Anelisa Durham

photographic composition – a few guidelines (but no rules!)

“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.” – Ansel Adams

For me, if a photograph is intended for an audience, and not just my own records and memories – then its success hinges around impact. Does the photograph make you stop for a few seconds at least to take it in? Then you’re at least in part successful already with the portrait. With portraits so many elements kick in to make a photograph resonate with us: The moment. The expression. Gesture. Movement. Pose and position. Lighting.

In terms of composition, I strongly feel that one should react in an instinctive way. Look at the subject and scene and respond without the mechanical decision-making that all the rules of composition brings into play – the Rule of Thirds, diagonals, mathematical formulae, the Golden Mean, and so on.

Instead, take your time to look at what is actually presented in the viewfinder. Scan the whole frame; look at the sides and corners.

Is everything that you see, everything that you want? Is this the best way that the subject can be represented? Do you need to re-frame or move to another position?

The composition of this photograph of Anelisa can be analyzed in terms of the usual guidelines:
- negative space above her,
- the diagonal line implied by her arms,
- balanced by the S-curve to her pose,
- the vertical line by her body being (approximately) on a line of a third of the frame.

There is also the strong visual dynamic with her face more or less central to the frame, the curve of this industrial chimney structure pulls your eye towards the center.

All these things do appear in analyzing the image after-the-fact. But during the time of taking a sequence of images here, the decison wasn’t step-by-step like that. It was much more that instinctive recognition that, “hey, this looks good!

And, for me, that should be what determines the composition – does it look good, and does it add to the photograph’s impact.

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photography: gelling flash for late afternoon sun (& deep blue skies)

The warm light from the nearly-setting sun, accentuated with gelled flash. Towards the end of the recent photography workshop, we were shooting on the rooftop – the warm tone of the sunlight contrasting beautifully with the blue sky.

To punch it even more, we added gelled flash via an off-camera speedlight in a softbox. We had to gel the speedlight of course, to make sure the blue color balance of the flash didn’t kill the natural light. We used a 1/2 CTS gel here which brought the flash’s WB down to around 3700K. (This photo of our model, Melanie, was taken by Rosario.)

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on-location portraits – when simplicity counts  (model: Anelisa)

This is one of those images – a portrait which is simplicity itself – and yet there is something about it, with Anelisa‘s riveting gaze and her pose, the muted complimentary colors – and the photograph just falls together somehow in a way that makes it one of my favorite photos that I’ve shot in a while. Even the lighting is simplicity itself – an off-camera flash in a softbox. But this didn’t need anything more complex than that.

Perhaps it is the juxtaposition of the rough texture of the wall, and the soft look of her skin that gives this image some of its impact. I’m not one for (over) analyzing photographs to figure out why they work – I much more prefer that the photograph’s impact comes from an “I just like this” level. I took several compositions, but preferred this off-center horizontal version.

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on-location flash photography – adding backlighting / rim-light

Once you’re comfortable using a single off-camera light-source, such as a softbox (or un-diffused flash), there’s an easy next step to add a little bit of zing to the image. Rim-lighting!

I most often work with just a single softbox when photographing portraits on location. Having the sun behind your subject, creates a natural rim-lighting. This helps separate your subject from the background. It’s not just the shallow depth-of-field that helps create that near-3D effect where your subjects just pops out from the background – rim-lighting from behind also helps bring more attention to your subjects.

The best part – it is really simple to set up and use.

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improving a photograph by finessing it in post-processing  (models: Yulia & Anelisa)

While I’m a strong supporter of the idea to get it right in camera (as far as possible), there are times when massaging a photograph in Photoshop, can greatly improve it. And ultimately, it really is the final image that counts.

As a kind of companion piece to the photo of Anelisa jumping, here is a photo taken in the same area with the same kind of strong daylight. In using off-camera lighting here, the look of the photograph is inherently different. When I posted this image on Facebook as a teaser, someone guessed that it took “very expensive reflectors and an army of assistants”. Perhaps that was meant as a tongue-in-cheek comment, since my lighting is quite straight-forward. Or perhaps it does look like an image that could pop out of a Fashion magazine. I’m biased of course .

In deciphering how the photograph came about, let’s look at the straight-out-of-the-camera image …

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a favorite image – before & after (and the how to)

There’s something about this photograph that I really like … aside from Anelisa being one of my favorite models. It is slightly surreal with Anelisa’s apparent levitation. The dress and hat is reminiscent of a 1950′s Fashion, and Anelisa’s mid-air pose is also reminiscent of Philippe Halsman’s iconic jumping images. All that, combined with the sun flaring across her face and the washed-out background, all adds to this wonderfully nostalgic mood.

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review: Westcott Rapid Box – 26″ Octa Softbox

Don’t you just hate it when something you use becomes obsolete? Well, you’d think that lighting equipment have a long lifespan. A softbox is a softbox. Well, if you can’t replace a damaged part of it because the manufacturer discontinued that part, then you’re stuck.

My preferred softbox is (or has been), the Lastolite EZYBOX 24×24″ softbox (vendor). I have three, since I use them for my photography workshops. But with use, the outside baffle tore loose from the velcro with two of the soft boxes. No big deal; entropy will have its way. But now you can’t replace these baffles. I tried to order two, but was eventually notified that Lastolite discontinued making the baffles. Great. Well, not really that great. I now have two nifty softboxes that were rendered less than useful. So I had to look at other options.

The Westcott Rapidbox – 26′ Octa Softbox (vendor) caught my attention, even among the huge variety of light modifiers available for off-camera speedlights. I bought one of these softboxes to try out at the most recent on-location photography lighting workshop in New York. And I like it a lot!

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posing tip – check the wrists and hands

In posing, a good tip is to have the wrists and hands form a kind of S-curve instead of being straight. While this photograph works for me,  and I really like the composition and her direct gaze into the camera … I should’ve guided Anelisa to bend her left wrist (the hand closer to her cheek), a bit more. That would’ve made her gesture a touch more elegant in this photograph at the top.

Of course, in analyzing your photographs closely, there is (nearly) always something to pick up on how you could’ve improved the final image.

Here is another photograph in the sequence, where you’d be able to clearly see the difference a change in the pose would’ve made …

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bounce flash photography tip – bouncing flash towards a window

During the part of the on-location lighting workshop where we play with bounce flash, Anelisa was posing on a chair, and eventually ended up in this dramatic pose. Even though she had turned away from the wall areas where we could bounce flash off, I didn’t want to change her pose.

The area to camera-left, was the large window of the studio space, so this meant using that to bounce my flash off. Naturally, most of the light will be lost.  But as shown in these previous articles;
– using on-camera bounce flash outside  (model: Precious)
– mimicking window light with off-camera bounce flash  (model: Ulorin Vex)
– and as per one example in my book, on-camera flash,
it is entirely possible to get enough light to return from the window panes, when shooting at a certain angle, and with realistic camera settings.

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studio photography – creating sun-flare images

One of the sequences I photographed of Anelisa for the video clip of a photo session in the studio, was to create this kind of sun-drenched flared image. I wanted it to look bright and airy and summery.

There was a studio flash behind her to (partially) create the flare. I had to keep adjusting my movement just so that the flash-head wouldn’t be entirely hidden, or entirely revealed.

There was a total of four flashes used, and the pull-back shot shows their positioning.

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