GB Sports Photographer & The Panasonic LUMIX S1

Top Tips On Composition & Decluttering Images

John Duder has been exploring the world of composition and how simply taking a step closer to your subject can make a big difference to your images.

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Model Vivian Blue in a portrait that is almost free of context – it’s just about her face. There’s nothing cluttering it up or getting in the way of the viewer looking at the subject.

Model Vivian Blue in a portrait that is almost free of context - it’s just about her face. There’s nothing cluttering it up or getting in the way of the viewer looking at the subject.

 

Compose Yourself!

I’ve been a member of the ePHOTOzine Critique Team for a few years, and I’m delighted that we’ve recently acquired a new member, Alan, aka whatriveristhis. This article is based on some wise words he recently put on a Critique Gallery picture:

"Remember, a painter starts with a blank page and has to add things, a photographer starts with a full page and has to remove stuff."

Now, Alan’s an expert at doing this, and this is reflected in his pictures, which I describe as jewelled miniatures. Alan finds the extraordinary and the beautiful in scenes that are sometimes quite ordinary, on the surface and without the inspiration that Alan’s pictures consistently give me, this article would never have been written. However, everything that follows, words and images, are mine.

 

1	The opposite of the header portrait – this is a self-portrait in my front room. All the things that make it the space my wife and I live in are distractions from the face. Possibly to everyone’s advantage.

The opposite of the header portrait -– this is a self-portrait in my front room. All the things that make it 'the space' my wife and I live in are distractions from the face. Possibly to everyone's advantage.

 

By the way, this doesn’t replace the standard stuff about S-curves, thirds, and negative space: it’s about how to show off what these give you in a picture.

 

Honing

A painter’s canvas is blank, there’s nothing at all there, and there will be nothing at all that the artist doesn’t choose to put there. Any degree of clutter is entirely the result of deliberate choice, or of adding stuff that is not needed. This gives the artist a very important freedom to omit the power lines, or the sweet wrappers and drinks cans on the verge, or the person who has sat down on a rock precisely where you don’t want them. Also, a painter can alter the light, move mountains around to suit the composition, and put in a better sky. 

John Constable was in the habit of going out with a sketchbook to record skies that he could use later – he once wrote of having had 'a good day’s skying' and with digital, we can do the same, but it is a significant amount of extra work, compared with the sketcher or watercolourist.

There are two ways that we can approach the problem, which I’ll call 'A' and 'B'. One is to work at altering the way that you shoot the picture, removing distraction until you get what you want: the other is to edit a shot until you have taken away the bits that you really don’t want.

 

Process A - Altering The Way That You Shoot The Picture

This is about choosing viewpoint, lighting and background to take a picture that will look right straight from the camera, and need only a little polishing in editing software.

Let’s imagine that you are going to take a portrait at home of a friend. Unless you are very unusual, and have either decluttered to the maximum or just moved in, there simply won’t be a plain background anywhere. Pictures on the wall, bookshelves, the comfy cushions that don’t really match the sofa...

 

Vivian sitting in a chair in her living room: definitely not cluttered, but equally, a little attention will make the image simpler.

Vivian sitting in a chair in her living room: definitely not cluttered, but equally, a little attention will make the image simpler.

 

There are various approaches. Going closer makes the background simpler, and that makes the portrait more about the person, less about their environment (although it can be rewarding, sometimes, to make the picture all about the combination: a craftsman in his workshop, for instance).

 

Just moving in closer (with, I admit, a longer lens) has removed the distracting elements of the background.

Just moving in closer (with, I admit, with a longer lens) has removed the distracting elements of the background.

 

You can take this further: find the one small area of the wall that is plain and free from pictures, and use a long lens to isolate a face against it. You might even choose to go in so close that no background is visible. So consider going closer, and move around, looking for the best background.

 

This is a borrowed Lastolite portable background – the pattern may not be in keeping with the latest trends, but it if you throw it a little out of focus it’s vastly less distracting than most ‘real’ backgrounds.

Longer lens, and closer in - and suddenly, the front room is a portrait studio.

 

You might decide to use an artificial background. This can be as simple as a piece of cloth hung from a couple of clamp-style clothes hangers or even a bought background. A white sheet can work well, especially if you can arrange separate, bright light on it.

 

Same room, same light as the first self-portrait, but with a simpler background that you realise, immediately, is just a background, not a room with objects to recognise. If you have a mind to do it, you can use the patterns, such as they are, to emphasise parts of your composition.

This is a borrowed Lastolite portable background - the pattern may not be in keeping with the latest trends, but it if you throw it a little out of focus it’s vastly less distracting than most ‘real’ backgrounds.

 

There are a lot of backgrounds that you can buy off the shelf, of course, and they will all work. However, they are mass-produced and so the look will be precisely the same as hundreds of others are getting. It, therefore, makes sense, particularly if you are working to a tight budget, to simply buy some cloth from a seconds shop.

 

Portrait of a butter dish: I love this Melamine relic of the Sixties, because of its practicality and elegant design. Context didn’t matter, so

Same room, same light as the first self-portrait, but with a simpler background that you realise, immediately, is just a background, not a room with objects to recognise. If you have a mind to do it, you can use the patterns, such as they are, to emphasise parts of your composition.

 

You can also use lighting to make your subject prominent, and the background less visible – a bright light source falling only on the person will let the background drift more or less into darkness. The Inverse Square Law can be your friend (it's worth looking it up and learning how to apply it to your photography, especially if you use any sort of artificial light regularly).

 

Portrait of a butter dish: I love this Melamine relic of the Sixties because of its practicality and elegant design. Context didn’t matter.

 

Note that all of these approaches need minimal editing - they don’t depend on Photoshop to simplify the image.

The same approach can apply to other subjects such as landscape, architecture, flowers/plants, too. It means that the popular lens choices are not necessarily the only ones, or even the best ones, as a longer-than-usual lens allows you to isolate the telling details.

On full-frame, I find that an 85mm lens suits me perfectly around 80% of the time, whatever I’m photographing. The angle of view is a little narrower than the 'what we think we see' of a 50mm to more of a 'what we can concentrate on looking at'.

I’m a great fan of Colin Prior’s beautiful panoramic pictures - he has a very special skill for telling the story across a broad image. With a panorama, it’s not sufficient to rely on a 'thirds' composition as you need a series of minor points of interest throughout the frame - random details aren’t enough as the details need to form a coherent narrative, a story that the viewer can see and appreciate.

For those of us who lack Colin’s mastery of the medium, closing in on a small part of the scene, removing distractions and making the story very straightforward, may be a better option.

 

Process B -  Edit A Shot Until You've Removed The Bits That You Don't Really Want

Sometimes, a straight picture, however carefully taken, won’t be sufficiently free of distractions in the background and around the edges. That’s when you need to start editing creatively…

You can apply this to an existing picture, but it’s best if you have it in mind when you take the shot to begin with as some things are easier to suppress than others.

So, for instance, if there’s an unfortunate tree or lamp post that sits right behind an important part of the shot, try moving, first of all, rather than relying on a complicated cloning job later on.

I’m going to use two shots that I took at the Vale of the White Horse near Uffington as an illustration. The weather was really not good for landscapes – chilly, with rain coming on. Visibility was poor, and contrast low.

 

The White Horse at Uffington – a plain and rather uninspiring view.

 

The first image is from where you get to after the walk from the car park. You can see as much of the White Horse as you can anywhere up close, I think, along with sheep, a copse on a distant hill, and a road that runs distractingly straight away from the lens. This is where all the mobile phone pictures were being shot from – and I have to say, it’s a disappointing view after seeing the aerial views of the White Horse. I opted to explore a little and went down the hill right to the hoof – only a couple of hundred yards, but it felt interesting climbing back up!

 

A view looking straight down the hill gives more of a sense of purpose, but still doesn’t inspire much.

A view looking straight down the hill gives more of a sense of purpose but still doesn’t inspire much.

 

An obvious thing to do is to dehaze, brighten, and tweak the colour balance, but it still looks pretty nondescript.

Cropping at the bottom and on the right removes some dead space on one side, and the line of the horse’s outline now zooms down through the bottom left corner. At this point, the colour is still never going to be anything but downbeat but in the land of the Chalk Giants, a cold-toned monochrome conversion is an attractive and atmospheric choice, for me. It also really holds down the background. Instead of frustrating details, there are some broad curves supporting the bold lines of the White Horse.

 

Applying the obvious corrections in editing makes it clearer and brighter, but doesn’t give any sense of wonder or mystery.

Applying the obvious corrections in editing makes it clearer and brighter, but doesn’t give any sense of wonder or mystery.

 

I knew when I took the picture that I was likely to give it this sort of dark, contrasty and grainy treatment. It’s no longer the view from a hill as I wished that I’d got an extra sweater on. Now, it’s a place where there may be Druids and dragons. A distant view of the whole of the White Horse would be shrouded in mist, and there are not, frankly, any good vantage points for viewing it that reveal the whole of the Horse, unless you have a helicopter at your disposal. So I was looking for sweeping lines in the foreground.

 

A dark and grainy monochrome treatment changes matters completely (for me, anyway).  Now it’s a place where magic could happen…

A dark and grainy monochrome treatment changes matters completely (for me, anyway).  Now it’s a place where magic could happen…

 

Emotion & Logic

I want to suggest that you need two parts of your brain working together (or at least in sequence) to make great pictures and to apply what I’ve written about composition.

The logical part of you must learn about cameras and lenses, how to do this and that, how to make the equipment dance to your desires. This is about filling the toolbox with equipment that will be useful, and knowing how to use each and every implement that you have in the box.

 

The boring canal picture – cropped tight, and with an aggressive monochrome conversion. This brings out the lines and the shapes around the lock gates. Better, do you think?

The boring canal picture - cropped tight, and with an aggressive monochrome conversion. This brings out the lines and the shapes around the lock gates. Better, do you think?

 

Then, you must put that intellectual understanding of photographic technique at the service of your emotions, because they tell you what you want to photograph, and how you want to portray it. This is where you let your mind wander a bit, and dream up interesting and different approaches. What sort of look will convey your emotions about a person or a place? How can you improve on reality?

You can then switch back to the logical mode to identify the tools that you need to use to make the dreams into reality on your screen, and in a print.

 

Knowledge is the vehicle, but emotion is the fuel for your creativity.

 

A simple picture of a bread knife and a breadboard: it doesn’t need all of both of them to be a complete image that conveys their age and quality.

A simple picture of a bread knife and a breadboard: it doesn’t need all of both of them to be a complete image that conveys their age and quality.

 

About Author: John Duder 

John Duder has been an amateur photographer for fifty years, which surprises him, as he still reckons he’s 17.

Over the last year, he’s been writing the odd article for ePHOTOzine, as well as being a member of the Critique Team. He’s also been running occasional lighting workshops and providing one-to-one photographic tuition.

He remains addicted to cameras, lenses, and film.

 

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mistere Plus
6 4 3 England
26 Mar 2019 12:19PM
Less is more, very true in many situations and especially so in photography.

Dave.

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