Virtual circles are uncommon, but among the most satisfying shapes to capture
Circular shapes in photography are powerful and rare – at least, virtual circles are. They’re strong because they enclose and pull things together, wrapping them up into a visual package that centres the eye. However, they’re not easy to find because, unlike other shapes such as triangles and rectangles, they are continuous and need a sense of completeness to work effectively. They’re also a very good demonstration of why difficult is good in composition. There’s little point in photographing a clock face and then admiring it for being round. Shapes work best in photography when they’re the least expected and the most dependent on the individual photographer finding them or suggesting them.
Overhead shots often have the potential for shapes of one kind or another, simply because they offer a flat, plan view. In this case, the overhead viewpoint was possible because the two men were scooping up tea leaves that had been drying all day in the sun, right below a three-story building. While shooting from ground level was also useful, the less common view from overhead was appealing because it gave some different graphics, and I was looking for variety in shooting a story on tea. Nevertheless, the idea of having an integrated shape didn’t immediately occur, as the first frame of the strip of three shots (above) shows. This was the beginning of what ended up as a sequence of 43 shots.
Completing the circle
Pulling back with the zoom included the entire pile of leaves, and as the activity continued I realized, by the time of the second frame here, that the leaning forward by the man with the shovel, together with his shadow, was making a sort of oval, which made me pay more attention to the possibility of a shape. I was, by this point, timing my shots for when the wooden shovel was fully extended. As the pile of leaves got smaller and rounder, and as he moved in closer, his shadow, curved at the top, started to complete a circle, and was aided by the eyelines of the two men facing inward (and of the shadow, which, in effect, became a third person from up high).
There were many tiny variations because of the action, and finally I waited until the shadow made the closest connection with the now almost-round pile of leaves. Cropping often does more harm than good to a picture, but in this case I planned it for square so as to heighten the sense of the circle, and also to crop out the distracting upper curve of the white plastic sheet.
Shapes work best in photography when they’re the least expected
Left: The sheet above and the shadow below creates a weak oval… Right: However, the four semicircular shapes overwhelm the oval to create a virtual circle, and the inwardpointing eyelines act like spokes to reinforce the sense of the circle
Shadows and shapes combine to contain the action of scooping tea leaves into an approximate circle, but only gradually, over the course of the scooping, did a sense of structure appear — first as an oval and finally a circle