The Stairs Photograph – Improving Composition

Old monuments can be quite interesting to photograph. They are stationary. No need to focus in a hurry or set a high shutter speed to freeze the moment properly. On simple handy cameras, all that is required is a good composition, aperture to have enough depth of field and shutter speed to prevent any inadvert hand shake!


Stairs at Humayun's Tomb

(Stairs photographed with a 25mm lens, at f/8 aperture with shutter speed of 1/25 second, on Aperture Priority)


The Task

I visited a mausoleum from Mughal era, some days back. The steep stairs in the above photograph caught my fancy. This photograph is just to show how the stairs appeared when I approached them. The old wooden doors were open and stone stairs were visible, going all the way to a platform on top. There was a hand-rail on the sides. The stones were worn out from centuries of their presence here, braving all the elements of nature. It was captured with a full frame camera and a 25mm lens. By raising the camera well above my head and later correcting the tilt during post-processing, I was able to get a good vertical photograph of these stairs. (Prevent buildings from falling)

The monument itself, in its whole glory with red stone, appeared marvelous. Where is the photograph of the monument then? I did not capture it. It was just a beautiful mausoleum, a tomb. In fact, the first person whom I met on entering the premises of the monument was a vendor, who was selling picture postcards of the monument. Yes, even I was surprised to see picture postcards in today’s era of digital communication. The first postcard that he had was the picture of the whole monument taken from the front. I was in no mood to recreate the same images as on those postcards.

Coming back to the stairs- They were really nice to look at. Before photographing, I tried to question myself. What was it that impressed me the most? Well, the most impressive aspect was the weathered look on the stones, their texture, their age. Next thing that i noticed was the steepness of the steps. It took a good amount of effort for me to climb them, and I don’t happen to have very short legs! While climbing the steps, I had to put in an effort which made me feel the rise of each one of them. After the climb to the top, the bright sun-lit platform was blinding. To top it, I also felt in my heart, that these were the steps to a tomb, a mausoleum. A feeling of spirituality and a feeling of everything having an end came to me… and the awareness of a supreme force that many of us refer to as God.

There were no tourists, a sunny and humid day, no wind and no change in weather conditions visible. Not even a bird visited the stairs. How was I going to put my feelings in my composition?


Initial Effort –

Steep Stairs

(Steep Stairs – Photographed at f/8 with -1 EV compensation using a 50mm lens)

This vertically framed photograph of the stairs started to convey some of my feelings.

The use of wideangle lens and close proximity of the stairs helped to increase the feeling of steepness. The vertical framing further helped in this. The light from the opening above and some more light from the open door below helped bring out the texture and weathered look of the stones. The light was diffused but not diffused enough to hide the texture. (Photographing Texture)

The jagged diagonal line formed by the steps and the wall going from one corner of the frame to the other, guides the eye across the frame, giving a feeling of each step. The metallic hand-rail is something that I would have loved to remove from the site itself, but neither did I have the permission to do so nor the tools. On observing the photograph, the handrail plays a dual role. It distracts but it also helps in strengthening the diagonal created by the steps and the wall.

The above composition served a lot of purposes but failed to convey the spiritual feeling that I felt on reaching the top. I had to further improve my composition.


Final Effort –

Stairs leading to light

(Stairs leading to light – photographed at f/8 with -1 EV compensation)

The right side wall on the stairs, had lesser amount of light than the left wall. For this photograph, I shifted to a horizontal frame. How to keep the steepness of the steps intact? I shifted my framing so that the steps occupied a small part on the left side of the frame. By restricting the  stairs to a small area in the whole composition, the feeling of steepness of the steps, gets conveyed.

The hand-rail which was initially a distraction is now an important element of the composition. It is now placed more centrally in the composition and thereby guides the eyes across the frame more powerfully that the line formed by the stairs and the wall. Without it the composition will be incomplete.

Since the direction of the light was similar (though a little less intense) on this wall too, the texture of the stones is visible as in the first photograph. The light falling from the top also lights up the edge of each step. By crouching down a little and pointing the camera up, I was able to hide the surface of the steps. This shifts the attention towards the edge of the steps. Definitely an improvement over the first attempt.

The biggest change that happened by changing the camera orientation was that I was able to leave out a few of the steps on the lower side of the stairs. These few steps that were left out, were the ones that were well lit by the light coming in from the open door below. By leaving these lower steps, out of my frame, I was able to capture the steps from the area they were in shade and went all the way to the top, where they were again lit by the sunlight. The darkness of the steps and the wall on the lower side, which slowly lights up as the eyes move across the frame to the top, give a feeling of enlightenment. A feeling that there is something good or grand up there. The darkness on the lower side of the steps was vital for this feeling. To darken the steps more than what the shade in the center of the stair did, I had also used a Graduated ND filter (Cokin Graduated ND4) on the lower side of the frame.

This photograph satisfied me. It is going to get framed and go on one of the walls in my home.


Further Reading –
Story in a Photograph
Stand out from the crowd

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