Composition in Photography

Photography is all about light – observing it, manipulating it, capturing it, and presenting it.  In fact, the word photography is based on two ancient Greek words that translate literally to “drawing with light.”  Learning to control the interaction of light with your camera is essential, but to produce great images, you will also need to understand Composition: the way all the individual elements that you choose to include form the final image and affect the way it is perceived. 

Before we get to Composition, a brief review of camera settings might be helpful.  Skip this if you already know it.

CAMERA SETTINGS

Most cameras come with mode pre-sets for certain scenes, like Auto, portrait, landscape, night, etc., which take the direct control of exposure out of your hands, amounting to little more than best-guesses by your camera manufacturer about what will work best.  These should probably be mostly ignored.

Consult your camera manual for instructions on individual exposure settings, allowing you to get darkness/brightness and related image attributes as you want them.  Settings to know:

Mode: Use the Mode dial to select M (Manual), S (Shutter Speed Priority), or A (Aperture Priority).  Ignore other settings. 

Shutter Speed Priority.  You select a shutter speed and the camera chooses an aperture to yield a 0 EV.  Handy for panning shots.

Aperture Priority.  You select the aperture to control depth of field and the camera chooses a shutter speed to yield a 0 EV. 

To start with, select M mode in which you control all three settings that determine exposure.

Shutter Speed and Aperture: Usually thumb/finger dials to flip through numerical settings.

ISO control is usually performed via a button on the camera body.

The current settings on your camera for Mode, shutter speed, aperture, and ISO and the resulting Exposure Value are displayed next to the scene in the Viewfinder or in the Live View LCD screen.

Suggestion: Before you shut off your camera for the day, it is good practice to return settings to “comfortable” values so you are not surprised when you start up again.  For example: Mode M, Shutter Speed 1/30, Aperture f8, ISO 100.

 

ELEMENTS OF COMPOSITION

Three categories of composition and the elements within each are listed here for ease of reference, before showing illustrative photos for each..

Exposure Triangle (Shutter Speed + Aperture + ISO => Exposure)

Motion (use blur to convey movement)
Depth of Field (use in-focus and out-of-focus to provide focus and context)
Noise: (for clarity or surrealism)
Under-/Over-Exposure (for dark or bright feel)

Properties of Subjects

Lines (to draw the eye, convey stability or strength, convey distance)
Frames (for focus or context)
Repetition (to intrigue or surprise the viewer)
Texture (visually convey physical feel)
Symmetry & Balance (please the eye, “weight” of image subjects)
Anticipation (exploit viewer’s knowledge of what comes next to convey action)
Lighting (quality of light to denote gentleness or drama)

Artist’s Manipulations

Point of View (convey superiority/inferiority, distance, focus)
Foreground (more interesting distance shots)
Simplification (pleasing effect and focus)
Space (intimacy, context, drama)
Abstraction (intrigue the eye)
Rule of Thirds (pleasing balance/unbalance)
Rule of Odds (group of 3 or 5 more comfortable)
Rule of Space (convey action or anticipation)

MAKING A PHOTO GET WHAT YOU WANT: EXPOSURE TRIANGLE
(Shutter Speed + Aperture + ISO => Exposure)

MAKING A PHOTO GET WHAT YOU WANT: PROPERTIES OF SUBJECTS

MAKING A PHOTO GET WHAT YOU WANT: ARTIST’S MANIPULATIONS

Mastering Your Camera Controls

for Digital Photo Academy

Photography is all about light – observing it, manipulating it, capturing it, and presenting it.  In fact, the word photography is based on two ancient Greek words that translate literally to “drawing with light.”  Learning photography is mostly about how light interacts with your camera and how you control that interaction to record images.

HOW LIGHT INTERACTS WITH A DIGITAL SINGLE LENS REFLEX (DSLR) CAMERA

DSLR DIagram.jpg

Using DSLRs as example:

1.    Blue Arrow: Light passes through the aperture (a resizable iris) and the lenses which can be adjusted for focus.  Light bounces up off the mirror and out of the optical Viewfinder.

2.    When shutter button is pressed (red arrows): aperture sets to the desired size, the mirror flips up, and the shutter slides away like a curtain.  Light passes through the lens to the sensor.  In Live View, this also happens before shutter button is pressed, so sensor can send image to LCD screen on back of camera.

3.    Sensor records image digitally on memory card.  The size and electronics of the sensor determines resolution and color detail.  (Fun Fact: the SLR camera worked identically, except it used film as the sensor.)

4.    DSLRs are Interchangeable Lens (ICL) cameras, allowing you to change focal length and aperture sizes with different lenses.

A Mirrorless ICL camera is much the same as a DSLR without the flip-up mirror.  A cell phone camera is mirrorless with cheap non-interchangeable lens and small sensor, using software image processing for focus and image enhancement.


IMPORTANT PHOTOGRAPHY CONCEPT: THE EXPOSURE TRIANGLE

DSLR and Mirrorless ICL cameras provide a dizzying array of features.  Use the manufacturer’s default settings for most of them until you know more about them (consult your owner’s manual or find tutorials or books).  The exception is the three elements of the Exposure Triangle, which form the foundation of photography and which you should learn to control yourself. 

Three things affect exposure (the lightness/darkness of an image): shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.  They comprise the Exposure Triangle and determine how dark or light the image will be, measured by exposure value (EV).  Slow shutter speed, small aperture and small ISO values each produce darker images.  The triangle below describes each of these three.

Exp Triangle.jpg

CAMERA SETTINGS

MODE AND EXPOSURE TRIANGLE SETTINGS

Consult your camera manual for instructions on shutter speed, aperture and ISO, allowing you to get darkness/brightness and related image attributes as you want them.  Settings to know:

Mode: Use the Mode dial to select M (Manual), S (Shutter Speed Priority), or A (Aperture Priority).  Ignore other settings.  To start with, select M mode in which you control all three Exposure Triangle elements.

·        Shutter Speed Priority.  You select a shutter speed and the camera chooses an aperture to yield a 0 EV.  Handy for panning shots.

·        Aperture Priority.  You select the aperture to control depth of field and the camera chooses a shutter speed to yield a 0 EV. 

Shutter Speed and Aperture: Usually thumb/finger dials to flip through numerical settings.

ISO control is usually performed via a button on the camera body.

The current settings on your camera for Mode, Exposure Triangle and the resulting Exposure Value are displayed next to the scene in the Viewfinder or in the Live View LCD screen.

Cell Phone Cameras must provide the above functionality through special apps, for example, check out on Android: Bacon Camera, Camera MX, Camera FV-5, CameraZOOM; or on iPhone: VSCO, Camera +2, or ProCamera.

Suggestion: Before you shut off your camera for the day, it is good practice to return settings to “comfortable” values, so you are not surprised when you start up again.  For example: Mode M, Shutter Speed 1/30, Aperture f8, ISO 100.

Poor Exposure Triangle settings can yield bad images (as seen next) but can also be used creatively (as in following).


EXPOSURE TRIANGLE “MISTAKES”

USING EXPOSURE TRIANGLE SETTINGS TO GET WHAT YOU WANT

Google Pixel 2: Adequate Convenience Camera For Photographers?

As a photographer, my main camera for serious shooting is a Nikon D7200 DSLR, however, it is a bit bulky and heavy to carry everywhere I go.  On the other hand, my Google Pixel 2 cell phone goes everywhere I go (well, except in the shower).  It has arguably the best camera of any cell phone, and it is periodically improved through software upgrades without having to spend more of my money on hardware.  So, is the camera on that phone good enough for those unplanned situations where I see something I just have to shoot and artistic quality is important?  While the picture below, taken with my Pixel 2 on a dawn visit to the farmers market, looks pretty nice to me, would it have been so much better with my Nikon DSLR that I would want an alternative?

Row Houses in Baltimore

Row Houses in Baltimore

Certainly, the Pixel 2 camera is a fine one for family snapshots, or for those endless pics of yet another great meal, or similar situations where the fact of recording is more important than the artistry of the shot.  But there are more than a few point-and-shoot cameras made by excellent camera companies like Sony, Canon, Nikon and others, that provide excellent images, good camera control, a small zoom lens, and raw files that can be edited in post, and are small enough for a (largish) pocket.  While they are excellent cameras for those impulse situations when I don't have my DSLR, they are a significant added expense compared to my cellphone (up to double its cost).  A point-and-shoot would be yet one more thing to try to keep in my already overloaded pockets, and I just know I would opt to leave it home some of the time.

The default Google Camera app produces stunning shots with the photographer doing nothing more than pointing the camera and tapping the screen, and that is great for snapshots of my lunch today, but when artistic quality is at stake, I want to be able to control focus, shutter speed, exposure and ISO, and I want raw files for post.  Fortunately, Google has developed the Camera2 API which enables those things I want, and there are plenty of apps in Play Store that provide handy interfaces for the photographer who has a cellphone on which that API has been enabled.  I am not an iPhone user, but there exist similar apps for the iPhone.

So, is the Pixel 2 good for those impulse art shots?  I think the answer is a qualified yes.

To arrive at this conclusion, I undertook some informal comparisons of the Pixel 2 with my Nikon DSLR, taking pictures of the same scene with both cameras.  Bottom line: while I detect slightly better richness of color from the Nikon and slightly sharper images, the biggest difference is in the noise from the sensor, and it is most noticeable in lower light settings, where, of course, ISO tends to be set higher.  However, to my eye, the differences are not large.  I prefer the Nikon, and probably will notice differences more with substantial cropping, but I think the Pixel 2 produces pretty good images, especially for a little pocket camera.  I have included a lot of gory details in what follows, so you can stop reading here if you are willing to accept my judgment.  BTW, I suspect the answer is the same for any other good smartphone camera, notably those from Samsung, Huawei, and Apple.  Furthermore, a recent DxOMark report drives this point home firmly, after an in-depth review of mobile camera technology: 

Thanks to their hardware advantages, the larger cameras don’t actually need the same level of pixel processing as smartphones to produce great images, but there is no denying that the performance gap between smartphones and DSLRs is narrowing.

First some background on the cameras and the setup.  The Google Pixel 2 creates a bit depth of 10, and my Nikon is 18; the raw files for the Pixel 2 are 3008 x 4016 pixels, while those of the Nikon are 4000 x 6000, so I expect better resolution with the Nikon than the Pixel 2.  For the Android camera app, I downloaded a well-rated camera app called Camera FV-5 which provides the controls I want and raw files in the form of DNG files.  I am using an 18-140mm f3.5-f5.6 zoom lens on the Nikon, while the Pixel 2 always defaults to f1.8 at 4.4mm.  Not much I can do to equivalize on those, though you will see I also tried a switch to an f1.8 fixed lens on the Nikon that is 85mm - hardly 4.4mm, but it is what I have available.

It is a little more complicated than just taking two pictures, one with my cell phone and the other with my Nikon, because, while both have Auto modes for just about everything, I am curious about what happens when you use manual settings, especially since I use manual for everything but focusing and white balance on my Nikon, but tend to go with Auto everything on my cell phone.  I use Auto White Balance on both phones.  Furthermore, I expect performance to vary by in-door lower light settings vs. outdoor brighter light, so I want both kinds of pictures.  Note that raw files from any source are almost never what I would consider final – I always edit them.  And finally, to prevent the size of the objects in the image from varying much, for the most part, I cropped the Nikon images to have the same aspect ratio as the Pixel 2, though the Nikon still has more pixels for the same “size” image.

Below, I describe 8 pictures.  In all cases I edited the files in Lightroom, using only the tonality and contrast tools, to try and bring them into the same tonal range, since the unedited raw files are tonally quite different.  I did nothing with the sharpness or noise in the images, and I changed nothing in colors, transform, or effects.  I did apply Lightroom’s Lens Correction using the appropriate profiles for each (yes, the Pixel 2 has a Lightroom profile).  Unfortunately, uploading those files to this web site reduces their resolutions so much that the distinctions I draw are not very visible, so I have not included them in the body of this post.  If you are interested, use this Dropbox link to view the files as I discuss them (I recommend downloading all files including the .BridgeSort file and use Adobe Bridge to view them, though you can view the images directly in Dropbox using filenames, or any photo viewer for that matter).  

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/78qk8cuf3q78r56/AABczmo7ssF__92KgryLd_oca?dl=0

The first pair of pictures for the comparison (DSC_0139 and _CF11637, from the Pixel 2 and Nikon, respectively) is an in-door setting (a bedroom in my house – uninspiring, but it does the trick), and I tried controlling the ISO and shutter speed for the two cameras to match (more or less) – 100 and 1/15 for the Pixel 2 and 100 and 1/13 for the Nikon.  Since I cannot control the f1.8 aperture on the Pixel 2, I set the Nikon at f3.5, with the zoom set at 18mm (as close as I could get to the Pixel 2's 4.4mm).  The third picture (DSC_0138 from the Pixel 2) is the same scene, letting the Pixel 2 default on ISO and shutter speed (294 and 1/60).  To my eye, the Nikon produced considerably less noise, with the Auto settings for the Pixel 2 producing noticeably more noise than when I controlled the ISO to 100 and the shutter speed to 1/15.  Zoom in on the Procter & Gamble trademark on the two wooden boxes between the bed and the dresser to see this.  I also feel the Nikon produces slightly richer colors and slightly sharper edges, though not by much – this probably results from the higher bit depth and the better resolution of the Nikon.

The fourth photo (_CF11640) is from the Nikon, where I just wanted to see what happened if I pushed the ISO to the limits of what I consider its acceptable noise (an ISO of 800).  I set the shutter speed to 1/13, trying to keep it where it was in the first Nikon photo, and compensating by changing the aperture to f8.0.  I think this reinforces the conclusions from the first 3 images, with noise that is only slightly worse than the Pixel 2 at ISO 100. 

The next two photos (DSC_0144 and _CF11642, from the Pixel 2 and Nikon, respectively) are close-ups of the Procter & Gamble trademark, taken by walking over close to the box with the Pixel 2 and using an 85mm f1.8 fixed lens on the Nikon.  I wanted to see how the images compare when I matched the aperture for the two cameras.  I used the Auto settings on the Pixel 2 (ISO 40 and 1/40), and ISO 100 and 1/10 on the Nikon.  Even with that slow shutter speed, I think the image Nikon is a slightly cleaner image.

Finally, the last two images (DSC_0142 and _CF11646, from the Pixel 2 and Nikon, respectively) are of an outdoor setting.  The Pixel 2 was on Auto where it picked an ISO of 50 and 1/350 shutter speed. The Nikon is back to the zoom lens with 18mm, f8.0, ISO 100, and shutter speed 1/60.  The noise difference is not nearly as noticeable here, nor is the sharpness of the image (given that the two cameras are focused in different places), though I still think the Nikon produces slightly richer colors.

This is hardly a carefully controlled comparison.  It was difficult/impossible to create photos where the two cameras used identical settings, or even to let just one isolated setting vary. For starters both the sensors and the lenses are different, and that immediately muddies every other comparison.  So, these comparisons are not perfect, and you might think of better comparisons for purposes of deciding if your smartphone camera works adequately for art impulse photos.  Nonetheless, I think my general conclusions hold, that, for me, the Pixel 2 is adequate, though the Nikon has slightly richer color and slightly sharper images, with the biggest difference being in the noise that is most noticeable in lower light settings.  But none of the differences are show-stoppers for the Pixel 2, in my opinion.

If you have experimented with a similar comparison, please let me know what you have found.