New se­ries!

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...

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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.

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