Welcome to October’s Exploring with a Camera! This month I am sharing a “second edition” post, repeating the topic Process of Elimination that I first wrote a little over a year ago. I had already planned on doing a second edition post this month, since I just returned from England on Monday and knew I wouldn’t have time to prepare a new topic. But I hadn’t decided what topic I wanted to repeat yet.
I come back to this specific topic for a couple of reasons. I’m rereading Photographically Speaking to prepare for my workshop with David duChemin next weekend, and came across this quote:
The way we express ourselves first depends on our having intent. No author throws random words on the page in hopes that they will somehow make sense. Yet we photographers do it all the time. We make photographs wtihout fully engaging in the process, without being mindful of our intent for that one image. But if you identify that intent, it narrows your gaze and helps you choose the best lens, the best shutter speed or aperture, or suggests you shoot from a different, better perspective. Intent matters. It is the prime mover. Without it, we are engaging in little more than accidentally exposing light to film or a sensor.
In the A Sense of Place workshops I taught the last two weekends, we talked about intent. We talked about knowing what you want to say, in order to create stronger images that tell a story. For me, the Process of Elimination is a big part of creating photographs that express what I want to say. I think this is a fundamental concept that all of us should revisit from time to time, so here we go!
Some situational context: When I first wrote this we were still in the process of settling into our home after our move back from Italy.
For the next couple of weeks we are going to focus on the Process of Elimination. Funnily enough, this topic idea came to me several weeks ago, well before our container from Italy arrived last weekend. For the last few days, we have been pursuing a physical process of elimination in our home. We have so much stuff, now that our Italian belongings have been delivered. Trying to figure out what to keep and what to eliminate has been overwhelming at times, but the end result of elimination is always so much better. I can breathe and focus.
There is a great parallel with photography here! I started noticing in the last few months that many of my images and compositions are based on eliminating the elements that shouldn’t be in the image, as much as deciding what should be there. This is one reason I struggle a bit with composition in painting. With a painting, I get to add whatever I want to the composition, which is not how I normally operate. In my photography, much of the image is formed as I take away elements that don’t belong in the picture. The choice of what to take away will depend on what I am trying to convey with my image. What caught my eye? What is of interest here?
Let’s look at some ways to pursue the process of elimination…
For this exercise, I am going to distinguish framing from cropping. Framing is how you frame the composition in the camera at the time of taking the photo, as compared to cropping which is done in post-processing. Framing is the best way to work through the process of elimination, because you can take multiple shots. You can study angles and changes to what is in your frame real time, making adjustments as you go.
The lead in image I took in Carbondale, Colorado is a good example. The focus is on the bike, and the color/texture of the wall behind it. Blue and white bike, textured blue wall. Those are the elements that caught my eye in this scene. Before getting to that shot, however, I started with this one:
Blah, isn’t it? Bike is in the center, and there is nothing that grabs you about the image. The shadows from the tree just out of the frame on the left are strong and distracting. I consider this a “warm-up” shot, helping me to work toward what I wanted to convey. First step, capture the bike and the wall. Then, use this to help me see where I want to go. For the final image at the top of the post, I worked to eliminate the strong shadows and focus just on the bike and the wall. Magic!
Here is another scene from Colorado, this time Old Colorado City, where I used the process of elimination. This is never how I would present the scene, I took this to set the stage for what comes next.
The contrasting bright colors of the purple flowers and the blue architectural detail caught my eye. This shows the scene I was working with. As framed above, I would get the color, but would the image would not be interesting. So I work to eliminate. I find an angle that focuses on the contrast between the purple and the blue.
Better, but there are still too many distracting elements. The pole and signs as you look down the wall and street on the right are distracting. The water spout in the bottom right is a distraction also. The white details from the door frame in the upper left aren’t helping anything. So, focus in further, change the angle slightly and…
We’ve got all purple and blue contrast, a pleasing composition that keeps the focus on what I saw and wanted to convey, and nothing to distract.
Let’s look at one more framing example. On my last trip to Florence, Italy, I came upon this scene walking the backstreets. Shown below is the angle I originally saw it from.
Look at that fantastic bike, being used as a store display. If you can see the bike in all of the distractions, that is. Between the street signs, graffiti, store door and shaft of sunlight you might not even notice the cool bike. So I moved, I changed my angle on the scene to the other side of the street.
Better. Quite a few distracting elements were gone, but then the new element of the door in the background was added. How to use it became the issue – crop it out or keep it wholly in the frame? What about the entry on the right, and what is that yellow thing, a handle of some cart? This image is still too busy. It was time to try again, really thinking about what I wanted to focus on. It was the bike that caught my eye, and the fact that it was being used as part of the store display. So, changing angles again, and focusing in on the store display aspect, I created one of my all time favorite photos…
Isn’t that a huge difference? From random snapshot to interesting piece of art, by the process of elimination.
Let’s face it, we don’t always get the best possible framing in the camera. We may be moving too quickly to study the scene, or might not notice a distracting element. Cropping in post-processing is a fantastic tool for the process of elimination.
There are times where cropping completely saves the image. Consider this example, from Pavia, Italy. I was intrigued by this vintage Fiat on the street, but I didn’t stop to study it. One click and I moved on.
It might be interesting to show my friends the cool Fiat I saw in Italy, but it is nothing exciting. I would never show this here on the blog. I had to focus in on the interesting parts… the vintage license plate, the cobblestone street, and the cool reflection of the Italian architecture.
And there it is! An image that says “Classic Italian Transport” and not “I was wandering around in Italy and I randomly snapped this photo.” The process of elimination worked for me here.
This image from Germany is one I’ve shared before of how dramatic cropping can save a shot. I loved the architecture and the vineyard on the hill behind the building:
There was just too much building and not enough interest, however. Where are you supposed to look? Cropping to focus in on the architectural detail but keep the vineyard behind yields this image:
So much more interesting. Now you know where to look! You can see the details of the bottle-glass window, the timber framing, and the painting under the eaves along with the context of the vineyard behind. A great image to show the classic German architecture of the Rhine River Valley.
Now, cropping dramatically has its consequences. You can lose significant resolution in the image. The final cropped image will not be able to be printed as large as it could have been. You might be surprised, however, just how much cropping an image from a modern digital camera can withstand before you have problems with printing resolution. Since I’m primarily sharing online, I don’t have to worry about it too much, but it’s good to keep in mind.
It is interesting to note that both of these cropping examples are from 2009, very early during my Italian assignment. As I took more photos and improved in my photography, I’ve gotten so much better at seeing and framing my images at the time of capture. All of the examples in the framing section are from the last few months. The practice of cropping in my post-processing over the last two years has helped me learn the process of elimination at the time of framing that I use today.
To be honest, I still crop most of my photos just a tiny bit. While I do most of my framing at the time of capture, what I see through the viewfinder and what the camera sensor captures is slightly different. Distractions may creep in there on the edges. That’s ok with me, I know I will pull the photo in my editing software anyway to make any final adjustments. Cropping is just one of those final adjustments.
One last, rarely-used tool in the process of elimination is cleaning. Cleaning is where I use the clone-stamp tool in Photoshop Elements [update: or spot removal tool in Lightroom] to copy over a distracting element with pixels from another area in the image. I consider cleaning a last resort, because it takes a lot of time and it will not always work. I get the best image at the time of capture with as little distraction as possible, and I know if the distractions can be cropped or cleaned later.
In this example from Burano, I was going for the line of colorful houses and already envisioned some fun processing for color. No matter how I framed it though, I couldn’t get the line of houses where I wanted without that last bit of pole on the right in the image.
Clone-stamp to the rescue! I removed the pole by copying other parts of the pavement onto the area with the pole. Can you see any evidence of it? Not so much at this resolution. You will also notice a slight crop, which removed some of the pole too, making my job easier.
Much better, I think. The focus is on the blue house, and the pole is no longer there to distract on the right.
I captured this great building from the top of the tourist bus, in Barcelona. I liked the repetition of the shapes, light and shadow of the windows. I was at a good angle to building, being high up on the bus, but I couldn’t move from my seat to eliminate the streetlight in the image.
Because of the repetitive nature of the light and shadows, it was easy to clone the shapes and shadows of the balcony and remove the distracting streetlight. This final image was also straightened and then cropped for composition, which also helped to remove some of the streetlight. With a conversion to black and white, it’s all about the repeating pattern now.
It’s important to note that every image cannot be saved this way. Cleaning only works if you have the “raw material” elsewhere in the image to copy over the distracting element. That is not always the case. This is a technique to learn and practice, so that you have a better feel what can and can’t be fixed later in your post-processing.
Keep in mind, cleaning takes a lot of time. It is much quicker to capture a distraction-free image than to clean it in post-processing. If you love the post-processing part of digital photography, that may be fine for you. That’s not where I prefer to spend my time.
The Process Works
I hope these examples help you to see how the process of elimination works to create interesting images. Often a great image is hiding inside a so-so image, if you can remove the distracting elements. There was something in the scene that captured your eye to begin with, so focusing in while eliminating other elements will help you tell your story.
Keep these ideas in mind as you practice the process of elimination:
- Think about what you are trying to convey in your photograph. What was it about the scene that caught your eye or made you want to point your camera at it? What story do you want to tell? That is what you need to focus on. Eliminate all elements that distract from your intended message.
- Move yourself to change your perspective. Will the distractions be eliminated if you move higher? Lower? Left? Right?
- Zoom in, with your feet or your lens, to focus on the subject. Or, zoom out to keep the context in the image. If you can’t decide, go back to Step 1. When you are clear on what you want to convey in the image, the decision of subject/context is easier.
- Watch and wait if needed. Sometimes the distractions are mobile, and if you wait to click you can create a stronger image.
- Crop in post-processing. This is a great tool to eliminate unwanted distractions and learn more about how framing your image makes a difference.
- Clean out distracting elements in post-processing. It may be possible to remove a small distraction in post-processing by “cleaning.”
Now, it’s your turn! Share your images using the Process of Elimination, and if you can, also share an image that shows the “before” situation. That will help us see how you eliminated the distractions to create a stronger image.
I’m trying something new this month and instead of using a link tool, you can share a link to images using the process of elimination in the comments here. This way, there is no time limit and you can come back and share later if you have a great example.
Thanks so much for your participation in Exploring with a Camera!