all throughout.  My first inclination would be to open this picture in Photoshop, and enhance those blues so they can be appreciated by all.  But if I simply crank up the saturation of the blues in the image, the overall picture increases in its “blue-ness” as well, because most of the ice contains at least hints of the color.  The result is that, while colorful, the image loses some of its impact.

Therefore in this case, I actually desaturated the overall picture, or reduced the amount of color, and then I selectively brought the color back only in the areas where I felt the most impact – select areas of ice, and the red in one of the climbers’ coats. I probably could have actually cut more color out, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.  The overall result is that the blue does jump out in certain areas, whereas it might just get washed out if not reduced from some areas. So in this case it’s not what is added, but what is taken away that makes the photo jump out to the viewer.

In essence, when taking a picture and when processing a picture, ask yourself – what element of this photo carries the most impact?  Where do I want my viewer’s eye to be drawn?  Once you’ve figured that out, crop the image to eliminate anything that would distract from that subject, then think about your use of light and color as creative means to better draw your viewer’s eye to your main subject.  Be careful not to overdo it, as you can quickly make an image totally unrealistic… unless that is the look you’re shooting for.

So there are some normal “rules” to keep in mind – rule of thirds, perspective, etc.  But if there’s a take-away point to consider with this post, it’s to remember that adding impact to an image very often may mean subtracting from the image – selectively removing color, cropping out certain elements, such as the base of the crevice, etc. in order to make the areas that do matter jump out all the more, or give a greater impression of size and scope.

I hope this is informative.  I’ll try to add more every so often, and I welcome your thoughts.

~ Mike.

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