Tag Archives: rules

Low-Hanging Fruit

Wooden Cross on an Adobe Arch Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, 2011

Wooden Cross on an Adobe Arch
Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, 2011

I’ve read somewhere that as a photographer you should try to see past the images that are obvious, and that if you don’t spend a substantial amount of time working on your images after capture, it’s likely that you have not developed them to their full potential.  As a practical matter, I find these propositions generally to be true in my own photography, as most of the images I’ve made that I like tend to follow this pattern.

As with most things, however, I don’t find them to be inviolable rules.  This composition was pretty obvious to see in the field, at least to me, and I don’t believe I spent more than about five minutes working on it once I brought it into my computer.  Sometimes, the obvious choices are the best ones, and there’s no need to put in more work than the amount that is required.

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Black Point Heresy

Trees in Snow, Study No. 1

Those who read this blog may know that I am not a fan of “rules-based” photography.  There are many photographic “rules” floating around that suggest that photographs must be captured, edited, or composed in certain ways in order to be successful.  One such “rule” that I’ve heard mentioned is that every photograph should have a true black point, a true white point, and the full spectrum of gray tones in between.

Enter the black point heretic.

The image in this post, “Trees in Snow, Study No. 1,” has no true black point.  In fact, the darkest tone in this image is roughly middle gray, and there aren’t even many of those.  The spectrum of tones in this image runs from roughly middle gray up to a true white point, and is slanted heavily towards the white end of that range.

More importantly, this image doesn’t need a true black point, at least in my opinion.  I started with a vision for what I wanted the image to look like – wispy, ethereal trees suspended, maybe even floating, in a gauzy background of white snow – and edited the image to make it fit my vision for it.  A “rules-based” photographer probably would have suggested making the trees darker and including a true black point there, but this would have defeated my vision for what I wanted the image to look like, by lending weight and substance to the forms of the trees that I didn’t want.

To be fair, the “rules” of photography do contain elements of wisdom.  I view them as useful guidelines for effective visual communication, encapsulating what often works and what often doesn’t.  For example, the idea behind having a true black point, a true white point, and the full spectrum of gray tones in an image generally is to keep the image from looking dull and flat, which is a good thing.

However, taking these rules as gospel is counterproductive, stifles creativity, and risks producing run-of-the-mill imagery, where one photograph looks just like another.  If I had adhered to the “rule” of having a true black point and the full spectrum of tones here, I obviously never could have made the image I ended up with.  Given a choice, I trust my eye and go with my instincts every time.

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Bend in the Road

Here is a simple image of a simple subject by a simple photographer.  That’s not a put-down, simplicity is a virtue.  I’m not a big believer in applying rules to photography, but one “rule” I learned early on is to keep things simple, and it continues to serve me well.

When I refer to simplicity, what I really mean is keeping compositions simple.  The reason I put the word “rule” in quotation marks is because, really, I don’t think of simplicity as being a rule.  After all, what does it mean to be simple?  Unlike, say, the rule of thirds, or the rule against putting a horizon line in the middle of the frame, there’s really no rote, mechanical way to apply the “rule” of simplicity.

Instead, simplicity is a fluid concept that adapts to the subject matter and circumstances in which I am photographing.  For example, simplicity really isn’t about how much detail there is in a subject:  here, there’s a fair amount of detail in the branches of the trees, the clouds in the sky, and the grasses on the ground.  It also isn’t about the number of elements in the frame:  here, there are at least four – the trees, the sky, the ground, and the road – and any number of components of those.  Moreover, simplicity also is not the same as minimalism:  while most minimal photographs probably are simple, a photograph can be simple without being minimal.

I suppose for me, simplicity is the absence of unnecessary complexity.  This image, for example, eliminates the fence that was just out of the frame to the right, the house that was just out of the frame to the left, the pastures and trees that were just over the rise in the road, and the mountains in the distance that were behind that.  It’s not that any of these elements weren’t photogenic, it’s just that they weren’t necessary for this image.  They would have introduced unnecessary complexity into the composition.

The title of this image is “Bend in the Road.”  Again, simple.

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