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Photography

Observation, Visualisation and Composition for Night Photography

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This post is part of a series called Night Photography.
How To Make a Light and Portable Battery for Night Photography
An In-Depth Look at Dusk and Twilight Photography

We all see the world with a unique perspective. The art of photography allows us to share this window on our world and connect the viewer to an idea, a story or an emotion. Observation, visualisation and composition are an essential part of forging that connection and lie at the heart of good image creation.

The Eyes Have It

Observation is one of the most important skills you can develop as a photographer and is the first stage in the photographic process. This process can be broken down into a series of individual steps. Learn to master each of these steps and you are well on your way to creating images with impact.

Before you begin to think about pressing the shutter button you first need to thoroughly observe and investigate your environment. We rely on sight more than our other senses yet much of the visual information our brains receive is ignored. 

Looking and Seeing are Very Different Skills

The limbic system is the primitive part of our brains responsible for the "fight-or-flight" response. This system evolved over time to identify danger by scanning our field of view and prioritising threats. It is this habit of quickly scanning the environment that you must work hard at to overcome.

Training your eyes and disciplining your thought processes to thoroughly take in your surroundings requires a conscious effort on your part to overcome what millions of years of evolution has made instinctive. You must concentrate and focus your mind to give yourself the best chance of success.

When you first arrive on location spend some time cataloging and identifying key areas of interest or subjects that are visually interesting. Look around you in a 360 degree arc: sometimes the most interesting subject may actually be right behind you.

Once you have identified areas of interest you can move on to the next step in the photographic process: previsualisation. It is this crucial step that turns the potential within a scene and the concept of an image into a photograph.

Inside the Mind's Eye

After observing and identifying the subjects that pique your interest you can begin to think about your options for composing a photograph.

Colour, shape, subject matter, the angle of light and the interplay of shadow are just some of the considerations when visualising options for composition.

Ansel Adams, one of history's great photographers, defined previsualisation as "the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure". He mused that visualisation is "the single most important factor in photography". A bold claim but one that should be taken seriously considering the calibre of artist. 

Composition is all about choices

With experience this process becomes instinctive. The ability to previsualise a photographic composition with your mind's eye is a skill to actively cultivate, however, no matter how experienced you are. If you are an experienced photographer, putting yourself in new and unfamiliar photographic situations, like going to new places or using unfamiliar tools, will help keep your previsualisation skills sharp. And it's fun to have a challenge.

Visualisation is a crucial step in the image making process. The image above was composed with the idea of presenting the main building as a rocket blasting off into the cosmos. By placing the camera at the base of the building and looking skywards with a wide angle lens the building appears massive - much like the Saturn V rocket that flew men to the moon. By using a multiple exposure technique to exaggerate the apparent size of the moon and combining the two separate exposures the idea I had visualised in my minds eye was realised.

You will need to consider a variety of factors when visualising your options for composition. Lens selection, subject distance, perspective and lighting all influence and help to determine how you can proceed to the next stage: composition.

Cool and Composed

Composition is the art of placing or arranging elements within the frame. A well composed photograph should be balanced, attractive and help to convey a message to the viewer or evoke some form of emotional response.

Having an understanding of the psychology of the human mind can help in this regard. Knowing how we react to stimuli can help you to draw an emotional response from the viewer whether it be shock, despair or a sense of awe and wonder. That choice is up to you.

As the saying goes "a picture is worth a thousand words" and the ability to project a narrative within the confines of a single frame is another skill that all good photographers understand intuitively. Composition is an essential ingredient in helping you to define that narrative and tell your story.

There are many factors that need consideration when composing a picture. An understanding of basic design principles, colour theory, proportionality and scale are just a few of the variables that influence composition. There are also certain restrictions you need to be aware of.

Aspect Ratio

The first of these restrictions is the aspect ratio of the image format you are shooting in. This is the ratio of the width and height of an image with 16:9, 4:3, 1:1 and 3:2 being some of the more common aspect ratios that you might encounter. Each has a different challenge or requires a specific approach.

Orientation

You also have to consider the orientation of the frame you are working with. 

You may be required to compose your shots vertically if you are shooting for a book or magazine or horizontally for video or internet distribution. Once your aspect ratio and orientation have been defined you can then begin to think of options for composing your shot.

This image of the Macau skyline was shot for the front cover of a magazine. The composition therefore required a vertical orientation to accommodate the magazines framing limitation.

Lens Choices and Perspective

Lens selection greatly influences the composition of your photos. Your choice of lens allows you to control how close you can get to your subject, the areas in the frame that will be in focus and the perspective within the frame. 

You can control perspective by physically increasing the distance between your subject and the camera or by changing the focal length of your lens. Both options have their advantages and disadvantages and it's up to you to decide how you wish to control perspective.

If you choose a telephoto lens you compress perspective and by zooming into a region of interest with a telephoto lens you also accentuate detail. As focal length increases your depth of field (the area that appears in focus) will decrease. Increasing the lenses aperture has the same effect on depth of field.

Having a narrow depth of field allows you to draw the viewers attention to a particular subject within the frame that you may wish to highlight by throwing the other parts of the image out of focus.

If you decide to shoot with a wide angle lens the reverse is true. A wide angle lens accentuates the apparent space between objects in the frame but it will also mean that details within the scene tend to be diminished. Depth of field is also larger making it harder to use focus as a way of highlighting a particular subject.

With the loss of detail in wide angle lenses it's a good idea to divide the picture into foreground, middle ground and background areas and place subjects of interest in each of these different zones.

The foreground section at the bottom of this picture leads the eye into the middle part of the frame which is full of colour from the night time light sources. The background area at the top part of the picture contains the main subjects of interest - the factory and sky. When using a wide angle lens its important to include areas of interest in each zone to cover the loss of detail inherent in these lenses.  

You can alter perspective by varying the angle of view of a zoom lens or by selecting different focal length prime lenses. Perspective can also be changed by physically moving closer to or further away from your subject.

Light and Shadow

The interaction of light and shadows is another important consideration when composing your photos. The direction of the light source and the way shadows are cast can dramatically alter the feeling of a photo. Timing plays a key role in changing the way light influences the mood within a scene.

This image was shot at blue hour - the best time for night photography. The mixture of natural and artificial lighting meant that I could use the trailing light sources from traffic as a compositional aid to lead the eye to the cityscape and moon hovering above the city. The complimentary primary colours present during this time is another advantage to filming at twilight.

Composition is all about choices. Weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of all the various options in your mind's eye and then deciding upon the best approach for a specific subject takes time to master. Practice and patience are required.

Rules Of Engagement

There are certain rules of composition you can use and they are a good starting point when you first begin photography. More often than not you can bend or completely break these rules once you have some basic understanding of fundamental design principles.

Different types of photography require a specific approach to compliment the subject

The "rule of thirds" is a common example of a composition aid. You use the rule by breaking up the frame into three sections in both the horizontal and vertical axes and placing areas of interest or importance such as the horizon along these lines of division.

By dividing the frame into three sections on both the horizontal and vertical axis and placing subjects in each of these sections you get a nicely balanced picture.

Framing a subject by using a tree, a window frame or some other object is another compositional trick that can work well in certain situations. By framing an object you can emphasise its importance within the composition.

Lines or geometric shapes can also be used to lead the eye to a subject of interest. Converging lines such as railway tracks can point the viewer to a subject and highlight its relevance.

The converging lines of the tram tracks and motion blurred light sources help lead the eye to the main subject in this photo - the moving tram. The blurred light trails also give the photo a sense of motion and speed.

Having an understanding of colour theory also helps with composition. Knowing which colours compliment each other can help make the finished image more visually attractive. Primary colours like red, green, blue and yellow always work well together.

Different types of photography require a specific approach to compliment the subject. Understanding the basic differences in philosophy and design principles for each different genre of photography is essential for good composition.

The composition required for night photography generally requires a similar approach to that used in landscape or architectural photography. In many cases you will be looking to maximize depth of field and draw the eye to a particular subject you may wish to highlight. 

Taking Control

Once you have identified the subject matter that has grabbed your interest and assessed the options for composing your subjects it's time to start thinking about pressing the shutter and taking a photo. 

To get the most from your camera you need to take full manual control of it. Your images and your workflow will benefit from this immensely and in my next article I will investigate how to set up a digital camera for night photography. See you then!

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