Using shadow barriers to anchor a viewer on your photograph

How can you hold someone's attention on a photograph? What about making barriers to stop them from leaving?

Photographs are not often studied for long periods of time by the casual viewer, but I think if you can hold someone's attention for 5 seconds rather than two, the image is somewhat victorious.

Many things can grab the viewer's attention - story, metaphor, gore, et-cetera - but in this post I'd like to talk about figuratively bouncing the viewer's eye back into the picture as it is trying to leave.

Lighting this portrait from the left, and having the sitter gaze to the left also, I’ve tried to prevent the viewer from prematurely exiting right, even if it is for a fraction of a second.

Lighting this portrait from the left, and having the sitter gaze to the left also, I’ve tried to prevent the viewer from prematurely exiting right, even if it is for a fraction of a second.

  • Light sources from camera left create shadows on the right so that the eye reads across the image and the shadow returns the eye to the left side.

  • If a person faces left, the viewer follows their gaze back across the picture. If they are facing right it is almost like the viewer can skim across the picture and has permission to exit the right side of the frame.

  • Bouncing the eye back into the picture is also the purpose of a matte in a frame - that is why wide mattes (relative to the picture) are desirable rather than simply filling the frame just with the picture. It provides a wasteland the viewer must cross to exit, and they may decide to return to the picture by force.

I find this theme interesting because it implies the direction a subject faces, and the position of the key light are not at the photographer's whim, but are best kept constant to capture the attention of a viewer. Of course, the converse is also useful - you may want a rapid flow of the viewer’s eye from the left and out over the right side of the frame.

There are plenty of examples dating back to renaissance paining. The lighting on the Mona Lisa is from the left and her eyes take you back left. Read across Caravaggio's “Calling of St Matthew” and you’ll find Jesus pointing you back left from the shadows. Those painters didn’t leave anything to chance - every minutia of the picture is intentional.

The decisive month

What is the length of a decisive moment?

Henry Cartier-Bresson's images imply the composition changes in fractions of a second. Ansel Adams waited for the movement of clouds and sand dunes over the course of minutes and hours. The temporal decision on when to release the shutter adds a third dimension to the 2D composition in-front of the lens.

Missing the decisive moment

I recently realized I missed a decisive moment, probably by weeks. I took a low quality picture of a Houston downtown abandoned building with a Pen FT. The picture is grainy, but more importantly, it was in black and white. The graffiti on the windows of the building was very large and interesting, but colourful - and it disappeared when viewed in black and white. I told myself I would return later to get a colour photo on a digital camera. 

Weeks passed - and when I returned I found a building with all the windows removed. I guess the building is now being repaired and put back to use. It is still an interesting scene in its own right, but not the image I had visualized.

Waiting, in this case, was a mistake. You have to grab your moments, because you don't know when the moment will end.

Two manual camera settings that beat automatic ones

Between a scene presenting itself and you pressing the shutter button, there are two calculations you or your camera need to make - the exposure settings and focus distance. Eliminating these calculations makes the shot happen faster, and makes the image more important than operating the contraption in your hands. Here is how.

1. Estimating exposure.

Many vintage cameras lack light meters. External light meters can be used, but that is one more gadget to carry around and slow you down. Both film and digital have a lot of latitude with respect to over or under-exposure, so you can worry less about settings and more about making a compelling image.

Just use the sunny-16 rule and relax. In summary, the rule means using f16 and shutter speed of 1/ISO in full sun. Drop one or two stops for cloudy conditions. This is an exact equivalent of shutter or aperture priority depending on how you reduce the light hitting your film.

This method is preferable to your camera's reflected light meter (if it has one) because you are essentially using an ambient reading, and you can ignore the apparent brightness of the subject (e.g a bright white building, or black cat).

With indoor light at night, I find I can shoot ISO 400 film at the equivalent of f2.0 at a 60th. 

2. Zone focusing.

Just because we have auto focus, it is not necessarily the fastest way to focus. The lost art of zone focusing is to use a narrow aperture and set it to the hyper focal distance. This is much easier to do with vintage lenses with lots of distance scale markings. Lenses for modern digital cameras are not as easy to manipulate for zone focusing.

For example, I use f11 and set infinity to the '11' mark on my Rollei 35 lens for walking around cities. Anything 3 meters and further will be in acceptable focus - a picture is ready to be taken at any time. 

TIP: 'Trim' your settings

Pilots use trim controls to keep an aircraft flying in a straight line without having to make constant corrections on the main controls. It compensates for changing wind and weight distribution conditions. In a similar way, I find I'm 'trimming' the settings on my camera as I walk around outdoors even when not actively shooting. For example, if clouds roll in-front of the sun, I'll decrease the shutter speed a stop or two. If I want the background out of focus, I'll set infinity beyond the hyper-focal range. Having the settings trimmed means not fumbling with the camera when a subject presents itself. Read more about the exact settings I use here.


Downtown Houston, Rollei 35s, Ilford HP5.

Downtown Houston, Rollei 35s, Ilford HP5.

New life for forgotten photographs

A lot of thought goes into the composition of a photograph. Lots of small decisions sum to the final image. The difference between when I started taking pictures and now is that composition has become a conscious process with consistent results. In earlier snapshots, the consistency was not there and any satisfying compositions were generally taken by accident or without intention. Does this mean all my early images are worthless? Maybe not.

Composition by accident

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. Kodak DX7440.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. Kodak DX7440.

Here is an example of discovering a good composition in an old set of images. One of my favorite pictures from my time in California is a shot of the Golden Gate bridge. It was a quick snapshot taken from the Alcatraz ferry for a memory rather than for a print, but it contains many visual elements that are very pleasing. The image is split into thirds horizontally - sea, clouds and sky. The bridge is viewed from an orthogonal angle - most postcard shots are oblique and taken from higher ground. I don't even know if I could take this exact photo again as so many elements came together in a single moment.

Composition by editing

It is an interesting exercise to look though old photographs that are not perfect, but have the potential for improvement. Here are some ways to bring out their best:

  • Cropping. Basic composition tools like symmetry, rule of thirds, or even border-placement of a subject can be achieved using simple cropping and rotation.
  • Perspective correction. Pictures of man-made structures are often distorted due to the tilt of the camera. Professional photographers use tilt-shift lenses or large format cameras, but corrections can also me made in processing software. Correcting the converging lines of a building to being parallel can make a photo more pleasing.
  • Black and white conversion. Some images can be ruined by conflicting or distracting colours taking the emphasis away from the subject. A conversion to monochrome can restore balance, assuming that a strong figure-to-ground relationship remains.
  • Spot removal. I have some scans of my parents' photographs from the 1960s through the 1990s. On a few of my favorites I have gone in and digitally removed dust and scratches to make them look less neglected, but not so much to make them look like a modern image. To further the restoration, correcting the white balance can completely change the mood and perceived reality of an old image.

Lastly, and this might not be for everyone, but editing by deletion is also possible. You can delete duplicates (or near duplicates), off-focus images and those which have no meaning to you. This means that when you do go though old photos looking for ones to revive, there are fewer, but higher quality photos to search through.

The Astrodome from above

I've written before on how using Google Earth is a great way to explore a city, and can even be used to create compositions directly (find that post here). 

One of Houston's most interesting buildings as observed from the sky must be the Astrodome. It has a circular shape with lots of rectangular windows in a triangular pattern on the roof. Here's how I took Google's image of the Astrodome, and processed it to create an almost abstract image to emphasise the shapes and geometries of the architecture.

  1. Overlapping screenshots of the structure were taken and then stitched together in software to create a high-res image. 
  2. Distortions are present because the satellites are not exactly over the building when the images were taken. This was easily corrected in Lightroom or Photoshop. 
  3. To get the super-contrast effect, the image was converted to black and white by reducing the saturation. The levels were then narrowed so that the black and white points are very close together.
  4. The image was cropped to square so that the Astrodome appears very dominant in the center.
  5. Lastly, spot healing was used to remove distracting elements from the image.
Astrodome from above in pure black and white.

Astrodome from above in pure black and white.

Houston as art using Google Earth

I was reading about artists who work photos that already exist rather than make more of them - a book called 'Post-Photography' by Robert Shore. Among the featured artists, there were a few who search through google maps looking for obscure places, glitches in rendering, or making photo-merges with immense detail. One of these artists, Clement Valla, describes the vast database of Google's images as the product of algorithms, created by many sources of cameras and sensors. Because of this, he argues that he is often 'seeing an image materialize...that no other human has ever seen'. An interesting thought.

I've used google maps in the past to hunt for locations, but thought it would be interesting, in the vein of the Post-Photography artists, to explore screen grabbed maps as compositions in themselves. 

Finding Houston's compositions

Obvious places to start looking are highways and rail lines. These provide lines and s-curves that are pleasing to the eye. Complicated highway intersections are a personal favorite. Looks like Spaghetti. Regular streets can  be interesting but Houston, like many American cites, is afflicted by the grid system. The challenge here is to find neighborhoods with windy streets, often forced by proximity to a stream or bayou. Perfect grids may lack natural flow, but can be a great study in repeat patterns, symmetry and pattern disruption.  

Geometric shapes can be found in many places. The tree clusters at Waugh and Memorial are a good example. The landscaping efforts are best viewed from above.  

Of course, Google Maps' imagery is in colour, but colours are often dominated by greens and browns that may not be all that interesting. Black and white is an easy way to get rid of the distracting colours and focus the eye on the more interesting components - shape and texture. The Astrodome's roof is a mosaic of rectangular skylights in pie-piece arrangements. Photos of the roof from inside the dome look great, but this bird's eye view perfectly shows the layers of architectural patterns without the distraction of colour.

Online maps ore often the only way to view certain, otherwise restricted parts of the city. The examples below are of a NASA airplane on Ellington's taxiway and the industrial texture of a refinery near the port of Houston. 

We've just covered taking direct screen-grabs from the available maps, but post-processing opens up another world of possibilities: colour-manipulation, image repetition and symmetry, image-stitching. I'll cover these aspects in a future post.

From streets to continents

If you do go exploring the Earth, spend some time zoomed out looking at geological features that are millions years in the making. Beyond Galveston is the Gulf of Mexico, laden with sediments under the water sliding over a Jurassic salt deposit. This gives the sea floor a dimpled texture all they way out to the limit of the salt. The image on the right is shown rotated so north is to the left. You can easily spot the urban spider-web of Houston in the lower-left corner.

From pixels to real places

The is some stand-alone value to finding compositions in Google Maps, but scouring through imagery of Houston brings me back to my original use for the maps - location hunting. How do things that look great from above look from the side? From below? There are parts of the city I would never think to visit, but now there is a reason to explore.

Aspect ratios and composition

The aspect ratio of an image sets the stage for all subsequent composition decisions. Investigating square or panoramic compositions can help build the message of an image and inject some creativity.

Rectangular images

The most common pictures we see and sometimes hold are 4x6 inches, or in that ratio. 4x5 and 8x10 are similar, but slightly less elongate. Maybe we gravitate to this ratio as a standard because our eyes are side by side and so we view the world through a rectangular portal.

Lightning over Houston downtown. Canon T3i.

Lightning over Houston downtown. Canon T3i.

The rectangular nature of a frame lends itself to placing the subjects off center, but not too close to the edge. This concept is often formalized as 'the rule of thirds' and works well as a composition tool. Pushing the subject off-center provides air and potential negative space on the opposite side of the image. 

A point to note - slightly off center subjects, and those too close to the edge, can make the image look poorly executed. They either need to be in the center, or a significant distance from the center and the edge of the frame. Of course, intentional violation of these guidelines can produce some wonderful compositions, too.

Houston Lightning off_center
Houston Lightning edge


Panoramas are simply images with wider than usual aspect ratios. We are in the territory of 16x9 and beyond here. Either cropping or stitching together multiple images can produce the required ratio. I adore 16x9 because it looks like a still from a movie, with the bonus that is fits TV and monitor screens efficiently. Composition rules break down as the ratio gets wider, and there has to be enough interest throughout the frame to keep the viewer's attention.

Death Valley Dune. Canon 70D.

Death Valley Dune. Canon 70D.

Square images

Even though most 35mm cameras default to a 4x6 ratio, you can always crop to square if desired. I often find that intentionally shooting with a square crop in mind works better than shooting rectangular and cropping opportunistically later. I use a 6cm by 6cm medium format camera which by design produces square images.

With square images, the rule of thirds is a little harder to execute. If a subject is off center, it is already close to the edge of the frame. Thirds are easier to deal with if there are multiple points of interest in the photograph that balance each other out.

In the example image to the right, I tried to place the heads of the subjects on the third intersections, and there is an implied diagonal as the faces look at each-other. Framing each face with the door-windows is icing on the cake.

Symmetry with the square frame feels strong and much more at home than with any rectangular aspect ratio. It can make the subject incredibly dominant - there is no where else for the eyes to look. Dead-center portraits and straight-on views of buildings work well. 

Lastly, the idea of vertical or horizontal framing is not a consideration when making a square image. This has its pros and cons, but I like having one less variable to explore so I can concentrate on other composition decisions.


Coffee shop portait, Houston. Hasselblad 500cm, Ilford HP5.

Coffee shop portait, Houston. Hasselblad 500cm, Ilford HP5.

Wainhouse Tower, Halifax, UK. Hasselblad 500cm, Ilford HP5.

Wainhouse Tower, Halifax, UK. Hasselblad 500cm, Ilford HP5.