Photography is about many different things. However, as my dad used to say when he was teaching me, “Composition is King.” It’s hardly innovative – artists of all breeds have held fast to this doctrine since they were painting horses on the walls of caves. It is especially true of photography because photography is all about the image. Materials, technique, process, and other aspects of production are meaningless unless the image speaks – authoritatively. A photograph that fails to find its voice is akin to a book containing only blank pages.
More than any other art form photography is dependent on light and the way it interacts with our physical world. Painters have known this for centuries. The great masters were technicians with their pigments, but near gods in their understanding of light. Photographers have it easy in a way. The pigments and basic form are supplied to us by nature. All we have to do is play with the light. That, along with composition, is really all there is to photography.
I have shown you several sunrise single frames and panoramas here, here, here, here, and here (among others – search for “sunrise” in the search box). You’ve seen several dramatically different interpretations of exactly the same scene. There are only two things that make them different. First, there is what is going on with the light. The second, is how do I want to interpret what the light is saying to me. What language do I want to use when I tell you what I saw:
In the version of the harbour scene above, I was playing with light. Nature gave me everything I needed, except an idea.
It was very hazy. The water was glassy. The sun felt close and hot. I had great difficulty seeing the screen on my camera because of the glare. It made my eyes water. The boat was sighing slowly through the tepid, reflective liquid. Colours were exhausted nearly to extinction by the battle with the blazing star. These simple observations seemed to be to be the voice of the composition speaking to me. It doesn’t take a fancy camera or great knowledge of photography to turn snapshots into art.
You just have to learn to listen with your eyes.
I’ll show you another simple example of my point. Here’s a little coastal cargo boat about a hundred metres in front of my house. It was morning and I was facing into the sun. The boat was about two thirds of the distance from my house to the other side of the harbour. As you can see, the scene was backlit – the light is coming from behind the subject – usually a difficult situation unless you’re doing it on purpose.
I could detect with my eyes, but not see on the screen, that there was a haze near the water, but above the haze, the air was clearer. The sky was nearly featureless – indeterminate shades of grey. People on the boat noticed me taking a photo. A fellow pointed at me. A woman setting next to him waved. I wanted to give the photo some life.
Here is the original:
Here is the same snapshot on steroids:
I wanted to keep the hazy layer near the water, so I did little with that. I made a graduated mask starting at about the top of the boat and getting stronger as it went to the top of the frame. I boosted the contrast in this masked-off area to let the haze seem to fade into clarity – as I saw it with my eyes. It had the side benefit of bringing up the clouds in the sky. All that I had left to do was to increase the contrast and the strength of the colours (saturation) in the area of the photo not covered by the mask. This brought the boat closer and gave it some life. It also accentuated the reflection of the tarpaulin in the water.
The whole process took about ten minutes and cost me nothing but my time. I paid that price gladly. It’s still pretty much a snapshot, but now it’s a more interesting snapshot.
I heard several comments about the photo that I showed to you of Karen and the blue fish at Pig Island. I decided to work up the other shot that I didn’t think was as good. I’m glad I did. It’s better than I thought it would be:
Here, the light is doing all the work for me. The only two problems were to control the red glow in the hazy water created by the sun reflecting from Karen’s tan and to return the black on her bikini to black instead of a dull red. It took a bit longer for this one, but it was worth the effort.
A friend asked me recently if she could really trust any photograph to be true – to truly represent reality. I told her possibly yes, if she watched the photographer capture the image on film and then took the film from the camera herself and observed it being processed and printed at a lab.
Otherwise, forget it. Assume it’s faked.
Or, at the very least, very gently massaged.