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Do You Scuba?

Hank Azaria’s humorous line in “Along Came Polly” struck me and has alway stuck with me. O.k., so it really doesn’t have anything to do with the blog or photography. I read somewhere that catchy titles draw readers to the Blog. So I thought this might work. I also read you should not falsely lead readers to your blog! Sorry, I broke the rule. But this is a post about breaking the rules, so maybe I didn’t? The real question is, do you crop? Or maybe more appropriately, when and where do you crop?

Barns, Frankenmuth, Michigan

I recently posted this image in a forum I frequent. A couple talented photographers I respect and whose work I admire made some suggestions in the nature of critique. It was interesting to hear the different viewpoints. One poster made the predictable suggestion that I crop out the vast grey sky to in the top left portion of the image. I agree that as a general rule, plain grey skies (and as a second, overcast and a third plain blue sky) are a negative to a good photograph. Indeed, as a rule, when conditions are overcast, it is a wise compositional approach to exclude that sky, in favor of the usually saturated color and shape of a more close-up view of the object. A crop of the image in light of the poster’s suggestion follows.

Another poster noted that including more of what was to the right of the image might serve to exclude the negative image space created by the grey sky. He acknowledged, however, that without being there, it wasn’t possible to tell what image elements might exist to the right. There are other buildings, sheds, a residence, etc. to the right. But I did not feel that their inclusion resulted in the strongest possible image.  But this is an image that breaks a major established rule.  When you have boring, grey skies, exclude them.  Yet in this image, the grey sky to the right creates substantial “negative space” in the image (perhaps as much as 25%).

But this is an image that breaks a major established rule.

James Moore, who has critiqued my images in depth, including on his blog, had this to say:

“Composition and color balance were two factors that brought me to the top image as a favorite of the two. The lead sky does provide a good bit of negative space in the top photo. I don’t think its overwhelming because it is very nicely balanced by the busyness of the large tree on the right. “There is also a nice color balance provided by the negative space. Let negative space work for the image instead of against it as we see in too many other images–that means balance with either color, pattern, texture, or visual elements . . . It’s just one of those scenes that provide seemingly overwhelming challenges that are seldom overcome in any perfect sense. So, let the major aesthetic elements speak for themselves: negative space, bright splash of color, detail rich icing in the branches, texture of the buildings.”

Aside from the obvious conclusion that he liked my own choice, I think Jim’s comment articulated what I was unable to say for myself.   After consideration of the comments of others, and on balance, I prefer the original composition to the crop!

I have recently been studying fundamental art composition theory in an effort to apply it to my own photographic endeavors. As I framed this image, and more to the point, as I reviewed the images on the digital light table, this particular composition from this shoot “called to me.” The horizontal composition of balancing the large grey barn with the smaller shed out to the left seemed to me to fit with what composition theorists call the “steelyard.” It is based on the lever and fulcrum technique. The further out on the lever arm, the smaller the balancing item should be in order not to “tip” the balance.

My goal with this particular composition was to balance the bulk of the barns with the lesser shed. At the same time, I thought the horizontal lines of the shed boards balanced the upward lines of the tree branches. Finally, I liked the way the snow-covered trees in the space between the barn and the shed tied those parts of the image together.

Did I see all these elements in the field? I wish I could say resoundingly, “yes” to that. I didn’t. I did recognize them in my review of the images on the light table though. Jim Moore would pose the question differently. He would ask rhetorically, “should we see all those elements in the field.” And he would answer the question, absolutely, yes! That is what we strive for as photographic artists. I know I’ll never reach the point where I see every important detail and how it fits within my compositional goals when behind the lens. But it is something that I am working toward.

There will be always be rules and truisms about composition and cropping. Use the rule of thirds. Exclude items that detract from the image. Include important elements in the image. Compose according to the golden rule. Include elements that give the subject matter context and perspective.

When is the best time to do this? The best answer is when you are composing the scene in the viewfinder. That takes thought and time behind the lens. There will be times when, try as you might, you just don’t “see” the real image until you are back in the “darkroom.” If you can return to the scene and re-shoot the real image that is wonderful. But if you cannot, you may need to crop images later. This is not the optimum approach. As you make large crops, you are throwing away pixels and when you do that, you will degrade ultimate image quality. So you really do want to strive for the best composition within the sensor/frame you are working with. Aside from the merits of how it relates to “seeing,” this is another part of what Jim is advocating.

Good photography is very much the art of “seeing.” There were definitely elements in this image that drew the eye. In this case they were the shape and color of the contrasting small red barns and the larger weathered wood barn. The other elements are the compositional details that make the image compelling. This was not an image with a “whiteout” grey overcast sky. Rather, the sky was a kind of silver-grey foreboading sky (Jim Moore called it a “lead” sky). I felt that although the “negative space” occupied by this silver-grey sky took up nearly 25% of the image, it was not fatal to the overall composition.

Crop based on comments of other viewers

One of the beauties of art is a that we all see differently and there is room for healthy disagreement. The first poster’s comments did not result in a lesser image. Indeed, I like both images. The crop emphasizes shape and color.

What do you think?

4 Responses

  1. Andy, the original shot has just too much sky for my tastes. While the sky isn’t as bright as the snow on the roofs, it is such a large area of brightness that my eye is drawn to it. I see the sky before I see the buildings. I don’t think that is what you want.

    The cropped photo sucks me right into the subject. The one thing the crop does that I don’t particularly like is it cuts out the top branches of the tree and that tree adds a lot to the photo.

    So here’s another thought. Why not crop the photo into a vertical, cutting off the excess sky on the left and including the top of the tree on the right?

    So there’s my two cents worth.


  2. Hey Andy…thank you for referencing and quoting me….GULP….LOL. Sorry I missed your original post as I was in the Smokies that week.

    I see that you have now thoroughly evaluated your image. You’ve submitted it for review and comments by knowledgable photographers; you’ve studied and re-studied it in concert with the book-learning you’ve been doing, and you’ve made a blog post out of it, expressing perhaps some of your final thoughts.

    There are myriad reasons I like the original composition but I don’t want to minimize that which forms it’s strongest appeal.

    Now, chew on this: there is one major reason, and only one reason I was drawn to your uncropped image…and that which, after your study/review, you find to be the better one too: color balance.

    Fine art photography finds the strongest expression of our emotional response to a scene with color. That’s a major part of color balance–using color to communicate our most intense feelings about a specific scene at the moment of capture…why we are drawn to one scene and not another…what a specific scene calls out so strongly to us or whispers in our ear for only us to hear. Sometimes its so obvious that we don’t recognize it.

    In this case, it’s that foreboding lead sky that portends yet more snow after a winter that seemed too long, too stormy, too cold, etc. That massive amount of negative space very clearly communicates “…it’s too cold and going to snow again” to me. And, it is contrasted by the flashy red smaller out buildings. (so, what does the color RED communicate to you?).

    Composition is not just about the placement of visual objects wihin the frame; there is also contrast (textures, patterns, aesthetic forms, color, etc.), and color balance to express mood, essence, and our emotional response.

    IMO, your image is a very good example of the latter in how it so strongly communicates the most important visual aspect and essence of that scene.

    I like both the original and the crop; but, each tells a totally different story. Just my opinion.


    PS: you wrote, ” I know I’ll never reach the point where I see every important detail…” You WILL if you work at it and approach it with a positive attitude 🙂

  3. Jim: Thanks for the comments …. again. I appreciate the analysis you bring to it. I agree that there are two images here. I once Blogged about “The Image Within The Image.” I think that applies here. I also want to go back an look at my image files, because I believe, per Al’s suggestion, that I may have a vertical take on this, too. To me the original image is about color and balance, while the crop is more about the shapes and how they juxtapose.

    I’ll keep working on those details — and looking forward to some help from you!

    • Andy: my apology for extended comments–I forgot to write that there is NO “correct” or “right” way to compose an image in fine art landscape photography (the only genre I know a little bit about). There is ONLY the way that the photographer sees the scene and communicates his/her emotional response to it.

      In essence, that’s what breaking the so-called “rules” of composition is all about…and why legendary master photographers placed absolutely no emphasis on the “rules” of composition.

      To do so successfully always results in an image that one never, ever grows weary of seeing–that’s my definition of a “great” photograph.

      So, you either see it or you don’t. If a scene excites you, you have the beginning of a great image. If it doesn’t elicit an emotional reaction, then move on because you will only be wasting precious light otherwise.

      In conclusion, you’ve captured the essence of compositional rule breaking not only in your image, but also in the theme of this post.

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