color

Seeing Red – by Jack Kurtz

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A Burmese woman wearing a red blouse was sweeping the street in front of her home in the jungle in western Thailand. One of the reasons I think this picture works is that red and green play off each other. This picture would not have worked if the blouse had been blue or yellow.
Subtle use of red. A Burmese woman wearing a red blouse was sweeping the street in front of her home in the jungle in western Thailand. One of the reasons I think this picture works is that red and green play off each other. This picture would not have worked if the blouse had been blue or yellow.

I’m a part of a group of photographers who meets regularly in Bangkok. We enjoy a good meal, talk about photography and make a group assignment – something we’re supposed to photograph in the coming month. This time around the assignment was “Red.”

Burmese hats for sale in a market in Sangkhla Buri, Thailand. There was just one red one in the pile.
Burmese hats for sale in a market in Sangkhla Buri, Thailand. There was just one red one on top of a stack of hats.

The challenge on an assignment like this is not to photograph something red, but to make an interesting photo of red.

Red doesn’t even have to be the dominant color – because it elicits such strong emotions, just a tiny bit of red in the frame can have a profound affect on your picture. Think of the little girl in red in Steven Spielberg’s otherwise black and white film “Schindler’s List.”

A window in a Burmese temple near Sangkhla Buri. The window shutter was a brilliant red.
A window in a Burmese temple near Sangkhla Buri. The window shutter was a brilliant red.

I didn’t go up to Sangkhla Buri to photograph red. I was working on a story about a bridge up there. I spent a morning wandering around in the Mon community and I was seeing red everywhere I turned. Not usually in a big way, but in lots of little ways, like the in the photo of the woman sweeping the bridge.

It certainly helped that red is such a powerful color. Even in the photo of the hats, where the dominant color sort of an earth tone bamboo, which has red in it, the red in the hat on the left really pops. Red is to color photography what garlic is to chicken – it always makes it better. But you have to be careful not to use too much or it completely overwhelms the photo.

Nothing subtle about this. Red chilies in a red basket on top of a pile of red chilies. Probably too much red.
Nothing subtle about this. Red chilies in a red basket on top of a pile of red chilies. Probably too much red.

Things Fall into Place – by Jack Kurtz

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A girl sets out a meal for her family in Kao Seng, a village in Songkhla province.
A girl sets out a meal for her family on the beach in Kao Seng, a village in Songkhla province.

One of the things I like photographing is the little incongruities of life. Dictionary.com defines “Incongruous” as “out of keeping or place; inappropriate.” That’s certainly what I thought when I saw this living room set on a beach in Kao Seng, a little north of Hat Yai in Songkhla province. I was there photographing fishermen and walked past the furniture. I made a mental note of it but photographically it didn’t work without a human element.

I went down the beach and photographed the fisherfolk for a couple of hours. I was walking back to my car and the young lady was setting the table. This was the picture I was waiting for, the moment it clicked. Everything came together for a few seconds – the blue sky, the aquamarine ocean, the girl’s blue clothing all contrasted with the red furniture set and the girl’s warm complexion. Everything fell into place to create the photo I saw in my mind when I originally walked past the furniture.

Shoppers ask for directions on Orchard Road in Singapore.
Shoppers ask for directions on Orchard Road in Singapore.

A few months later I was on Orchard Road in Singapore. It was the Christmas season and seasonal decorations lined the busy thoroughfare. I was trying to photograph people walking between and around the statues of Mary and Joseph, Wise Men and donkeys. The photos were more like snapshots and not really working. Then lost shoppers and a Good Samaritan wandered into the frame. It was the moment that clicked, when everything fell into place.

Finally, on a road trip in northern Laos, I stumbled upon this scene.

Migrant workers from China in a bus in northern Laos.
Migrant workers from China in a bus in northern Laos.

This photo was a gift. There was no waiting for something to fall into place. I was headed up to the Lao-Chinese border. I saw this scene as we passed a bus full of Chinese migrant workers. I practically screamed at the driver to pull over and was out of the car before it came to a complete stop. I ran back down the highway to the bus and nothing had changed – the person on the lower bunk was still dangling his legs out the window while the person in the upper bunk was still framed by the window. I made a couple of frames before the person in the upper bunk moved out of the frame. This was the easiest of these three photos, there was no waiting, no hoping for something to happen.

As a photojournalist I can’t set up a photo. I rely on luck and timing to complete my photos. That doesn’t mean being purely reactive though. Only in the bottom photo was I completely reactive. In the photos from Kao Seng and Orchard Road I saw the pictures before they actually took place. I knew what I wanted and I essentially waited for things to fall into place.

Less Than Perfect

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tuk-tuk
A tuk-tuk in Chinatown.

In general, photographers don’t like pictures that aren’t sharp. Whether it’s focus or motion, we usually try to make sure our photos are sharp.

I was walking through Bangkok’s Chinatown recently, not on an assignment just photographing with my Micro 4:3 gear. I was at the corner of Ratchawong and Yaowarat Roads photographing tuk-tuks, the ubiquitous three wheeled taxis that putter around Bangkok hauling freight and passengers.

I have lots of tuk-tuk photos, some sharp, some not. I usually photograph tuk-tuks at either a fast enough shutter speed that they’re sharp and in focus or in a way that has some motion but is still recognizable as a tuk-tuk, somewhere around 1/30th of a second.

This time I wanted something completely different, less literal and more impressionistic. I kept dropping the shutter speed and increasing the f-stop and ultimately made this picture. A quick check of the exif data shows it was made at 1/10th of a second, f10 at ISO 100. I kind of like it. It’s not the sharpest tuk-tuk photo I have but it is one the most atmospheric. Sometimes less then perfect is better.

I have lots of tuk-tuk photos in my archive.

The Elements of Visual Design – Line

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Of all the visual elements of design, line is the most fundamental and one that photographers probably use the most. Line, shape, texture and perspective are actually considered secondary visual elements because they are all created as a result of tone and colour.

A line is created by a contrast in tone or colour or by the colour of the line itself. Here is a simple example below that illustrates how differences in tone and colour create a whole host of lines.

japanese lanterns tokyo

Lines have a few important qualities we need to know in order to use them effectively when composing photographs. The first is their length.  Longer lines generally have greater visual impact because they will dominate an image. In the image above, notice how your eye is drawn to the two lines of lanterns and not so much to the shorter lines created by the roofline in the top right of the image. Lines can also be straight or curved. Straight lines move within an image with a sense of purpose and direct the eye in an authoritative manner while curving lines are more gentle and convey a more relaxed feeling. Photographers are often drawn to s-curves or multiple curves within a landscape scene because they meander through the frame and set the pace for the viewer to enjoy the image.

There are basically three orientations for a line: vertical, horizontal or oblique. Vertical and horizontal lines are more formal and therefore contribute to a sense of stability in an image.  Oblique or slanted lines (like those in the image above) have a greater sense of movement and diagonal lines in particular will also contribute to a feeling of balance in the photograph because of how they cut the frame.

We also need to consider the thickness of lines we include in our images. If a vertical or horizontal line has a consistent thickness from start to finish, it will make the photograph feel even more formal. In the example below notice how the lines are created by the colours and the contrast in colour.  Also the inclusion of the dark blue columns creates strong thick vertical lines that dominate the frame but they are balanced by multiple repeating vertical lines across the frame that also have a consistent thickness.

port townsend

What you may not realize at first is that there are a few horizontal lines within this image. Your brain sees these lines because of the relationship between some of the elements. I am referring to the square and rectangular decorative elements on the doors and the wall panels. Even though they are not connected, because of where they are placed, they create implied lines. These are often the most difficult lines to recognize when you are out photographing but I bet if you look back through the images you have already made, you will realize how much your brain processed the information to include them.

Your photographs will improve when you are able to consciously recognize all of these traits of lines and use them in a purposeful way to create stronger images. Join us for our next Beginners Class and learn more about creative compositions using all the visual elements of design.

Next week: The Elements of Visual Design – Shape

The Elements of Visual Design – Colour

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Understanding the elements of visual design is important to the craft of making photographs. On some intuitive level most of us already “know” the six elements (tone, colour, line, shape, texture, and perspective) and are using them in our photographs but if we spend some time delving into them further, they can become powerful allies in making better photographs. This week we are going to look at the second element: colour.

Let’s go back to week one and if we think first about colour in terms of the written language and how we use colour in what we write, we realize we can use colour in photography in the same way. Colour in literature is seldom used just for the sake of mentioning colour. Authors use colour to create a picture in the minds of readers so they can have a particular experience while reading about another world. As photographers we can use colour—beyond just recording it—to do exactly the same thing but in a visual way. First though, we have to understand at a basic level what colour is.

Colour is created by reflected light and is described using the hue, saturation, and luminance of that light. Hue is the name we give to colour i.e. red, blue, yellow, etc. Saturation is the intensity of that colour i.e. dull, vibrant, etc. Luminance is the degree of lightness or darkness in a colour.

Let’s look at the picture below of Seattle’s Space Needle. There are red, orange, yellow and blue hues present. Some of the orange hues and the blue hues are less saturated but generally overall this image is quite vibrant. The oranges, reds, and yellows also have differing levels of luminosity, some more noticeable than others.

Seattle Space Needle

In terms of tone, there is some contrast created by the relative brightness between the Space Needle and the Ferris wheel and the surrounding twilight sky. In comparison, there is a better contrast created by the colours versus the tone. Why is that important to note? Well sometimes differences in tone are completely absent so you have to rely on colour to distinguish between the things in your photograph.

Have you ever had a colour photograph you thought would look great in black and white but when you removed the colour the whole scene was flat? Chances are the differences in tone (relative brightness) were missing but the differences in colour (hue, saturation and luminance) were there. This photograph is a good example where the differences in colour outweigh the differences in tone making it a poor candidate for conversion to black and white. As a photographer if you can train your eye to see both tone and colour before you click the shutter, you are well on your way to making better photographs.

Colour has been the subject of much scientific study and academic writing but sometimes it is best understood and appreciated when we simply look at the work of a colour master, someone like Arthur Meyerson. His book “The Color of Light” is on my wish list. Check out Meyerson’s short essay and slideshow on Burn Magazine—you won’t be disappointed.

Next week: The Elements of Visual Design – Line

Photographer: Eric Meola

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Many photographers who are just beginning will look at a professional’s work and think that professional photographers are merely lucky people who happen to always find themselves in the right place at the right time to capture the images they do. If that is the case then Eric Meola is one of the luckiest men alive.

Eric’s portfolio is full of wonderful images which use simple compositions and a brilliant use of color to beautifully portray diverse cultures and vast landscapes. It is very possible that Eric simply stumbles across fascinating people and beautiful scenery every time he turns a corner, but the more likely explanation for such an amazing collection of images is that through years of relentless effort he has developed a keen sense of awareness of his surroundings.

It’s this sense of awareness that allows photographers like Eric to regularly put themselves in the right position to create stunning images. The time spent exploring and observing is just as important as knowing about exposure compensation and metering modes. Technical skills and composition techniques can be learned, but the observational skills required for finding that perfect picture only come from continually walking out your front door with camera in hand.

In addition to regularly working at your craft, one of the best ways to improve your own photography or break yourself out of a photographic rut is to find inspiration in other photographers’ work.  A great place to start is with Eric’s portfolio which spans several decades and comes from all over the globe.  His images can be found at ericmeola.com.

Karo Tribesman, Ethiopia
Karo Tribesman, Ethiopia
Becoming Buddha, Burma
Becoming Buddha, Burma
Woman in Courtyard. Dungapur, India
Woman in Courtyard. Dungapur, India
Face Spattered with Colors of Holi Celebration. Jaipur, India
Face Spattered with Colors of Holi Celebration. Jaipur, India
First Light. Gerlache Strait, Antarctica
First Light. Gerlache Strait, Antarctica
Driving in the Badlands. South Dakota, USA
Driving in the Badlands. South Dakota, USA
Farmhouse and Ash Filled Sky. Iceland
Farmhouse and Ash Filled Sky. Iceland