Thoughts on a Photograph

April 20, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

North Beach PierNorth Beach PierNorth Beach, Maryland I have a love/hate relationship with thinking about my photography. I love the analysis, the dissection, but I anguish at the thought that I really have no consistent style or recognizable "look," which becomes evident through that same analysis and dissection. But, to paraphrase Mr. Gump, Analysis is like a box of Chocolates,  you never know what you'll get. 

Nevertheless, like a hungry trout, I dart at the bait of analysis when it's dangled in front if me.  Yesterday that bait took the form of a question from a Twitter acquaintance J.F. Mailander, a writer/critic from California and the only person I know who has read (and completed!) War and Peace.  The conversation was conducted through the technological magic of Twitter's DM so I've cut and paste it into something resembling a dialogue for legibility. 

What sparked the conversation was the above B&W image I posted to Twitter of a pier in North Beach, Maryland.  I had done my typical 16x9 crop and it interested Mr. Mailander enough to pose the questions and provide his thoughts on cropping and composition.  I found the discussion engaging enough to post it here, though I now find myself in that quandary of self-doubt over what the Hell I'm doing when it comes to photography.  Writing it out helps. 

JFM: So cropping to composition is very important to you. How does that impact the "content" of your photos? In other words, you're conscious of the frame. Is that something you think about? A friend who's had a grand career as a commercial photographer (think Barbie) likes my compositions. But I am not much of a nature photographer, and I think it's especially because I don't get many photos "right" without the cropping tool. In high school and college, almost always as an editor of the school's paper or some page of it, I was obsessed with cropping. I could do it better than almost anyone else, but mostly, in those days, because I was better at math than other editors. (You may remember cropping wheels, &c.) But I found that nature is harder to crop than urbanism is. In fact, it's often resistant. Unless...what? What do you think about all that?

JWS: When I compose in camera I have a general idea of how I want the image to rest in the frame. For the North Beach pier with lampposts I knew I'd go with 16x9 (my current favorite) and allowed enough breathing space to account for that then cropped top and bottom. Most of the time for landscape it's top and bottom and I compose to capture R/L correctly. For vertical compositions I don't think about it as much but then in LR (Lightroom) I'll see how 8x10 and 1x1 look. I'm much more cognizant nowadays of allowing extra space around my point of interest so I can move it around a bit in post. Some consider it a sin, or sloppy, but I'm not that much of a purist and as a viewer of art and photography I don't ask whether it was cropped or not.

Just for the record, this is a San Diego pier? Lots of North Beaches, some have piers.
The pier is in North Beach, Maryland, on the Chesapeake. My mom lives in southern MD and I went for a visit.

I don't mean to push any point, but I do see the logic of this pushing, this compressing the vertical beyond a usual format like 16x9 (which I think is not 16x10, which is closer to a golden ratio, because of computer screens). I think you're getting at something I think about too in a photograph: as you get away from a golden ratio, which is about as "natural" looking as I think we get, does it mean we're stepping a little back from nature? Obviously when you have a pier and clouds and sea and lampposts that is not nature anyway, but a blending of nature and manufacture. In short, I'm thinking this photo works with the shave off of the top and bottom because there's inclusion of the human manufactured (the pier, the lampposts), where as one that was a completely natural landscape might suffer if cropped this way. Do you think in those terms or am I overthinking it?

Sigh, You have me thinking about this now.
That's my job as a writer, kind of like the job of a pro: to take someone's perfectly good golf swing and fuck it up as best they can.

My purpose in going wide and narrow is to give the illusion of width to the image which I think adds aesthetically to some landscapes, natural or otherwise; escaping the forced 2x3 perspective of the camera. I do consider how it impacts the overall composition and sometimes back off and go with the LR preset for 16x10 or just leave it as the native 2x3. I guess 2x3 has become too commonplace, like always shooting from a standing position. As far as pulling away from a 'natural' landscape I don't think there is such a thing when interpreting that scape via photography (or any other subjective medium). I'm not a documentarian. We censor via framing all the time so you see only what I want you to see. And, the problem of going 3D to 2D detracts even more from the naturalness of a captured scene. I wasn't consciously considering the natural/manmade aspects when composing (i.e. focusing on one or the other) or in post. I certainly wasn't trying to show man's intrusion on the sea or any other philosophical theme. I just liked the way the elements lined up. Hmmm, the golden ratio. For me it's more a guide than a rule. Like the rule of thirds, I think I've seen enough and photographed enough to trust my own instincts as to how a composition should feel. I tend to lean more toward a natural (there's that word again:-) ) and realistic composition and palette. So for the golden ratio I understand it and I probably have it ingrained somewhere in my mind's eye but I don't think about it when I'm composing or editing. If it's happening instinctively then I'm happy for that. Funny, but I think part of my reasoning for cropping out the sky (especially the sky) is that here in SoCal we have so few days with good, textured skies. All that blank space adds little unless your designing negative space into the composition. After another look at North Beach photo I know that many would fault me for placing the horizon dead center. Still, I like it.

Seriously, I engage photos that way: I say to myself something like, "OK, why does it look like that, and not some other way?" It may turn out that I vaunt the golden ratio a little more than you; to me, if it is just laying around all throughout nature, it maybe means that at least it makes us feel comfortable because we are so familiar with it. But then you get into, "Why am I stepping outside of the box to do it this way?" When we step outside of a common ratio, it's usually to emphasize linearity, even flatness. But in this photo's case, it's not only to frame the lamps more tightly, I think it's also to grab onto the fact of the expanse of the sea itself. It's hard to imagine this photo any narrower, and I think that it's the sea, which is barely present, that would suffer most if it were. "Instinctively?" Maybe. But when you get into the stretching of space between the lamps – hey, they could have been moved closer together by a photo from another angle – you may actually be acknowledging the presence of the sea, which would be too diminished were it some other way.

At other angles the point of the storm clouds would not line up with the corner the railings make. :-) Here I am 'thinking' again. A few things caught my eye when I entered the pier's empty space. 1. The linear patterns in the wooden decks and how can I line them up in a composition: Go for a low angle to juxtapose the deck/cloud textures equally. 2. The lamp posts, far apart, can I get two of them in the composition. 3. The storm clouds seem to create a wedge off in the distance. Can I line it up with the corner of the pier. 4. Place the point of the clouds just above the railing's point, leave space. 5. I'm glad I'm alone here. These thoughts happen in some scrambled order and eventually place me where the scene makes sense. Obviously there are compromises to be made and if they're done well the composition ends up working. I have 5-6 pics where it didn't work at all. The odd lines made by railings and the horizon and the vertical of the lamp post cause difficulty in making the composition work. Even for this image the grain in the deck doesn't work as well as something closer to a leading line would.

I want to thank Mr. Mailander for his input and getting me to think more about my image and thanks to that my golf swing is coming along just fine.  


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