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"ANATOMY OF A COMPOSITION: CABIN FEVER"
At our STREET PHOTOGRAPHER forum, S. had this to say about "Match Point" which led me to write "Anatomy Of A Composition", in which I anaylzed my composing methodology of this image:
"I love the way you set up this geometric study with the chess board in the foreground. I couldn't help noticing the visual analogy between the chessmen lined up on the board and the people milling around in the back. The first is a chess game beginning, the second is toward the end with the pieces all dispersed. There is also a pleasant tension between circles and squares. The layers of interest are nifty, too. As you move toward the rear, there's even a backdrop and behind that a theatrical scrim. Wonderful!"
S. had a follow-up obseravtion to make regarding my compositional technique with "Match Point" and the creative process in general, in the way that street photographers choose and then photograph our annointed subjects:
"I appreciate the kind mention. And as you know, I had been hoping that you would write about your composition process. I suspect that adept photographers like yourself have a sort of radar going underneath immediate awareness that cause you to choose one subject over another. I have to believe that at some level you were struck by the square chessboard on the circular table. Geometric forms play a distinctive role in your work, always in balance, always moving the viewer's eye around. Reminds me of Caulder's mobiles. Also, there is usually some visual device to get the viewer's eye to move from foreground to deep in the composition. This example is no exception. I hope you will do this kind of analysis again from time to time."
When S. says that experienced street photographers have an innate radar which alerts them to the potential impact of given subjects, I believe that to be true. However, I can only speak for myself with any certainty. I can state unequivocally that I have this radar S. refers to. This radar allows to me hone in on subjects of special interest---particularly in how these subjects may interact with the immediate environment to generate visual impact. I do this in an almost subconscious manner. This subconscious cognizance of a subject's special qualities that would allow that subject, if married correctly with the subject's surroundings depending on composition---can be demonstrated with the picture shown, which I call "Cabin Fever."
Just coincidentally and fortuitously for this discussion, the first attribute that I noticed about this subject, were the geometric shapes of the patterns of her coat, and the striking contrasting colors of those patterns. Whenever my "radar" intercepts qualities like these, my mind subconsciously shifts into an involuntary overdrive to determine how to use this subject in relation to her surroundings best, through composition. In a flash, I formed a thought which translated, might go something like this.....
"Have her at the leading edge near the left bottom of the frame, with the drab black street in stark contrast to the patterns and colors---receding to the background at the rear top of the image...."
Now, this is a wordy translation of a syntax-free thought which consists simply of a mental visualization, my descriptive interpretation of a wordless process if you will. To show you how speedy this wordless thought process in in terms of compositional determination truly is, please realize that the subject is radidly walking across the street away from me even before I've brought camera up to eye level. This points out the absolute necessity for a street photographer to be ready to implement the technical portion of the image making process after the mental visualization of the photograph, which consists of making the exposure with the camera. In order to be fully ready to make an exposure at an instant's notice, one must be constantly aware of preset focus, and exposure parameters. I recommend keeping one's focus preset to five feet, and to be ready to adjust one's focus using the distance scale in either direction from this median point. This is what I do. I keep focus set to five feet, ready to move focus to two feet, or up to fiften, when necessary. This can be done swiftly with practice, and can be done without the subject knowing that you are focusing your lens to take that subject's picture. In fact, this focus presetting is usually done some distance away from your predetermined shooting spot---so the subject is not usually even aware of your presence, and is not aware that he or she is a potential subject. One should be equally aware of what one's correct exposure is for the setting, and requires constant checking as one walks the street. Street shooting is done in areas where the exposure requirements can vary wildly in a restricted area due to the intervention of shadows from buildings and other structures on the street. One must treat even small areas for what they represent---small sub-zones of light variation to be mastered with practice.
With "Cabin Fever" after I had instantaneously visualized the final composition in my mind's eye, I had to act quickly to capture on exposure, what my mind's eye willed me to capture. I quickly preset focus to seven feet (from the five feet default setting I had it on, on the lens' focusing ring distance scale), then I stepped forward until I estimated that I was seven feet away from the moving subject. Exposure was already known and correctly set from a checking that I had done a minute ago at this zone. I brought the viewfinder up to my eye and framed the image as I had visualized it a minute ago---and tripped the shutter, thereby completing the photographic process, a process that germinated with noticing the patterns and colors of the woman's coat, moved through the phase of composition visualization, and culminated in mechanically making the exposure.
In this creative process of composing a street photograph, the camera as a recording instrument is the least important element. In this sense, the choice of camera brand, or of film versus digital sensor modality, is insignificant. The choice between small cameras versus large SLRs is also unimportant. Believe me, by the time a street photographer has planted him or herself a mere three feet from the subject which is well inside the subject's personal space, the subject has noticed the photographer's presence and the size of the camera plays an unremarkable role at this final point of approach. The most significant component in this compositional process, is the street photographer's mind. Later.