Tag Archives: Thomas Smith

Exercise 10 Positioning the Horizon

1/200 at f/4 ISO 100

1/200 at f/4 ISO 100

My efforts for this exercise had a few false starts as weather and poor choice of locations prevented me capturing useful images on two occasions. I arrived home earlier than normal yesterday evening and was welcomed by a beautiful evening and so was able to take an appropriate set of images locally.

The exercise asks for a clear and unbroken horizon which is hard to find so I have selected a horizon which is clear and only broken by the undulation of the hills and a few trees, a typical scene on the Surrey and Hampshire borders.

Within the constraints of the exercise I endeavoured to capture four images that were as interesting as possible. Simply moving the horizon and the declaring the result to be poor seemed unhelpful. I always work in RAW to allow the greatest scope for post production work and, with these four images, that was important. In each case I created an inverted “S” curve on the foreground and then, with the exception of fig. 4 I used a mask to set a curve on the sky to darken the blues and to minimise burnt out highlights. There was also a bit of dodge and burn. I spent enough time on this to create images for display on a monitor or the web but it would take a little longer to do this really well and I do not believe the images are good enough to warrant that much effort.

1/1000 at f/3.5 ISO 100

Fig. 1 – 1/1000 at f/3.5 ISO 100

Fig.1. In this shot I have retained enough foreground to give some depth to the photograph. The sky is the best feature but I failed to get a good colour into the blues and overall it is a poor composition. This sky does not justify this amount of the frame.

Fig 2 1/1000 at f/3.3 ISO 100

Fig 2 – 1/1000 at f/3.3 ISO 100

Fig. 2. This is a better balance, although the immediate foreground is plain there is a nice light on the grass and the hedge to the left. The sky has some tonal variation and the pylon is starkly graphic against the clouds.

Fig. 3 - 1/400 at f3.5 ISO 100

Fig. 3 – 1/400 at f3.5 ISO 100

Fig. 3. The first point to get out the way is that this is a careless exposure. I had been using a wide aperture to take unrelated photos in the other direction whilst waiting for the light to fall in the way I wanted across the foreground. I should have significantly increased the depth of field to ensure that the foreground was sharply in focus. I find the blur distracting.

In terms of the horizon I find this a well balanced shot. It is probably just about 1/3 v 2/3 and the pylon neatly fits the sky. something more interesting in the foreground would have helped the composition and I had been hopeful that the sun would reach some part of the oast houses.

As mentioned previously, Thomas Smith (1797), the person credited with coining the phrase “the rule of thirds”  said that, in the paintings of the old masters, the sky often occupied a third and the land two thirds, and he found this ratio of two thirds to one third more pleasing that the precise formal half or any other proportion. In this case I agree.

Fig. 4 - 1/160 at f/3.5 ISO 100

Fig. 4 – 1/160 at f/3.5 ISO 100

Fig. 4. The sky is irrecoverably burnt out and an interesting foreground and light on the oast houses would have made this image work better. The position of the horizon would work for the right shot as there is real depth to the image. I like the way the shapes of the hills which are topped with sunlight, the strips of sun and shade and the converging lines all emphasise that the buildings have been tucked into a fold of the hills. The texture in the foreground is helpful as a counter point to the smooth textures of the more distant hills.

Each of the framing exercises have underlined good principles about selection. It is clearly vital to instinctively select the right framing especially when the light is changing quickly and the best shot might only be available for a few seconds.

I like to think that, in the past, I have regularly used the position of the horizon creatively and the sky is an exciting subject if there is just enough foreground to provide a sense of place or an appropriate balance. I also like low angled shots using a deep foreground to lead into the subject and have found this especially useful when photographing hills and mountains.

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Research on Positions in the Frame

Fig. 01- 1/100 at f/13 ISO 100

Fig. 1- 1/100 at f/13 ISO 100

Having completed the image capture and preparation for the exercise of positioning an object in different places in the frame, but before logging the results, I want to spend some time researching the basic principles of composition.

The Mind’s Eye, Henri Cartier-Bresson (1999), includes an essay on composition in which he makes some fundamental points of principle, the first being that composition must be one of our constant preoccupations and that it can only stem from intuition. He goes on to say that application of the golden rule is made by the photographer’s eye and not by geometric tools. This is the key, we survey a scene, point, compose and shoot using our instincts, yes, we do now have the option of dividing the view finder into the rule of thirds, a day that Cartier-Bresson hoped he would never see, but it is still our eye and our instinct that sees the shot.

I am only now discovering Cartier-Bresson’s work beyond the most recognisable and iconic images. I am intrigued that image after image follows a pattern of composition where the golden rule or golden section has been applied and, no doubt, applied instinctively. I understand that he did not crop and thereby re-compose his photographs in the dark room so what we see is what he saw in his viewfinder. Sir Ernst Gombrich (1978), the eminent art historian, wrote in his introduction to the Victoria and Albert Museum archive of Cartier-Bresson’s work that nearly all his photographs exhibit the visual balance and the secret geometry of a formal composition. We know he trained as an artist and Gombrich (1978) tells us that, in his older age, he painted and sketched more than he used a camera.

It comes as something of a relief that Michael Freeman (2007) reassures us that the photographer does not need to be concerned with the exact proportions calculated by the ancient Greeks and the painters of the renaissance, the golden rule. The important point is that each of the ways, generally devised by painters, to divide the frame recognises that we respond positively to certain proportions in a picture, a harmonious division. The photographer seeks a balance in composition, a balance between the space occupied by the subject or subjects and the space not occupied by the same.

The easily understood basis of the golden rule is that it is what nature appeared to have intended we use, it is apparently repeated time and again in natural design but, perhaps, the most telling fact is that the human face is divided into sections that follow the rule. Regardless of the mathematics it seems obvious that the human brain will be geared to recognising the human face and that we feel comfortable looking at something that mimics those proportions.

Fig. 01- 1/100 at f/13 ISO 100

Fig. 2- 1/100 at f/13 ISO 100

Fig. 1 is a picture I took in 2006 and shows my original crop of a photo of a neighbour in the middle of his field which had become an ocean of poppies. As a reference point I have re-cropped the image in Fig. 2 to place Pepe on the intersection of golden sections.

The rule of thirds is sometimes described as a simplified version of the golden section. It was apparently named much more recently, most sources I found cite John Thomas Smith (1797) in his book Remarks on Rural Scenery quoting a previous work by Sir Joshua Reynolds. It appears that Smith (1797) was making an observation that great painters tended to divide their canvas into thirds both horizontally and vertically. The sky often occupied a third and the land two thirds, he continues to say that he found that the ratio of two thirds to one third more pleasing that the precise formal half or any other proportion. For the none mathematician this is instantly more understandable and I am drawn to the idea that it was an observation on existing work rather than the application of a formula.

Fig. 3- 1/100 at f/13 ISO 100

Fig. 3- 1/100 at f/13 ISO 100

In Fig. 3 I have moved Pepe to the vertical intersections created by the rule of thirds.

My summary of this short piece of research is that the golden rule and the rule of thirds have more similarities than differences. Both say that we respond positively to visual balance and that we can divide a composition into proportions that are harmonious and satisfying. However, neither can be a rigid rule of composition, and neither will direct us to a single perfect point to position the subject. In a scene where there is a single subject within an even background there are many potential points of position that follow the rules.

To bring this back to the exercise in hand Michael Freeman (2007) says that when we are photographing a single and “obvious subject” and where we have made the decision to allow free space around the subject, we have to decide where to place that object within the frame.  Assuming that the subject is going to take up a reasonably small part of the frame we are left with many choices. The golden section and the rule of thirds are useful tools to help make these choices but we are reminded by Cartier-Bresson (1999) that the camera is an instrument of intuition and spontaneity. The message must be to hone our instincts to find the harmonious balance so we point, compose and shoot without tedious calculation and delay.

Fig. 4- 1/100 at f/13 ISO 100

Fig. 4- 1/100 at f/13 ISO 100

This little research project has given me a reason to revisit my original photo of Pepe and his poppy field and I have concluded that the most pleasing crop is the one in Fig. 4. Although as Freeman (2007) points out, free placement is never guaranteed, I wish I had included more poppies to the left as I would like to see a crop with Pepe even further to the right with the red poppies stretching further out behind him in two directions. However, I am pleased I was reminded of this image and came back to it and maybe even improved the composition.

A a small piece of non photographic information. The amazing display of poppies proved to be a once off event. Pepe had ploughed this field in preparation for planting young oak trees whose root balls had been impregnated with truffle spores. He must have ploughed at the perfect moment for poppy seeds as early next summer this wonderful display appeared. Soon after the photograph was taken he turned the soil again and planted his young oak trees. I am not sure whether the truffles have arrived yet, they say it takes seven to ten years, so maybe soon.