Artistic Perception in Photography #1

Artistic Perception in Photography 

A series of short articles practical exercises and notes for new and improving digital photographers. 

A friend posted a nice image in Facebook and remarked that it looked better when cropped. (That’s often the case!) It prompted me to ask the question, why?  Why was the cropped image more attractive than the original photograph. And that in turn prompted me to think and talk about photographic composition; about the elements of design and the way that our minds perceive visual imagery. 

So, in a series of these very short videos and lessons, we’ll go right back to basics, and find out how to compose images that will excite the imagination. Remember, rarely are good images made by accident, they are planned, well thought through, conceived and constructed in the mind even before the shutter is activated. 

This series of talks and notes will be an Introduction to Artistic Perception in Photography.   How to SEE creatively. 


Part One: Zoom with Your FEET!

Whether we’re starting out in photography or we’ve been using a camera for years, if we want to improve our images we must learn to SEE in a new way. 

Let me explain. Good photographs are not ‘taken’ – they are ‘made.’  Most of what you see on social media is the result of someone lifting a camera (a smartphone usually) and just pressing the button.  Photography is more than that. It is seeing the world around us, planning a shot and adjusting the camera to make the best possible composition, with the optimal exposure. 

So, in our exploration of artistic perception the first principle we should try to grasp is the effect of having to view the world through a lens, to get some idea of the limitations and constraints that view imposes on us. 

If you own a full frame DSLR then the closest approximation to the human field of vision is a 50mm lens. If you’ve a camera with a smaller sensor, like a Fujifilm X-series, then that’s around 35mm.    Now that’s something we should practise!  Jeff Curto, the American photographer and lecturer sometimes issues his students with an A4 card, with an aperture that’s similar to a 50mm lens and asks them to hold the card up in front of them and frame the shot inside the aperture before they even lift a camera. It slows the student down. Makes them think about the limitations that are imposed by the lens and frame the image more carefully. 

Now I’m not going to post you out a card or even ask you to make one.  It I do want you to attempt a simple  experiment – even if it sounds silly!  (Make sure your neighbours aren’t watching!)

Here it is:-

  1. Choose an object to photograph. Best something outside with plenty of space around it. An object rather than a person. Something not to big, a garden wheelbarrow or even a bin!  I’ve chosen Janette’s lawn mower!
  2. Set your camera lens to 50mm focal length. (35mm if you’re using mirrorless or a DX size sensor). Don’t touch the focal length again till we’re done!  
  3. Walk ten good paces away from your target. Correctly expose. (For this exercise it might be a good idea to use aperture priority. Set your aperture to mid range, say f/5.6. Keep the aperture at the same time f-stop throughout. 
  4. Frame the target as well as possible. Be creative, be careful about your composition.  Make the viewfinder work for you.  Make an exposure. 
  5. Repeat the exposure, taking one good step toward the target after every exposure. 
  6. Now, do it all again, this time on your knees. If you have a camera with a fold-out LCD screen and live-view, you can use it, but don’t lose your ability to compose.  If you can’t see correctly in the LCD, (because of the sun for example) then it’s the knees!
  7. And again!  This time on your stomach!!!  
  8. Lie on your back at the base of the target and look up. Exposure. 

(For the sake of website space I’ve just uploaded one of each of the images)

Eye-Level 1
Eye Level
Waist -Level 1
Waist Level
Knee-Level 1
Knee Level

Now you have 16 images of the target. Load them into your computer and examine them closely. Observe the way the natural crop of the lens changes the image when you move the camera position. 

Rename your images – ‘Standing 10 paces’ ‘standing 9 paces’ etc etc  In photoshop make a contact sheet with your 16 renamed images and share it on the Facebook forum page. Write some simple comments about how the change in camera position makes the lens see the target differently, how it includes and excludes objects around the target.  What difference does this make? 

Now, with your lens set at 50 or 35mm go out into your local town or area, choose a favourite location, and make images without zooming with the lens. 

Zoom with your feet!  

Don’t be too proud to do this exercise!  Every serious photographer should do it once a year or so, just to keep the eye practised at seeing what the lens sees. 

Do you want more help?  Just ask!  Email, post questions on the forum, or come to the studio at Dundonald for some basic tuition. 

Next time we’ll start to look at what happens when you remove the standard lens supplied with your camera kit and replace it with a wide angle lens.