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Tuesday, May 20

Finding Structure in a Scene

A very simple question posed by reader Eric Slater in an email following a recent post has had me thinking rather a lot about my own photography, what works in my images and why. I'm not huge on introspection but I thought I'd give it a go.

I'd mentioned that I drive through the countryside looking for elements that will give "structure" to a photograph. Eric picked up on this and asked if I could explain what I meant by structure.

Well, that kind of threw me a bit because, off the top of my head, I couldn't. I instantly know it when I see it but describing it is a different matter. I've since reached the conclusion that it all boils down to composition. A lot of my photographs have something that leads the eye into the scene with, ideally, something worth looking at in the background that represents the end of this 2D journey.

It's this that hits me between the eyes when I'm out and about in the car. Quite often I'll glance to the side, have a quick look in the rear view mirror and then slam on the brakes as I've just seen something that will make a photograph work. It's as quick as that and can be quite alarming for Cath if she's beside me at the time!

Now, not all of those quick glances result in a good photograph but enough of them do for me to quite happily follow my instincts. The pic above of Craigowl, a hill north of Dundee with some communications towers on it, is a good demonstration of the type of thing I look for.

The brightness of the wet road immediately catches the eye and the viewer is led right into the scene and up to the comms mast standing out against the sky. What I like about this pic is the way the road at its narrowest point echoes the tower on the top of the hill. A nice stormy sky - another feature I look for - rounds this one off.

Here's another drive-by shot (above) that shares some similarities. Again there's the converging lines reflecting a bright sky and an interesting background as the telegraph poles recede into the distance.

In quick succession, here are some more pics that demonstrate the same features.

Hopefully, the "structure" I wrote about is becoming clear in these photographs. One bit of kit that helps greatly when hunting for images like these is a 28mm lens (on the 35mm format). A 35mm lens doesn't exaggerate the foreground enough and a 24mm often leaves the focal point in the background too small. I find the 28mm is just about perfect for emphasising the converging or sweeping lines without diminishing the background too much.

Here's what I'm always aiming for. It's a classic Henri Cartier-Bresson landscape and I love it. Two things are vital to this composition: the featureless sky and the small clump of trees perched upon the horizon to the right of centre.

This sort of composition isn't the only thing I look for. I also like interesting objects in the foreground with a background that's out of focus, as in those below.

And what's the ultimate with this type of composition? It's this shot below by Bill Schwab. I've stared at this pic for so long that it's imprinted on my brain. If I ever stumble upon something like this I'm sure it will by-pass the synapses and just tickle the spot directly.

By Bill Schwab

And that's about the best I can do explaining the structure I go searching for. We all see things differently and it's unlikely you'd value the same compositional elements that I do. But it might be worthwhile looking through the photographs you've taken yourself that are a bit special and asking what it is that makes them click.


gregor said...

Nice post. I'm glad you mentioned HCB's picture, and I just wanted to add one more thing that I think is vital to this picture and, as I've found out, almost all HCB's images. The composition is asymmetrical. Only recently I realized how much can be achieved by pointing the camera a bit to one side. It's not just the simple rule of thirds, as we can see it in many of his street images. Some situations just call for the frontal symmetrical approach and very often I instinctively shoot that way. It's all about resisting that temptation. Faced with the landscape above, I would have probably been tempted to put the alley in the centre - and would have ended up with a boring shot.
Similarly, what HCB allways did in street photography, (for instance, a street scene of people in front of a wall) is that he shot from the perspective of a person walking by and turning his head, not a photographer aligning his camera perpendicularly to the scene and adjusting the height of his viewpoint to the subject photographed (for example, I allways tend to crouch when photographing children or people sitting). There are exceptions, of course, and I'm not saying symmetry and frontal viewpoint are bad. Often one or the other work best, but it's also the easiest shot to make.
Anyway, I just wanted to share my recent discovery of the reason why HCB's images work for me. They feel very lively not only because of the subjects and timing, but also because of the sort of carelessly chosen viewpoint. It's also for this reason that they do not look staged.
Sorry for going a bit of topic from the landscapes...

MartyNL said...

Superb photographs Bruce. I know you have an SL66 have you got and read the books by Barry Thornton 'Elements' but perhaps even more interestingly 'Edge of darkness'?

Bruce Robbins said...

Hi Gregor,

Interesting info re HCB. If I'd been HCB I might have placed the tree-lined road in the right half of the frame so that the line of trees in the distance swung round to the left. That's why he's famous I suppose!

Bruce Robbins said...

Thanks, Marty. I've got Elements but have never read Edge of Darkness. It was probably reading about the SL66 in Elements that prompted me to get one. I thought the tilting lens panel would come in useful but I haven't used it as much as I thought I would. I've probably used it as much with reverse tilt for shallower depth of field!

Brucepalmbeach said...

Excellent post nice to see intelligent information is still being created for photographers

Herman Sheephouse said...

Bruce - Craigowl is the best picture of Dundee I have ever seen - fantastic.
It's a great article too - I feel composition is a natural thing, but it can sort of be taught too. You can learn easily from looking at as many pictures you admire as possible and then trying to emulate them.
Well done for making us all think!

Paul Glover said...

I quite often find myself looking for something to anchor the foreground in place and create a sense of depth in layers. Tall grass and single trees often end up serving that purpose for me.

David McCormack said...

Some lovely images here Bruce. Particularly like the misty farm track pictures which have a beautiful atmosphere to them... reminds of Coburn & pictorialism/photogravures... you’re not a member of The Linked Ring are you? :-)

Hernan Zenteno said...

Best nice illustrated post I read here. Many thanks