Composition and the Visual Journey

The Visual Journey by AdamBarkerPhotography

I talk often about creating a visual journey in each image for the viewer. This image of a group of friends out for a stroll underneath the Brooklyn Bridge serves as a good illustrative example. Have a read below as I break down exactly how I’ve constructed a visual journey through the inclusion and arrangement of particular compositional elements within the scene.

1. It’s natural to begin the visual journey at the bottom of our frame. This applies to both landscape and portrait orientation. Most often, I will place an element at or near the corner of the frame, taking the viewer from the very edge, into the meat of the frame. This is obviously accomplished with the fence, starting in the bottom RH corner of the frame.

2. The fence takes us directly to the anchor or main subject of the image, placed strategically in our LH thirds intersect. What makes this subject so much more appealing is the area of high contrast in which the people are found. Backlit mist creates a bright area, against which their shapes are starkly defined. Our eyes will ALWAYS travel to the areas of highest contrast in an image.

3. From the subject, the eye travels up to the Brooklyn Bridge. This was placed strategically in the upper LH part of the image–again helping the viewer to explore and digest every inch of our photographic frame. The bridge also serves as a perfect top counterbalance to the fence in the bottom part of the frame.

4. The bridge leads us directly to our secondary subject, or counter subject–the shapely pylons and archways over the bridge itself. Naturally, from there, the eye heads back to the bottom RH corner, and the visual journey starts once again.

Ideally, this visual journey will connect itself from beginning to end (as we see here), requiring little effort from the viewer to dive back in for a second, third and fourth time. Sometimes this is done through proximity of compositional elements (as seen here). Other times, it can be an out and back sort of thing. However you do it, give the viewer an obvious start and finish.

Exceptional images are like Thanksgiving Dinner–you just can’t help but go back for more. Make it easy on the viewer by creating a visual journey through the thoughtful and strategic placement of subjects and secondary or counter subjects in the frame.

Are You ______ Enough?

For every professional photographer out there and every amateur that has ever aspired to going pro, there’s one question that has likely been intrinsically asked once or…several hundred times. “Am I good enough???”

Am I good enough to succeed? Am I good enough to turn heads? Am I good enough to stop page turners? Am I good enough to get published? Am I good enough to grab fans? Am I good enough to sell prints? Am I good enough to land this job? Am I good enough to make a full time living doing this crazy thing? Am I good enough to win awards? Am I good enough to be good enough???

It’s natural to ask, and if you’re truly committed to being at the top of your game, it’s probably a question that you will never quit asking yourself entirely, regardless of the accolades, big jobs, published work and all the other goodness that comes your way with all that fame and fortune. I think there is an evolution to this question, however–and it’s one that comes with experience, ups and downs, success and failure, shout outs and snubs…

Nowadays, if you’re serious about being a professional photographer, you must simply be asking yourself this: Am I…enough?

Am I smart enough? Am I diligent enough? Am I committed enough? Am I fearless enough? Am I responsible enough? Am I punctual enough? Am I creative enough? Am I humble enough? Am I confident enough? Am I tough enough? Am I fit enough? Am I passionate enough? Am I accountable enough? Am I diverse enough? Am I focused enough? Am I personable enough? Am I cutthroat enough? Am I hard-nosed enough? Am I pliable enough? AM I…ENOUGH?!?

I. Am.

I bet you are too.

Better Fall Photography

Storm clouds and fall color in northern Utah's Wasatch Mountains.

Storm clouds and fall color in northern Utah's Wasatch Mountains.

Fall is quite possibly my favorite season. Perhaps it’s because the change in the air is so dramatic. Color, crispness, cooler temps–it’s allllll good. Fall pushes photographers everywhere to dig out both their camera and their personal commitment to creating meaningful imagery. It’s exciting to see the lanscape change so drastically, and quite honestly–there’s beauty in nearly every direction. Nothing fuels a photographer’s fire like gorgeous subject matter at a stone’s throw from nearly every canyon drive.

I’ve had opportunity to get out quite a bit with several workshop students and shoot some of fall’s finest here in northern Utah. The weather, however, has been challenging for the most part, with clear skies and warm temperatures. It has forced us to get creative and really search for meaningful shots without dramatic skies. We did luck out one morning with fantastic storm clouds, and we took full advantage, knowing it was a gift.

An AdamBarkerPhotography workshop student shoots first light at Silver Lake, Brighton, UT.

An AdamBarkerPhotography workshop student shoots first light at Silver Lake, Brighton, UT.

While gorgeous in their own right, colorful leaves don’t themselves a memorable image make. I imagine you, just as countless others, have come home from your fall photography forays only to find your images were flat and struggled to convey the sense of grandeur that you witnessed in person. The challenge, is depth. Conveying depth in our fall images is what really helps to take the viewer “there”. A flat mountainside with pretty leaves just won’t cut it. Sure, it’s pretty. But does it have impact? Probably not. Read below for a couple of tips on creating fall images with depth.

Fall color in Utah's Wasatch Mountains.

Fall color in Utah's Wasatch Mountains.

1. Establish compositional zones. Find foregrounds, middle grounds and backgrounds for your images. Longer lens shots fall images here in the Wasatch are particularly well suited to this, with intersecting ridge lines and areas of strong color.

Late light long lens landscape at Snowbird, UT

Late light long lens landscape at Snowbird, UT

2. Search out broken light. Spotty clouds cast spotty or broken light. This random placement of lit and shaded areas carries viewers through the frame and creates that near/far perspective that helps to convey three dimensionality.

An AdamBarkerPhotography workshop student waits for evening light amidst swirling storm clouds.

An AdamBarkerPhotography workshop student waits for evening light amidst swirling storm clouds.

3. Use a polarizing filter. Even better, know where and how to use it most effectively. A polarizer will help to reveal full color in the foliage, by removing the natural sheen or reflection. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly (especially on those boring, crystal clear days), a polarizer will deepen skies, helping to add depth and interest to your fall photos. A polarizer is most effective when shot at 90 degrees to the sun–find those compositions that help the polarizer help you!

Dawn light and fall color at Park City's iconic Osguthorpe Barn

Dawn light and fall color at Park City's iconic Osguthorpe Barn

4. Change your angle to the sun. Fall color takes on a completely different look, depending on your angle to the sun. Front lit aspens can appear dull and washed out, but as soon as place that light source behind them, they glow with life. This is a technique you can use to capture stunning imagery even into the mid-day hours.

An AdamBarkerPhotography workshop student, enveloped by backlit aspens.

An AdamBarkerPhotography workshop student, enveloped by backlit aspens.

5. Use Grad ND Filters. Not sure what they are? Search this blog or get on the Google. I use Singh Ray filters–the best! There’s absolutely no better tool out there for balancing difficult dynamic ranges and allowing you to capture dramatic skies.

Storm clouds and lightning bolt at first light over Utah's Wasatch Mountains.

Storm clouds and lightning bolt at first light over Utah's Wasatch Mountains.

6. Get out there. The golden rule of landscape photography. Simply being there will allow you to make magic. It’s too easy to stay home and wait for what you think might be the perfect conditions to capture that five-star fall keeper. How do you know that you haven’t already missed it? Nothing helps to get the creative juices flowing like being out in nature. You’re sure to find something that floats your boat, and then some. Forget the boring weather forecasts or lackluster color-get out there and find a way to excel behind the lens.

Interested in putting this into practice in the field with yours truly? Check out my workshop page for details.

Instinct: Use It

Lupine Wildflowers and sunstar at sunset along the Duchesne Ridge, UT

Lupine Wildflowers and sunstar at sunset along the Duchesne Ridge, UT

Simply put, last night was a gift. It was amazing. It was perfect. It was everything you could ever want behind the lens bottled up into four minutes of ridiculous organized chaos and color and mosquitos and sore knees and…wonder.

I wondered if I captured “it”. I wondered how “it” could be so overwhelmingly gorgeous. I wondered if anyone else had seen “it”. I was certain no one else had seen it like I had. It was impossible. In fact, it was UNpossible. There was no way that anyone else in the world had witnessed nature in such harmony as I had.

At least, that’s what I was telling myself. And I believed it.

Instinct is what you rely on when logic leaves your brain. And believe me, when you get conditions like this in front of your lens, logic will depart. In a hurry. You’ll be left with the most beautiful scene anyone on this earth has ever laid eyes on, and you’ll be bumbling around like a teenager in a Victoria’s Secret store.

Take a deep breath. And rely on what you have done so many times before. Which brings me to my point–if you haven’t done it “so many times before”, you’ll not have much to fall back on when things hit the fan in a good way.

Practice really does make perfect. And in the end, it is a simple practice of sorts that will capture moments like this for all of time. The more you shoot, the more you learn. The more you learn, the more capable you are of handling whatever happens to present itself in front of your lens. Interestingly enough, we only think of practice coming in handy when things go bad. But what about when things go…good??? When conditions are best for capturing five-star imagery is when you will feel the most pressure to perform. Because there’s no reason you shouldn’t come home with something spectacular. And really, there’s no excuse if you’ve done your homework and have…practiced.

Shot with Canon 5D MkII, 16-35 2.8 II, Singh Ray 4-stop Reverse ND Grad, Gitzo tripod

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.

Video: B&H Photo Presentation–Capturing the Complete Outdoor Image

Part 1 of my presentation from B&H in April on Capturing the Complete Outdoor Image. Not quite the same as being there, but close!

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.

Plan. Go. Do.

Sunset over wildflowers near Caineville, UT

Sunset over wildflowers near Caineville, UT

Several years ago I saw an image that struck me. It was a desert landscape, dotted with purple and yellow wildflowers. In a word, it was beautiful. In another word, it was mysterious. I wondered how such a barren landscape, void of color and feeling,  could suddenly spring to life as if fed by some unseen fountain of youth. I had to go there. I had to see it for myself. And really, I had to capture it for myself.

This just happened to be the year I was able to make it down to Caineville. I happened to have some spare time, and was committed to finally making this shoot happen. Caineville is, quite literally, a bend in the road. There’s no stop lights, no gas stations. There’s nothing except for mesas and buttes shaped by time and weather. Gravel ridgelines criss-cross into the distance, clawing their way further towards the base of north and south Caineville Mesas. At the right time of year, and given the proper winter/spring snow and rainfall, the valleys between these small buttes fill with yellow and purple. Seas of beeplant and purplemat flow between the mesas and fluted miniscapes. It is, quite simply, a photographer’s paradise.

Wildflower landscape image shot near Caineville, UT

Wildflower landscape image shot near Caineville, UT

It certainly is one of those places that feels nearly impossible to capture. It’s big and broad and colorful and supremely unique. My best suggestion to shooters hoping to stumble upon this symphony of nature??? Take all your gear, and take all your creative energy. You will need it. There are innumerable ways to shoot the flowers and desert landscape in and around Caineville. Some of it has been shot before, but I guarantee you will find your own nook and your own way of telling this beautiful story to those unable to attend in person.

I was also fortunate to visit Factory Butte, surrounded on many sides by an endless carpet of yellow. From what I understand, it’s a somewhat rare occurrence to see such prolific displays of wildflowers here, and I felt fortunate to be there. Alone. On an absolutely stunning morning.

Factory Butte with Beeplant (amazing widlflowers!)

Factory Butte with Beeplant (amazing widlflowers!)

As this was a solo trip, I had plenty of time to reflect on the experience of shooting such grandiose scenes. I have posted just a couple of tips below that are particularly relevant to the Caineville/Factory Butte area. They are also applicable to any shooting situation in which you find yourself slightly overwhelmed by the beauty and grandeur of what lies before you.

1. Go with a plan. Whether you have a written list, or mental notes of the types of images you’d like to capture, have some sort of “plan of attack”. It will help you to keep a level head and stay focused, to a degree. It’s easy to arrive at these locations and start running around like a chicken with your head cut off. Don’t do it. Be methodical, and don’t forget to enjoy yourself!

Factory Butte and grazing cattle.

Factory Butte and grazing cattle.

2. Be receptive to new images. Although you may have a plan in your head, conditions may cause your photographic plans to vary, and this is A-OK. I really believe that some of the most magical images are visualized on site, from the hip, so to speak. See with your photographic eyes, and don’t be stubbornly committed to an image that may just not be there. Vision can change rapidly, and more than anything, you must be willing to work to find the best image for that exact moment. It may be as simple as changing a lens, or as difficult as hiking a ridgeline. Regardless–make it happen. You’ll be justly rewarded.

3. Shoot different lenses. I guess this could be better suggested in shooting different focal lengths. It’s easy to get stuck in wide angle mode, or telephoto or macro mode. You haven’t properly worked a scene until you’ve at least TRIED numerous different focal lengths and angles. Sometimes the big picture will be incomplete, but there will be “pieces” of that picture that are five-star images in and of themselves. Mess around. Work on seeing through different lenses without having to bring the camera to your eye.

WIldflowers and North Caineville Mesa

WIldflowers and North Caineville Mesa

4. Visit the same locations at different times of day. Simply put–light changes, winds dies down, clouds pour in, more flowers bloom and your mind’s eye transforms. Do yourself a favor and don’t throw in the towel at any given location after one shoot. Many photographers chase that one idealistic image for days/weeks/months/years. Put in your time, and even if you don’t get that keeper this time, you’ll be better prepared the next time you visit the location.

Broken light on North Caineville Mesa

Broken light on North Caineville Mesa

5. Forget what you’ve seen. Let me clarify–forget what you’ve seen online, in others’ portfolios, on postcards, etc. This is perhaps one of the most difficult things to do, as what we’ve seen largely dictates what we hope to capture. Find a way to wipe your mental, emotional and creative slate clean. This is when your own, special style will take over. This is when you will create your own magic. This is what will help you with tip #2 above. Challenge yourself to see what others have not.

Factory Butte with wildflowers

Factory Butte with wildflowers

So now–Plan. Go. Do.

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.