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Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
The Composition Within the Composition: Using Photoshop to improve your creative eye
by Gary W. Stanley

Here you are, shooting the Tetons for the very first time. The light is changing fast so you don't have much time to think. You begin shooting some standard compositions. It's not that you aren't willing to try new things, it's just that the light was changing fast, you were busy getting the tripod set up, and checking to make sure you put film in the camera.

You quite naturally resort to the instincts that you have developed over time. You're running through that mental checklist that keeps you from going home empty handed. You're not alone here; I do it all the time. It's usually when I begin writing an article that I actually take the time to ponder over what it was I did during those frantic few minutes of shooting. I have learned over the years how to mentally log in the information important to me. That comes from a lot of shooting, or repetition if you will.

Whether it's wildlife or landscapes it only seems natural to shoot first and ask questions later. How often have you taken several frantic shots of a wildlife subject, or a landscape in fast changing light, and then as you begin to relax a little you start to concentrate more on what you are doing? Oops! I never tightened the legs on my tripod. Darn! I forgot to put my ND grad filters in my vest. I wonder if that horizon line was really straight? Why didn't I shoot that vertical? Sound familiar? No, I'm not psychic I'm just human. I make the same mistakes you do. I'd like to think that experience has helped me keep from making them as often, but on some days…

I have found a way to improve my creative eye, and better prepare me for those moments when I'm chasing the light. Often it comes after the fact, when I have more time to examine my images. I can do it during the editing process on the light table, or most often I will do it when I scan the image into the computer. Let me show you what I do.

First of all I scan the image into Photoshop. Versions 6.0 and 7.0 work the best to do what I do, but you can use older versions as well, it just works a little differently. You can use any image that you want. An image that you would like to improve upon is okay, but I usually use a favorite image, one with a composition that I think is very good. This helps me to appreciate more the value of working your composition and your subject, and helps me to realize the composition within the composition.

Open the image that you have chosen, and make it large enough on the monitor so that you can view the difference comfortably. Now select the cropping tool on the left menu bar and for now, size the image to the same proportion as the original. You can make it say, 8"high by 12"wide or 8x12. Now drag the cropping tool across the image to create a rectangular box. Don't make it cover the entire image, only make it about half that size.

Now you can drag that cropping box over any part of the image, to see what your image would have looked like if that had been all you included. With the later versions, 6.0 and 7.0 of Photoshop, you can shield or darken the color outside the cropped area just by clicking on the box above, as shown in photo #3. Try it several times in different areas of the original composition. Soon you'll realize that there were in fact many more excellent images that could have been made from that one spot alone. No, Fuji and Kodak did not put me up to this!

Next, try a panoramic of that same image and see if that works. Ask yourself, how does it look with less sky? Does it simplify the original composition or not? What if you now select the cropping tool to crop it as a vertical? How many different vertical compositions are there in the one image? Now try the same process using a wildlife image (Photos 6-8).

All of a sudden you begin to realize the learning potential of just this one exercise, using just one or two images. I find it gets my creative juices going, and helps me to mentally prepare for the next time I'm faced with a similar shooting situation.

If you intend to print this image, and the image is sharp, why not try printing some of these cropped images as well? If you do this and like the results, remember to do a Save As of the cropped image. If you don't plan on making any prints, and you have finished this exercise, remember to cancel the crop and don't save it.

There may be some of you out there who have found other ways to help your creativity, but I happen to like this one, and the added visual that helps as well. Why not give it a try, maybe it will help you the way it helped me to see "The Composition Within The Composition."


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