Zen Camera 4

The photographer at work
The photographer considering the shot he wants

Back to Basics 1

So, let us begin the basics of a visual education!
To continue the analogy with how we are taught to talk, then read and then write – can we find a similar sequence of steps to take our visual education on the same journey – using similar building blocks?
As I pointed out, ” Learning to communicate verbally is a long, intricate and highly valued part of everyone’s upbringing.” Now, as adults, I guess that learning to communicate visually is rather like learning a foreign language … more difficult than learning it as a child! But if we want to communicate our own visual thoughts, ideas, insights and inspirations, I think it is worth taking a step back, and discovering what we have unconsciously absorbed along the way as we have grown up in our modern society.

In his book David Ulrich sets out the 5 visual elements of photography which are the central ways in which the photographer can communicate what s/he sees.
It seems a good place to start. To continue using analogies, unpicking the way a photographer operates is rather like learning to drive a car. All the things that you have learned as individual skills have to come together and coalesce into an almost unconscious body-and-mind skill set – so that you can then concentrate on the road ahead.
These 5 elements (and probably much more) will coalesce into a seemingly instinctive response to the subject you are about to capture with your camera.
So let’s start with two big areas of the Frame, and the Composition.


As soon as you lift the camera to your eye and look through the view finder ( in digital cameras that will be an Electronic View Finder or EVF) you have a frame. The same thing happens with the back of your mobile phone, the LCD screen acts as a frame in the same way. And as soon as you have that frame, you have all the puzzles, problems and potential that framing brings with it! What do you want include? What do you want to exclude? What if I change or move the frame – maybe just from Landscape to Portrait orientation? The frame is not a fixed thing – it is the basic way that you are going to communicate with the viewer who will be looking at your photo.
We have become used to different frames (or aspect ratios) when we go the cinema, or watch on the TV screen. The film might be letterbox shape, or the old standard which is roughly 4:3. You can set your TV to 16:9. So different shapes are not news to the modern viewer. And there are other decisions regarding framing the shot that we take, almost by osmosis, from watching films and TV. The close-up shot, maybe of a hand turning a door knob. The cropped shot, where maybe only the head and shoulders of a person is in the frame. And the shot that Alfred Hitchcock was so fond of – the tilted shot. We know also how to ‘read’ these shots. The close-up of the hand on the door knob signifies it is an important moment, maybe scary, when something is about to be revealed. The head and shoulders shot could signify that the person’s expression is important. And the Hitchcock shot tells us that there is something far wrong with the normal world we take for granted. So we don’t come to the camera’s frame with ‘fresh’ eyes – we bring a lot of knowledge with us, even if we are not fully aware of it.

So where do we begin when we want to learn more about how we as the creator can use the frame of the camera in inventive and creative ways?

It may seem odd to you, but my biggest learning experience was through the Impressionist painters. It was a time when artists were wanting to paint everyday life rather than the big historical or religious canvases that had been what ‘real’ art was all about. And it is thanks to them that we now take photographing everyday life as a no-brainer ;o)
Alongside this drive to paint the everyday, the natural world, and paint outdoors too, there was the beginnings of photography that was trying to do more than just take posed studio shots. The two groups of artists met and influenced each other in many ways. It was such a seismic shift, of subject matter as well as how to frame and record the subject.

Degas Place de la Concorde
Degas “Place de la Concorde” A revolutionary new way to see the world

This is an oil painting that looks very much like a photograph – a snapshot, a particular moment frozen by the camera, a candid street scene of the day. But at the time it scandalised the art critics and the viewing public.
It was shocking to see a painting where the all the central figures are seemingly unaware of the artist, facing in random directions One is hovering on the left edge of the canvas, and the central family group comprises the father walking out of the frame, and two children looking away from each other and us. They are all cropped, even the dog! Traditional ideas of the time would have expected a happy family group interacting with each other, or posed and looking out of the canvas at the artist/viewer. But this view of random and seemingly meaningless activity (or lack of it) jarred with every expectation of the cultured art lover!
One of the new, revolutionary and deeply shocking effects of this interaction between the budding photographic art form and traditional painterly forms was that the frame itself becomes an important part of the canvas. By frame I mean the edges of the canvas (and the edges of the photographic frame) and not the ornate wooden surround!!
When people are walking into and out of the canvas the viewer is made acutely aware that there is a whole lot more going on … that there is a story outside the frame … that we are looking at a moment in time, caught and frozen … a moment that the artist and viewer can think about and complete for themselves. Suddenly the viewer becomes a participant in the artistic process – no longer a passive consumer/admirer. The ‘canvas’ – be it a photograph or an oil painting – is alive in a way that is quite new.


Entire books have been written about composition, both in fine art and photography. There are many sets of rules, guidelines and dos and don’t for composing the best shot you can. The basic starting point is The Rule of Thirds (which gives you a grid to overlay your image) and then refined by applying The Golden Ratio (overlaying the grid with a Fibonacci sequence). Both have been used in art and architecture for hundreds of years.
But I instinctively keep away from rules that impose a structure on me. I don’t want a mental ‘expert’ over my shoulder whispering that I am breaking some rule! And once in my head, it can be difficult to silence the critic within! It might make me a poorer photographer, I don’t know. But from visiting art galleries, and my own attempts at painting and drawing, I came to photography and just dived in and learned as I went along.

To me the central issue is not which rule to apply – but what do I want to show my viewer? And how do I do that best? And the best way to answer those questions will vary each time I ask them! If I want to show the landscape around me I won’t make the same choices as if I want to show the intricate folding of petals within a rose. For a landscape I usually choose the wider 16:9 aspect , and for flowers the more square 4:3 aspect. But not always! Play with the choices your camera offers, why stick to rules?
A trip to shoot the landscape with throw up very different questions and possibilities from the rose. I can position the rose, but I can’t position the landscape. The subject dictates, and I have to listen (with the open mind) Maybe I will emerge with a collection of shots that I never expected, and none of the subject I set out to capture.

The new fence and rhododendrons
The new ranch fence adorned with rhododendrons

So I can offer a few general comments on how I think of composition.
I like off-centre placing
I seek to use negative space
I love minimal images
I like diagonals
I don’t like square format
I keep aware of the dynamic frame
I try to allow the subject to ‘speak’

There are other things of course – the lens I use, the lighting, the colour and tonal values – but these will be covered under separate headings. I know this division is not ideal, but it does offer a little structure!

More about the Frame Here
More about composition Here
A look at Negative Space in composition Here
Back to the Zen Camera cover page

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© 2019 Elisa Liddell