This guest post is the third of three in a photography series that was kindly contributed by Brad and Margus. The first article can be found here and the second article can be found here. We highly recommend you start by reading Part 1

Composition

Rule of the thirds

Margus: This is a traditional photographer’s portrait “rule” where the eyes must be placed at around the upper third of the picture for the most effective representation of the portrait. Sounds simple — until you see most people still shoot faces with eyes smack in the middle of the frame: simple intuition does not cooperate as a trained technique.

Tip of the ages: Turn on the guide lines in your camera. Not only will you be able to use the “thirds” rule by placing your subjects into those nicely marked grid “boxes” or just line those nice buildings straight with gridlines, but your horizon will almost always be level, too. (Unless it’s done in a very intentionally creative way. There are way too many pics around with the horizon noticeably tilted that “hurt” your eyes on the first look.)

Gridlines - A guide to composition

Gridlines – A guide to composition

Symmetry

This is where you operate in the center line between the vertical and horizontal gridlines.

This is the easiest to use compositional technique and the most intuitive for a beginner. Despite the simplicity this method can get you some decently effective results when done right.

This is the easiest to use compositional technique and the most intuitive for a beginner. Despite the simplicity this method can get you some effective results when done right.

The center is framed right smack in the middle and the bike lower third. (Cambodia)

The center is framed right smack in the middle, and the bike, lower third. (Cambodia)

Horizon put smack in the middle giving that great feeling of symmetry, added feel of space from the sky and its reflection below that place on the upper and lower third symmetrically. (Mongolia)

Horizon put smack in the middle, giving that great feeling of symmetry. There is an added feel of space from the sky in the upper third of the picture, and its reflection in the lower third: symmetry. (Mongolia)

Center line well defined symmetrically. My lovely wife wandering towards darkness. (Uzbekistan)

Center line well defined symmetrically. My lovely wife wandering towards darkness. (Uzbekistan)

Asymmetry

This may look like a rather complex way of composing a picture, but you can simplify it just by moving your subject out of the center (both vertically and horizontally). And when you look at things this way — the traditional “rule of the thirds” is actually an asymmetric rule. It’s just how the human eye and the brain behind it works.

For me this is usually the most effective method of composition.

Asymmetry - Rule of thirds

Asymmetry: Rule of thirds

Normally you would put the bike right in the middle (that usual intuition shot, but you risk getting that “classically boring” shot). Using asymmetry, I placed bike on the lower right third, which gave that “thirds” environment – snow-stormy mountains are on the upper third, and the off-road terrain gets its deserved attention on the lower 2/3rd giving you a kind of visual sense of the space. (Indian Himalayas)

Normally you would put the bike right in the middle (that usual intuition shot), but you would risk getting a “classically boring” shot. Using asymmetry, I placed the bike on the lower right third, which gave that “thirds” environment — snow-stormy mountains are on the upper third, and the off-road terrain gets its deserved attention on the lower two-thirds, giving you a visual sense of the space. (Indian Himalayas)

A classic portrait is an asymmetric composition – or the “rule of the thirds” – eyes placed on the upper third. But here I moved it out of center as well to fit that hand greeting. (Nepal)

A classic portrait is an asymmetric composition — or the “rule of the thirds” — eyes placed on the upper third. But here I moved it out of center as well to fit in that hand greeting. (Nepal)

Asymmetry giving you that sense of the space – the sky only has a third with mountains in the horizon, ground gets its two-thirds while the lake has its presence and the road placed in the right third making the observer see and think where it goes in that particular environment. (Kenya)

Asymmetry giving you that sense of the space — the sky only has a third with mountains in the horizon; the ground gets its two-thirds while the lake has its presence and the road placed in the right third making the observer see and think where it goes in that particular environment. (Kenya)

Asymmetry

Asymmetry

Down on the Ground

Get a different perspective by using a different angle; simply putting your camera on the ground or using a very small and short tripod. Objects become “tall” or emphasized in close perspective. You can also use long ground shadow (or reflection) as your subject.

Bambooway (Japan) Fuji GA645i, Fuji Provia 400X film

Bambooway (Japan) Fuji GA645i, Fuji Provia 400X film

(Oman) Pentax 67, 200mm f4, Fuji Provia 100F film

(Oman) Pentax 67, 200mm f4, Fuji Provia 100F film

Depth (Estonia). Pentax 67, 45mm f4, Fuji Acros 100 B&W film Low ground giving the long reflection and emphasizing the rocks in foreground.

Depth (Estonia). Pentax 67, 45mm f4, Fuji Acros 100 B&W film
Low ground giving the long reflection and emphasizing the rocks in foreground.

Repetition

Things that are in logical repetition can give the eye a pleasing perspective when composed right. We tend to like order, thus it’s a classic eye-pulling trick to use for any photographer.

Fishing dhows (Indonesia). Pentax 67, 105mm f2.4, Fuji Velvia 50 film.

Fishing dhows (Indonesia). Pentax 67, 105mm f2.4, Fuji Velvia 50 film.

Less is More

This is the single most important trick in photography, in my opinion. The human brain works in an awkwardly interesting way: it tries to average, minimize, and simplify because there’s too much information coming in most of the time. But when this is already done, it tries to make things more complex and the mind starts to wonder — this is where the magic starts to happen! It’s no coincidence that one of the most expensive artworks ever sold is a single painted black square (Kazimir Malevich, estimated value starts at $20,000,000).

Hence, the less you get into the frame and compose it creatively, the more effective it becomes to the brain behind the eye that is watching it.

Sail (Mozambique) Sigma DP2.

Sail (Mozambique) Sigma DP2.

Microcosm (Indonesia). Pentax 67, 200mm f4, Kodak Ektar 100 film

Microcosm (Indonesia). Pentax 67, 200mm f4, Kodak Ektar 100 film

Less is more.

Less is more.

Shadows

The same applies to shadows. Modern HDR photography, where everything “must be” visible, has unfortunately killed this true and fine art. But it robs the realness and real beauty of the image. The human brain looks for drama and contrast — no highlight can truly shine without an accompanying shadow. While we mostly first observe the highlights on the image like in the minimalism example above, it’s actually in the shadows where the eyes finally stop and the mind automatically asks, “What’s there?” While the mind doesn’t get any info from the eyes it goes off to wonder by itself and the magic starts from there. Thus, it’s often the deep shadows that give “story” to a photograph.

Woman (Mali). Sigma DP2

Woman (Mali). Sigma DP2

Yeah, that African sun looks big and nice . . . but what does she actually look like? What does she carry on her head? Fruits, bread, clothes? What texture and color is her dress? What ground does she walk on? Grass, gravel or mud? You create the story through your personal experience . . . and it’s all in the shadows.

Metering

One of the creative tricks is to use your camera’s different metering options:

  • Matrix or evaluative (full frame)
  • Center weighted
  • Spot
You need to know what metering mode works the best depending on what you want to achieve with the composition and a scene at hand.

You need to know which metering mode works best, depending on what you want to achieve with the composition and scene.

Man chewing quat a mildly narcotic plant (Yemen), Sigma DP2. Center-weighted metered to have the right exposure on the man’s face.

Man chewing quat a mildly narcotic plant (Yemen), Sigma DP2. Center-weighted metering to get the right exposure on the man’s face.

Tribesmen trying my good ‘ol GS (Ethiopia) Sigma DP2. Spot-metered on the man’s face. Note when this would be default average (matrix) metered or even center weight, the face or details would not be so well visible due to bright sky and bright background (overexposed in this shot) would “fool” the camera to take a much darker shot, and you would not see the bike details nor the face.

Tribesmen trying my good ol’ GS (Ethiopia) Sigma DP2. Spot-metered on the man’s face. If this was default average (matrix) metered or even center-weight metered, the face or details would be much darker due to the bright sky and bright background (which are overexposed in this shot) Those highlights in the scene would “fool” the camera to take a much darker shot as it tried to get the sky and background down to a middle tone.

 

If there’s a will there’s a way - DIY football (Uganda) Sigma DP2. Spot metered to the ball to get the details (normal metering would be fooled by the bright sky, and half of the ball and faces would be too dark, invisible). An overexposed sky is a small price to pay since all the focus is in the foreground.

If there’s a will there’s a way: DIY football (Uganda) Sigma DP2. Spot-metered to the ball to get the details (normal metering would be fooled by the bright sky, and half of the ball and faces would be too dark or invisible). An overexposed sky is a small price to pay since all the focus is in the foreground.

Brad:

Er, what Margus said; he basically covered the majority of what I would say, and some of the concepts I note below are simply different ways of expressing the same ideas.

I would add a couple of thoughts on design principles. First, in addition to the Rule of Thirds used throughout photography and design, also consider the Golden Ratio or “Fibonacci Sequence.” Both the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Ratio provide you tools that can help you create images that are visually engaging and keep the viewer looking around an image.

Second, know when to toss out the rules. Years ago, I was at a photojournalism seminar in New Orleans, and a presenter finished showing his work and started taking questions. Someone asked about a very unusually framed image from his presentation and asked what design principles the photographer used for the shot. He thought about it for a second and responded, “It felt right.” So, if it feels right, it is. Design rules are great tools, but rules are made to be broken.

Visual References for Scale

As adventure riders, we are out in nature a lot, so we find ourselves photographing nature quite a bit. Remember when photographing a nature scene that sometimes it is hard for the human eye to figure out the scale of what you want to convey in a picture. I have stacks of nature photographs that are disappointing because they just don’t capture the grandeur of it all.

One thing that is often missing from a nature shot is a sense of scale. The eye needs some point of reference to give clues as to the size of what the viewer is seeing. Famous nature photographer Galen Rowell was known for putting a human figure in a scene to give that needed visual reference point. Think about your nature scenes and ask yourself whether the viewer will “get” the size of what you are photographing. If not, try to figure out a way to interject someone or something into the shot to give scale.

A snapshot, just to show you something interesting that is lacking scale.

A snapshot, just to show you something interesting that is lacking scale.

The same yard, scale provided by my daughter.

The same yard, scale provided by my daughter.

The Grand Canyon shot while on the AZBDR. Scale provided by my brother.

The Grand Canyon shot while on the AZBDR. Scale provided by my brother.

Muir Woods, California. Scale provided by my wife.

Muir Woods, California. Scale provided by my wife.

Cottonwood Pass, Colorado, while on the COBDR with @engineman.

Cottonwood Pass, Colorado, while on the COBDR with @engineman.

A shack, somewhere near Weston Pass on the COBDR. The structure is the focal point, and it also provides scale.

A shack, somewhere near Weston Pass on the COBDR. The structure is the focal point, and it also provides scale.

Layers

Another good trick to improve your photos is to think in terms of layers. A picture of a mountain is cool. Add a lake in the middle reflecting the mountain, and it gets better. Add rocks or foliage in the foreground, even better. Add a motorcycle and, well, you’re golden. Layer upon layer of information keeps the viewer engaged.

Happy Campers

Happy Campers

Standing on the Corner: trying to find the Arizona BDR. And contrary to popular belief, there is no girl in the flatbed Ford.

Standing on the Corner: trying to find the Arizona BDR. And contrary to popular belief, there is no girl in the flatbed Ford.

Gathering Light & Movement

Photography is all about gathering light. The longer you leave the shutter open, the more light the camera captures. Things that move during an exposure often become beautifully blurred, or the moving light source leaves a light trail. Capturing the movement of light takes a lot of forethought, but the end results are often stunning.

Niagara Falls, taken from the US side. This is a composite of exposures taken throughout the evening.

Niagara Falls, taken from the U.S. side. This is a composite of exposures taken throughout the evening.

Orangecicle Repairs, West Des Moines, IA.

Orangecicle Repairs, West Des Moines, Iowa.

Wapsipinicon Mill, Independence, IA. Five-minute exposure using a 10-stop ND filter.

Wapsipinicon Mill, Independence, Iowa. Five-minute exposure using a 10-stop neutral density filter.

Milky Way over Winterset, IA. Thirty exposures of 20 seconds each of the Milky Way to capture all of the light without streaking the stars, straightened and stacked using a software tool called Starry Landscape Stacker.

Milky Way over Winterset, Iowa. Thirty exposures of 20 seconds each of the Milky Way to capture all of the light without streaking the stars, straightened and stacked using a software tool called Starry Landscape Stacker.

Northern Wisconsin on the Trans-Wisconsin Adventure Trail

Northern Wisconsin on the Trans-Wisconsin Adventure Trail

Patterns

As Margus notes, we humans have a natural tendency to look for patterns. That can make patterns in your subject matter very interesting. It’s also interesting when the pattern is broken in some way.

Repetition of shapes in the flower, but overlapping petals break the pattern.

Repetition of shapes in the flower, but overlapping petals break the pattern.

 

Keys to the City. The chef on break going in the opposite direction of the pattern adds interest. San Francisco, CA.

Keys to the City. The chef on break going in the opposite direction of the pattern adds interest. San Francisco, California

 

Tin Roof, Rusted. Mining shack roof made of tops from 55-gallon drums lids used to transport salt for mining.

Tin roof, rusted. Mining shack roof made of lids from 55-gallon drums used to transport salt for mining.

 

Deadwood, SD

Deadwood, South Dakota

The Weird, the Wacky, and the Whaaaaaa?

As adventure riders, we get off the beaten path probably more than any other breed. It’s human nature to seek out the unusual. When you see it, STOP! Take the time to capture that image. I’ve finished so many rides thinking how I wish I had taken just a few extra seconds to circle back to get that thing that made me smile or left me in awe. Get the picture. You’ll thank me later, as will your riding companions. And no bike is picked up prior to the obligatory photo — there’s a rule.

Car Henge, Alliance, NE. Taken on the way to a KTM Rally in Deadwood, SD.

Car Henge, Alliance, Nebraska. Taken on the way to a KTM Rally in Deadwood, South Dakota.

 

Wolfman Hollow. Loess Hills, IA.

Wolfman Hollow. Loess Hills, Iowa

 

Safety Third. @RoundOz approaching a buffalo in Custer State Park, SD.

Safety Third. @RoundOz approaching buffalo in Custer State Park, South Dakota

 

@engineman on the Colorado BDR.

@engineman on the Colorado BDR.

 

Dirt Orcas ride in eastern Iowa.

Dirt Orcas ride in eastern Iowa.

 

Yours truly, prior to visiting my orthopedic surgeon. Northeast of Dotsero, CO.

Yours truly, prior to visiting my orthopedic surgeon. Northeast of Dotsero, Colorado.

Details over the broader scene

I have a bad habit of shooting wide and forgetting about the details. The two shots below are examples of what I mean. A friend and I went out to shoot at a local antique store. Here is my shot.

There’s nothing terribly “wrong” with the shot. I particularly like the humor in the proprietor’s sign. But here’s my friend’s picture:

There’s nothing terribly wrong with the shot. I particularly like the humor in the proprietor’s sign. But here’s my friend’s picture:

 

Her shot is far better in my mind. Why? Well, she got in tight on a point of interest. Her shot shows the age and patina of the item, and although she didn’t show the entire push scooter, you know exactly what it is. Getting tight on a subject and visually giving a viewer only part of the story forces them to think outside the corners of the frame. The mind has to fill in the pieces of the picture that are missing. And isn’t that the art of photography? Giving the viewer a little sense of what it was like in that scene in that moment but letting them use their imagination to fill in the blanks to me really is the “art” of photography. That’s where the magic happens. While wide nature shots can show the viewer the jaw-dropping beauty of nature, don’t forget to look for the tight shot that will make the viewer mentally fill in the pieces of the picture you intentionally left out.

Her shot is far better. Why? Well, she got in tight on a point of interest. Her shot shows the age and patina of the item, and although she didn’t show the entire push scooter, you know exactly what it is. Getting tight on a subject and visually giving a viewer only part of the story forces them to think outside the corners of the frame. The mind has to fill in the pieces of the picture that are missing. And isn’t that the art of photography? Giving the viewer a little sense of what it was like in that scene in that moment but letting them use their imagination to fill in the blanks to me really is the “art” of photography. That’s where the magic happens. While wide nature shots can show the viewer the jaw-dropping beauty of nature, don’t forget to look for the tight shot that will make the viewer mentally fill in the pieces of the picture you intentionally left out.

Emotive Imagery

The last thing I’ll say is that great pictures are emotive — they make you feel . . . something. Maybe you see an image and are left angry or sad or just amazed with the beauty. Every image is different, but the greatest images are emotive. Looking back at my last trip, I shot over 200 images (mostly on film), and of those 200 I processed just over 150. Of those 150, I think five or six or decent, but only two are memorable to me because they are emotive:

Outhouse Politics. On the TSDAT, South Dakota. This just made me chuckle.

Outhouse Politics. On the TSDAT, South Dakota. This just made me chuckle.

 

Fixer Upper, taken while on the TSDAT.

Fixer Upper, taken while on the TSDAT.

This second image left me a wondering. There was an entire farmstead that looked to have been abandoned ages ago, with antique equipment just sitting in a field. I saw the top of the old Ford truck poking out of the tall grass and rode over to investigate. I came away with a bit of a haunting image and an untold story of loss that I doubt I’ll ever learn. I imagined the hard work that some family put into this place, only to have it left for nature to erode it back to the Earth.

When you shoot, look for those things that make you feel something. Many of Margus’s incredible images from around the world give you a lens on places most of us will likely never actually see. But those environmental portraits and stunning nature shots are all beautifully done and are emotive in one way or another. You look at his work and you feel.

Images like that are rare.  When you find those emotive scenes, take the time to think through the picture to figure out how to convey the emotion you feel while there. Think through exposure and framing and design principles, make your choices . . . and don’t forget to push the button.  And don’t forget to share.  Who knows, maybe you’re the next Ansel Adams or Robert Capa or Henri Cartier-Bresson waiting to be discovered.

 

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