Working a Subject

One of the toughest aspects of photography - next to lighting - is composition.  Let us say we are out to take a photograph of our Montipora capriconus.  We whip out our camera and snap several photos.

Okay.  So we end up with this.  Well, technically it is a good photo, the exposure is spot on, there is no noise in the image, the colors are accurate and vivid, and focus is sharp and clear.  It follows the rules of composition we just discussed; it has a diagonal running through the photo acting as a leading line, it follows the rule of thirds, we have simplified, and there is contrast between the subject and background.  But our eyes are quickly deterred from the main subject and focus on the blinding white patch in the lower right corner.  Why?

Not only does the white patch follow the rule of thirds, but it also happens to be the brightest part of the photo.  Overall, this is a pretty boring photo.  It is simply too simple.  There is no story being told here.

Okay, let us add another subject.  Here a hermit crawled up on top and presented a perfect opportunity to grab some interesting shots.  So we frame our camera and end up with this.  Not good again.  Here, the photo is technically okay - the colors are good, the exposure is spot on, and the image is sharp.  But it is still boring and uninteresting.  Notice the subject is dead center in this image.  Also notice the top lighting left the subject's face in the dark.  Additionally, the brightness and busy nature of the background deters from the subject, which has incidentally now become the hermit and not the coral.  But this switch in subject is okay because we are flexible and are are able to work with our environment.  Furthermore, by photographing the interaction between sessile and mobile creatures, we add interest and capture our coral's personality.

So let us lighten up the face.  We supplement the lighting with some fill flash.  Now we can see the details of the face, we also follow the rule of thirds here.  Again, this photograph is technically okay.  But, there is not enough contrast between the hermit and the background.  Also the lighting here is reminiscent of many on-camera pop-up flashes - it is flat and monotone.

Additionally, the face shot seems rather cliché.  Let us try a different approach.

Wow!  This is much better.  We have changed the angle so we are now looking at the hermit sideways.  We have also changed the angle of the lighting so 100% of it comes from the left side of the frame with no light from above and behind.  We lit up the hermit's face to emphasize it as the subject, and we have put in a simple background (the black wall of the aquarium).  The photo follows the rule of thirds and is technically good - a sharp, correctly exposed image with good colors.  Is it perfect?


Well, I always feel my images can be better in some aspect.  In this one, the size of the hermit seems disproportionate - it appears larger than life itself, almost like Godzilla of the crustacean world.  So we will use white space to stress the diminutive nature of the hermit and the coral.  In this instance the "white space" happens to be black.  White space is simply a term used to describe wide-open featureless spaces.  It can be a lawn, the sky, or whatever.

This photograph now tells a story.  It shows a hermit on the edge, literally, and figuratively.  We see how small the hermit feels in this vast ocean.  He appears to be ready to jump and move on to a better place.  The lighting, the placement, size, lines and subject all work together in this composition to create an interesting photo as a whole. 

Incidentally, the hermit did jump before I could complete the session, this sample happened to be the best of the series.



As a photographer, I am an artist.  As an artist, I am a perfectionist.  I am reluctant to display my images for the entire world to see - it makes me feel naked.  This was one of the major reasons I have put off entering the professional field until just now, as I never felt my work was good enough for anyone to actually pay for it.  Seeing countless perfect photographic works of art abound in various internet forums did not help my ego much either.  I always see some blinding flaw with my photos and feel they could be better.  Displaying a less than perfect image seems to be exposing my vulnerabilities for the entire world to see how terrible of a photographer I really am.

Well, one day a while ago, I posted this photo in a thread.  It received numerous comments and some suggestions.  This photo was taken during a firestorm that turned the afternoon sky into an orange haze.  I came to realize two things:
1) People in forums generally don't diss your image for fear of hurting your feelings - well this is not very helpful.
2) Persistence - keep posting crappy photos and keep asking how they can be better.  Regulars get to know you, and feel more at ease to post constructive criticism - beg.


All this talk of composition and rules and such may seem pointless and not everyone will agree with all of these topics.  As an art form, photographs generate subjective opinions.  While one person may see a particular photo as the greatest thing, another may think the same photograph is nothing more than a snapshot.  In general, however, most people would tend to agree that a good photo is a good one and a bad photo is indeed so.

We all tend to be our greatest critic.  We know what we like in our photographs, and we know when we make a good one and a bad one.  Sometimes, the concept that allowed us to create our masterpiece eludes us and we do not fully understand why one photo looks better than another.  These rules are not steadfast-engraved-in-stone types of things - they are more like guidelines.  These rules give us the foundation on which to build and experiment.

The important concept here is we need to try our own techniques and see what best suits our personality.  I learn new things every day.  My own daughter taught me an important lesson in perspective with the first photos she took at 1 year of age.  I realized then how the world looks from the eyes of a child, and it opened up an entirely new realm for me.