Emphasis and Composition

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, MinnesotaDiscussion about composition goes into all sorts of things, from the "rule" of thirds to watching out for distractions to leading lines and so forth. All good. Anything that helps you see the scene better photographically will make you create better compositions.

A big challenge we all face with composition is that we see the world differently than the camera does. We see subjects, the camera could care less about subjects. So we have to train our eye to see what the camera sees, not just what we see, and this is what a lot of composition instruction seeks to do.

There is one place where how we see subjects and the camera sees subjects that is rarely included in composition discussions, yet it is very important. That is emphasis. We do something unique with our eyes and brains – we will look at a scene and emphasize what is important so that we can make sense of a scene. For example, if you look at a crowd, you do not see the crowd simply as a mass of people. Your brain will use the visual from your eyes in such a way as to emphasize certain aspects of the scene. This helps you pick out a friend in a crowd and is also why some oddball in a crowd stands out.

The camera does not naturally do that. The camera puts equal emphasis on everything that shows up on the sensor. So a photo of that crowd will be just that, the crowd, and a friend or some oddball will not automatically show up in that image. A challenge I see in many photographer's images is that they concentrate so much on the subject that they don't see the actual photograph being taken by the camera.








Composition is ultimately about communication – it helps the viewer understand what you think is important about a scene or a subject. So we have to help the camera emphasize what is important in our images so that they communicate what we expect them to communicate. That emphasis will structure the photo so that it can be understood better.

There are many ways to emphasize elements of a composition, such as your main subject in a larger scene, but I am just going to talk about three very important aspects of emphasis that strongly affect an image and its composition. They are depth of field, size and light.

Depth of field is an easy way to create emphasis simply by choosing shallow depth of field. Any time you can contrast a sharp subject against an out-of-focus background, you gain emphasis of that subject. You can have two images that are identical in every traditional aspect of composition, yet the compositions will be dramatically different simply because of the change in depth of field. Deep depth of field emphasizes the whole scene and can distract from your subject. Shallow depth of field reverses that, de-emphasizing the scene and putting attention on your subject. It actually mimics the way our brains work with our eyes to emphasize things in a scene that otherwise would all blend together.

Emphasis3Too often photographers worry too much about getting depth of field, especially for close shots, and not enough about emphasis. Sure, the subject might be sharp, but then the rest of the photo often fights with the subject because there are too many details competing for the viewer's attention.

Emphasis1Size is something that was a common way of emphasis before zoom lenses. Today, people have gotten so used to standing in one place and zooming that the use of size for emphasis is less well known. One aspect of size, such as a contrast in size of a small object next to a big object or a small object next to a large space, is not affected by zooming or not zooming. However, changing size emphasis from near to far is and that can be a very helpful control for emphasis. You cannot do that simply by zooming.

Size contrast for emphasis can be affected by how you use focal length. If you get close to your subject with a wide-angle focal length, the subject will be large and emphasized compared to a smaller background. That can be a very strong form of emphasis and one that I like a lot in nature photography. A wide-angle up close will make the subject large and shrink the background (top photo of thistle flower strongly shows this), adding emphasis and also environment.

Emphasis2A telephoto also can be used, but in a different way. Telephotos will enlarge the background compared to the subject. Sometimes a background can have too much "stuff" in it, but you might find an area of darkness or a solid color. By backing up and using a telephoto, you can enlarge that darkness or color so that it fills the background behind your subject in your image. That creates emphasis now because the large size of the background simplifies it behind your subject.

Light is often a big help in emphasis. Sometimes we will shoot at certain times of day or from only certain angles to the light in order to get the right emphasis. Any time we can use light to create contrast between subject and background or surroundings, we gain emphasis. This could be as simple as the subject in the light and the background in shadow or the subject in shadow against a light background.

Emphasis6Pinnacles National Park, CaliforniaThe corollary is that light can also deemphasize a subject when the light and shadow are in the wrong places. That can simply be light and shadow creating a pattern over the subject that obscures it to the camera even though we can see the subject just fine. Or it can be light that creates distractions in the background that attract the viewer's eye away from the subject. Bright, and especially contrasty, areas in an image will always attract the viewer's eye, so we have to be careful how we use them, or remove them, in our photos.

So next time you are thinking about composition, remember emphasis. Many of the ideas of composition don't include that, yet it is key to working photographically.

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My Macro Addiction from Teen to Today

CU today 9At the recent Great Smoky Mountain Photography Summit in Tennessee (first annual), I gave a talk about my "addiction" to close-up and macro photography. It is true that this part of photography has been with me for a very long time. In part I think it is because I grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, where there are no big, majestic landscapes. Yet there are always, always cool close-ups of nature to be found anywhere.

In that talk, I showed my earliest work in close-ups of a flower fly on a daisy taken when I was in my mid-teens. I showed this once before in my blog, but I did not include some of the details I showed in Tennessee. First, I had no other focusable camera other than my dad's Argus C3, a camera many of your parents may also have owned. The problem with it was two-fold – it could only focus to three feet and it had a viewfinder separate from the lens (which meant the viewfinder saw something different up close).

C3 diagram 1

But I really wanted to photograph nature, nature that was in our garden, so it was nearby and handy for a kid. I learned that a magnifying glass could be used in front of the lens to make it focus close. If the camera lens were set to infinity, the magnifying glass would make it focus to the latter's focal length. That focal length could be measured by focusing the sun on something and measuring the distance from lens to that surface. I made a cardboard holder that allowed me to fit the magnifying glass over the camera lens.

C3 diagram 2a


But I still had two problems. How could you be sure the subject was in focus and in the frame since the viewfinder would show neither?

C3 diagram 2b


I had read that underwater photographers of the time would use a rod with a frame to help with this problem. So I used a stick mounted to the bottom of the camera that gave me the right distance, plus an idea of where the subject would be.

C3 diagram 2c

And it worked!

CU addiction05


Perseverance and determination! I did a lot of improvising when I was young because I could not afford much in the way of gear. And even if I could have, gear then was much more expensive (relatively) than it is today. So I have to admit that I am not too sympathetic to people who complain that they don't have the "right" gear or "enough" gear. If you have a will, you will find a way to get the shots you need for you and your growth as a photographer!

Now it is interesting that a marketing guy from a company called Light is challenging photo bloggers to look at our evolution from hobbyist to pro. I thought that was an interesting idea which stimulated this post. Light is a very unique company that is developing a new approach to camera technology. It will be fascinating to see how the company and technology evolves.

Today, I use a whole variety of gear for close-ups. I don't believe in just using a macro lens for such work because it is limiting in several ways, but most of all, because I want the effects of different lenses to better communicate about nature. So I use –

  • A macro lens for quick and easy pure macro shooting, especially small insects and spiders.CU today 1
  • A wide-angle macro focusing lens (on my Panasonic LX-100) for unique images that show off the environment around my subject. CU today 6
  • Telephotos to add some distance between me and my subject if the subject is skittish or even might be dangerous.CU today 5
  • Telephotos to gain an isolation effect that isolates the subject against a simple backgroundCU today 7
  • And even a macro lens for my iPhone!CU today 10

To do these things, I use achromatic close-up lenses and extension tubes to allow "non-macro" lenses to focus closer. I think this definitely comes from my early days with that old Argus C3. I had an idea and I was determined to accomplish it then. Today, I have an idea and am determined to accomplish that visually, so I use a whole range of tools. That sense of determination definitely applies to my purchase of a camera just for its wide-angle close-up capabilities.

CU today 4

CU today 8a

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A Macro a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

imageDoing regular photography is a good exercise to keep your photography "muscle" and brain in shape. I know, the world happens and good intentions often are waylaid. Even though "regular photography" doesn't have to mean any special trips or lengthy time, still, even though I know it is important, I get distracted and don't get it done.

I had a workshop years ago with the great Ernst Haas, and it was a memorable experience. (If you don't know Ernst Haas, he is considered one of the pioneers in 35mm color photography and one of the great masters of color. His book, Creation, is a classic that is well worth checking into.) One thing that has always stuck with me was his thoughts on "finger exercises."

Haas noted that no great pianist just showed up at the concert hall and only played the piano for a performance. They always would do "finger exercises" to keep their body, ears, and mind sharp. Haas felt that this was important for photographers, too, that regularly doing photos that had no deeper purpose than to exercise your mind was important to being a better photographer.

I have paid attention to his advice over the years, doing things like just photographing light and shadow or color, as visual exercises. I have not been keeping up lately. Yeah, I dabbled a little with the camera on my phone, but it wasn't fully satisfying.

Actually, that's not entirely true. One limitation I felt with the iPhone was its limited wide focal length (you could always zoom in for a telephoto). Photographer Dan Burkholder showed me the great results he got with an iPhone and a Moment wide-angle lens. I was really impressed and got one. It is sharp, has no distortion and easily mounts to the phone. It was a good step to make the iPhone more attractive to me. The nice thing about a phone camera is that largely it is always with you, perfect for visual exercises.

But I really wanted to focus really close. As I described in the last blog post, Moment (a company in Seattle) introduced their macro lens attachment for the smartphone and I bought one immediately. This is a superb little lens that fits in your pocket and truly gives outstanding macro images.

imageThis was so exciting to me. I could now do truly close work at any time! Macro "finger exercises."

imageThis was so cool! I started taking macro shots of all sorts of things (anywhere I was, not just in the wilds of California!). This sort of practice can open your mind to possibilities all around you, as I quickly found out.

I had had an Instagram account but had not done much with it. What about posting a new macro photograph every day?! That would be a disciplined way of doing "finger exercises."

imageSo, a couple of weeks ago, I started posting one close-up image from the iPhone every day. This has truly been a fun and cool experience. It reminds me to slow down and look! My Instagram account name is rob.sheppard.

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Moment Macro Lens for Smartphones

Moment Macro 2Just before my trip across California from east to west (last post), I bought a Moment Macro lens for my iPhone. I have used my iPhone irregularly for photography. When I bought a Moment Wide-Angle lens early this year, I did start shooting more because I liked the perspective that lens gave. Moment lenses are very high-quality accessory lenses for smartphones.

The Moment Macro, though, really changed a lot for me. This little lens cannot be zoomed or focused. You simply get in close until it is in focus and then take the picture. It has a diffusing ring that can be taken off (mine was a bit tight at first, but it does come off). I find I use it occasionally for the softening of the light and because it allows you to hold the ring against the subject when a steadier shot is needed.

Moment Macro 5Suddenly, I found myself consistently taking macro shots that I might not otherwise have taken. Since you cannot focus or zoom, this lens forces you to see close images at a very specific distance. I have often had students take a lens and set it to the minimum focus distance, then they take their photos. This is a great exercise that really encourages you to see what your lens can really do up close and it changes how you see the world. The same thing happens with this Moment Macro lens.

Moment Macro 1 Moment Macro 3

I quite like this accessory lens. I will be carrying it anytime I have my iPhone with me so that I can explore macro and new visions of the world anywhere I might be. This is why I have started posting a new macro shot of nature nearly every day on Instagram.

Moment Macro 4

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More Than Seeing for Better Nature Photography

Senses2While on my cross-section trip across California last month, I finished reading a book by Patrice Vechionne, Step Into Nature. I quite enjoyed this book. It really gives a unique perspective on how we experience nature.

Part of the book talks quite a bit about using all of our senses while outside in order to more fully experience nature. I thought about that a bit and realized that I when I was photographing, I often just saw things, just used my sense of sight. I could not tell you what a lichen felt like when I photographed it or what the bark of a sequoia tree was like beyond the visual impression.

So I decided I would pause and use more of my senses. I listened to the quiet in the ancient bristlecones and the wind in the sequoias. Okay, now that is not so hard and I had been aware of that before.

Senses3But then I started touching and feeling things. All lichens do not feel the same even if they look very similar. I tried touching and feeling the bark and wood of the ancient bristlecone. I also noticed that as I moved my hand across the wood, there were different sounds. Plus I deliberately got my nose close to wood, branches and needles to smell them.

Rocks had both texture and temperature differences. It was truly a new experience in the lava field by Fossil Falls to feel the sun and shade sides of a lava boulder – and very cool!

Senses4I never had really felt and held a part of the bark on a sequoia tree. It surprised me. It looks so solid and hard, but it is soft and even sounds hollow if you touch it.

Senses5 All through the trip I did this as I photographed. It slowed me down, made me connect differently with nature, and changed my experience as a photographer. Whether it gave me "better" photos or not, it definitely gave me some different photos and a new connection with my subjects.

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A Photographic Cross-Section

Eastern Sierras and Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, CaliforniaRecently, I was on a photo trip through California with my friend, Chuck Summers. We did a unique route for California, a cross-section of the state from east to west. Often as photographers, we go to a location and work it to get the images we want. It is rare that most of us do a cross-section of an area by traveling very specifically across it and photographing at unique places along the way. While we did this cross-section of California, I think this is an interesting way to approach an area in many locations.

California's major roads are mostly oriented north and south through the state. This is because of the mountains, the best known being the Sierra Nevada, but California has other mountain ranges, too. The easiest way to travel is north and south because of the orientations of the mountains which affect where the roads are.

Cross section 2We wanted to visit the Eastern Sierras for some fall scenes, so we started in Independence. From there, we went to the high mountain areas east of Bishop for fall color, Alabama Hills for their fascinating rock formations with mountains in the background, Onion Valley for its unique high location, and the always incredible ancient bristlecones.

Cross section 3From there, we headed to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Sequoia is probably 30 miles due west from Independence, but you can't get there that way. You have to go around the Sierras, so this meant a drive south to Bakersfield, then north to Sequoia. That is almost 300 miles and takes about four hours. We took longer by making a stop in the lava fields north of Ridgecrest at a place called Fossil Falls (it is a remarkable location).

Cross section 4Cross section 5The giant sequoias are an amazing subject and offer both a photographic and spiritual experience for me (the ancient bristlecones are also like that for me). From there, we headed almost due west, plus a little south, to one of the newest national parks in the country, Pinnacles National Park. The two-lane highways on that route do not go in a straight line. They bend slightly through the flat central valley, but then curve and wind through the hills west of I-5 until you get to Hwy 101. The distance may be only about 180 miles, but it takes over three hours to get there.

Pinnacles is a very different experience. It is a rocky park that comes up from the grasslands and chaparral of the surrounding country. It is known for its talus caves (which are fascinating) and its Townsend bat colony (they were not there while we were there).

Pinnacles National Park, CaliforniaFinally, we headed east again and south to Morro Bay, Los Osos and Montana de Oro on our way back to Los Angeles. That gave us a connection to the ocean, too.

Cross section 7So in one week, we went from desert to high mountains to ancient trees to huge trees through extensive areas of agriculture to dry grasslands and chaparral with rock formations to the ocean. This was not simply an exercise in nature photography. It gave me a connection and understanding of my state that I don't think I could get in any other way. We did not simply drive from east to west. We spent time along that route photographing and experiencing the natural sights, sites and conditions. I doubt that may people have made this particular trip (it takes an effort because you can't simply go on a line from east to west), but it was well worth the experience.

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