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An Approach to Subject Matter and Composition

I frequently think of the camera as a sketchbook that allows me to practice compositional strategies and sharpen my awareness of how to organize space within the frame. When those moments in life that really matter occur — personally or professionally — I must have my camera ready, in addition to the lessons of how “studies” like these inform my approach to image composition. So when I happened upon this scene during a walk about on the grounds of the abandoned Delaware copper mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I had to bring the Lumix L-1 up to it. The mid-nineteenth century structure has been in a ruined state for several decades, and so the tree growth present within its walls presented this stunning juxtaposition of natural world growth and industrial ruins. This scene compelled me to stop and study it for several minutes, and I proceeded to make fourteen different exposures of with the Panasonic Lumix L-1, with its RAW file format selected. Here’s why:

Don Werthmann Tip2

Organizing Space

The intuitive side of me saw order and possibility, and the thinking side of me immediately revealed a few keywords; “I see proximity, similarity, and closure here.” The proximity of the red brickwork window/door frames in the background becomes a group of information, which is easy to unify to the arched brickwork in the foreground. The similarity in the stonework in the foreground and the background provides strong unification by itself, but the fact that the bark of the birch trees are similar — in color and general design — makes the scene more intriguing. Finally, because the window frame visually cuts the top and bottom of each tree off, the viewer’s mind completes the rest of the information — this is called closure. If part of an object is subtracted, but still has enough information to be identified, then the viewer’s mind can mentally complete what is missing. It’s an effective technique, because the viewer doesn’t need to see an entire tree to understand what it is.

Shooting Strategy

Many people are bewildered when I tell them I shoot so many frames of a particular scene. A good habit of photography is providing choices from which to edit when returning home. Each exposure has a subtle correction of point of view, lens focal length, a tilt of the tripod needs correcting, etc. These comparisons, in the editing stage of a photograph’s life are what help the photographer determine the best rendering of the situation. I ended up choosing a frame with both the foreground and background sharp, which required f/16 to obtain this particular depth-of-field. I created other versions with selective focus and shallow depth-of-field with a wide aperture setting, like f/4 — some with the foreground sharp, some with it out of focus and soft — but in the end those don’t have the same visual impact. The Lumix L-1, by the way, handles much like my traditional film cameras do, with an aperture ring mounted on the lens, and a shutter speed dial mounted on the body. I really enjoy that.

Think of your camera as a high-tech sketchbook, and the really meaningful photographic moments that unfold in the future can benefit, because you did some prep work. Be ready for what can appear around the next bend on a walk, and what some hindsight thinking during the editing stage can reveal. Thinking one, or two steps ahead in the process can make a significant difference in the quality of the images made. When you’re lucky, be ready.

Images and Text © Don Werthmann, Detroit DPA Instructor

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