Jonathans rules of disorder

Over on today Jim Merithew made a posting in his column about, among other things, the need to accept that our photos are not perfect. Imperfection in my work was a big hurdle for me to overcome a while back. I started out as a landscape/nature photographer and really gravitated to classical composition. I wanted my photographs to have a painterly studiousness about them. What I got was a whole lot of images that frustrated me. They weren’t good enough. I could always pick something out that could be better and that drove me crazy. It seemed that I could never get what I wanted regardless of anything that I did as something always conspired against my photographs – poor light, wind, imperfect flowers in the foreground, something distracting in the mid field … ugh! It seemed futile.

When I started to do journalism I brought that same sensibility to my work and that brought a whole new level of frustration because my subjects tended to, uh, move. How can I get a perfect composition if he keeps moving about!?!?  Ya see, I was raised to be a perfectionist and this was totally at odds with a job that is all about the chaotic flow of life. I expected to have a concept and  find a way to make it just as it was in my head. Well as you know the world isn’t like that and I took me a while to stop trying to have the world conform to my preconceived notions.

I had to learn to embrace in my photos and my life the unclear and things that you don’t expect but work out just fine. I had to unshackle myself from the rules that I placed on myself, and thereby the world, so that I could free my work.

One thing I had to throw out is "The Rule of Thirds". It’s a classic composition concept where you try to have your image elements line up upon the lines where the frame is broken up into thirds. The idea is that it gives the image a foreground, middle and background as well as a natural movement where the important elements are not in the static center. This works but for me it’s still a bit rigid. So I started working in 5ths instead.

Example: A very "old school" nature abstract of mine. I still like doing these but they are not that challenging in comparison to photographing people. You can take your time and can previsualize the end result.

Putting a "rule of 5ths" grid over it you get:

You see how the top part lines up with the top 5th, the rocks on the right line up with their vertical and horizontal 5ths. Also the line of ice follows the diagonal from the top right to next to lower left 5th intersection.  This kind of composition started to happen far more naturally than the old stuff.

Then I had to allow myself to let things not be sharp. Landscape dudes are always striving for pinpoint sharpness throughout the frame. I had to learn to let things go a bit wild. I will admit that when you are working in low light as I often do slow shutter speeds are just what comes about. But finding the timing to make something usable
out of a terrible technical photographic situation isn’t easy. As
William Allard says "There is no such thing as a snapshot when you have
a 1/2 second exposure". Amen!


This is @ 1/2 second with my lens wide open and with a very high ISO. The oddness of Drew’s wide eyes against the blur of Leigh’s head works for me now but took quite a while to embrace.

Then there is just pure chaos – letting things abstract. There is a fine line between enough blur to make it soft and not enough sharpness to make it sharp and thus the image isn’t successful.

Personally, I dig it. Not everyone will but I’m not shooting for everyone. I’m shooting for people who want to see how I perceive the world. Oh this one is "5th’s" too.

So Jim got me thinking about imperfection and I forgot that for a long time I was perusing a very rigid concept of perfection in my photographs. Now I’m looking for a certain kind of interesting jumble that to me represents life as it is: dynamic, fluid, unpredictable and grand. This "Belle Melange", as the French would say, is mysterious and surprising. That to me is what the experience of living actually is and it makes more sense for my photographs to look like real life than still life.

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