Feb 13, 2007

Why a photo works

Below a simple photograph. Not a great piece of art by any means but it has quite a few things going for it, many "rules" as people call them. Nobody likes rules and claims to break them, which is rarely true because breaking one rule usually implies following another. The rules aren't rules anyway. They are guidelines based on thousands of years of experience of imagery. Instead of trying to break rules for the sake of it, I try to includes as many as I can in a single shot. More importantly, I just have fun arranging different elements in relation to each other. In a landscape photograph, this is entirely done by the point of view (perspective) and cropping. Ansel Adams said "a good photograph is knowing where to stand".

The most obvious rule is the rule of third, ie. separating the frame in thirds, horizontally and vertically, and placing important elements on those imaginary lines, or wjere those lines cross each other. In the photograph below, the foreground occupies the lower third, the middle ground is in the middle and the hills and clouds are placed on the upper third line. Vertically, the cyclist is on the right third.

The second rule, which is usually more of a guideline but essential here, is inserting a human in the landscape. It gives a "wish I was there" feeling. The third rule is putting space in front of that rider. It adds dynamism. The viewer can see where the ride is going.

There's more! Many little things that aren't so obvious can add to a photograph.

- The rule book says "thy shall not make triangles in the corners". Triangles in the corners... corner the eye. I left just a bit of space between the yellow line and the bottom left so the eye can follow the line back to the cyclist instead of getting stuck in the triangle made by the yellow line.
- The symmetry of the fence posts.
- Even more fun is the symmetry of the mountains where they meet each sides of the frame. I actually had a "hehe" moment cropping that.
- The patch of clouds on the top right breaks the monotony.
- As the eye goes from foreground to background, those same clouds bring the eye closer and above the viewer's head, including him/her in the picture. (not sure I can explain that one well)
- Colors are few: black and white (neutral) green and blue for nature and a bright yellow for two human elements.
- The diagonal of the road, which also contrasts with the straight horizon.
- And what you can't see: the power line above the frame. It's impostant to scam the edges for unwanted distractions.

This shot was made with a Nikon D70 on a tripod. These "action" shots are completely staged. I use a mark on the road (crack, rock), set the camera timer to 10 or 20 seconds, press the shutter and using the clock on the bike computer, do my best to be at the mark at the right time. It's a lot easier with a digital camera becasue youcan check if you hit or missed. The D70 also has a handy remote control but it isn't always practical due to the angle and range the remore can work.

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