In his new 13-part series, Nikon ace Micheal Freeman will be looking at ways to get more creative with your photography. First up: treating composition like a high-speed jigsaw...
The 13 paths to creative photography
Here’s a different way of looking at photography, and it’s my attempt to answer one of the most heartfelt questions I get asked at talks, seminars and workshops: ‘How can I be creative?’, with the variation ‘How can I develop a style?’ Not an easy one by any means, and there’s a body of opinion out there that holds it to be pointless – you either have it or you don’t. Period.
Well, if you subscribe to the genius theory of creativity, that would be true, but in photography, as in painting, writing and poetry, there are degrees of being creative. If you feel the need, that’s a big start. The next step, to make it actually happen, has to be practical. It’s too easy to waffle and theorise, but the idea this year at N-Photo is to show you some specific paths that each lead to a creative injection. A way to make photographs more interesting, engaging and entertaining. You can mix and match, as some of them work in combination, but for now let’s go one by one.
Composition is king
There’s a fair case to make that composition is the prime skill in photography. It doesn’t depend on the quality of light, or the colours, or even how compelling the subject is. It’s all within you. Your eye, your judgment, and of course what you do with the camera and lens to make it all work.
There are endless recipes in composition, but try the following suggestion, which is more a way of thinking about composing than adopting a particular style. It goes straight to the core of what composition is about, and that’s creating some sort of order out of the chaos of visual life. What we usually see in the front of the camera is a bit messy, even a lot messy. Disorganised. There’s no reason to expect otherwise, and that’s why casual photographs, taken without much thought, also tend to look messy and undistinguished. Bringing order to a scene means thinking about how all the visual elements are going to fit together in your rectangular frame.
The way to do this is to stop thinking about the subjects in front of you as real, and treat them as graphic shapes, whether defined by outline, brightness or colour. These are the visual elements that the world gets converted to in a photograph, and if you can treat them as flat blocks that you can slide around inside the frame, you should find it easier to perform this fitting together. Why bother? Because it makes an image clear and skilful rather than confused and sloppy – and above all it makes it yours.
Imagine, for instance, that you have a street scene with several people all doing different things. If you can manage to get each of them in their own space in the frame, separated from each other, you’ll have instantly organised the photograph.
There are three basic things you can do to make this jigsaw work for you: change the focal length of the lens, use your feet, and/or simply wait. Altering the focal length from wide to telephoto cuts out some of the visual elements; going from telephoto to wide adds more. Changing your viewpoint by moving puts things in different relationships with each other. And waiting for the moment when one thing just fits inside or next to another completes the scheme. Often, you’ll need to do two or even all three together.
Not everyone does this, or cares about it. It’s just one path. But it certainly works.
Stop thinking about the subjects in front of you as real and treat them as graphic shapes
A torn flag flapping in the wind offered a flickering window to a group of Tibetan men. The unpredictability of the movement meant it took 35 frames over eight minutes to pin down what I wanted.