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Posts tagged ‘composition’

UfD: Workshop Lessons

Today for our Up for Discussion post Susan Portnoy from The Insatiable Traveler recently attended a photography workshop and she has written for us what she learned at the workshop. There are some great lessons here and I think we could learn a lot from this.  

Five Essential Lessons (and One Great Tip) I learned about Photography at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops


As a photographer always looking to hone my skills, I recently went on a unique adventure as the guest of the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops in New Mexico. I’d heard about the globally renowned workshops for years (the workshops are year round and boast an amazing roster of instructors) from photographers who were students and others who had the honor of being asked to teach.

The Santa Maria building where I stayed and where breakfast and lunch was served

The Santa Maria building where I stayed and where breakfast and lunch was served

The Santa Maria building where I stayed and where breakfast and lunch was served
The trip was a great learning experience and completely out of my comfort zone but exactly the kind of push I needed to up my game. When I told Leanne about my visit she thought you might be interested in reading about what I learned. And while it’s all a work in progress, here goes… ~ Susan Portnoy

When you first arrive at the Workshops, Reid Callanan, the company’s founder, will tell you that no matter what course you take the week is not about creating masterpieces, it’s about learning new approaches to photography, opening your mind and eye to fresh ideas and challenging your skills. It was all that and more.

My instructor was fine art photographer and Sam Abell disciple, Brett Erickson. The workshop: “Visions of the American West.

My fellow students and I (nine of us in total), quickly learned that for Brett, “visions” was the operative word. The American West was a backdrop, a muse for our creativity efforts, and we would explore these visions through black and white photography.

When our workshop began, Brett explained that his main objective was for us to “see” the world differently; to be keenly aware of the textures, shapes, and colors that make up a scene and use them to our advantage. He wanted us to discover the story within the photo, the nuances and the complexities, both literally and figuratively, in order to communicate our vision successfully. In short: to thoughtfully craft images rather than just “take” them.

Below are five lessons (and one neat trick) I learned that I believe will help me (and perhaps you) do just that:

1. Identify what you like about the subject or scene

When you come across something you want to shoot, take a moment to ask yourself what you I like about it? Brett explained, “We choose compositions because of the way they make us feel.” Meaning more often than not, it’s emotion not intellect that directs our eye.

At first I found it difficult to articulate what drew my attention beyond the surface (ie. the light is really pretty, or I love the way that looks), but the more I thought about my reaction, the better I perceived the scene. Taking the time to reflect—even for a few seconds—provided me with valuable insight on how make an image that would convey my feelings more accurately.

Take this very simple example: Minutes before I landed in New York from Santa Fe, I took a picture of the wing and the beautiful twinkling lights below (above left). Then I remembered to ask myself why I was drawn to the scene. I realized it wasn’t just the beautiful lights; I loved the idea that I was privy to an extraordinary view of the city from my own little seat in the clouds.

With that in mind, I composed the next shot to include a portion of the window frame, giving the photo a completely different feel. A person looking at the image now has more context. They become a passenger peering through the window with me which is the essence of what I wanted to communicate.

2. Instill your images with Poetry and Metaphor

What makes an image compelling? Brett says, “Poetry and metaphor.” Since that’s a tad esoteric, consider it a sense of depth and meaning that goes beyond the literal scene. What story can you tell? What observation about life, love, friendship, or society, can you work into your image that will make a viewer connect on a level that stirs the emotions? Everyday Brett challenged us to create images with poetry using metaphor. Below are a few of my attempts.

Example 1:

On our second day of the workshop, we visited El Santuario de Chimayo, a tiny Roman Catholic church built in the early 1800’s. A modern day pilgrimage site receiving over 300,000 visitors a year. Outside the sanctuary, crosses made from pieces of unfinished lumber stood bleakly in front of the iron gate that separated the sanctuary from the parking lot. Behind a row of cars, I saw this small cross with the word “Hope” and the crudely carved phrase “Dear Lord Pray for Us All.” It was a passionate plea for help that I imagined had gone unanswered for “Hope” had fallen over.

Outside the gates of El Sanctuario de Chimayo in Santa Fe

Example 2:

Religion is a big business, even in the small town that plays host to Chimayo. In this photo, I wanted to show how commercialization feeds off of religion by featuring the mural of Mary juxtaposed to the litany of signs advertising local shops and businesses.

Outside the gates of El Sanctuario de Chimayo in Santa Fe

Example 3:

On our last day of shooting we ventured to a beautiful area with white rocks teaming with interesting shapes and textures. Brett’s assignment: use a model as a metaphor for something in nature. I was struck by the large, dark boulders that littered the white-washed wonderland. For this image my model, Diaolo, became another rock dotting the rugged landscape.

Outside the gates of El Sanctuario de Chimayo in Santa Fe

3. Slow down and explore your options

Ever see something that you like, snap a picture and then move on? Yep, me too. Next time, slow down and explore your options. In one exercise, Brett asked us to take five photos of something that made us feel. With each shot we had to move closer (or move back) and reassess the picture anew. Did the light change? Was there something new to the scene that we hadn’t noticed before? Did the intimacy of a close-up better communicate our vision or did everything fall apart? The deliberateness of the process forced us to slow down and really look at what we were shooting thus providing new opportunities for inspiration.

Example 1:

When I walked up to this area of the Chimayo sanctuary (photo on the left below), the first thing that struck me was how the telephone poles in the background echoed the cross of the sanctuary building in the foreground. But as I walked closer, I saw the way the soft curves of the archway framed the rectangle door. Then I became intrigued by the stain of the wet adobe and how its soft lines mixed with the multiple triangles surrounding the door’s frame. In the end, I felt the image to the right made a stronger statement than the wider angle that first grabbed my attention. If I hadn’t reminded myself to move in, I would have missed it entirely.

Example 2:

One afternoon, we went to Eaves Movie Ranch, a location used in countless westerns including the The Ridiculous Six, starring Adam Sandler, currently in post production. Thomas, who oversees the ranch, was one of our models and a perfect throwback to that era with his cowboy hat and garb, long hair and grizzly beard. I took him to an old barn that had amazing light to shoot a portrait. At first, I photographed him close up and straight on, but when I experimented with various angles, I liked this framing the best. Here you can see a piece of the paddock and the supply shed in the background. I found it to be more visually interesting, with its subtle layers and horizontal lines, while adding greater context to the photo.

Thomas at Eaves Movie Ranch in Santa Fe

4. Make the most of compositional tools.

Leading lines, diagonals, repetition, frames, patterns, layers, triads, triangles… these are compositional elements photographers use to move the viewer’s eye through the frame creating a more compelling image. And that’s what we all want, right? It wasn’t the first time I’d thought about leading lines or patterns and the like, but working with Brett in a workshop environment brought my awareness and understanding to a whole new level.

Example 1:

In this image I was drawn to the repetition. First the eye focuses on the crosses to the right that are in focus. Then the vertical columns move the eye to the back where the crosses are repeated in the door and on the column to the left of the entrance. The lines in the ceiling also lead the eye to the back where the arches are repeated in the windows and doors.

Thomas at Eaves Movie Ranch in Santa Fe

Example 2:

This was taken from inside the studio doorway of a rather eccentric, 70+ year old painter I met while shooting along Canyon road on our first day. I first noticed the sign on the door and I couldn’t help but think that it’s semi-schizophrenic handwriting suited the quirky artist. Outside, stood his old school bicycle, another glimpse into the man’s unique personality. I loved the combination of the two together.

From a compositional perspective, the open doorway is a strong visual element that splits the image in two, thus grabbing the viewer’s attention. The horizontal plank below the sign is like an arrow leading the eye to the right to where it finds the bike, while the vertical edge of the door echoes the wood in the fence post.


Example 3:

Two horses snuggle in another shot from Eaves Movie Ranch. Besides the obvious “adorable” factor, the image combines three triangles, two are created by each of the horses heads while together they form one large triangle, keeping the eye fixed on the center and the equine bromance.


5. Wait until the next day to look at your pictures

During the workshop I was struggling. Every day we got a new assignment and every day I was convinced my work sucked. I would do my best to create wonderful images that were exploding with poetry and metaphors and nine times out of ten I wanted to throw my camera against a wall. Intellectually, I knew what I was learning was incredibly valuable. Emotionally, I hated that I wasn’t instantly fabulous. It was hard. Granted, I put enormous pressure on myself. I think most creative folks do, which means if you’re reading this, you probably know of what I speak. Here’s my advice, if you’re not happy with the way a shoot is going, stick it out, do the best you can and then leave the pictures alone. If you keep going over it in the moment you’ll just spin yourself into the depths of emotional self flagellation. When I stepped away and gave myself the opportunity to disconnect from the shoot and my frustration, I usually found that when I looked at the images again they weren’t so bad. In fact, sometimes I would surprise myself and find something I really thought was good. Perfectionism is a dangerous thing. Don’t let it get the best of you.

(The Trick) Try shooting black and white in camera.

When I first read Brett’s description of the class, he explained that monochromatic images would play a big part in our workshop and it was part of the reason I signed up. I love the look and feel of black and white photos but I’ve never felt particularly at ease creating them. Like most people, I shoot in color and then convert in post-production using Lightroom and Nik filters. More often than not, I’m not sure whether the conversion will look right until it’s done. It’s always been a bit of a crap shoot for me.

Brett wanted us to be able to see the world in black and white, to instinctively know how various colors would look in grey-scale so that we could be deliberate in the creation of our black and white images. His trick to train the eye: shoot black and white in camera.

By setting my Canon 1-DX to monochrome and then changing the “image quality” to capture both a RAW file and a jpeg (Nikon users don’t need to add the jpeg), I could see a black and white jpeg on my LCD screen in real time, while simultaneously capturing a RAW color file for use later while editing. (You’ll want those color channels available so that you can tweak tonalities.)

I have a ways to go, but I’m slowly understanding how colors will convert so that I’ll be able to spot compelling contrasts from the get-go. Eventually I’ll be able to see the world in black and white without having to look at it on my LCD. At least that’s the plan.

If you have any questions or comments about the photos or the workshops, please ask in the comments below and I will be happy to answer. If you’ve been to SFPW or other workshop, I’d love to hear about your experience.

Susan will be responding to comments, so please if you have questions please ask. I would also like to thank Susan for writing this for us, don’t forget to take a look at her site, The Insatiable Traveler.

Up for Discussion: Susan Portnoy with Tips for Shooting Wildlife

Last year I introduced you to Susan Portnoy and her blog, The Insatiable Traveler, she has lots of photos of Wildlife from her trips to Africa and other places.  While she isn’t just a wildlife photographer, as you would notice if you follow her blog, she does love photographing the wild animals in Africa, so I asked her if she would be interested in doing a blog post for us on how she goes about this type of photography.  

So, over to you Susan.


Wildlife photography is an addictive challenge filled with excitement, frustration, and its fair share of luck. There are so many variables that come in to play: What kind of wildlife are you shooting? Will you be in a vehicle or on foot? Are you in your own backyard or someplace unfamiliar thousands of miles away? It would be impossible to cover every angle.

When Leanne asked me to pen this piece my head almost exploded from all the possibilities. So for the sake of this post I thought it would be best to concentrate on eight tips I learned from professionals that have helped me the most,  whatever the circumstances.

1. Embrace patience

In short: photographing wildlife requires a lot of patience. A lot. To every photographer’s chagrin, animals never do anything on cue. On the average, you spend the majority of your time watching them eat, sit or sleep.

When I’m at home in New York City, I am a poster child for A.D.H.D., but over the last couple of years I’ve learned to embrace patience—not that I really had a choice. It was either that or end up with some really bland photos.

On the flip side, learning to be patient has been a good thing for me. I’ve learned to savor the mystery of wondering what’s next; to enjoy the thrill of anticipation as I wait for a stalking predator to pounce, and to delight in the rush of capturing something special after a long wait. If you find yourself ready to pack it in, stay at least 30 minutes longer. On further thought….make that 40.


2. Shoot in the morning and the early evening

Whether you’re shooting people, architecture or wildlife, the best natural lighting is found in the early morning and late afternoon. Thankfully, this is when animals are most active. Score! Just make sure to monitor your shutter speed and ISO. The light changes quickly at these times and depending on how fast your lens is, combined with the capabilities of your camera, you’ll want to keep this in mind. Otherwise you risk ending up with a lot of blurry images or your highlights blown out. Either way, unless that was your intention, you won’t be happy.

3. Study your subject

Capturing photos you’ll want to share is much easier when you know an animal’s behavior. Lions in the same pride are incredibly social and often nuzzle each other in greeting, knowing that gives you a few seconds to think about the shot you want to take, fiddle with your settings, and be ready when the magic happens.

If you have access to wildlife near your home, take the time to study your subjects.Ask yourself, what do they do BEFORE they do the thing you want to capture?

Prior to the Christmas holiday, I spent six mornings exploring The Lake in New York City’s Central Park ( I had a wonderful time photographing the pigeons, toddler-sized geese and hundreds of mallards. By the end of the sixth day I knew a lot about our feathered friends.

For example, I noticed that while preening, before a goose stands up to stretch and flaps its wings—a lovely moment worth a photo—it uses its bill to toss water over its head and onto its back. I realized that the subsequent wing flapping was the goose’s way to remove excess moisture from its feathers. From that moment on, whenever I saw a goose splash that way I knew the wings weren’t far behind. I had the luxury of proactively creating the image as opposed to reacting at the last second. Anticipation is a wonderful thing.


If you’d like to read more about specific African wildlife behaviors for lions, elephants, buffalo, etc., here’s a piece I wrote for

4. Leave some space in your frame

A professional wildlife photographer gave me some great advice. He told me to leave a little room for my subject to move within the composition—especially wildlife lready in motion. At first I resisted. When I first became interested in photography, I wanted to be the “perfect” photographer (I’m a tad type A) who composed every shot entirely in-camera. But when animals move erratically in a frame that’s too tight, chances are you’ll chop off body parts in a way that’s neither attractive or “artsy”. At the end of the day I’d rather crop a photo than blow it altogether.

5. Don’t forget to vary your composition

The first time I saw an elephant I was utterly blown away. I was mesmerized by it’s sheer size and the graceful unfurling of its trunk as it peeled leaves off a tree. I focused on taking the quintessential portrait but I completely forgot to pull back and show him in his environment. The massive tree he was under framed him so beautifully, and a wider shot would have told a completely different and worthwhile story.

Today when I shoot I do my best to vary my composition form horizontals and verticals to close up details and wide-angled images. Give it a try.

6. Buy, borrow, or rent a long lens

As with all photography, the lens you choose will depend on your circumstances and how close you can get to your subject. When I’m on foot shooting animals in a local park, I carry a Canon 70-200mm f2.8. It’s relatively light while giving me a great focal range, a beautiful bokeh, and because it’s fast it stands up to low-light situations. I also carry a wide-angle Canon 24-105mm with me in case I want a wider shot.

In Africa however, I’d bring the Hubble telescope if I could. I only partly joke. Yes, when riding in a vehicle you can get pretty close to lions and elephants and so on, but on the average not as close as you might think. If you want the option to capture tight shots, you’ll need a long lens.

I typically borrow or rent the Canon 200 mm – 400 mm – EF telephoto zoom lens F/4.0 with the internal 1.4 converter. It’s a lot of bang for the buck and it gives me great compositional flexibility, plus it fits into my camera bag. To keep my options open I also bring my 70-200mm and my 24-105mm f4L or 16-35m for wide-angle shots. If I had all the space and money in the world I’d probably rent a 500mm or 600mm f2.8, as well.

Note: Some photographic safari companies and properties rent cameras and lenses to their guests, saving you the hassle of lugging heavy glass on international flights.

Botswana 2013

7. Have a second camera body on hand

The beauty of wildlife photography is that there are so many ways to interpret a scene. It all depends on the story you want to tell. But wonderful moments can happen in a flash and you don’t want to waste time changing lenses if you don’t have to.

I don’t usually carry another body when I am on foot, but in Africa I wouldn’t travel without it. I can’t tell you how many shots I would have lost of some gorgeous creature walking towards me, if I didn’t have a second body with a wider lens to switch to at a moments notice. I also like the freedom to toggle back and forth from tight shots to environmental wide-angle images as I see the scene unfold.

8. Shoot with an expert at least once

If you have the time and proximity to wildlife to learn as you go, then stop reading here. But, if you are taking a trip to photograph animals with which you’re unfamiliar, or located in a strange area, or both, hire a photographic guide to take you out on the first day.

A guide is a living cheat sheet you’ll be glad to have in your corner. They can point out known habitats and watering holes, give you a broad-strokes understanding of animal behaviors, offer insights into areas that look better at sunrise vs. sunset, and a load of other useful information. It may cost a little money but it will save you oodles of time and unsuccessful shots.

The best thing I ever did was to join a few photographic safaris once my passion for African wildlife was ignited. The combination of a trip built around a photographer’s needs and professional instruction has been invaluable to me, and the opportunity to hang out with other animal-obsessed photographers is a lot of fun. I highly recommend it.

9. Try Panning [Bonus tip]

This isn’t a tip in the traditional sense, more of a try-it-you-might-like-it kind of advice. I get a big kick out of panning and it’s a lot of fun too. A bit hit-and-miss but when it works, it’s awesome.

A good pan mixes clarity and blur to convey a sense of motion. The idea is to lower your shutter speed—anywhere from 1/20 – 1/50 second—focus on a subject’s head and while clicking the shutter, pan with its movement as it passes in front of you. The background blends into streaks of color and the photos can be very compelling.



That was fantastic, I hope you all enjoyed it as well, and will join me in thanking Susan for taking the time to write this post for us.  She is happy to answer any questions you might have, so please leave your questions in the comments section.  She sent me lots of photos and I will put them into a gallery for you, however, if you would like to see more of her wildlife photography and other photography then take a look at her blog, The Insatiable Traveler.

Up for Discussion – Common Newbie Mistakes

Leading on from the post last week about critiquing I thought this week we could have a look at common mistakes that people make when they first start taking photos.  Of course not everyone does these things, but some people do.

I just thought of something new to do with a post like this, I think it will work, let’s give it a try.  I know a few things that many people do when they start, but it has been over 20 years since I started, so what if I start the post and you guys finish it. edyarra0014 What I mean is, I will list a few things, and you will see what I do, and if you can think of additions to the list, then tell me in a comment, after I publish the post, I will leave the post in edit format on my computer and as you think of things to add I will add them and continually update the post.  I am home today so I should be able to do it when they come in.

Common Mistakes People Make When They Start Photography

The horizon is always smack bang in the middle of the image. 

It is something we all do, it is funny because it is the natural thing to do, but then in photography it is consider a big no no.  I think sometimes it should be in the middle, and I put it there, but I do think that it isn’t always good in the middle.

Don’t Put objects you are photographing in the middle.

I see this a lot, people taking a photo of something, like a tree, and it is right in the middle of the image, I think it does work best having on the third lines, though like everything there are always exceptions.

Cut off peoples feet when you are taking their photo.

edmaldon0028I do see this a lot, the perfectly composed shot, but the feet of the person has been cut off, or a hand, and it usually means that the photographer hasn’t taken in the whole scene, which is common. I tell my students it is best to cut off around 2/3 of a limb, then it looks deliberate, and not because you didn’t look properly.

Give the whole scene enough space.

This one is a bit like the feet one above, where the photographer gives the scene at the top lots of space, but doesn’t leave any at the bottom.  I have a friend who does this all the time, and I have told her to make sure so looks at the bottom of the image as well and not just the top.

Laura has pointed out, “the biggest mistake I used to make when I first started was framing my subject to tightly. I’ve learned to back up just a bit to make sure I get all I want in the frame plus a little bit of breathing room to allow for proper cropping in LR or PS.”

Things are sticking in at the edge of a photo.

This is one of the most common things I see, something just jutting into the edge of the photo, and it can be distracting, like half a rubbish bin and when you ask what it was, the person will often say, I don’t know I didn’t notice it.  One of the first things I was taught was to scan the whole frame, the edges and look for things I don’t sctheatre-0007want in the image.  I know you can crop them out later, but that reduces the size of your image, and then it reduces what you can do with the image later on.  It is always best to get the best image when you click the shutter button.

Looking at what is behind or in front of your subject.

mzklever just reminded me about another very common mistake which is taking a photo of someone and not looking at what is behind them or in front, so you get the photo on the computer and realise that a tree or pole is coming out of their head. Or something else looks like it is in the wrong spot.

Making objects in the image too small.

“I took a photo of a fountain, with my wide angle, can you see it in the image.” Taken from too far away so it looks small.  There are no rules about having to stand so many feet from an object, you can walk up to something and take a photo.  Zoom in, zoom out, work out what you think is the best one.  If you don’t know, it is digital so take lots at different zooms.  One will stick out.

Take more than one photo of something.

You go somewhere, there is something beautiful in front of you and you take one photo, then you get home and it isn’t as good as you thought it would be, and you wished you had move around a little more.  I know it isn’t always possible, but you can take a photo standing up, or kneeling down, there are lots of ways of changing your position.

Consider different angles.

edwalhalla0077Melbourne being a town with lots of tourists, you see it all the time, oh Flinders Street Station, they walk up to it point the camera and take a photo.  They don’t move to the right, or to the left.  They don’t walk right up to it and photograph looking straight up at it. Trying taking photos from lots of different angles.

Also Papict, has added that you don’t have to take things at your eye level, like if you are photographing kids, get down to their level.

Using the Flash on Automatic.

Andre just said that when he started he would use “just flash people in the face, then wonder why their eyes are closed”. That is a common thing, people not understanding how their flash works.  I usually recommend that people learn how to take the their flash off auto.  You see people taking photos and the flash pops up, and it won’t do the image any good.

Buying a DSLR and never learning how to use it.

This happens a lot, people spend a lot of money on buying a DSLR and then use it on auto all the time, which in the end means it is a very expensive and large compact camera.  It is best if you buy one that you do learn how to use it to it’s best ability, really see what you can do with it.  If you don’t want to learn to do that, then consider getting a compact camera that would be perfect for what you do, and possibly give you better shots.

Chillbrook has something to add to this as well, “I think the biggest mistake beginners make is not learning the exposure trinity from day one – apeture, shutter, ISO. It’s the basis of all photography. DSLR’s with all their automatic settings are all very well but it really isn’t difficult to master the basics of manual exposure. All modern DSLRs have a light meter, learn to use it.”

sctheatre-0004Horizon lines that aren’t straight.

I have to say, I am terrible at getting a straight horizon line, but I do always straighten it in post processing, so if you can’t take straight horizon lines, then it is something you need to learn how to do in editing.  If you are going for that look of an uneven horizon line then it should look obvious, like that is what you intended.

Not waiting for your camera to expose correctly or focus.

Pamela has commented, “I’ve noticed that with so many light weight cameras (and phones) in this fast paced age, many people forget to take the few seconds needed to hold the camera still and often missing the opportunity to do many of the tricks you’ve noted.” I just wanted to add it often means getting images that are out of focus.

Maxine wanted to add that people tend not to hold the shutter release button half down to let the image get in focus, so they end up with out of focus images.

Not checking the settings on your camera before you take photos.

This is from Nelson, “A mistake that I was making when I started was not taking the time to look at the adjustments of my camera before taking my first shot ( shutter speed, ISO, f stop, white balance). If the conditions were the same as the last time I took photos there was no problem, but if the conditions changed ( sunnier, fast moving object etc) then there was a problem”.  I want to add that I still do this, drives me crazy, I am getting better at it though.

“digital is cheap, I can delete my mistakes,” mentality

Jeff has added this, “Another rookie mistake is to take the “digital is cheap, I can delete my mistakes,” mentality too far. They shoot a million photos with no consideration of composition, lighting, etc, in hopes that some will turn out good. I see so many people who just show up, point their camera at something and blast off a few dozen shots.”

Stay focused on what you choose as your subject.

Jill has added this, “I think the biggest thing is focus. Stay focused on what you choose as your subject. Lots of times I’ve had a hard time getting my camera to focus on what I want, especially on close ups or when there’s something moving.”

Taking attention away from your main focus.

Here is a great point from Alex,  “I see a lot of potential great compositions with a interesting subject, but then there is a bush in the foreground, or a lamppost somewhere, or a person somewhere, and the image loses its balance. Your eye is drawn away from where you want it to be. I guess this gets into composition and their are situations where it can work creatively, but I would say as a rule of thumb for starting out, if you have a subject or set of subjects you want your photo to focus on, make sure the rest of the image compliments them.. I think visual weight and balance is so interesting..”

What is your point of focus.  

Adding on from Alex, a lot of people take photos with no idea what their point of focus actually is, so it is good to know you are trying to achieve with your image.

Learning the numbers, what they refer to.

Damo was explaining how when he started he thought the higher the number for ISO the better, and I am sure many of us have done the same thing.  Of course it is the opposite, the lower the number the better quality.

Keeping early images.

Agarrabrant just pointed out that when you start don’t throw away all your images, especially as you start improving, as you will enjoy looking at them again in years to come, it helps you to see how much better you have gotten.

I have one suggestion: Don’t be afraid to ask for help!

Sarina has offered this bit of advice, “When people start out with photography most people say: “Ah photography is not so difficult. I can figure everything out myself.” I think to some extent this is true but you should also try to find other, more experienced Photographers that can help you in the early days. And it is not always about giving you input but also about having company and someone that you can watch and learn from. And if you don’t know any experienced people it also is nice to just have a photo buddy that has the same level or even less knowledge. You will grow together and figuring something out together will make a great experience.”

Turning the Camera up on its Side.

Infraredrobert has just pointed out that many people when they start, just use landscape mode, and they never turn their cameras up on the side to get portrait mode.

Don’t Panic.

Jeb has added, “I think the most important lesson is not to panic and try to relax (I was in utter fear of my camera when I got it, never used one before other than take the odd snap). I make bag loads of errors, I can’t say I am bothered it is how I learn to do things. Despite the myth of artistic genius these things are a craft and we learn them slowly through trial and error.”

Take a Course.

Norm has suggested that when you first start, take a course, “If you’re able to spend $500-$1,000 on a camera, a few hundred more spent at a reputable school will only pay dividends in the long run.”

Expensive Equipment doesn’t Necessarily Mean Great Images

Sally has pointed out “another common mistake is reliance on expensive equipment to “make” a good image. Today there are so many choices. More and more attention should be “paid” to the “seeing” and looking at works by well-known photographers. It’s also important to understand light. So many people do not understand the relation between lighting and the differences between artificial and natural lighting.”

Victor just send a link to this, Top 15 Photography Clichés Everyone Hates.

That is about all the ones I can think of, so let me know what to add to the list.  I would also like to hear about camera mistakes too, my first camera was so basic, that you couldn’t make mistakes, or wrong settings, not really, but I would love to hear from people about ones that people do, if they do, what you have done or someone else you know.  Also if there are any more composition things that people often do.

The images I have used for this post are ones that were taken with black and white film and I have scanned them.  They are some of my earliest photos when I first got my Pentax K1000 back in the early 90’s.




Up for Discussion – Composition

Today’s guest blog is from Stacey who has a blog called Lensaddiction.  Stacey has offered to write a post on composition and some of the basic aspects of it that help make a good image.  

Composition Basics

I get frustrated by the fancy books and websites with amazing shots from Iceland and Patagonia, waterfalls in Norway, amazing scenery in places I can never expect to go. Usually shot by professionals with several days or even weeks to spend on site so that they get lots of opportunities to get the perfect sunrise or shot.

This post is bought to you by just another photographer, with limited time and budget for gear and equipment, who is still learning every time she gets her camera out. Someone who goes to exotic locations hardly ever and if she does, has pretty much one opportunity to get the shot and has to deal with whatever the conditions are on the day.

When you boil photography down to the very key elements, composition is ultimately what makes or breaks an image. You can have the most expensive gear, know absolutely everything about all the functions and features on your camera, travel to the most exotic locations, but if your image is not well composed then its not really happening.

Back when I was getting serious about photography I researched composition, and blogged about it

What are the Rules of Composition – what I discovered

What are the Rules of Composition – what other people shared

For this post here are what I think are the four most important basic fundamentals for composition. Helpfully there are plenty of “this is the wrong way to do it” shots to share with you!

1. Everybody’s Favourite – The Rule of Thirds

To me this is the “not putting the subject in the centre” rule, which offers more latitude and for me that is the essence of this rule. A subject smack bang in the center of your image (unless it’s a symmetrical reflection shot) is static and uninteresting.

This little fellow below is to the right of center with space to his left – that is to give him space to “look’ into or ‘move forward into”This shot also shows the “fill the frame with the subject” and “keep the background neutral” compositional elements

This is a wedgetail eagle in Australia which is a good rule of thirds example, the line of the feathers along the body is on one 1/3 line and the eye is at an intersection of two 1/3 lines.

But here is another duckling more centered and he kinda feels a bit … stuck… or lacking in energy and potential.

Another stuck in the middle shot of an Australian bush wallaby.

2. Focus on the eyes (and get a catchlight)

When taking photos of anything living, always focus on the eyes. You can see from the image below the front of the bill is out of focus, and the eyes are as well. The bit that is in focus is the front of the head, and so you feel like she is actually looking over your shoulder at something more interesting LOL.

Now this handsome Willy Wagtail has all the eye action and also the very important catchlight (that’s the bright white spot from the sun on his dark eye) which helps highlight the eye and shows the critter is engaged with you.

We don’t have the catchlight on the duck above, hence the feeling she is looking elsewhere.

A Black NZ Robin where the eye has been directly focussed on, and I waited til I had the right angle for the catchlight. The lower part of the body is out of focus, but it’s the connection with the eye that we look for.

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3. BACKGROUNDS (and Foregrounds)

Oooh this is one that I am really bad at, getting so involved in the action and completely forgetting to check and see what the background is doing.

The Robin shot above is a classic example of a terribly messy distracting background but when shooting wild creatures you just get whatever their environment it and have to make the best of it.

This is a blue Burmese kitten that a friend wanted shots of – I have used black sheets on the bed to provide a neutral background (and focussed on the eyes) also shows filling the frame with your subject.

Clear blue skies make a great background.

But what about if you can’t control your background and its crowded action scene?

Indoor social dance shots often have messy and distracting backgrounds, using a shallow DOF helps isolate the subjects from the background. Also if it is dark, using a flash to isolate the subjects can help too.

I could go tone down the exposure of the background in post pro a bit as well.

And sometimes the action is so fast and the lighting so poor that you get it completely wrong too.

And sometimes you just have to go with the flow.

Other options, change the angle of shooting, I had a busy background for this shot but changing the angle and using the sky and filling the frame solved that issue.

This was the other shot.

Foregrounds are just as important especially in nature photography – look how untiy and distracting the foreground is below with lots of blurry bright shots and leaves in the way – BAD!

This shot is better, it uses an isolated clump as the foreground interest (though that clump in the bottom right hand corner is a bit of a distraction).


I read somewhere that around 80% of all images are taken at an average height of 5’ 6”, which is fine if that’s where your subject is, but not so good if it’s a small mushroom or flower in the ground…..

Be prepared to get down in the dirt, in the water or climb a tree or a ladder to get the best vantage. This also applies for framing up your shot, don’t just rock up to a viewing platform, take the shot and then go. If its safe to do so and you have time, wander around, see if you can get a better or more interesting angle. Take into consideration what the light is doing for the image you want to create.

Fungi Cemetary-5151

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These two shots were taken lying flat out on my stomach in wet sheep shit in a cemetery – took three washes to get my jeans clean!

Compare this kitten shot taken from above and these ones where I have got down to eye level with the kittens – such a different feel.


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So there you go, Composition Basics according to Lensaddiction. I hope this may have been of some help with you on your path to photographic nirvana.

(Stacey from Lensaddiction invested in her first DSLR back in 2007. Since then she has spent far too much time outside with her camera having adventures and luckily not getting her car stuck in a bog or a stream, both of which are common in New Zealand.

To make sure that some sanity remained she took to blogging about experiences with trying to use the new camera and sharing what learnings came her way.

Remember, its supposed to be fun!)

I hope you will all thank Stacey for her post and I hope it will help you all with, or those that are unsure about composition.  Thank you Stacey.  I also hope that you will go and visit her blog, Lensaddiction.

Up for Discussion – The Golden Ratio

Today’s post is from Sarah Vercoe, I saw a post she had written on the Golden Ratio and I asked her if she would be interested in doing a post here to explain it to you.  I first heard about this at art school, though it was a little different, but the idea of the Golden Mean, and how some faces are considered more beautiful than others, and how the Golden Mean can be used to demonstrate it.  What Sarah is talking about is a little different and a lot more relevant to photography.

Composition with impact: Using the Golden Ratio in Photography

By Sarah Vercoe

Barn, Grand Teton NP

Composition is one of the most important aspects of photography, one that can make or break a photograph. A strong composition can give an ordinary subject appeal, just as poor composition can leave an otherwise appealing subject with no impact at all. The variety of composition guidelines available to photographers is seemingly endless, with some argued as being better than others. The Golden Ratio is one of those composition guidelines that is said to be just that little bit better for creating a photograph with impact.

The Golden Ratio, a ratio of 1:1.618, is said to have been ‘discovered’ by a mathematician named Leonardo Fibonacci in the 12th century A.D. when he devised a series of numbers to create a composition that is pleasing to the eye. Also known as the Golden Mean, Phi, and Divine Proportion, among others, the Golden Ratio has been used for centuries as a design principle in everything from graphic design, painting, architecture and photography. Regardless of the name attached, or where the idea of using the ratio originated, the Golden Ratio as a composition tool in photography can help us produce photographs with impact.

It is said that humans are naturally drawn to the ratio due to the perfect division of space that is pleasing to the eye, which is perfect for photography. This may be due to the fact that the ratio can be found throughout nature, in flowers, shells, plants, even the human ear is said to be shaped in a way that the Golden Ratio can be seen. Attracting viewers to a photograph through a composition that is based on nature, and naturally drawn to, seems like perfect logic. Creating a photograph that will attract viewers is something almost all photographers strive for in their work. So, how can we compose a photograph using the Golden Ratio to naturally attract viewers? There are a variety of ways in which the Golden Ratio can be applied to photography. Following are just two of the most commonly favoured compositions among photographers who are in-the-know.

The Fibonacci Spiral

The Fibonacci Spiral is formed from a series of squares based on a complex formula using Fibonacci’s numbers. This is achieved by adding together pairs of numbers to create squares, starting at 1×1, repeating 1×1, then 2×2, 3×3, 5×5, 8×8, 13×13, etc., the series of numbers can go on forever. When a point is placed strategically at the diagonal corners of each square and connected by a line, a spiral shape is formed throughout the frame itself as per the diagram below.

Fibonnaci Spiral

These points are considered points of interest in the frame and key focal points in a scene can be positioned to fall on or near them. As you will notice, the most important points of focus fall around a small rectangular area at one of the corners in the frame. This is what I like to call the ‘sweet spot’ and where I like to place the most important elements of a scene. The remaining points on the spiral can then be used as complementing focal points to incorporate other elements into the overall scene. The sweet spot acts as a starting point to lead the eye around the photograph along the spiral.

This version of the Golden Ratio is perhaps the most favoured composition in photography. I like to think this is due to the way the spiral leads the viewer around multiple complementing points in the frame, causing them to linger on the photograph.

Robson Square, Vancouver

The Phi Grid

The Phi Grid is formed when the Golden Ratio is applied so that the frame is divided into sections that are 1:1.618:1 as per the diagram below. The intersecting lines of the grid are concentrated in the centre of the frame resulting in more weight being given to the four outer corners of the frame. Placing key focal points at the intersecting lines of the Phi Grid, the Golden Ratio’s sweet spots, will allow for maximum impact in the photograph. This is due largely to the fact that the intersecting lines are at that point that is considered the perfect division of space in the frame.

Phi Grid

Another way that composing a photograph using the Phi Grid can be beneficial is to use it as a guide for the placement of a horizon line. By using the Phi Grid as a guide for where to place the horizon line will allow the horizon line to be less apparent and offer a good separation of space. You might notice that the Phi Grid looks quite similar to the Rule of Thirds. Although no one knows for sure, and there are a variety of fables that address the history of the Rule of Thirds, one suggestion is that the Rule of Thirds was devised as a simpler version of Golden Ratio.

Sunrise Kailua, Hawaii

The Golden Ratio in my own work

The Golden Ratio is often my go-to guideline when composing a photograph, particularly the Fibonacci Spiral. When I compose for the Golden Ratio I will envision a rectangle in the corner of the frame that places my main subject near the sweet spot. When I can utilise the Fibonacci Spiral I will also look for complementing points of interest that I can try to incorporate in the scene along the other points of interest. This is the reason I prefer to use the Fibonacci Spiral. I am of the belief that incorporating complementary points of interest to the main focal point where possible will draw the viewer in and lead them around the photograph.

As with everything in photography there are no fixed rules and composition choices are unique to both the scene you are photographing and the photographer. The Golden Ratio is a good technique to keep in your mind as a guideline when considering the composition options for a scene, and you may just end up with a photograph that has that little bit more impact.

Following are a series of photographs where I have applied the Golden Ratio in my own work. See if you can pick out which of the Golden Ratio compositions I have used as a guide.

Eagle, Alaska

Granville Island, Vancouver

Lower Falls, Yellowstone NP

Mountain view, Alaska

Surf Festival, Noosa

Rarotonga, Cook Islands

Science World, Vancouver

A big thank you to Leanne for allowing me to discuss the Golden Ratio in today’s Up for Discussion.

Please feel free to reach out to me at if you have any questions about the Golden Ratio. You can view more of my landscape and travel photography on my blog Sarah Vercoe Images

I would also like to thank Sarah for taking the time to write this for us.  Please take a look at her blog, she has some amazing work there.  

Up for Discussion – Post Production on Images

Last week I received an email from Better Photography Magazine and it had an article in with the title Should A Landscape Photography Competition Be Art?.  I was intrigued.  It was also about a new competition and one that I recently entered.  It is a good read and it got me thinking about this whole problem we seem to have with the digital age and manipulating photos.  scabattoirs0035

Let’s start in the days of film.  When you went out and did a shoot with a roll of film, you would come home and develop the negative.  There was no difference here, the film determined how the film or negative was processed.  Once the negative was ready to be printed, you would get your enlarger and do a proof sheet.  Lay all the negatives on a piece of paper, put a clear piece of glass over the top and expose the negs.  Then you would look through the negatives and decide which image you would want to print.  Before you print it, you would put it in the enlarger and do a series of tests, times, to work out what the right time for the image would be, the correct exposure, so to speak.  Then you would decide which filter to use to give you the contrast you wanted.  The print would then be made.

scindustrial-0031You have the print in your hand and you think, well the sky is too blown out, I better do some dodging there, this is where you would use your hand or a paddle or something and hold it over the area, but move it quickly as well so you didn’t get sharp edges.  This was also how you burned in a area that wasn’t dark enough.

While I was doing my photography course, we spent the year in the dark room and we were taught so many different ways to do things in there.  I don’t know, but isn’t it all silosclouds-0152manipulating the image to get something special.

The people who were envied in the days of film, were those that had darkrooms.  However, today in the world of digital, people who manipulate their images are called cheaters.  I don’t quite understand how it is okay if I do my images in the darkroom and manipulate them it is okay, but if I do that in Photoshop then I aren’t being true to the image.

It seems only now in the world of digital that people think you can take images with a camera and they won’t need anything done to them.  It was never the case in film, not that I was ever aware of.  If you were capable of that you were considered a very skilled and masterful photographer, certainly not a cheater.

scslaughterhouse0020Of course, nothing compares to being able to see a shot in camera and take it.  I think being able to capture something in the camera first is the most important step.  If you have that first, then what follows will only add to that.

I do believe that some people over manipulate their images.  They have learned many tricks and it becomes more important to show those than getting a great image.  I often see images that I think are fantastic, but they have overdone the post production work.  I certainly have to put myself there, and have done it many times in the past, but I do hope that I am doing a much better job these days.

Perhaps the real skill is learning when to do things and when not too.  Being able to judge the image as the image and not some post production piece of digital art.  I also hate that term, but that could be me.  For me, the post production is the part I could possibly love just as much as actually taking the photo.  I have my images, that I have been out to take, and now I want to see where else I can take it.

Do you manipulate your photos?  Why do you you?  Do you think it is wrong to do it? What do you think makes a good image?  Do you love doing post production work?walhalla0096

These posts are a great way to share knowledge, so please contribute.

I will approve them, as long as they are nice and not nasty in any way.

Feel free to respond or reply to other comments.  It would be good to generate some discussion. I do like it when you start talking amongst yourselves.  

If you have a topic that you would like discussed, or a problem you need help with then please send me an email and we will see if we can do a post about it.

All the images in the post are all images taken with black and white film and developed by me, except for one.  I did have a darkroom for awhile.  I will put them in a gallery for you now.

Rules, Rules, Rules

scfalls-0002bw1My latest post on is now up, I hope you will go and check it out.  It is about the rules that we follow or don’t follow about composition.

Please take a look, here is the link to the post

Rules, Rules, Rules  and it would be great if you could let me know on that blog what you think.

Can I just add, that all the photos in the post are from my film days.  One taken in my first couple of months of getting a SLR camera.