Learning to see photographically

As a closing statement to the last class of our photography course, Linda handed us an article titled “Learning to see”. The printed page did not mention the source but I was able to find an excerpt on Acephoto.com.

I wanted to share this with you. I particularly liked:

  • Composition is how you choose to coordinate all the parts of a picture into a whole;
  • It is a good idea to strive for visually simplicity with one center of interest;
  • Light has color, direction and character.

Learning to see

Composition is how you choose to coordinate all the parts of a picture into a whole. You must be an active participant in photography. Choosing lenses and angles are active choices, not just left to chance. We must order our world and choose what is important by including such parts in the frame. We impose order on chaos by using what we call composition.

An awareness of the light itself is the place to start. In field photography light strikes a scene from a variety of directions. Front lighting, backlighting and side lighting (named for the direction from which the light illuminates the subject in relation to your camera position) affect the exposure and determines the visual and emotional impact of the image.

Front lighting: “normal” lighting: the sun is behind you and illuminates those parts of the subject that face the camera. There are no shadows: this lighting is not good for portraying depth or 3D shapes. It is flat, even light: easy exposure: all parts of the scene receive the same illumination.

Backlighting: light source is behind the subject: depending on the exposure, the mood can vary from dark silhouettes to light, ethereal shapes. This lighting does not translate well to a photograph because our eyes can accommodate the range of contrast better than film.

Side lighting: light coming from a right angle to the direction you are photographing: shadows which define texture and form. Objects can appear 3D. Highlights and shadows can become major parts of the composition.

Light has direction and it also has character. It can be hard or soft or anywhere in between. Hard light is emitted by a point source of light: the harsh sun on a cloudless day, direct flash. Shadows are defined and edged. If you expose for highlights (slide film) the shadow areas block up into blacks. Exposing for shadows results in washed-out highlights.

Soft light, even illumination, is the light of open shade, average indoor non-directional lighting or the lighting just before dawn or just after sunset. Shadows are diffused or non-existent. Little contrast, light varies from ‘bright overcast’ to the flatness of a foggy morning.

Light has color. Early and late day the light is warm, tinged with yellow and orange; midday is bluer. Once there is light we can see forms and the colors of forms. Form, or shape, is the basic building block in nature photography. Remember that a photograph includes both the specific form of the subject and the less distinct form of the background. Pay attention to both.

The eye is often directed to patterns or the texture of forms. Patterns are the repetition into which line, form, color, or shape can be organized. They can be geometric or abstract, regular or asymmetric. Color attracts our attention, expresses emotion. Strong color can dominate a photograph. Muted colors lend themselves to color harmonies/ strong, warm colors advancing against cool, receding colors hold the attention of the viewer and direct the eye.

It is a good idea, in general to strive for a visually simple picture, usually more effective and will probably not overwhelm the viewer. Having one center of interest is the strongest compositional technique you can master.

The best way to learn to take pictures is to take pictures all the time, every day even. And then look at your pictures, not just on screen but also in print. You will learn to see, rather than just to look. The looking becomes seeing and your perception and vision will be greatly enhanced.

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