Portrait Format and the Rue of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is often considered the most important rule in photographic composition. It states that important objects should be placed at the four points which mark a third of the horizontal and vertical diameter of a picture.

I do not like the term “composition” and prefer to talk about the structure of a picture. And I often found the Rule of Thirds not very helpful for pictures in landscape format. But in my opinion this rule is commonly misleading for pictures in portrait format.

Pictures in Portrait format are very narrow. The most logical place for the center of interest is usually in the middle and not on a third. These narrow pictures tend to guide The Eye vertically and are not very good for horizontal storytelling.

Black and white photography of a narrow alley in backlight. With high contrasts. The light appears cross shaped. Outlines of people visible

Untitled

Of course there are pictures with several interesting objects or subjects which need to be balanced and could make it better to deviate from the midline. But the edge of the picture might be as good as choosing a third.

Photography of a a rather chaotic street scene with the fire brigade at work, a monk walking by and many trespassers who are unmoved

Carnavoran Rd, Thursday Morning, Business as Usual

The vertical axis is more important in such a narrow picture. The artist  should guide the viewer vertically through the picture. Portrait format is  called so because it is good for portraits. I don’t have an example at the moment but the face should be in the middle in a headshot. Deviating and placing it above or below needs a reason.

I prefer to place human figures with their feet near the lower edge of portrait format pictures. It appears to me as the most natural place. In the picture below the lady is higher as the colourful reflections lead vertically towards her.

Shangxiajiu Street, Guangzhou

Shangxiajiu Street, Guangzhou

And placing the centre of interest on the lower edge dramatically reinforces the feeling of height in a picture.

The Horses of Chauvet

Horses of Chauvet

This is one of the masterpieces of the cave paintings in the cave of Chauvet in France. The paintings were drawn 32000 ago and are the oldest cave paintings known. Humans visited this site for thousands of years but nobody ever lived in this cave. So most likely it was used for religious or ritual purposes.

The picture above gives only hints how dramatic and amazingly beautiful this painting is.  The movie „The Cave of Lost Dreams“ by Werner Herzog shows it better.

The Painters used the the three dimensional structure of the cave wall and fitted the paintings of the animals in and placed it chamber where no daylight could reach it. It was meant to be watched in torchlight! In the flickering torchlight it would have looked as if the animals are moving.

It must have felt amazing standing there and watch the animals moving over the wall in the torchlight 32000 yeas ago.

In the opinion of Jean Clottes, one of the leadinG Expertin paleolithic art, this was used for shamanic rituals, to connect with the spirit of the animals. And I can clearly see the emotional impact this must have had.

Such a powerful emotional impact is what art is about or at least what we should strive to achieve.

Can photographers achieve this? And can we produce such powerful art for modern humans?

Mixed Color Temperatures and White Balance in Art Photography

Situations with differing light sources with differing light temperatures are difficult for wedding photographers or other professionals who must produce naturalistic pictures. Film can either be for sunlight or for artificial light and a digital sensor of a modern digital camera can only perform white balance for one lightsource in each single picture. Books have been written about this topic and how to overpower light sources with flash.

For the art photographer however this is a golden opportunity to add an unusual artistic element.

Ridley Scott used this a lot in the movie „The Blade Runner“ and it contributed greatly to the beautiful, surreal cinematography.

in this picture I adjusted the white balance to the natural light of the sunset in the background but exposed to light from the neon tubes in the underpass.

People in an underpass

Underpass

This creates the greenish, surreal gliw and helps to create two distinct parts.

Here is another example

Two beautiful girls saying farewell in a brightly illuminated entrance in very heavy, dark rain, neon lights, Bladerunner athmosphere

A Farewell in the Rain

The girls stand in the yellow tungsten light in the entrance, the background appears fale and blue and the neon sign above a bit surreal as it is also a different light temperature. This clearly separates the girls from the background and draws the viewers eye towards them with the neon sign competing for attention and balancing them in a vertical axis.

Constantine Manos – America at the Beach

A few days ago I saw this article from Magnum:

America at the Beach: A Colour Study – by Constantine Manos

These are some of the most beautiful pictures I have ever seen. He uses the lights and shadows so beautifully to characterise the colours and scenes. Additionally the photos radiate a deep respect and love for his subjects. They are presented favourable and he took care of protecting their privacy and making them unrecognisable.

The pictures tell about the fun and lid back athmosphere of beach life

Here are two Low res examples. Be sure to look up the full article and gallery, really worth it.

https://www.magnumphotos.com/arts-culture/travel/constantine-manos-america-at-the-beach/

https://www.magnumphotos.com/arts-culture/travel/constantine-manos-america-at-the-beach/

Urban Photo Award 2018

Recently I submitted a few pictures to the Urban Photo Award 2018.

these two pictures were selected and will be displayed in some exhibitions around Europe  In the next months

Urban photography showing the Silhouette of a man in front of the reflections on a rain pool of couple against red back background

Urban Red

Silhouettes of two strangers encountering by chance in front of a Cafe. The picture has two distinct halves formed by the red glass front and the entrance of the Cafe with a clear window.

A Chance Encounter

Of course I am excited!

 

Art does not make Happy

Long time ago I read an interview with the editor of a photo magazine. (I forgot who, which and where: sorry.) He was asked about the common trait of the greatest Photographers. His answer was obsession, a single minded determination to get a specific result. He said that this is in fact common for all arts and that great artist are usually not very happy people. But they can get a deep satisfaction from achieving results.

I forgot about this article. But I noticed that after photo hunting sessions I usually feel mentally, emotionally completely drained and exhausted. So I asked other people with interest and talent in some art about this and whether they feel producing arts relaxes them or makes them happy. The most common answer can be summarised as „Not at all, rather the contrary and I absolutely do not seek relaxation and happiness when I try to make art!“ Only very few felt relaxed or happy.

Now compare this with the common suggestion to make art to solve psychological problems or be more happy. Just try to google „Art+ Happiness“ and you will find millions of articles telling you that making art will make us happy. I do not doubt that painting or shooting photos can help many people. But if art is the goal, then art seems to be a sure way to unhappiness.

A while ago I recommended this article about the shadow muse. The article starts with this quote about Hemingway:

“One cannot but feel sympathy and even admiration for Hemingway in his lifelong struggle against crippling emotional shocks and scars, and be sustained and uplifted by the fact that out of that struggle, he created some of the most beautifully and powerfully written stories and novels of our time.” —Literature Online

Keith Johnstone has similar things to say about using the dark material of our mind when we want to be creative.

Yes, our vulnerability and our dark side give meaning and depth to art. Happiness and joy alone are shallow.

For myself I noticed that when I feel well and confident I must use this mental strength and give 100% of it to dig in my soul until I am completely exhausted to get good pictures.

When I hit a Low and feel horrible and have to face the demons in my mind,  pictures come flying automatically. This is only true for feeling psychologically bad but not physically. If I am physically exhausted or sick I can not take good pictures. Not at all.

Now let’s go back to the question of art and mental health. How important is happiness after all? Many people strive to maximise happiness and see it it as one of the most important things in life. And I completely disagree. Happiness is just ONE  emotion which is good in the right moment when there is a specific reason to be happy. The so called „ negative“ emotions anger, fear, shame etc are as important and very often more adequate than happiness if we want to live a whole and rich life. I would like to refer to an author who saved my life. Karla McLaren has a wonderful blog and great books about emotions.

And art can help us to learn to get comfortable with our dreaded „negative“ emotions and the darker and weaker parts of our mind and with this contribute to mental health.

Random Thougts about Creativity and Photography

As mentioned before, I learned from theatre improvisers that creativity is in our subconscious mind and our conscious mind might be required for the technical side of art but is entirely uncreative. Creativity is always there in any human but we can not force or control it, we need to let it happen and learn not to jam it with our conscious mind.

Here are some random thoughts about factors affecting creativity in photography.

Expectations 

In recent weeks I was not very satisfied with my pictures. Last I spent a week in Singapore photo hunting with a few good pictures. Upon my return I had a day off in Hongkong and had a walk around the city. On this day I had more good pictures than in the whole week shooting before! Why? I think the difference is very subtle but important. During this whole week I wanted and expected to shoot great pictures. Of course I also wanted to shoot great pictures on this one day but had no great expectations. And the expectations made all the difference. If I do not expect much I am more grateful for whatever I see and this makes me more receptive. The high expectations and sense of entitlement kill openness and lead to trying too hard.

Similarly I noticed since a Long time that the „On the way home -pictures“ from a shooting session are often amongst the very best. Then I expect nothing and am just open.

Alcohol

After two or more beers I go shooting without shame or fear and it flows. In no time I return with hundreds of pictures. But exactly this lack of emotions and the lack of struggle makes them awful. Even after minor alcohol consumption the pictures are flat and shallow. I can see in them this drunken grin.

Physical Fitness

Physical fitness is the single most underrated factor in photography. After all I can shoot more when I walk 20KM than when I collapse after 5KM and often I can only get a good picture if I climb up some stairs.

And if I am exhausted my mind is not free to be creative.

Photographic gear is heavy and unwieldy. Back and neck pain are common amongst photographers. We can add foot pain from walking Long distances in poor shoes. This is similar, if I am limping around with sore neck, back and feet my mind is to busy with discomfort to be creative.

Equipment 

Each camera and each lense has a „soul“ and distinct character. I use an Olympus OM-D 5.2 with a universal zoom equivalent to 28-300mm and a Nikon D850 with the 16-35mm and a 70-300mm.

The Olympus is much smaller and lighter and with the universal zoom encourages me to be spontaneous and to try new things. But also it encourages sloppiness.

The Nikon enforces more meticulous work and consideration.

I have the Olympus with me at all times, even on my way to work or the supermarket. But if I go out photo shooting I usually take the Nikon

Creativity, Spontaneity and Art are not the same

Creativity is the basis of art, there is no art without creativity. In photography creativity mainly means being open and seeing the pictures which are already there. This includes spontaneity and is comparable to improvised theatre or music. But artistic photography is not necessarily spontaneous! If I see something which could give a great picture, there might be poor light, other disturbing factors or I might make a mistake. But nothing prevents from going there again and trying it again. Even street scenes can be planned. I can of course anticipate what will happen in certain places or situations. I do this all the time. I also thought of hiring actors or models to recreate scenes which I could not get for whatever reason. It is perfectly legitimate. Only the quality of the picture counts.

The creative act or perception of such planned shots happened before the picture was taken and the shooting is not at all spontaneous.

Creativity, Jazz and the Brain

 

In the foreground trumpet of a jazz player, in the background the saxophone player

Live Jazz

Jazz Improv and you Brain

thats a quite interesting article on CNN. A neurobiologist and Jazz Musician studied the brains of  musicians in an MRI while these were playing memorised tunes and while they were improvising.

During improvisation the part of the brain which is responsible for self criticism and self censorship is dormant. I found it nice to see these results confirmed with an MRI. He comes to similar conclusions as Keith Johnstone and other theatre improvisers

He also mentions that creativity needs a high level of expertise and mastery. This can only be achieved through a lot of practice. I think this is indeed really important. Only if we are really very good with the technical side of our craft, we can really let go and stop thinking about how to do things and instead express ourselves uninhibited.

Musicians spend many hours just practicing, playing scales and etudes. A camera is much more easy to use than any musical instrument. But still I think the value of practicing in photography is highly underappreciated. We should also spend hours practicing specific techniques even if it is boring and does not lead immediately to pictures. We should take the time and go out to just practice for example focusing, high and Low key exposure, shooting a specific focal length or BW or ….

 

Generally I do not like MRI studies of psychological processes and think that the results are often misleading or meaningless in the absence of a good model how our subconscious mind reasons. But still this is really an interesting article about a phascinating research project. Thoroughly enjoyed to read.

Artistic Exposure

Exposure is central to photography and a lot has been thought and written about. I find it often misleading.

Medium Grey Exposure

Our eyes adjust to light and darkness. So we perceive most scenes as more or less medium bright or medium grey in photography speak. Basic light meters measure and show how much a camera needs to be adjusted to achieve exactly this. Very often a good Guess for a pleasing picture. Usually the centre of the image is the most important part and the edges less so light meters usually place higher importance on the centre and lead to better results.
Today cameras can compare scenes with a database of saved pictures to get an idea what the photographer wants to shoot to get better results. However I found that for night photography this is often misleading and the old centre weighted exposure mode is better suited than Matrix Metering Mode of my Nikon and similar for the Olympus.

Optimised Exposure by Using the Zone System or Exposure to the Right

Ansel Adams developed the zone system to achieve maximum brilliance of his pictures. Black and white film can capture a higher dynamic range than we can see at a give an moment or than a print can deliver. BW film can also be manipulated in the darkroom. The idea of the zone system is to measure the scene with a spot meter and expose rather bright. During development of negative and print the photographer can then compress the dynamic range and get more details in highlights and shadows.

Bruce Barnbaum‘s book The Art of Photography  has a detailed introduction to the zone system

Exposure to the Right is an adaptation for digital cameras. New digital sensors can also capture a very high dynamic range even for colour. We can use use live histograms to place the highlights on the maximum of the sensor. If we capture in RAW data format we can then process the file on our computer and compress the dynamic range and get again amazing details in the highlights and shadows.
In reality this only achieves much at very low ISO and there are practical limitations on adjusting aperture (best quality around f8, depth of field needed) and even more on shutter speed (movement in the scene, no Tripod). And many scenes just don’t have a big photodynamic range and all this is not needed. Nevertheless understanding the principles and applying the ideas behind this is really important to achieve technically good pictures.

Black and white photography of a wide avenue and tall buildings with high contrast. A small solitary human silhouette crosses the street

Morning in the CBD

Artistic Exposure

In the end the Metering system of the camera just suggests us roughly how to achieve a pleasing exposure and the zone system helps us to get details. Both are helpful guide points but neither answers us how to expose to make a great picture, tell the story we experienced and the emotions we felt.
In fact exposure is an artistic decision.
Should this picture be medium grey, very bright, very dark? Maybe I do not want to show details in a certain area of the picture or want to guide the viewers attention to certain point by exposing it middle bright. Such questions a photographer has to answer by choosing an exposure.
And there are no absolute rules or step by step instructions to make this decision only helpful guidelines, hints and techniques and tools.
Many photographers approach exposure so nerdish and assume that there is something like a „correct“, precisely defined exposure which we must search. This is the thinking which often holds photography back. True art is not precise and involves bold decisions and photographers must develop such skills as well if we want to be artists.

Photography of a street scene in Guangzhou’s old town. A man passes a shop. Harsh contrasts of a tree falling over the scene, mysterious athmosphere

Street Scene Old Canton

Some Thoughts about Minimalism

Reduce to the essentials is very common and good advise for photographers and I admit that I occasionally had to crop overly ambitious pictures in which I included too much.

Now if we browse around Flickr or any other photo sharing platforms we usually stumble across a perfect minimalist picture of an orange on a table, a nail in the wall or… They immediately grab our attention. They are clear and brilliant, we get them immediately. But do I want to back to this picture and look at it again? If I follow this photographer and he publishes every day several nails or fruits or other minimalist pictures do I want to see it more often? Rather not. What for? Why? There is nothing happening in such pictures, no story.

I am also interested in Interior Design. Minimalist designs are sure attention grabbers. But they are mostly too sterile for living in them. Such designs tell nothing of me, I am a foreign body in a usual minimalist room. I am not at home.

Altogether I find that most minimalist pieces of art or design wear off very rapidly and get boring. Reducing should not be overdone in art. We should strive be very specific and we should reduce if it enhances a story but reducing by itself has no artistic value.

To close this post I would like to showcase my two most minimalist pictures.

Table with left dishes and chopsticks in the afternoon sun

Table at a Hawker Center

A black and white photo of a sprinkler. Blurred background

Sprinkler