Taking pictures with the right side of your brain - part 1
I'm willing to bet if you had two equally-skilled photographers photograph the same scene at the same time, side-by-side, one with a camera with a conventional reflex (or LCD) viewing system and the other with a ground glass viewing system, the photographer using the camera with the ground glass viewing system will take a better-composed picture than the picture taken by the photographer using the reflex camera. And the reason the picture composed on the ground glass is better is because it was composed upside-down and backwards.
|Strong images often hide in plain sight, even at your local Metro Station. By scanning the landscape through a frame or your viewfinder, interesting images can be easily found among the details of your everyday world.|
Now odd as that may seem, it starts making sense if you understand the dynamics of how we actually see the world around us. In 1979, a book came out called 'Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain', by Betty Edwards. The premis of the book is that the brain consists of two distinctly different hemispheres, and if you can mentally separate the two, you can draw better. Although Ms. Edwards does not not specifically address photography, I think you can take better photographs, too.
The left hemisphere, or L-Mode as it's called in the book, is the objective, rational, and linear thinking part of the pair, and it handles the verbal, written, and number-crunching aspects of life. The right side, or R-Mode, is the subjective, intuitive side, and is the side that processes audio / visual content. And unlike the L-Mode, which sees the world as a segmented spreadsheet, the R-Mode sees the world as a changing flow of patterns and shapes.
As we go about our day we are constantly using both spheres. Balancing your checkbook is an example of left hemisphere activity. Conversely, composing a photograph or sketching a scene on paper, i.e. 'seeing', is more of a right hemisphere affair.
As you might imagine this very same yin-yang interplay can trip you up when you're trying to draw a landscape or photograph one because while your R-Mode is busy seeing things, the L-Mode is busy cluttering your radar screen with details that, exposure data aside, have little to do with composing a picture.
The trick, as well explained in Ms Edwards’ book, is to essentially dial down the objective information gathered by your brain’s left hemisphere and take better note of the subjective information being gathered by your right hemisphere. In other words, never mind who or what the subject is but rather how does the subject’s form-factor best fill the frame.
Now how all this ties into the dueling photographers scenario described in the opening paragraph is that when you view an image upside-down and backwards, it becomes abstracted. Instead of being somebody or something objectively recognizable, it abstracts your subject into shapes and forms, which allows you to view the image subjectively and in turn allow your visually oriented R-Mode to take over and compose a strong photograph.
Obviously, most of us don’t shoot with view cameras these days, but just because you’re ‘limited’ to a camera with a WYSIWYG reflex or LCD-based viewing system doesn’t mean you can’t learn to see better when composing photographs. Depending on how hard-wired your L-Mode / R-Mode circuitry is, it's actually not all that difficult to fine-tune your eyes, and a cardboard matt from a small picture frame is all you need to start the process.
The big challenge of framing a tightly composed photograph is to eliminate the visual clutter that invariably surrounds your subject. Some shooters have a knack for zeroing in on their subjects while others struggle. If you're part of the latter group, next time you set out on a photo jaunt take a small picture matte along with you. Just as mattes create neutral islands around framed photographs, isolating the image from any visual distractions that might surround it, by previewing a scene through a matte frame while moving it closer and further from your eyes gives you an opportunity to preview the potential image with varying degrees of isolation from its surroundings. If you don't have a matte handy, you can similarly make a set of 'Ls' with the thumb and index fingers of you right and left hands and invert them to form a four-fingere viewing frame.
Regardless of how you choose to open up your R-Mode, be it using a matte frame, a finger frame, or simply viewing through your camera, your goal is to find the meat of the picture, and frame the image's shapes and patterns in a visually strong composition. Get closer, zoom in tighter, shoot from a higher or lower angle, maybe show a bit more background information, or maybe not.
Want more visual tension? Try cropping the image tighter to the subject, or tilting the camera in order to introduce diagonal shapes and movement into the composition. If you you have time, try exploring your subject at various focal lengths, as some pictures work better when taken close up with a wider lens while some images work better seen through a longer focal length.
Conversely, if you want to lighten the atmosphere, or perhaps illustrate your subject in relationship to its surroundings, then allow for a bit more breathing room around your subject. You should also keep in mind while it's always best to shoot tight in the first place, there's no rule that says you can't crop into an existing picture after the fact if the result is a better-composed photograph.