visual design

Room to Breathe – by JJ Michael

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The famous war photographer, Robert Capa, once said, “if your photographs aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”  While this simple statement holds true for many subjects and images, sometimes the exact opposite approach is needed.

If your subject is moving then instead of a nice, tight crop, you are better off backing up a bit and giving your subject space to move into.  When viewing an image of a moving object people will have a tendency to look at where that object is going next.  A subject that is right up against the edge of the image and moving out of the frame can produce an uncomfortable feeling for the viewer.  The space a subject is moving into is often called “active space” and gives the viewer a visual path through the image.  Allowing the viewer to see where the subject is moving to helps put the viewer at ease and feels a bit more natural.

seattle ferry


This idea can also be applied to photographing people.  Tight crops in portraiture sometimes work well and produce great results, but at other times they can result in a claustrophobic feeling.  Just as a viewer’s path through an image will follow a moving subject, a viewer’s gaze will typically follow where your subject is looking.  Giving people in your images room to breathe will create images that can be a bit more pleasing for your viewers.

burmese woman


As with all of the ‘rules’ of photography, it’s important you learn the rules, and then decided when they should be broken.

long tail boats

Photo Tip: Gesture in Photographs – by Sabrina Henry

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Gesture will always reveal narrative, which light and color alone find it difficult to do. Gesture can tell a story. ~ Jay Maisel

The goal of most photographers is to make pictures that say something about a subject we feel is important. We do this in any number of ways, one of which is using gesture. Gesture is basically body language and in many cases, it is universal. That is why it can be very powerful when used effectively in a photograph.

richmond summer night market

This is an image I made as part of my night market series. It is one of my favourite images from that series. Because of two important gestures within the frame, this picture evokes emotions through implied sound and it tells a story about what it is like to be at the market. The first gesture is the woman to the left of the frame who is calling out to people to try the BBQ squid. The market is a lively place where people are in friendly competition to sell food to hungry visitors. That is an important part of this market and indeed many markets you see around the world. Often sales are made only by engaging with buyers and gesture is necessary to catch their attention especially when there are language barriers. The second gesture is subtler. It is the woman the right of the frame looking at the squid on the grill with her finger at the corner of her mouth. This gesture indicates she is thinking about making a purchase, which effectively completes the narrative within this picture.

Gesture is usually captured in one of two ways: by accident or with a whole of patience. Much of the gesture I see in street photography is often by accident and the narrative is applied only after the picture has been made. If you want to be a good photographer, you cannot rely on this method to create a meaningful narrative. Putting content into your photographs requires understanding what you want to say so that you can recognize it when you see it (or you can create it yourself when you choose to pose people). This picture at the market was made towards the end of my two-year project photographing there. I spent almost every weekend during the summer months getting to know the people who worked at the booths. In this case, Lucy who owned the booth allowed me into her space to photograph from that perspective. I studied how she would go about selling her BBQ squid and we would talk about her competition five stalls down, how a location closer to the entrance would increase sales, and next year she would find a way to be in a better booth and maybe sell other items. I spent weeks making pictures at her stall with her niece who is the one in the picture. After I made this picture, I stopped because I knew I had the one that said everything I wanted to say about her stall. 

One of my favourite images that demonstrates effective storytelling through gesture is from William Albert Allard. It is this picture from his Peru collection on his website, which can also be found in his book Five Decades: A Retrospective on page 104. Again there are a couple of gestures here, the first is of the man putting on his hat but it is that second gesture that makes this picture priceless. The man in the middle of the picture is looking at a thread on the cape being carried by the other man. That attention to detail is part of the show that is bullfighting. The elaborate costumes they wear are decorative while at the same time, they must allow the matadors to move with ease. And if I’m not mistaken, this may be where the expression “dressed to kill” originated.

While gesture is usually attributed to humans or animals, it can also be found in landscape photography. Body language can only be implied in nature but what is the same for us as photographers is the intention of conveying an emotion or feeling through some kind of motion. We see it in the wind blowing through a field of rye or the light rays bursting through the clouds at sunrise or even the way branches on a willow tree reach out and gently touch the grass.

Want to learn how to make stronger pictures using gesture? Sign up for one of our private workshops and we can show you how.

A Perfect Composition – by Sabrina Henry

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When I was first asked what makes a good photograph, I had no idea but I started to think about how to recognize a good photograph not just when viewing the work of others but also when making my own pictures. I began to study photographs through books and in discussions with my mentor and later on also with my circle of photographer friends.

calf castration sam abell
© Sam Abell

This photograph by National Geographic photographer, Sam Abell, is one image we have examined on several occasions.  It has also been discussed and written about by Sam Abell himself as well as many others. Here is a short video where Abell reviews how he made the photograph.

Compositionally this is about as perfect a photograph you will ever see. It comes as a result of Abell’s process of making photographs, which he attributes to both his father and his mother. He is known for his “compose and wait” approach where he first finds the background and then finds something that will move through the frame. He also literally “makes” a photograph by building it from back to front. Being very particular about his compositions, Abell always pays attention to internal framing and micro-composition. Let’s take a look and see what this all means photographically.

The world is highly chaotic in visual terms. It’s out of control, really, visually. I don’t know how you can take pictures without composing and waiting.

This photograph is complex because of the number of moving elements within the frame and yet Abell has the ability to make it appear very simple because he has captured the moment at precisely the right time. The background is important to this image because the sky and the horizon line allow us to see the first of three internal frames, a man on horseback. Abell’s point of view, crouching down, has made it possible for him to place this cowboy and his horse where both are completely visible and recognizable. The second internal frame is found in the middle ground where you see two more cowboys rustling a calf to the ground. The position of the calf and the two men lets you still see the background. The third internal frame is in the foreground where one man is holding down a calf while the other prepares to castrate it. Once again the point of view does nothing to interfere with the other two pictures we see in this photograph. Abell has said he made one other decision when making this photograph and that was whether or not to include the man holding the red bucket. It was a split second decision and the results of Abell’s attention to micro-composition are very clear. The inclusion of the red bucket elevates the picture beyond what it might have been otherwise. Just cover that part of the photograph and then see how you feel about it.

The composition is why this photograph works. It is the reason why we remember it and probably why it is the most requested Sam Abell photograph by his National Geographic colleagues. These days many photographers walk around hunting for things to photograph. Abell’s approach shows what can happen when we slow down and think about what we are photographing, how when we have the patience to wait for the photograph to reveal itself, we are rewarded.

To learn more about Sam Abell’s photographs, check out this video where he talks about some of the images in his book The Life of a Photograph.

Standing Still by Sabrina Henry

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New Orleans Louisanna USA

Have you ever hit a plateau in your photography? When every picture you make feels the same? Maybe you look around and think you need to travel to some place different or exotic to make better photographs? It is easy to fall into the trap of believing where you live has become boring and there’s nothing left to be photographed there.

Photography is, in large part, about seeing but most people stop at looking and never really notice what is all around them. We love to take part in the great picture hunt, joining photo walks, roaming the streets to collect trophies of “the decisive moment”. What if we were to stand still for a moment and just be present? What would you notice? What would you actually see? What would you photograph?

Try this exercise and I am sure you will be surprised. The next time you are out with your camera, find a place to stand still for an hour. Yes one whole hour. During this time, you can use any lens on your camera but you cannot move from your chosen spot. Spin around 360 degrees, stand on your tiptoes or crouch down. Just don’t move from your self-assigned spot.

If you need a starting point, use the list of visual elements to help you find something to photograph (light, tone, line, shape, texture and perspective). Don’t worry if you feel uncomfortable or if nothing comes to you when you start this exercise. Standing still is counter-intuitive to how many of us have been taught to make photographs and we are unlearning habits to learn something new.

When you are done, leave a comment below. If you have a place where you post photographs online, let us know. We’d love to see how you fared with this exercise.

The Elements of Visual Design – Perspective

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This is the last in the series on the elements of visual design, the final element being perspective. A photograph is a two-dimensional object that represents a three-dimensional space and perspective is the element that can help us create the feeling or sense of depth in an image. Perspective uses the other elements (space, lines, texture which of course rely on tone and colour) to increase or decrease the sense of three dimensions in an image. Remember that we use visual elements to create stronger compositions and as the photographer you are in control of what you want to create in your image. It can be more—or less—representational depending on what you are trying to communicate and perspective can be used to show a scene the way is appeared to you or you can use it to distort the scene if that is what you need.

Yellowstone National Park USA

To create the feeling of depth in an image, you can use a shorter focal length (24mm or less). Most cameras these days come with a zoom lens whether you buy a point and shoots or a DSLR with a kit lens. Try standing in one spot and playing around with the focal length to shoot the same scene and you will notice the distortion that happens at the shortest focal length. You can also create the perception of depth if you lower your camera to the ground and tilt it down. Notice what happens to the parts of the image closest to you and those that are the furthest away from you. Another approach usually favoured by landscape photographers is to place an object in your frame close to you in the foreground. This gives the viewer a sense of the size of the foreground object relative to the expansive space behind it. When you combine all three of these approaches i.e. use a short focal length, shoot with your camera close to the ground and tilted down, and include an object in the foreground, you will create the greatest feeling of depth in your photograph. There are no rules in photography so it is best to experiment with these different approaches to see how the camera renders the scene and which comes closest to what you are trying to communicate.

Using light will also give the viewer a sense of depth. The intensity and colour of light and the resulting contrast will give us the perception of depth. It is why many photographers prefer to shoot early in the morning or at twilight into the evening. Mother nature helps us with our compositions at those times of day but if you learn to see using the visual elements, you can recognize those same conditions even at the brightest times of the day.

In the second post on the elements of visual design, we talked about the quality of light. This can also help us with perspective. The more harsh the light, the more we are able to perceive depth. Soft light flattens a scene and creates a more two-dimensional image. We also discussed the direction of light and again this can help create perspective. Backlit photographs feel more three-dimensional because of the contrast that is created through the use of shadows and light.

This closes out the series on the elements of visual design. Think of them as Lego blocks and use them to make photographs with stronger compositions. Spend more time understanding the elements by making pictures to see how you can combine them or use them more simply to communicate your ideas. Visual design is important especially when you are starting out but they are only the beginning of making good photographs. Don’t rely on just the technical aspects of design. To grow as a photographer, you will need to know how to use these elements effectively to communicate. If you are starting out, think about joining our Beginners Class starting May 28th or if you are more advanced, join us for a private workshop where we can help hone your visual skills. Contact us for more information; we’d love to hear from you.

The Elements of Visual Design – Texture

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So far in this series on visual design we have discussed four elements to use in composing photographs: tone, colour, line and shape. Light is the common ingredient that allows us to see each of these elements in a scene and as photographers we owe everything to it.  Not surprisingly it is also important in being able to recognize the next building block, texture.  Probably the least used of all the elements of visual design, texture can be described as either the coarseness or softness of a surface or something that resembles the feel of woven fabric.

Successful visual design in photography depends on seeing with new eyes and often that begins with removing the labels we normally use. This is true of shape, which we discussed last week, and also with texture. In the picture below, all sense of what the original subject matter is eliminated. This was a bed of yellow grass in a local park. It could have been photographed exactly the way it appeared however by using intentional camera movement and multiple exposures, the picture now gives the viewer a completely different feeling of texture.

texture in an image using multiple exposure and intentional camera movement

There are other techniques to create texture in your pictures. Let’s say you are at a beach where you see water and rocks. By using a longer exposure (more exposure to light), you can create a feeling of roughness and smoothness by including both the rocks and the water within the same frame. This kind of exposure will even out any distractions so that the eye can concentrate on two main forms that successfully create two different textures.

How you choose to light something can also create texture in a picture. The tonal contrast between areas of light and shade will give you a feeling of roughness and smoothness. You may have noticed that when you use the Lightroom sliders to change the contrast in a picture, you achieve a more textured feeling.

Texture is not as an intuitive a visual design element as line and colour because we have to work much more to see and use it in our photographs. It takes experimentation and practice but once you are more familiar with texture, you will find it easier to incorporate it as a compositional element to make stronger photographs.

Next week: The Elements of Visual Design – Perspective


The Elements of Visual Design – Shape

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Many people will recognize the pictures of photography great Henri Cartier-Bresson, however not as many know he incorporated this week’s visual design element—shape—in much of his work. He was very good at composing his images using shapes because he had trained his eye to recognize them in an instant.

Shape like line, which we discussed last week, is made visible by a contrast in tone or colour. There are three basic shapes: circles, squares and triangles. Your eye doesn’t necessary see them as such because we have learned to recognize objects by their given names. For example, when we see a pine tree, we immediately know what we see is a tree but if we apply our understanding of visual design, what we are looking at is essentially a triangle.

Here’s an example of the use of another basic shape in an image.

samburu girl kenya

There are a couple of things to note in this image. First there is only one basic shape in this frame although it repeats by the contrast in colour. By using the circle as the predominant shape we establish order in the image. It is best to limit the use of basic shapes within an image otherwise they will compete with each other. The other shape you may recognize here is the oval. This is considered a secondary shape along with the rectangle. In this picture it defers to the circle but when a secondary shape is used as the main shape, your picture will generally feel less formal and more dynamic.

Sometimes shapes naturally exist within your frame like the circles do in this image. The necklace worn by the Samburu girl is circular in shape and composing the picture with this shape was relatively easy. As a photographer though you can create shape when there is none simply by how you frame the scene in front of you. When you are in the great outdoors with nothing but sky and rolling hills in view, depending on how you compose your picture you can create rectangles of equal size or one dominate rectangle and a smaller one. You might even be able to create triangles depending on the scene.

If you’d like to learn more about incorporating shape to create stronger images or want to practice your seeing, join us for our Travel and Street Photography Workshop on May 5. We’d love to see you there!

Next week: The Elements of Visual Design – Texture