(This is another post that comes from my invitation to all of you to send me two of your pictures to get my thoughts on them. Send two photos at 544 pixels/72 dpi to me at: tekamah at me dot com Explain something about yourself, the photos and what you'd like for me to address about them.)
West Texas freelance photographer Greg Kendall-Ball took up photography as a career after 8 years of schooling that included seminary.
He sends these two versions of one picture of locally renowned cowboy Michael Seaton and his wife, of whom he says: “Michael Seaton, is the last of a dying breed. He and his wife want to live a certain kind of life and raise their kids a certain way, so in lieu of better paying jobs, they get by with what they can make doing ranch day-work and odds and ends. Michael is a bit of a rock star around here, he's ‘the guy’ you call when you can't get your cows in and all else has failed. Anyway- they live on a very plain piece of land, with very modest means.”
And he says: “I like the first one because it puts more attention on the couple, and makes the horse framed in the door a little more noticeable. But I like the second one because it gives more context – hard-packed red earth, truck trailer turned into a storage barn, broken window. As I try to discover my own style and vision, I notice I always wrestle with this tension of what to put in and what to leave out. Sometimes the better shots are tight crops with a single subject. Sometimes, I feel like I never need a lens wider than 24mm, because I want to show everything that's going on.”
The goal in building a photograph is to create a hierarchy of elements that guide viewers through and into the image. Almost all the elements in the color photo have the same weight and size. The red shirt creates a starting point and the doorway points you to the horse, but other than that it’s an all-things-equal photo. That said, the balance of elements is striking. It holds together with triangulation between the fence, the window and the chimney. The couple’s heads and the horse create another triangle that pierces the frame, creating a feeling of three dimensions.
There is a clearer path through the black and white photograph and fewer extraneous elements. You know exactly where to start and where to go next and next ...
How the image would be used plays into whether one is better than the other. I’d rather have the color photo on my wall but if I were publishing the pictures, the black and white would be better, probably.
This pairing offers the opportunity to talk about cropping photos. I don’t believe in cropping. Cropping indicates a failure in the making of a picture. How’s that for bull-headed, purist thinking?
A more complete thought is this: A well executed photograph is a complete expression, wherein every part of the frame does something to convey a quality, a feeling for the setting or message. If you can crop a photo without harming it, then it wasn’t made so well to begin with.
That said, there are many circumstances that contradict what I just said. So in saying that you shouldn’t crop, I’m really saying that you should strive to make complete frames that can’t be cropped without having them fall apart. The higher the standard you establish for a given image, the better it will be.
I use the same approach when sequencing photographs for a book or slide show or web site. The hand-off of one image to the next is so interconnected that you can’t pull or add one picture without the sequence falling apart – just like pulling one card from a house of cards.
If you are are struggling with how much to include in a picture, stop before you raise the camera to your eye and clarify why you are making the picture. Ask yourself what you want people to feel when they see the picture and include the elements that make them feel that, with the right qualities of light, color, moment, composition and distance from the subject to do the job, completely.