Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Negative Space

Although I am tempted to continue exclusively with some of the recent shots taken in the UAE (like the The Zaha of the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque, Abu Dhabi, UAE below), I will live up to another promise to friends; in addition to sharing some select shots, I will begin to discuss techniques, composition, equipment, planning, post processing, printing, and other resources I find useful for improving and displaying photography.

In this entry, I will talk about a favorite technique of mine you can see clearly in the first picture showing the U.S. Capitol building in the background of the Botanical Garden; enhancing a dark sky on a black and white shot. In my opinion this type of composition and technique adds some wonderful contrast and introduces a large negative space on the shot which then pushes the attention of the observer to the subject of the photograph.

First I need to admit my love affair with black and white photography. I find nearly all forms of photography have their special appeal, but black and white is something truly magical to me. I frequently find myself searching out details hidden in the recesses of B/W that would not attract my attention in full color. In another article I will show some shots that are interesting in a related way; desaturated shots. While not quite black and white, harshly desaturated shots leave only hints of color and inspire the mind to fill in the blanks. Much like the difference in mental engagement between listening to radio theater and watching a sitcom on television.

The technique I will describe here focuses on a well known concept in art; negative space. In the case of the shots I present here, it is not just negative space, but really negative space. Negative space can be identified in a photograph or other art most simply as ample or sometimes even symmetrical spaces where nothing is going on. Sky is often negative space, the space between two people or buildings, or the neutral background from a shot taken through the fog. For the photos and approach I am describing here, I say this is “really negative space” because the shots rely not only on the traditional idea of negative space, but further enhance it by dramatically darkening the sky forming the background. In each case, the dark background in a black and white picture allows the highlights and the details of the subject jump to the observers attention.

The first part of the process in producing a photo like this as is the case with any good photography, is composition. The key to composing this shot is establishing a balance between the sky (that will become the negative space) and the subject of the photograph. By balance, I mean that if you have two much negative space, your eye will tend to be drawn to a large void in the composition leading you to ask “why?” Too little negative space and you are defeating the purpose in your attempt to draw the eye to the subject of the photo.

The second compositional component is the need for a blue sky to achieve results similar to those of the Spires of Neuschwanstein Castle (Bavaria). In contrast, if you want to add some interest to the negative space, a few clouds can provide some desirable attributes to the shot. For instance, the clouds in the negative space on the Key Bridge (Washington, DC) act as converging and parallel lines with the bridge, horizon, and river.

Once the shot is composed and captured, there are a number of ways to achieve the dark negative space you see in the shots you see here. I will explain a very simple method I used to achieve these results. Using Lightroom 2.2 (for me, an indispensible tool!), I first went through my normal work flow of converting to grayscale, adjusting exposure, curves, contrast, etc.. Finally, I used the grayscale sliders, dragging the blue and aqua well into negative territory; nearly all the way to the left. Compared to some of the other shots, the domes on a subordinate wall of the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque, Abu Dhabi, UAE shown here, the sky was not fully darkened, but some luminance left to balance the range of white to black. For instance, the principal domes of the same Mosque are highlighted against a fully black sky, as is the final shot; a Minaret from the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque.

I will not jump into the debate some people raise regarding the effects of post processing on photography. My philosophy is that adjustments in tone, color, compensating for noise, cropping, blurring, applying gradients, contrast, sharpening, filters and other techniques traditionally used in the dark room are all fair game…for my purposes. Although they certainly have their place in fine art and commercial photography, I am not a fan of post processing that adds things that were not in the original exposure (a model, a car, or something else combined from a second, or series of other photographs).

I am less opposed to removing things from the original composition. The things that make me consider this is acceptable and good practice are the perfectly composed and captured shots that still have distracting elements (an exit sign, a bright light, an obstructing tree limb, a bird that looks like a spec littering the sky). I often remove these distracting elements so the observe sees what I want them to see.

Photographers love to debate these issues, and there are good arguments on either side. I am not advocating for one or the other; I am stating my preference and practice. Find your own.
The photographs in this article are, in order of appearance;
1. The National Arboretum with the U.S. Capitol in the background (ISO 100, 105mm, f/22, 1/25 sec, Canon 5D, Cannon EF 24-105 f/4 L IS).
2. The Zaha of the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque, Abu Dhabi, UAE (ISO 50, 17mm, f/10, 1/400 sec, 5D, Cannon EF 17-40 f/4 L IS).
3. The Spires of Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria. (ISO 100, 86mm, f/16, 1/160 sec, Canon XTi, Sigma 70-300mm).
4. The Key Bridge, Washington DC (ISO 100, 35mm, f/13, 1/80 sec, Canon 5D, Cannon EF 24-105 f/4 L IS).
5. Domes on subordinate wall of the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque, Abu Dhabi, UAE (ISO 50, 40mm, f/8, 1/1250 sec, 5D, Cannon EF 17-40 f/4 L).
6. Principal domes of the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque, Abu Dhabi, UAE (ISO 50, 30mm, f/7.1, 1/2000 sec, 5D, Cannon EF 17-40 f/4 L).
7. Minaret of the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque, Abu Dhabi, UAE (ISO 50, 28mm, f/8, 1/400 sec, 5D, Cannon EF 17-40 f/4 L).

All photographs in this blog are available for purchase. Please send me an e-mail for a pricelist.



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