Inspiration for Lively and Effective Compositions from Children’s Books

I love children's books and that has nothing to do with buying them for kids. I buy them for me! And I buy them for the illustrator, not the author. There are children's picture books that have amazing, beautiful and highly creative compositions. That's what I look for and I find them inspiring. I believe that we grow as photographers, too, when we look at artwork beyond photography and think about how it applies to what we do. Here are some examples:

This book of the famous Robert Frost poem has illustrations by Susan Jeffers (there is a new version which I don't have yet). Her work is always remarkable. Immediately on the cover you see a striking composition. Notice the use of space, size relationships and emphasis, as well as pattern and texture. This also shows up in the spread below. These are great examples of what can be done visually with a vertical and a horizontal using similar elements. The third image, another spread, shows a remarkable interplay of close and far, using size relationships in unexpected ways. While we can't easily do things as extreme as snowflakes and people, we can work a close-up with a wide-angle lens and play with such visual elements.

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There are so many books I could pull from my collection of children's books. I will often pull one out just to be inspired by the art or even just the wonderful stories and creative approaches to communicating to an audience that they show. I find children's books also calming and uplifting as a whole as well. There is something very positive about them. Sometimes if I am feeling down, I will go to the bookstore and check out the children's picture books.

This next book, Red Fox Running, with paintings by Wendell Minor, also starts with a stunning cover. This in some ways is compositionally just the opposite of the Frost book. Here the setting is reduced to a small area of the background and the subject is dominant in the frame. Yet, both are important. The setting in the background is very important for story of place and is also visually important. The next spread is fascinating for its use of composition that is "against the rules" and a superb example of the power of getting the subject out of the middle. Notice that the fox is close to both the left edge of the picture as well as the spread and looking off the page. You will hear folks who get caught up in rules for composition say that you should never have a subject looking off the image like that, but notice how powerful it is and how it gives the fox a strong feeling of aliveness. The next spread is similar. Notice now how small the fox is in the composition, yet shows strongly because of contrast and its position in the frame. It is also "leaving" the frame, which again gives a strong energy to the image.
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The next set of pages comes from a remarkable book of images, The Yellow Train, with art by Francois Roca. Again, right away on the cover, you see some remarkable things. First is the use of space. This is an unusual use of the subject high at the top of the frame, though it has some things in common with the fox and grass page seen above. The composition is also very bold from its simplicity of forms and shapes. The next spread shows a remarkable use of design that creates an abstract use of shape and color while also communicating a sense of the trains and the location. The use of the boy and grandfather instantly gives us a sense of scale. They are very important to the photo even though very small and low in the frame. In the third spread, you see an amazing use of pattern and line that creates a complex composition that is still totally understandable. Look at the train at the lower right (you don't need much of it to understand), the lines of the bridges, then the dirigible at the upper left, then the city against the sky at the upper left. That small bit of sky creates a feeling of depth to the image that is very important (cover it with your hand to see what I mean) – this is something Eliot Porter used to do in many of his intimate landscape photos, put a small bit of sky at an upper corner (it has to be small or it will fight for attention). The building at the far left with people is also a remarkable use of a frame to the scene.

Kids books 05Kids books 06Kids books 07Finally, one of my favorite children's book author/illustrators, David Wiesner. I could have picked any number of his books. The Three Pigs is one of my favorites. In all of his books, he challenges us visually and uses few or even no words. His books all communicate on a visual level so strongly that we don't need words, a great inspiration for what is possible visually in any visual medium. This book plays with us in some unique visual ways, starting with the pig "escaping" his story in a conventional looking set of images. Notice the words and the look of the wolf at the right. This book is so much about how we perceive the world and breaking conventions. All of the pigs escapes the bounds of their stories. Now the composition becomes flowing and very simple. Wiesner is treating the "pages" of the old book as unique visual elements. For me, this encourages us to maybe look at scenes we see all the time with new eyes (Wiesner certainly is looking at this old fairy tale of the three pigs with new eyes).

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The next spread is really remarkable. This is it! Mostly space. The pigs made a paper airplane of their book pages and took off. This is so against the "rules" and really shows what is possible if we are willing to push the composition. It is powerful and effective with just the back of pigs and plane way up at the left. This is dramatic, bold and such a strong use of space. Kids books 14Kids books 16In the last spread here, the pigs have rescued a dragon from another book (they have been skipping in and out of other books) – check out the drawing of the page with the prince and the text. Notice in this image how the artist has used the entire picture area effectively from left to right. This is like a panoramic frame, and while there is an important interaction to the right of center, there are visual elements from far left to far right that carry our eye through the image. The image is highly structured as a composition, yet it still holds many little details that tell the story. I find that fascinating. It is that structure that holds these storytelling details together.

So, the next time you are at the library or bookstore, check out the children's picture book section. There are some amazing things there that can inspire us all as photographers. As you can tell, I am not one who believes photographers can only learn from photography. Art Wolfe talks about the influence of many classic painters on his photography in the book he and I did, The Art of the Photograph. Some of those painters have influenced me, too, but I have to admit that modern children's picture books are both an influence and a pleasure to look at for me.

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Comparisons (a creativity and fun killer)

Comparison 4I have often said that my favorite place to photograph is wherever I am photographing! That is true. I want to connect with the nature of a location and share that through my photography. I believe that only when you are truly in the moment with the location in front of you will you find the best images.

A big distraction comes from comparisons. As soon as you start comparing the nature in front of you to another location in your head, you are no longer there with the subject matter in front of you. As soon as you start comparing what you are photographing with someone you know at the camera club, or any well known photographer, who went to a "better" location, you have left the location in front of you even if you are still there.

I just spent some time in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area west of Los Angeles last week doing a landscape photography video with a crew from The next two photos are before dawn in the Castro Crest area.

Comparison 1 Comparison 2While there, we stopped into the wonderful visitor center at Gillette Ranch near Las Virgenes and Mulholland highways. I overheard a couple from Europe wanting to go through the parklands while talking to a visitor center volunteer. He seemed to only think they wanted to get through the area quickly.

So I suggested using a road that wound through some stunning locations in the western part of the area. Our crew had just been there and they were stunned by the location, including some who came from the Craftsy studios in Denver. I said I thought these landscapes were among the best you could find anywhere (which fits with my philosophy of appreciating where you are). That seemed to pique their interest.

Then the volunteer said that, oh, no, there was nothing that compared to Yosemite. Now, Yosemite definitely has some spectacular landscapes, but I was shocked. This was someone who supposedly cared about the Santa Monica Mountains (or else why volunteer), yet had to make the comparison to another location that these travelers could not visit! Talk about leaving the park mentally while still there physically! I could see the doubt in the visitors' eyes, and I had to go anyway, so I left before making any stupid remarks or getting into an argument.

The point is that comparisons can get you into trouble and prevent you from getting the most from whatever location you are at, including doing your best as a photographer.

Posted in Landscape photography, Nature photography | 8 Comments

Creativity Enhancers: Beyond the Obvious

Mounts Botanic Garden, West Palm Beach, FloridaNature has a challenge for all of us. So much of its beauty can be so beguiling that we only see what appears first. I have been caught by this at times so that I only photographed the obvious. This is a danger we all face when going to a new location. Everything is new to us so we only see the obvious. Yet the "obvious" will often result in rather perfunctory and less than creative work that truly interprets interesting aspects of any place.

Don't think this only happens to amateurs. When I was editor at Outdoor Photographer magazine, we often saw work from some of the top pros who had been to a "new location", a place they had never been to, and they wanted to show us the work from that place. Often the photos they sent were just not up to their usual level of connection to nature and creative approach to showing off the place.

I recently saw this at FotoFusion in Palm Beach. I saw a presentation of work of a pro who did people photography and the work was wonderful and inspiring. However, he also included some "new" work that was of a place he did not usually photograph at and he was using a new technology (for him). The new work was not all that great. A friend of mine commented to me that it was beautifully bland.

I really try hard to keep open to possibilities that go beyond the obvious. You do have to work at this. But I think it can be worth it. You will find gems of photos that you might otherwise have missed.

I will warn you, though. Don't expect everyone to always "get it", especially if you are doing something creatively that is totally unexpected for the subject. A lot of people don't like change, but change is where you discover creativity.

The first photo here is of an orchard spider. Most people see the webs in the sun, especially backlit, and these can be cool photos. But a spider's life goes beyond that obvious image. I thought this shadowed spider against the light looked like it was in a darkened sanctuary with stained glass windows behind.

The second photo is of a caterpillar with a distinctive shadow. I loved that shadow. (I could not identify the caterpillar, so if anyone recognizes it, let me know. It is from Florida.)

Mounts Botanic Garden, West Palm Beach, Florida

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Creativity Enhancers and Killers

Sunrise, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, CaliforniaI'm not sure why, but it seems like lately I have been thinking a lot about what enhances our creativity as nature photographers and what kills it. There are a lot of things to talk about, so I am going to do this as a series over time. Some of the things that affect our creativity are "baked into" our expectations of what photography is or isn't, and that includes both enhancers and killers. Our culture adds to both, and so do the crazy thoughts that often dwell inside our heads.

For this week, I wanted to start with enhancers, on a positive note. One really strong enhancers for creativity is the ability to ask yourself, "What if ...?" I find it quite interesting that this is something kids do all of the time. They are always trying crazy things. And parents and grandparents will often start doing this, too, even if that is not how they normally act!

Wouldn't it be great if we could say, "What if ...?", every time we took a photo? It really wouldn't take much extra time. Take the shot we first see, then pause before putting our gear away or setting up another shot, and ask, "What if ...?"

What if we moved to the left or right?

What if we tried a different foreground?

What if we tried a different background?

What if we put on a really wide-angle lens and got in close?

What if we looked for really cool light and not just a subject?

What if we looked for great color and not just a subject?

What if we held the camera over head?

What if we put the camera on the ground?

And you will think of many more "what if's."

And the cool thing about digital is that we can answer that question with a photo that costs nothing to take and can be seen instantly on our LCDs!

Posted in Composition, Craft of photography, Landscape photography | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Art and Craft

Craft + Art2Craft in photography is gear, technique, skill in using the camera, understanding things like exposure and depth of field, and so forth. Craft is how you control the image so that it expresses what you want it to express. As you learn your craft as a photographer, you are better able to control the image, better able to express yourself as a photographer.

But craft is not the same as art.

Art comes from your heart. It is about expressing something important to you about the world and putting it out into the world. It is about choice and how you choose elements of your craft in your own unique way. It is personal and can be scary and fragile.

But it is only your personal choices that matter for your art, your expression as a photographer. And you have to make these choices. Arbitrarily using f/22 for a landscape, for example, is not a personal choice, but a "should" that is coming from some place outside of art. Continuing the example, f/22 is "safe" when you know that is what you are "supposed to do" (or evidently there are some photography police who will come after you).

And sometimes photographers confuse craft with art, judging others because they don't have the right f-stop, the right focal length, the right gear. That is not art because the "right" anything in craft is only right for the artist choosing it.

I shot the photo of lichen and moss above earlier this week in the chaparral of the Santa Monica Mountains (it will be in my macro and close up book I am working on). Some of the craft involved: f/stop of f/11 for high sharpness (good compromise between depth of field and problems of diffraction with smaller f-stops), use of tripod, use of shade white balance to match conditions, use of 2-second timer for exposure to minimize vibration, exposure to keep lichen bright, camera kept parallel to flattish subject matter to keep focus over image area, and so forth.

Personal decisions that affect the art: choice of subject matter, how close to get to the subject, how much moss to include, how big should lichen be, where to place lichen in composition, how much space to leave around lichen, what do I think about this lichen and moss, how do I feel about them, what do I want to communicate about them, and so forth.

Choices always become personal when you choose them because they do something for your work, your art. Because they answer your questions like, "How do I want to communicate about my subject?" And that is scary because it is personal, it puts your decisions on the line, it is not necessarily what everyone else is doing, what you "should" do.

Ultimately, I believe it is worth it. That is how we make art, how we affect others by sharing our vision with the world. Our best art comes when we are willing to be vulnerable and share our choices.

Posted in Craft of photography, Nature photography | Tagged , , | 12 Comments


Experiment 3I really believe that nature and photography offer us opportunities to learn as long as we are willing to explore both. For some of you, that learning may mean basics such as controlling depth of field through more than f-stops and that’s okay. For me, I have been doing those things so long that they are second nature.

But I still want to learn. Every place I go, I want to learn about the nature of a location. Yesterday, I was at the Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego and had the privilege to spend some time with Keith Lombardo, the Chief of Resources and Science, looking at the Coastal Sage Scrub and Maritime Chaparral ecosystems there. I learned some new plants, discovered some cool places to photograph (I will be leading a photo walk there for NANPA on February 19th). The next image is of a box thorn (Lycium brevipes) from Cabrillo, a new plant for me that doesn't get as far north as Los Angeles.

Experiment 2In photography, my learning now often comes from experimenting. Come to think about it, a lot of my learning in photography has come from experimenting! I love to try different things I have never tried before. And if someone says that you can’t do something in photography, I am very likely to try it! Okay, it often doesn’t work, but that direct experience in trying it for myself, in experimenting, means more to me than simply following the “rules” (if you have read my blog for any time, you probably can guess that anyway!). The next shot from Cabrillo of some agave and sun is not particularly great, but I found these agave in a spot that made for challenging photography because of the background, so I wondered what they would look like against the sky with the sun (camera on the ground, using my tilting LCD). I got some ideas for future work with such spiny plants.

Experiment 1I think experimenting is important for every photographer, new or experienced, young or old. It is how you stay fresh. Sure, you end up throwing out a lot of “bad” photos, but maybe those photos are not so bad considering you learn something from them ... even if it is what not to do. The point is not that you have to make every photo a great photo, but to learn.

That said, the aspen from Great Basin National Park at top are part of a photo I quite like. I was in a spot that just was hard to make anything unique. As I walked by these aspen, I wondered what they would look like shot with a very wide-angle focal length up close to them so they would be part of a larger landscape. I had to do a bit of experimenting to get the shot I liked shown here, though. This was not simply a one-shot thing.

In classes, I often find that many photographers get a bit timid about experimenting. They only try things a little differently. They are afraid what someone might say for doing something that they have not seen others doing. I get that feeling of insecurity, but digital is  great because it costs nothing to take an extra photo or two, and anything you don't like, it can be deleted in an instant. If you decide to try something you have never tried before, go for it, but go for it in a big way.

A close-up with a wide-angle? Set the lens to its closest focusing distance and move in until something is in focus. What would happen with less depth of field? Go all the way with your widest f-stop. What would happen with a more depth of field? Stop your lens way down to f/16 or f/22 and see. The light isn’t great for a landscape? Start playing with subjects and compositions to see what it might work with.

And if anyone, including that part of your brain that wants you to play it safe, questions what you are doing, just tell them you are learning something new. If the experiment looks like crap, delete it immediately so it doesn’t occupy your mind, but realize that such an experiment is not a failure, but always a success as long as you are learning!

And it's fun if you go into this with a playful spirit of discovery!

Posted in Locations, Nature photography | Tagged | 9 Comments