Composition Tip: Fill the Frame

Image of brown trout in Brodin Ghost Net caught and release on a fly in the Weber River, UT

Image of brown trout in Brodin Ghost Net caught and release on a fly in the Weber River, UT

Fill.
The.
Frame.

Too many times our images are left wanting. Sometimes this has to do with including too much, sometimes it has to do with including too little. Sometimes, it has nothing to do not with what we include, but HOW and WHERE we include it.

Fall foliage in Big Cottonwood Canyon, UT

Fall foliage in Big Cottonwood Canyon, UT

In general, study the edge of your frame when you shoot and make sure there is nothing distracting that’s impeding upon either the subject or message (or both) of your image.

I have a rule I try and hold myself to: Make an image as interesting or engaging as possible with as little as possible.

Schooner in Sausalito Bay with San Francisco Skyline in background.

Schooner in Sausalito Bay with San Francisco Skyline in background.

There are, however, two caveats to this.

1. Know how your image will be used. Do you need to leave more negative space than you typically would for logos, copy or other extraneous additions to the image? You may want to shoot several versions of the “same” image; one for you, and one for potential stock/editorial/commercial usage.

Image of Chestnut-mandibled Toucan. Arenal, Costa Rica.

Image of Chestnut-mandibled Toucan. Arenal, Costa Rica.

2. Know when to break the rules. This is a grey caveat. It relies on your creative intuition. There are times when the scene in front of you will be chaotic. The truly skilled photographer will still be able to tame that chaos into an approachable, meaningful image.

Timing Makes All The Difference

Comparison of two images of wildflowers and South Caineville Mesa by Utah landscape photographer Adam Barker.

Comparison of two images of wildflowers and South Caineville Mesa by Utah landscape photographer Adam Barker.

Timing really can make all the difference. Shooting at different times means shooting different light. And different light can give nearly the same image an entirely different feel.

Case in point is this study from my recent trip down to Caineville, UT. These two (nearly identical) images were shot just 13 minutes apart. As you can see, the image on the left still has direct light on the FG flowers. Due to the bluffs to the west, it was impossible to catch the last rays of light on the flowers themselves. This direct light is a bit hot for my taste, but it does accentuate the rows of flowers, and give the FG more of an elongated feel.

The image on the right showcases the flowers in open shade, and succulent late light on South Caineville Mesa. The open shade on the FG gives the viewer access to every last detail, and renders the colors softer and more luminescent. It doesn’t, however, showcase the leading lines of the flower rows.

This truly is the beauty of still photography. And this, really, is how you can go about defining your personal style and your preference to the types of images you’d like to capture. Study the subtle (or not so subtle) difference between images. Are you willing to sacrifice some of the detail in the FG flowers for the compositional definition, or do you prefer the soft tones and colors instead of the open shade? If you had to choose between displaying one or the other of these images, which would it be–and why?

Shot with Canon 5D MkII, 24MM TS-E 3.5II, Singh Ray LB ColorCombo Polarizer, Singh Ray 3-stop Reverse ND Grad

Video: How to Hand Hold Grad ND Filters

Here’s a quick video clip from my instructional DVD that showcases the effectiveness of several filters from Singh Ray. It also gives a good demonstration on how I hand hold my filters when shooting. (to order the DVD, click here)

Why do I hand hold my filters?

1. Speed—in rapidly changing conditions, I want to be able to adjust my shooting position, composition, lens selection or any number of other components quickly and without too much hassle. By hand holding my filters, I’m able to adapt quickly to whatever may present itself in those fleeting moments of magic.

2. Control—many times we find ourselves shooting scenes with parts of the image that may require less filtration than others. By hand-holding my filters, I am able to manually dodge and burn the parts of the image that may require more or less filtration. This is an advanced technique of sorts, but will become more intuitive with time and practice.

3. Versatility—many of the active lifestyle images I shoot are done on unsteady surfaces and without a tripod. There simply isn’t time to screw on a filter holder and even if I were able to, my gradient transitions (where I want that filter line to fall) are never stationary. Hand-holding allows me to micro-adjust that filter placement for each shot.

How do I hand hold my filters?

Let me first say that all of the Grad ND filters I use are the 4 x 6 size. This larger size is much easier to hand hold in general, and nearly essential if you’re shooting wide angle lenses on a full frame sensor.

I generally grasp the edge of the filter between my thumb and index finger or middle finger. Taking special care not to shake the camera, I place the filter flush against the front element of the lens. If I’m shooting at longer focal lengths or with longer shutter speeds, I may remove the filter just slightly from the lens to avoid any sharpness sapping vibration.

A Monday Manifesto: Sharing Photography “Secrets”

The Iconic Osguthorpe Barn in Park City, UT

The Iconic Osguthorpe Barn in Park City, UT

Understanding the technicalities of photography is only half the battle. Actually, it’s much less than half as it’s probably one of the easier things to learn. You can teach shutter speed, aperture, HDR, filter usage and numerous other technical components of photography. You can even teach composition. However, you can only hope to be able to teach vision.

Many people ask my why I am so open about my photographic techniques. Firstly, I enjoy teaching photography. I enjoy seeing the light bulb come on in others’ brains. It makes me think of all the times that happened with me in my earlier years with a camera (and it still does!)

Secondly, you would be hard-pressed to find a photographer out there who hasn’t been the beneficiary of a counselor or mentor of sorts in the field of photography. Although there are many out there who are self taught like myself, none of us have really done it alone. I guess it’s a good way to give back to a small extend.

Thirdly, there really are very few, if any secrets. No matter what I, you or anyone else is doing out there with a camera, there’s a good chance that someone else either in your own backyard or at the far corners of planet earth is already doing it as well. I just have to do it better.

Fourthly (and most importantly), you aren’t me and I’m not you. No matter what I share with anyone out there, they’ll never be me and they’ll never have my own, specially packaged, delivered-on-demand vision for whatever lies in front of my lens. This isn’t some arrogant stance on career and life, it’s simply my own little safety net–one that allows me to create, share and witness things come full circle as those who learn produce something exceptional and push me to do better.

So many are afraid of being one-upped, and therefore hold tight to whatever technique or “secrets” they may have pertaining to their imagery. If you one-up me, then good on ya.

So if you’ve made it through this journal entry…WHAT IS UP with this image??? It’s a 54-second exposure of the iconic Osguthorpe Barn in Park City, UT. It’s been shot ten ways to Tuesday and I wanted to find something truly different. The light on this particular morning was lackluster, but the clouds were something else.

I had just received my Singh Ray Vari ND Filter and wanted to put it to work. I dialed it down to lengthen my exposure, effectively smoothing out the quickly moving clouds against the stark roofline/shape of the barn. I danced around the barn with a hand held 4-stop soft step Grad ND for the entire exposure. It was not easy. It’s hard to replicate. Take it from someone who has tried. This is one of those images that I go back to time and time again and wonder when something else like this will find itself in front of my lens. This is one of those images that keeps me going.

Why Do You Do It?

Winter sunset over Big Cottonwood Creek, UT

Winter sunset over Big Cottonwood Creek, UT

You know what I’m talking about. Why do you photograph?

Whether a green amateur or a full time pro, you have to ask yourself now and again why it is that you create imagery. Is it for money? Love? Cyber back-pats? Creative survival? What is it?

As I’ve transitioned from casual amateur to serious hobbyist to full time pro over the years, I’ve thought long and hard about why I photograph. The motivating factor has changed across the years,  from a carefree occupier of time, to a burning desire to improve, to a simple desire to prove (something to someone, somewhere, anywhere) to a means of putting food on the table for my family. In the end, however, the simple answer is this: I NEED TO PHOTOGRAPH. It is every bit as much a part of me as my fingers typing this very blog post.

Within every true creative, there is a relentless desire to…create. A feeling akin to that of an athlete’s muscles aching to be used and abused, this hunger to create is innate and restless unless satiated on a frequent basis. It matters not whether there are stock requests to fulfill, commercial clients to satisfy or workshops to teach. At a certain point, you must ask yourself why you do it. If the answer isn’t one of creative necessity and passion, then when it gets bad, you won’t have enough to keep going.

I think many a pro would be lying if they said there wasn’t a glamour factor to it all.  Yes, it’s great to get compliments and adoration and words of encouragement, but that won’t sustain a photographer through the peaks and valleys. The image above was one of, if not my very first five-star shot. If you’ve followed my work, you’ve likely seen it many times before. I can remember the feeling I had when I uploaded the images of my CF card and saw it on the computer screen. I was elated. And yes, I still get that feeling every time I go out to shoot and come back with a keeper.

Ask yourself why you do it. Hopefully you discover a truth you may not have known before. And hopefully, that truth fuels your photographic fire for years and years.

90 Percent…

Ninety percent of the time, ninety percent of your competition is only giving ninety percent.

What does that mean? That means that the other ten percent giving 110 percent are likely getting ninety percent of the clients. Which group would you rather be in???

I couldn’t get this out of my head this morning as I nearly slept through my alarm at 4:45 am to get up and shoot sunrise. The morning had promise, as broken clouds dotted the skies from storms the night before. I was hoping for a real banger as a reward for pulling my tired bones out of bed. As the sun neared the horizon, more clouds rolled in, and promise slipped to hope. I was hoping for something special…and it never quite showed up.

Regardless, this morning was productive if for no other reason than to get me out with the camera. Thinking. Creating. The image below of East Canyon is really all I came home with. It certainly won’t make me famous, and I may not even remember this image in a month or so. What I do know is that I’m doing my part to be included in the ten percent giving 110 percent. Sooner or later, it’s bound to pay off.

Summer storm clouds skirt East Canyon and the Wasatch Mountains near Salt Lake City, UT

Summer storm clouds skirt East Canyon and the Wasatch Mountains near Salt Lake City, UT

An Inside Look at Shooting Outdoor Stock Imagery

In a perfect world, I would be so busy shooting hired gigs that I would have little time to concern myself with unpaid jaunts into the wilderness to beef up my stock portfolio. I don’t know about yours, but my world (especially in this economy) is far from perfect. In a way, it’s not a terrible thing to have more time on my hands these days. I have been able to pursue stock shoots in locations I’ve long wanted to visit with models/product in tow.

For starters–what is stock imagery? Any time you are shooting imagery with intent to license it to some entity in the future, you are shooting stock. You might even be on a paid assignment or commercial shoot–if you’re wise, you have discussed the issue of retaining rights to the images you shoot in order to market them as stock when/where you have agreed is appropriate (some publications will stipulate that you can’t release the images to the market for x months after date of publication, etc.)

Hikers on the Mt. Timpanogos trail in northern Utah

Hikers on the Mt. Timpanogos trail in northern Utah

I am by no means an expert on stock photography. There are countless photogs out there who having been doing it far longer than I. That said, I have learned numerous things in the past several years that would’ve been helpful to know when I’d started this roller coaster ride of a career. Below are several things to keep in mind when shooting outdoor stock imagery–much of this applies to general stock as well. I have purposely posted images from one overnight shoot up on Mt. Timpanogos to help illustrate the tips below.

Hikers on the Mt. Timpanogos trail in northern Utah

Hikers on the Mt. Timpanogos trail in northern Utah

1. Have model/property releases on hand and get them signed. Without a signed model release, your options are somewhat limited as to what you can do with the images. If the individual(s) in your image is recognizable, you must have a model release for any commercial usage of that image in the future. Editorial usage does not require model releases, but it’s a good idea to have your bases covered regardless.

A hiker on the Mt. Timpanogos trail in northern Utah

A hiker on the Mt. Timpanogos trail in northern Utah

2. Shoot both landscape and portrait orientations–all the time. Did you just find the best shot ever in the history of man as a horizontal? Great. Fantastic. Kudos to you. Now go ahead and shoot the same shot in a vertical orientation. You never know who might need the image in a horizontal or vertical format. Sure, one may have more impact than the other, but any image has more impact than no image at all. You might miss out on a sale if you’re unable to provide an alternative orientation for the image.

Hikers on the Mt. Timpanogos trail in northern Utah

Hikers on the Mt. Timpanogos trail in northern Utah

3. Make sure your models are pertinent and look current. This is a general statement, but unless you have a particular client or concept in mind, you want your images to be fairly generic and usable to any number of clients ranging from commercial to editorial to…who knows. If you’re shooting active imagery, make sure your models didn’t just walk out of their Jenny Craig consult. Sorry–there’s no easier way to put it. Models must look as though they belong in the environment they’re being shot in. What does it mean to look current? It means having the latest and greatest in gear and apparel. Yes, the 80s were awesome. WERE being the key word. If you have the portfolio and guns to back your request, get in touch with the pertinent contact at gear/apparel companies and request product for shoots. Don’t be deterred if you get denied–they receive countless requests for gear. Just keep trying–it helps if you have an assignment/client for which you’re shooting and can get exposure or guaranteed publication for the company whose gear you’re requesting. As an aside, shoot images with logos both apparent and hidden. The former you can submit to the actual manufacturer for advertising/catalog use. The latter will serve as a good generic stock image.

Hikers on the Mt. Timpanogos trail in northern Utah

Hikers on the Mt. Timpanogos trail in northern Utah

4. Leave negative space in your images for copy/text. As photographers, we are used to filling the frame with everything that matters, and getting rid of anything else. While substantial in photographic terms, these images rarely work for advertisements and/or editorial spreads as there is little or no space for messaging. Don’t forget to leave space for cover copy on vertical shots that are worthy.

Hikers on the Mt. Timpanogos trail in northern Utah

Hikers on the Mt. Timpanogos trail in northern Utah

5. When you find a meaningful composition/image, work it. And then work it again. And then keep working it. Until you’ve completely exhausted your options. An example: when shooting hikers, shoot them walking left, shoot them walking right, shoot them horizontal, shoot them vertical, shoot them low, shoot them high, shoot them sharp, shoot them blurred, shoot the man in front, shoot the woman in front, shoot them single, shoot them together…I’m thinking you get the point. You want to give art directors, creative directors and photo editors a number of options so they can find the one that works just right.

Hikers on the Mt. Timpanogos trail in northern Utah

Hikers on the Mt. Timpanogos trail in northern Utah

6. Don’t forget that light makes the image. There is such an absurd amount of imagery floating around these days that you must provide as close to perfect an image as you can to stand out. Shoot early and late. Nuff said.

Hikers on the Mt. Timpanogos trail in northern Utah

Hikers on the Mt. Timpanogos trail in northern Utah

7. Previsualize. The light goes quick. Models get tired. Communication gets hampered. Have an idea of exactly what you want at that particular location. When the stars align, you’ll be ready.

A hiker leaps over a mountain stream near Emerald Lake on the Mt. Timpanogos trail in northern Utah

A hiker leaps over a mountain stream near Emerald Lake on the Mt. Timpanogos trail in northern Utah

Now go sell it! Shooting is the easy part–earning your money back for your valuable time and energy is the difficult part. That said, the one with the deepest and strongest portfolio most often takes the prize. Commit to giving your all on each shoot and you’ll no doubt be rewarded.

A hiker leaps over a mountain stream near Emerald Lake on the Mt. Timpanogos trail in northern Utah

A hiker leaps over a mountain stream near Emerald Lake on the Mt. Timpanogos trail in northern Utah