“A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” – Ansel Adams. Knowing where to stand is a part of the process of Visualization. How the various elements in a composition interact with each other in the scene is also determined to a large degree from where the photograph has been captured. Even a few inches of difference in the place where a photographer stands can change the whole meaning of the photograph.
(Bridge from down under – Nikon D200 with Nikkor 35mm at f/8, 1/25 sec at 100 ISO)
Viewing the scene in two dimensions
The first trap for beginners is understanding the difference between how we see the scene in front of us and how our cameras see the same thing. Learning to see the whole frame as is seen by the camera is critical for capturing good photographs. One common mistake that I have seen countless snap-shooters make is that they ignore the visible elements in the frame while composing the images. Their attention is drawn only to the main element. This would have worked fine if cameras also saw in the same manner. However what happens is that all these ignored elements also turn up in the final image and as a result the image looses its impact or even gets spoiled.
Yesterday, I went on a walk to a park with a group of friends. One of them took some photographs of his wife while she posed around. There were times where there was a light-pole or a tall tree behind her. My friend’s conscious conveniently ignored that and saw only the lady. However the camera did not ignore those lamp-posts and trees. In many photographs, trees appeared to be growing from behind her head. A simple effort to see the complete frame would have helped. A small change in the position while photographing would have taken care of these superimpositions.
Refer to this article – Learning to Visualize. I recommend using a simple frame to start seeing things in the way camera does.
I often see artists using their thumb on an outstretched hand and then seeing with only one eye open. This gives them the required understanding of the scene in front in two dimensions and also the sizes in relation to other elements. Budding photographers can also use a similar technique but instead of using a thumb, just form a frame with both our hands (using thumb and index finger) and observe the world around. Observing the three dimensional world in the way it would appear in the two dimensional photograph is a critical skill to master.
Moving around to find the right place
Whenever I capture photographs, I always move around a lot, trying to build relationships between various elements of the photograph. The foreground and the background also matter as much as the main subject. In my initial days of photograph, I would carry my camera around and then peep through the viewfinder to see how things looked. Now I do not even take my camera out from the bag. I prefer to walk around and observe the images that are available around me.
Sometimes a little change of place is forced upon by the scene. An unsightly sign board, an electricity pole or a garbage can just outside of that beautiful piece of architecture… all these force the photographer to change the place from where to photograph but knowing where to stand correctly is going beyond this. Learn to see the shapes, outlines and relationship between different elements in a photograph, move around and then find the perfect spot. For photographers, this is the single most important thing to do for improving the composition.
Thanks to the digital revolution, a lot of cameras now have liveview functionality. Change the height of the camera too. Experiment with low angles, drop down to your knees or just compose while your camera is at your waist level. Similarly try high viewpoints too.
All these experiments do not consume lots of time and do not worry. You will not miss your ‘decisive moment’. Obviously if you are shooting a fast changing action or something very transient then capture from where you are standing. Change your location and recompose your shots as soon as you have time.
(Oak tree trying to grow on the side of a ridge. Nothing special about it. Added it here to break the monotony of text.)
How things in front and back of a subject appear in relation to the main element of a photograph is what perspective is all about. Imagine two persons standing at a distance of about 6 feet (2 meter) from each other. If they are photographed from a camera which is placed at about 6 feet from any of them so that the other person is on the opposite site. Now consider another photograph where the camera is placed at 60 feet away. The relative distance between the two persons will appear to be greater when the camera is placed close-by than when it was placed far off.
When a wideangle lens is used, the photograph maybe forced to stand closer to the subjects so as to get the proper composition. This gives an impression of increased distances between various elements visible in the photograph. (Using Wide-Angle Lenses) On the other hand, a photographer with a long telephoto lens who wants to cover the same scene will be forced to stand very far away from the scene in front. This will reduce the relative distances between various elements of the photograph. Photographers frequently use this technique while capturing portraits. The distance of the photographer from the model helps creating photographs where the facial features of the model at almost the same distance from the camera. The result – a far more pleasing portrait that what could have been captured with a normal to wide angle lens. By changing the place from where a subject is photographed, the perspective gets changed.
Camera position is of no consequence if the subject is composed of elements at very far off distances. Shots of distant mountains, landscapes or seascapes do not make a difference, if the location of the camera is changed even by many feet.
Knowing where to stand
Start moving around and observe the relationships between various elements. In no time you’ll start seeing these without even getting your camera out of your bag. Whenever I reach a place where I want to photograph, I walk around observing these relationships and now I am able to find the best place for my camera in no time. This does not take long.