Creativity

more on color efex pro

Impression, early summer, New Forest

I’m still playing with Color Efex Pro from the Nik suite.  It’s fun, and it’s giving me ideas, but I have some mixed feelings about it that I’ve been trying to sort out.  On the one hand it’s allowing me to get the look that I want a lot more of the time, but on the other there’s something that bothers me about it.

I’ve never been a purist about post-processing.  While I would always want to get as much as possible right in-camera, and I hate to see a fundamentally poor shot being tarted up with special effects in an attempt to make it acceptable, what seems most important to me is the resulting image and not whatever means were used to achieve it.  I’m not going to go into all the tired old arguments about this but it’s a fact that, even in the days of film, extensive work and adjustments were done in the dark room post-shooting and it’s neither here nor there that this is now done digitally instead.

I’ve also never been interested in straight representational photography – most of it simply doesn’t appeal to me greatly and doesn’t hold my interest for long.  I find it boring to do, and technical perfection – while I do admire the skill involved – can sometimes seem rather chillingly intellectual.  I’m far more interested in attempting to express a mood, a feeling, an emotion, or a story.  Most of the time, I like my pictures soft, often blurred, with some mystery and ambiguity present.

But how far do you go to do that?  The image at the top of the post has been dramatically altered using Color Efex Pro, and is now the way I’d like it to look and the way that the place felt to me while I was there on that day – dazzling light and soft colours.  However, the original image looks significantly different.  To let you see the change, I’ve put the before and after together, below.

Before and after diptych

I’m happy with the changes here, and I could no doubt have got the same result using Elements/Photoshop, although I’m not sure I would have known just how to get that to happen.  But the great thing about Color Efex Pro is that you can apply and remove the changes with one click, and you can stack and unstack several effects at once, making it really easy to compare and see what works and what doesn’t.  This shot had three effects applied to it – Neutral White, which sorts the colours out quickly and easily, Polaroid transfer, which smoothed out the too-obvious movement lines caused by the ICM process, and Film Fade, which gave it a high-key, faded, dream-like look.  Although the colours are more intense and the light is brighter and stronger than in the original, this is how it felt to me to be there on that day.  The in-camera image didn’t give me that feeling.

Playing with another of my ICM shots, I discovered the Indian Summer effect.  Now I like this effect a lot, and it makes a lot of images look really good, but I do have a problem with it.  But first, let me show you what it does (you can see the original here).

ICM, New Forest, Indian Summer Color Efex filter

Basically it gives every image you use it on an early autumn effect.  I do love these colours, and this take on the original, so what’s my problem? – well simply, it’s not how it felt to me at the time.  Had I been there in late summer/early autumn, then it might have helped capture the essence of my experience, but as it is it feels removed from my experience and only satisfying on a decorative level.  Doesn’t stop me liking it, but it doesn’t embody what I’m trying to do and I don’t feel it expresses anything of myself.

However, the opposite is true for the image below.  While out walking, we came across this little tree protectively surrounded by mature trees, and lit up by a band of sunlight.  I took quite a few shots, but none of them showed what I saw at the time.  I tried, using Elements, to bring out the contrast between the sunlit baby tree and the darker trees around it, and I got a bit closer to what I wanted but it still wasn’t there.  So I popped it into Color Efex Pro and finally managed to get it to look much more like how I’d envisaged it.  It’s still not totally there, but lots better.

Little tree in sunlight, New Forest

One thing that helps is that Color Efex goes further than I often have the courage to go.  I had already tried applying a vignette effect to the original using Elements, and it had helped a bit, but my mistake was that I didn’t take it far enough.  There’s surely a lesson for me here, but it took Color Efex to get that through to me.  The vignette it applied was much darker and stronger – and more effective – than my more tentative efforts, and there was also an option – which I took – to lighten the centre of the shot.  You can see the comparison between the original post-processed shot below, and the same shot after using Color Efex – the change is subtle but effective and pushes attention towards the small tree, which is what I wanted.

Little tree diptychYes, I could have done it myself in Elements/Photoshop, but I didn’t.  And the one-click nature of Color Efex made it very easy for me to see what was needed and what did and didn’t work.

My conclusion is that Color Efex Pro makes it much easier for me to get to where I want to be with a shot, but that it would be too easy to rely on its effects to cover up a poor image, or to seriously overdo them and move towards the ‘gimmicky’.  I have a certain fear that I’m going to get carried away with it, like I did (and many other beginner photographers do) with the Hue/Saturation slider when I first discovered it, leading to images that will make me wince and wonder what on earth I was thinking when I look back on them in the future.  On the other hand, it does encourage me to play, in ways that I never would otherwise, and that surely can’t be a bad thing.  And if we never make any mistakes, we cease to grow and learn.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Embracing the shake

Just after I posted about using limitations to enhance creativity, I came across this TED talk from Phil Hansen, called ‘Embrace the Shake’.  He thought his art career was over when he developed a tremor in his hands, but it turned out to be the start of something much bigger and better – but only once he’d accepted and embraced his limitations.  It’s well worth ten minutes of your time.

 

Save

Save

creative manifesto – restrict choices

Reflected spire, Church of St Mary Magdalen, Newark onTrent

As time goes on I’m building myself a kind of creative manifesto: a set of fundamental principles that work to enhance my creativity.  I think these principles are helpful to everyone, not just to me, and the idea came to me to bring them together in this space and explore them one by one.  The first in this series was about cultivating boredom.

There’s a certain overlap between ‘restrict choices’ and ‘cultivate boredom’, but enough significant differences to make it a separate item.  We’re inclined to think that it’s great to have lots of choices, and it does feel good, but in fact it works against our creativity.  Too much choice can freeze us like a rabbit in the headlights, or perhaps more accurately, like Buridan’s Ass.  Buridan’s Ass was hungry and was placed midway between two bales of hay, each of them equally tempting.  He couldn’t decide which one to go for, as there was no obvious better choice, so he stood there in indecision until he eventually starved to death.  I can relate to this.

Choice, in photography and other parts of life, is reasonably easy when one choice stands out as being better than the others.  However, when faced with a number of choices that are equally appealing, it’s so much harder to decide and you can easily end up doing nothing, or trying to do it all.  Which location should you visit, which lens should you use, which camera body should you take, which filters, which bag should you put it all into?  Setting restrictions – ie, reducing choices – can eliminate a lot of the decision-making and release our creative spirit.

Not sure?  How about this quote from Stephen Sondheim:

‘If you told me to write a love song tonight, I’d have a lot of trouble. But if you tell me to write a love song about a girl with a red dress who goes into a bar and is on her fifth martini and is falling off her chair, that’s a lot easier, and it makes me free to say anything I want.’ (Stephen Sondheim)

Paradoxically, less choice can actually make you more free.  It gives you a starting place, a foundation on which to build, and then sets you free to do whatever you like with that.  If I said to you ‘go and make a great photograph of anything you like’, you’d probably feel confused and lost.  If I said ‘use a 50mm lens to take a great black and white photo of a tree’ you’d be far more likely to come up with the goods.  And because these restrictions would be quite limiting, you’d end up looking for ways in which you could make it more interesting, and thereby get a lot more creative.

Red reflection in puddle

I’ve been lucky enough – and I do use that word deliberately – to have had a lot of restrictions enforced on me.  Chronic financial problems have meant that for the past eight years I’ve had one camera body and one zoom lens, plus a Lensbaby.  I haven’t had the money to travel to exotic places, or even anywhere different, and so I’ve mostly been restricted to what’s on my doorstep.  I may have felt intensely frustrated by this at times, but I’ve come to realise that it’s worked in my favour. It’s forced me to really look at my surroundings and see them differently, and to use what equipment I have to its full capacity, and that’s been a real gift.

Many wonderful images and some new techniques have arisen out of limitations.  Ernst Haas is known for being a forerunner in the area of intentional camera movement – see some of his ICM work here – but this happened because of the limitations of colour photography at that time.  It was impossible to get a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action, so instead of railing against this, or giving up on the idea, he went with it and explored the possibilities.  The resulting pictures were radically different and original for their time.

Civil War figure, outside library, Newark on Trent

Andre Kertesz, another hero of mine, was confined most of the time by age and infirmity to his New York flat.  His wife had died and he was heartbroken, lonely, and had given up photography.  One day he bought a little glass bust that reminded him of his wife, and that coincided with the gift of a Polaroid camera from a friend.  He began to photograph the bust on the window-ledge of his room and this ultimately led to a collection of small and very beautiful gem-like images which were later collected into the book Andre Kertesz: The Polaroids.  Although he later introduced other elements into these images, he started with only three things: a Polaroid camera, a glass bust, and a window-ledge.  And just to remind us of the therapeutic power of photography, this is what he had to say about it:

‘I began shooting slowly, slowly, slowly.  But soon, going crazy.  I worked mornings and late afternoons.  With the morning light, the sky is nice, and in the later afternoon full of variations.  I would come out in the morning and begin shooting, shooting, shooting; no time to eat.  I discover the time has gone, and no breakfast.  The same in the afternoon….I forget my medicine.  Suddenly I’m losing myself, losing pain, losing hunger, and yes, losing the sadness.’

Kertesz continued to photograph until his death, six years later, leaving behind this one last powerful body of work, which I was lucky enough to see in person at the Royal Academy a few years ago.

Many years ago I read an article about photographers with physical disabilities, including one who had Parkinson’s and valiantly struggled to hold his camera still enough to get a sharp shot.  The article was very touching, but I wondered at the time why he didn’t exploit the shakiness, which would have resulted in something original, instead of fighting it so that he could produce the same sort of thing as everybody else.  Some limitations are thrust on us, and some we choose.  Either way, it can be a very positive thing.

Accepting and working with limitations that you haven’t chosen yourself is very much in the ethos of contemplative photography.  Accept them, open yourself to the possibilities, and wait for them to give you their gift – there will be one.  Imposing limitations deliberately is a more calculated approach, but equally effective and perhaps a bit easier on the acceptance front – if it doesn’t work out for you you can always try something else and, whatever else, the experience will be valuable.

Rainy car window with tree

Exercises

External limitations

  • Exploit your natural limitations – where do you see yourself as lacking in your photographic practice?  Is there some way in which you can work with this and make something of it?  Personally I’m not good at sharpness, so I’ve gone down the route of softness and blur – something I tend to prefer, anyway.  On the other hand, I have a photographer friend whom I’ve always envied because her images are so beautifully sharp and clear, only to find out that she felt unable to produce the kind of blurry stuff that comes easily to me.  I’m also hopeless at getting horizons straight – no matter how hard I try it rarely works out – so I often leave them out and concentrate on more intimate shots.
  • Exploit your lack of gear – only got one lens?  or an ancient camera?  Push it to its limits and find out what you can do with it.  There’s a reason why many people love Holgas and other ‘toy’ cameras – they’re among the worst and most technically limited cameras you can buy but they can also be the most fun and the most creative.
  • Exploit your neighbourhood – if you’re stuck where you are, look at where you live as if you’re a visitor to the area.  How does that change the way you see it?  For inspiration, read Alexandra Horowitz’ book, On Seeing, in which she takes a look at her own neighbourhood through the eyes of some very different people and begins to see things she never saw before.  A simple exercise is to try various physical perspectives – what does it look like from a very low, or a high, viewpoint?  How does it look driving through it?  Or cycling?  How would it look to a dog, a Martian, a baby in a pram, someone from another continent?  What would they notice that you don’t?
  • Work with the weather and light – instead of waiting for what’s normally regarded as good light, work with whatever light you have and whatever weather happens.  Rain, and grey flat light? – go out anyway and see what rain does to colours and surfaces.  Harsh bright sunlight? – look at shadows, intentional lens flare, sparkles and bokeh.  Wind? – try to capture the movement.  The key is to accept whatever weather or light you’re presented with, and figure out how you can work with it.

Self-imposed limitations

  • Explore one subject or theme – this is my favourite sort of restriction.  It’s too easy to get a great shot of something and then pass onto the next thing.  Sticking with one theme forces you to explore, to stretch yourself, and to produce more creative work.  It has to be something that interests you enough to keep you persevering, and it has to offer a lot of different options and ways of interpreting it.  My 52 Trees project is one example of this.
  • Restrict your equipment – choose just one lens and keep it on your camera for a month.  What happens when you have to take all your shots with it?  If you have a zoom lens, pick a focal length and tape the lens so that it can’t be moved from that, and take every shot with that focal length.  Rather than adapt the camera/lens to what you want to do, adapt yourself to what it’s able to do at that focal length.  You could also choose just one camera – perhaps something you wouldn’t normally use, like a point-and-shoot compact, or a phone camera, and see what you can do with that.  Something else that works for some people is to restrict the number of shots they can take – inserting a small memory card with limited space on it might make you think harder about what you choose to shoot, and work more slowly.  I have to admit this one doesn’t work for me – I end up taking nothing at all because I’m so anxious about using up my limited space – but it might be different for you.
  • Stick to one area – it’s up to you how big or small you make it, but the biggest rewards often come from the biggest restrictions.  You could choose a park, a small area of countryside, a river, the street your home is on, your garden, a city block, a building, a bridge, or anything else that takes your fancy.  Having just come up with it, I rather like the idea of a bridge – so many possibilities, like the bridge itself, whatever runs underneath, the people and vehicles that use it, how it appears at different times of day, and so on.  Another idea is to photograph out of one window – I’ve done this many times and found it surprisingly rewarding. If you really want to stretch yourself with a limited location, Freeman Patterson uses an exercise where he gets his workshop participants to throw a hoop at random, then photograph only what can be found within the hoop.

The images in this post were taken either while it was raining or shortly afterwards, in a small area in and around the market square in Newark.

Other Resources

The Psychology of Limitations: how and why constraints can make you more creative – a great article with lots of examples in different fields of where limitations created greater creativity

Does Creativity Require Constraints? – a more scholarly article on the same theme

How to Harness the Power of Limitation Creativity in Your Photography

Limits and Creativity

The Paradox of Choice: why more is less – book by Barry Schwarz on why we’re less creative and less effective the more choices we have.

Andre Kertesz and The Polaroids – my own article about Kertesz.

How to increase your creativity in 9 easy steps – a more general article that goes beyond the idea of imposing creative limitations.

creative manifesto: cultivate boredom

SONY DSC

As time goes on I’m building myself a kind of creative manifesto: a set of fundamental principles that work to enhance my creativity.  I think these principles are helpful to everyone, not just to me, and the idea came to me the other night – I couldn’t sleep – to bring them together in this space and explore them one by one. This week I’m going to look at the idea of cultivating boredom.

It’s not the first time I’ve mentioned this approach, but my recent trip to the New Forest really brought it home to me – visiting a new and lovely place rarely produces anything with which I’m particularly satisfied.  When I stopped and thought about it, my most interesting and original work (at least in my own eyes) has all been done in places that are so familiar to me that I’ve become quite bored with them.  Now intuitively this doesn’t seem right.  Surely it’s much easier to be inspired by beautiful or unusual places and things?  You’d think so, wouldn’t you?  And certainly, places like that feel so much more inspiring and exciting.  But here’s the thing: you get so blinded by how lovely/interesting/exotic everything is that you’re no longer able to properly see it.

When every view is a ready-made picture postcard, it’s hard to see beyond that, and it actually becomes much more difficult to develop an individual ‘take’ on it.  But when you’ve been somewhere more than once, and you’ve seen all the obvious things to see there, you’re likely to become bored and a bit blasé about it no matter how lovely it all is.  At this point a little bit of magic can happen.

The ‘monkey mind’ (to borrow a Buddhist phrase) has a short attention span, doesn’t like being bored, and will do what it can to avoid it.  In terms of photography that means it will try to get you to go somewhere else that’s more immediately entertaining, or it will make you give up because ‘there’s nothing here’ – however it goes about things, it will do whatever it can to get you to present it with something that contains more novelty and excitement, or at the very least, it will get you to stop subjecting it to what’s in front of it at the moment.  Mostly we don’t persevere beyond this point, and so we never see what can happen when we do.

If we don’t give in to our monkey mind’s demands for novelty and stimulation, it metaphorically goes off in a sulk and shuts down.  There will then be an interlude where we feel a kind of blankness, or boredom.  If we stick with it, at this point another part of our mind kicks in and it’s this part that holds our real creative power.  I can vouch for this, and I’ll give you some examples of what happens when you allow the boredom to happen.  I’ve often found myself in situations where, for various reasons, I’m pretty much stuck with what’s in front of me, and so I’ve been forced to persevere when I might not otherwise have done so.  I’ll give you some examples.

SONY DSC

The image at the top of the post, and the one immediately above, are part of a series I took of oily water in ditches.  I was out walking in a wet, grey day, in the vast, empty space of the Dee Estuary, feeling flat and bored (of course).  When I stopped fighting the boredom and allowed myself to feel it and accept it, I suddenly noticed the wonderful colours in the oil that polluted some of the drainage ditches.  I ended up taking many walks after that, specifically to photograph these, and developed a bit of an obsession with the whole thing.  Initially I saw small abstract landscapes in the oil pollution, like the one at the beginning of the post; subsequently I concentrated more on simple colour and shape – as in the image above.

Another grey day, drizzling, and I didn’t have time to go far from the house.  After taking some very dull shots of nothing very much and feeling fed up again, something made me look down and I saw some pretty blue flowers lying in the gutter.  This was the start of a whole series I called ‘Fallen’.  I started with blossom and then extended my range to include anything natural lying on a man-made surface, and even to this day I still take the occasional ‘Fallen’ shot if I see something I can’t resist.

Feather with red leaf

More recently, after taking so many walks round a small local lake that I was thoroughly bored with the whole thing, I started noticing patterns in water, and became quite fascinated with them. This is my obsession at the moment, and I’m not over it yet – it still seems to have plenty of mileage left in it.

Blue water, black lines

While one-off trips to lovely places have given me some nice ‘one-shot wonders’, getting bored has rewarded me with cohesive bodies of work that I feel have far more depth and personal meaning in them.  And as a little side note, if I can be said to have developed an individual voice at all, it has almost entirely come through these things that began with boredom.

‘But wait’, I hear you say – ‘are you saying that I shouldn’t go photographing anywhere appealing if I want to get creative?’  No, of course I’m not, and we all want to spend time in those lovely, visually stimulating places.  What you’ll find, however, is that if you’re in the habit of being able to discover something interesting in what seem like boring things, you’ll have developed a creative edge that will stand you in good stead when you find yourself somewhere lovely.  You’ll probably still have to get all the obvious, picture postcard shots out of the way first, but you’ll have trained yourself to come up with something far more individual eventually.  You do have to stay long enough in one place for this to happen, though – taking a couple of quick shots and moving on to the next great thing will rarely produce much that’s worthwhile.  And if you can come back again – the more times the better – you’ll see more and more each time.

So how can you apply this idea to your own photography?  Here are some suggestions, many of which you probably won’t like the sound of at all but which are guaranteed to get you seeing differently.

  • Photograph tarmac.  Yes, you heard right – start looking at tarmac (or whatever the ground is made of round your way – mud will do).  If you really don’t like tarmac, you can choose bricks, or perhaps paintwork or walls, although the latter two are beginning to get dangerously interesting.  Because tarmac is so intrinsically boring, you can fast track your creative mind to the surface by concentrating on it.  I’m not going to tell you what to look for, because that would defeat the object, but think in terms of things like lines, textures, colours, shapes.  Also what else can you see there? – is there a miniature landscape, or a face?  Remember times when, as a child, you saw pictures in the clouds – well, you can still do that thing.
  • Photograph something you find ugly, repellent, or dull.  If you don’t trust yourself to pick something you genuinely feel this way about, ask a friend/spouse/child to choose something for you.  Now work at finding something interesting about it.  This won’t be easy, and don’t expect to fall in love with your subject in the end – just try to come up with a few shots that you find interesting.  You might want to ask yourself what it is about this thing that you dislike so much?  How does it differ from the things you do like?  If nothing else, you’ll learn something about yourself.
  • Lock yourself and your camera in the bathroom for an hour.  I’ve actually used this technique with a group I once ran, and people were very surprised to find that their bathrooms were such interesting places.  Compared to tarmac, they’re absolutely fascinating.  You have to stay in there well beyond the point at which you think you’ve exhausted all the possibilities – believe me, you won’t have.  I was amazed what people managed to come up with.
  • Walk twenty steps and stop.  Leave your house, walk twenty steps in any direction, stop right there and find an interesting image.  Remember you can swivel round, crouch down, look up, zoom in, swing your camera around, or anything else you can think of, but you must stay in that spot till you’ve got something you like.  Now take another twenty steps and repeat, and another twenty, and so on.
  • Go to sleep with your camera by your bedside.  When you wake up, pick it up and see what you can do.  This is quite a good one, because first thing in the morning when you’re still half asleep your mind’s in a naturally more creative state.  You also have the advantage of taking your shots from quite a different perspective from usual – the world looks a lot different when you’re lying down in it.

Finally, these are actually a whole lot more fun than they sound!  If you can persevere through the initial boredom and frustration, you’re quite likely to find yourself in ‘flow’, really absorbed in what you’re doing, and actually quite excited about it.

There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.  G K Chesterton

Other resources

In a similar vein to my oilscapes above, William Miller made a whole series of lovely images from what was actually toxic waste in the Gowanus Canal.

How Boredom Benefits Creative Thought — article from FastCompany.com

Boredom Can be Good For You – article from Lifehack.org

on developing a personal style

Tree with bokeh, through car windscreen

We both like to watch and join in with University Challenge (for non-UK readers, this is a TV quiz show where the contestants are teams from UK universities). There’s a question they ask sometimes where you’re shown a series of paintings and asked to identify the artist of each one.  The paintings they show are rarely the well-known ones, and are often quite obscure, but if you’ve looked at much art it’s surprisingly easy to get the answer right.

Every famous artist has a personal style that makes it possible to recognise work they’ve done that you’ve never seen before, probably down to some mixture of colour, texture, brushstrokes, line, form, and other factors. Subject matter can be a clue as well, of course, but they often deliberately show you something with subject matter that’s atypical of the artist.

It’s a mysterious thing, this personal voice, and when I began with photography I often longed to develop one. What I learned was that you can’t do it by trying, but only by photographing time and again those things that fascinate you. Think about handwriting – there isn’t much personal style to be found in children’s handwriting, but as we get older our handwriting becomes more and more distinctive and recognisably ours. And we don’t have to try – style is a by-product of maturity, whether in life or in our artistic work.

Just as copying someone else’s handwriting would feel forced and unnatural, trying to develop a style by imitating someone else’s is never going to work. Neither is basing it on attempts to be different:

“There’s nothing wrong with seeking to do things in a unique form, but seek to be different for the sake of being different and you won’t have images that express your vision, you’ll have photographs that are merely different. You can get that in a million ways that have nothing to do with good photography. You can be different without ever saying anything. You yourself are unique – you have ways of seeing your world that are unlike those of anyone else – so find ways of more faithfully expressing that and your style will emerge.”

David DuChemin

Your own style comes from being the unique person that you are, and learning how to express that through whatever medium you choose as yours. There is a sting in the tail, however:

“One cannot express something compelling, interesting or inspiring without first having something compelling, interesting or inspiring to express. And so, in pursuit of expressive work, one also becomes motivated to seek those things that are worth expressing: meaningful experiences, complex thoughts, powerful emotions, and useful or interesting knowledge.”

Guy Tal, The Expressive Photograph

In other words, taking more interesting photos is not a matter of standing in front of more interesting stuff, but in becoming a more interesting (or perhaps, more interested?) person.  And developing personal style is inextricably linked with having the courage to be the person you are. That might mean taking photos that will rarely get a ‘like’ on Facebook or Flickr, being prepared for other people not to understand what you’re doing or saying, shrugging off criticism that genuinely doesn’t feel relevant, having friends and family ask you why you no longer take those lovely flower shots, and generally being prepared to be unpopular if it goes that way – not easy in this age of social media popularity contests.

This is a worst case scenario, of course.  The chances are much higher that there will be at least a small tribe of people who’ll love what you’re doing and will be happy to say so.  But the point is that it’s not easy to express your real self in a world that’s trying to make you conform from the moment you’re born to the day you die, and it’s that real self that holds the key to your personal style.

And there’s another element to personal style that’s often misunderstood:

“…..vision also is not something you find in complete form and have from that point onward – it’s something that evolves and changes with you, reflecting your sensibilities, thoughts, skills and maturity at a point in time.”

Guy Tal

Your personal style shouldn’t be something that, once ‘discovered’ (like a sort of Holy Grail), never changes.  As you change, so will it, and if you don’t change you’ll become stale and so will it.  The people with the most distinctive personal styles are usually those who frequently change what they do, re-inventing themselves constantly.  In the music world, David Bowie, Tom Waits, and Madonna spring to mind.  But yet another thing – constant experimentation and exploration will inevitably result in work that is less sure of itself.

“In our culture there is little understanding of the growth process of an artist – which is often conducted in a very public arena.  For the very public artists, for film makers and novelists in particular, there is little room for the work made during necessary periods of creative flux.  Concert musicians report the same dilemma – a style matures idiosyncratically and spasmodically, moving not from beauty straight to beauty but from beauty though something different to more beauty.  Few reviewers value the ‘something different’ stage.

Julia Cameron, Walking in This World

You might not be at a stage in your photographic career where you’re being reviewed, but it’s often the case that the people around you will not want you to change.  They like what you’ve been doing, they want you to keep on doing it.  They don’t want to be challenged in their appreciation of your work.  They don’t have the fine artistic eye that you have developed.  It’s relatively easy to dismiss this kind of thing when you don’t care much about the people involved – much harder when it’s people whose good opinion matters to you – friends, loved ones.

The difficulties of becoming aware of your deep self, and making yourself vulnerable by putting that self on show, explains why so many people produce accomplished but bland work that lacks any kind of personal voice. It feels a lot safer to stick with the tried and true, the stuff that’s been done before – the stuff that reflects someone else, not you. There is good news, however.  If you work at photographing what fascinates you, without regard for what the world thinks, then your personal style will ultimately reveal itself.  Like a shy puppy, it will slowly creep out from behind the sofa.  It may get scared and dive back in again a time or two, but eventually it will roll on its back at your feet and let you tickle its tummy.  It has no choice.

In the spirit of taking risks, the images in this post are all experiments and explorations that I’ve made in the recent past, with trees as subject.  The first three  and the last one were created in-camera, the remaining two are heavily processed. Some of these work, some maybe not, and some I might not normally have chosen to share.  However, all of them fascinated me at the time.

Autumn wind

Autumn leaves, birch tree, impression

Last autumn leaves

Birch tree, autumn impression

 

Autumn lake – interpreting after the fact

Autumn lake, Balderton Lakes, Newark

One of the joys of photography for me lies in the post-processing.  I know lots of people hate that part, but I often get into ‘flow’ while doing it and hours can go by.  I like trying out different ways of processing to see how many versions I can get of one photo, and how they compare and differ in terms of their emotional and visual impact.  I don’t do it with every image, but some seem to lend themselves to different interpretations.

This view of the lake is one example.  It was one of those perfect, soft autumn days with hazy golden light, when pictures just hand themselves to you and it’s hard to go completely wrong whatever you do because the light is so damn perfect.  I took a lot of shots, many of which only had the perfect light to recommend them, but there were a few others I was quite pleased with.

My first processing of this lake view was a straightforward one, with some sharpening and a small crop to improve the proportions.  I also slightly enhanced the cyan of the sky and lake, as it was a little weak compared to the strong oranges of the trees.  The result is at the top of the post.

I was fairly happy with this, but with some reservations.  First off, it didn’t really capture for me the way the day felt.  Probably because of that, it also seemed to me like a pretty, but generic, postcard-style view.  I started playing with it to see what I could do to bring out more of the feeling I had when I shot it, and ended up moving the RAW converter Clarity slider in the ‘wrong’ direction to give a very soft focus effect, as you can see below.

Autumn lake, Balderton Lakes, Newark, soft focus

This feels much better to me, as the day had a very soft, quiet feel to it and the image now matched that more accurately.  However,  I started wondering about the composition – it’s a little unbalanced, with the dominant orange trees and reflections on the right.  I tried cropping it to a square to see what that would do.  This puts the emphasis on the birds, placing them at the centre and giving more of a focal point, and losing some of the background trees seems to produce a better balance overall.

Autumn Lake, Balderton Lakes, Newark, square crop

Another choice of crop – perhaps a more obvious one – would be a letterbox format like this:

Autumn lake, Balderton Lakes, Newark, letterbox crop

While I think this works OK, it somehow doesn’t give me the same feeling that the square crop does and I prefer that one.

In the end it always comes down to personal choice – some will loathe the soft-focus effect, some will think the rectangular or letterbox format works better.  However, what I’m always trying to do is to get the image to express what I felt when I took it, and so the first person I have to satisfy is me.  I’d like to think that at least some people will get the same feeling from it that I do, but this is more of a lottery.  We all bring our personal preferences and pre-conceptions to the viewing of photographs, and the filters you look through will be different to the ones I have in place.

There are other things I sometimes experiment with – converting to black and white is one of them, but the colours and warm light were important to me in this shot so I wouldn’t normally have considered that.  However, I thought I’d give it a go for the purposes of this post and I got a pleasant surprise.  The shot below is a black and white conversion of the ‘straight’ version of the image at the top of the post, and has little to recommend it – it’s pleasant, that’s all, and otherwise unremarkable.

Autumn lake, Balderton Lakes, Newark, black and white version

But look what happened when I converted the soft focus, square-cropped version:

Autumn lake, Balderton Lakes, Newark, black and white soft focus version

Now this I really like, and I never would have tried it had I not been writing this post.  The black and white conversion has a look of infra-red photography about it, and I like the dreamy, ethereal effect.  I still prefer the colour version, but I think this one is interesting and it’s encouraged me to try this again in the future.  (Oddly enough, the black and white conversion of the letterbox shape didn’t work at all well – strange!)

I know there are a lot of purists out there who disapprove of extensive manipulation and post-processing.  I’m not one of them, and I don’t really care what route people take to get the result they want.  I could have done at least some of this in-camera – I could have used a soft-focus filter, a camera that would shoot in square format, and if I’d really wanted to I could have shot the whole thing on black and white film.   But I can’t see the difference between manipulating in-camera or afterwards, and if I’d done everything in-camera I wouldn’t have the same options open to me afterwards to create variations on a theme.

By shooting in RAW format, it seems to me you get the best of all worlds and the greatest variety of options.  I often feel I learn more from the processing I do after the fact than I do while photographing, and that that learning carries over and informs my subsequent practice.  A lot of the finished images that most please me are ones where I’ve visualised what could be done with the raw material that’s actually in front of me.  I’ve never been interested in simply reproducing what’s there, but more in creating the world as I’d like it to be or imagine that it could be.  Sometimes that involves straightforward representation of something that’s not obvious to the casual viewer; sometimes it involves changing what’s there into something that more closely matches an inner vision or feeling.

 

Water, rediscovered

Water ripples and colours

Sometimes I’m just not in the right mood for photography, and I come home and look at the photos and think there’s nothing worth keeping.  This is what happened about two years ago, when I was coming to the end of my photographic block, but hadn’t quite got into the creative flow of things as yet.

I went for a walk along the River Trent.  I didn’t feel like taking my camera – couldn’t be bothered carrying its weight and didn’t think I’d feel like taking photos anyway – but I thought I should make the effort and so I compromised by taking my Fuji compact instead.  It was a bad decision.  I really hate taking photographs on a compact, mainly because it has no viewfinder and as far as I’m concerned a viewfinder is one of life’s essentials.  Squinting to see the screen in bright daylight through spectacles designed for long distance vision makes me cross, and having to hold a lightweight camera away from my body makes it frustratingly difficult to get a steady shot.  The compact doesn’t have an option for RAW shooting either, and since I discovered what a difference the extra data can make sometimes, I feel short-changed when I shoot jpegs.

It’s sod’s law that if you don’t have your chosen camera with you then that’s when you’ll see lots of things you want to shoot.  Almost against my will I got fascinated by the reflections and patterns and little bits of floating weed in the river water and made lots of pictures, feeling frustrated all the while by knowing what my DSLR could do compared with the compact I was having to use.  I didn’t quite make it into my usual creative flow state, where I get so absorbed that it’s like a meditation.  I came home feeling mildly irritated, and when I put the images up on the screen I didn’t like them.  I processed one or two but they seemed uninteresting and full of faults to me and I soon abandoned the exercise.

Now and again I go back through file folders full of old shots, and it always surprises me that I find what seem like perfectly OK images to me now, that I dismissed as lacking or simply didn’t notice at the time.  Yesterday I revisited the pictures I took that day, and found a lot more merit in them than I did then.  I processed the best of them, cropping them all into squares as it seemed to work well, and here they are.  Not the best photos I’ve ever taken, but I like them now and find it fascinating that on one day, in one small stretch of river, there was such a multitude of variations in colour, light and pattern.

It seems to me that it pays to go back and reconsider old stuff.  Sometimes being in a difficult mood when you take them can warp your perceptions, and sometimes – if you go back far enough – you find that your visual sophistication has increased during the time you’ve been away and you can see something in them that you simply weren’t capable of doing before.  It’s a great argument against over zealous decluttering of photo files. Have you ever found buried treasure in your old files?

Water colours, River Trent

Water colours, River Trent

Water, River Trent

Water colours, River Trent, Newark

Water, River Trent

Water colours, River Trent, Newark

Water colours, River Trent, Newark

Water colours, River Trent, Newark

 

Adventures with intentional camera movement

Blue gate, flowers, intentional camera movement

I’ve been playing this week, which is something I don’t do nearly often enough.  I’ve tried taking photos using intentional camera movement before, but always as a bit of an afterthought.  They’re not easy to do well, but I got one or two that I liked one day, by chance, and that gave me the idea to try this technique in a more deliberate way.  This is the image that started the whole thing:

Flowers, Newark Cemetery, with intentional camera movement

The flower beds at the entrance to Newark Cemetery are a riot of colour, but too regimented to be interesting to me in their natural state.  I moved the camera horizontally for this shot, and it worked pretty well.  When I converted the RAW file, I remembered that I could move the Clarity slider in the opposite direction to normal, to smooth and blend the colours, and this turned out to be surprisingly effective.

Using the same technique transformed this image into an abstract blaze of summer colour:

Summer colours, intentional camera movement

Today I took a walk round the garden to see what else I could come up with.  The two previous images were created just by using a small aperture/slow shutter speed, but this time I armed myself with a Polaroid filter, which cuts down quite a bit of light (therefore giving a slower shutter speed), and intensifies colours.  Although not a sunny day, the light proved too bright for even this to give me long enough shutter speeds so I dug out something I’ve had for ages but never really used – a ten-stop filter.  It’s quite nifty – it screws onto the end of the lens and you can then twist it to increase or decrease the light coming in.

The results were pretty mixed and I deleted lots of the resulting pics.  It’s not easy to get this right and it takes quite a bit of experimentation to find just the right shutter speed and movement to give a good result.  I’ll put some of the more successful images at the end, but before I do that let me pass on what I learned:

Movement: generally speaking it’s best to move the camera in the direction of the dominant lines in the image.  Eg, trees usually look best when you move the camera vertically up or down, and sea or open country if you move horizontally.  However, I found that the flowers in close up demanded something different.  Straight lines didn’t work very well, even diagonal ones, so I tried moving in circles – you can see the effect in one of the images underneath.  This was better but still not quite what I wanted.  In the end I found that jiggling the camera had the best effect – imagine you’re freezing cold and shaking and shivering and that’s the movement you make.

Shutter speed: it’s impossible to give hard and fast rules on this because it will vary so much depending on the lighting, but most things seemed to come out best at around 1.5 seconds.  If your shutter speed is longer and you move more, you risk losing all shape and form and ending up with pure colour – it can be nice, but I wanted a little more definition.  If your shutter speed is too fast, there isn’t enough time to make sufficient movement.  The best combination was a longish shutter speed (approx 1.5 secs) combined with quite slow but definite movements.  Moving slowly worked much better than moving fast.

Aperture/ISO: obviously the aperture needs to be small to increase the shutter speed.  Most of the time I found f22-f29 about right and because this gives you considerable depth of field, it allows for some definition in the image, too.  ISO was kept as low as possible – ie, ISO 100 – again, to reduce shutter speed.

Filters: to get the shutter speed slow enough, I first tried a Polaroid filter – which reduces the light by two stops – and then a 10-stop filter.  The 10-stop filter was much better for this as I could simply twist it to increase/decrease the effect and watch the shutter speed change till it hit the right number.

Composition: this was quite difficult – probably the most difficult part of the whole thing.  I cropped most of these images into squares because at full size they included areas that spoiled the overall effect.  To get enough movement blur, you need to move beyond the edge of your normal framing and that means you tend to end up with bits you don’t want.

Colour: these images are all about colour – none of them would work at all if you took the colour away.  That’s not surprising, really, as colour is always what interests me most.  However, I think you could work this technique by concentrating on texture rather than colour if you wanted to go down that route.

Post-processing: I didn’t do much post-processing – the thing I did most of was cropping, and cloning out sensor dirt (but you shouldn’t have to do that if you keep a clean sensor).  The one thing that made a huge difference was the Clarity slider in Elements’ Raw Converter – moving this the ‘wrong’ way (ie, to make it less sharp) improved more than a few of these, and saved one which I would have otherwise discarded.  The colours are as they came out of the camera – I haven’t enhanced them in any way.

Success rate: abysmal – be prepared to delete most of what you take!  But it’s a lot of fun to do something with an element of uncertainty and serendipity.

And lastly: when you’re shooting with a tiny aperture it really shows up any dirt on your sensor.  Because I normally shoot with quite large apertures (which hide sensor dirt) I didn’t realise I had several huge lumps of the stuff stuck to my sensor and I had to spend ages cloning them out.  Probably a good idea to clean the sensor before you start.

I had a lot of fun with these, even when restricted to my own back yard.  I’d like to find some more open, panoramic shots to try and also some urban street shots with people in them.  I’m thinking I might make a little project of it.  I’d also like to do a series spread over a year, where I concentrate on showing the changing colours of the seasons in abstract form.  It’s wakened me up a bit to try something different – feels like it’s been a while since I stepped out of my comfort zone.

Summer colour, intentional camera movementThis one didn’t work at all until I used the Clarity slider on the Raw file to soften it, as it looked rather harsh initially.  I think it just about succeeds now, and I like the vibrant colours and the touch of red.  The movement here was vertical, which I found didn’t work so well for flowers.

Blue gate with intentional camera movement

Blue gate, intentional camera movementThese two, plus the one at the top of the post are the most successful of anything I tried.  The colours work well together – the blue gate, red/orange brick, magenta flowers and white stems add up to a very satisfying colour blend.  I tried moving the camera in a variety of different directions, and found that either an up and down movement, or a kind of jiggle, were most successful.

Summer colours, intentional camera movementI don’t feel this one quite makes the grade – the large pink geraniums dominate a bit too much.

SONY DSCI like the way the leaves have come out on this, but the composition could be better.

Pots of ivy, intentional camera movementI really can’t make my mind up about this one.  I look at it one minute and think it works, and then I look again and think it doesn’t!  It looks like a double exposure but there are actually two pots of ivy.

Summer flowers, intentional camera movementI moved the camera in a circle for this one – no other kind of motion seemed to work very well.  I do like the way that the small white flowers are still quite distinct, and I think the colours are great.

Flowers, intentional camera movement, blending modeFinally, this is the same picture as above but with a duplicate layer added and Linear Burn blending mode applied, giving an altogether different effect.

The creative gift of boredom

'Landscape' created from oilspill in ditch

‘Landscape’ created from oilspill in ditch

“Conventional photos get most of their meaning from whatever objects are in them.  Here is a child, here a sky, there a wall, a tree.  The photographer hasn’t really dealt with the content and the experience is brief.  What you see is what you get, and usually it’s not much.”

Sean Kearnan, Looking into the Light

It’s a strange fact of life that, as your photography improves in terms of its artistic worth, you’re likely to get fewer and fewer likes on Flickr or Facebook or whatever social media platform you use.  This is because the visually uneducated eye (ie, the average viewer) responds most strongly to the content of the image, and the more spectacular, awe-inspiring, cute or funny that content is, the easier it is to have a clearly defined and immediate reaction to it.

But, to paraphrase Sean Kernan, all you see is all that you get and it’s mostly surface glitter.  It’s human nature to stop and look at anything that’s beautiful, striking, or unusual, and the majority of these photos are simply making a record of those things.  The best of them show large amounts of technical skill, which is to be respected, and which certainly adds to the experience.  There’s definitely a place for this kind of photography – it’s very accessible and gives a great deal of pleasure to many folk.

One of the problems it gives rise to, though, is that people erroneously think that they must have spectacular subject matter to make a spectacular photograph.  They bemoan the fact that they live in an ordinary area that houses ordinary things and they go on exotic photography holidays in order to be exposed to the stuff of ‘great’ photos.

Take a look through the small ads in the back of any photography magazine and you’ll see photography workshop destinations like Iceland or Namibia or Provence.  You won’t see Bradford or Milton Keynes or Grimsby or Paisley, and yet all of these places are perfectly capable of yielding huge amounts of inspirational material for photographs, as is almost any place you care to mention – even your own backyard.

In fact, if you want to learn to be a better photographer, then you’re far better off in one of these ‘ordinary’ places than you would be in Iceland (for example).  At the beginning of my photography career I was lucky enough to spend time in Iceland, a spectacular place if ever there was one.  I like a lot of the photos I took there, and they’d certainly do very well in a tourist brochure, but they’re not at all what I would take now because I’ve grown as a photographer since then.  If I were to revisit I’m not sure what my photos would be like, but I know they’d be very different and I know that that’s because of all the images of ordinary things that I’ve produced in the years since then.

It’s very difficult to ‘see’ properly when you’re blinded by the awe-inspiringly beautiful.  The place to learn to see is the boring place, the ordinary one, the one that makes you feel a bit fed up and has you wishing you lived somewhere different.  If you can’t make an interesting photo in one of these places, you’ll never get beyond the tourist shots when you go somewhere more appealing.  You’ll continue to rely on the subject matter of your images to give impact, at the expense of a deeper level of seeing and understanding.

I’m as guilty as anyone of wanting to go somewhere lovely to do some photography.  I get it, I really do.  But I know that any ability I have to see beyond surfaces has come about from being bored by what I’m looking at.  Boredom is your friend when it comes to photography, and if you let it, it will open your eyes. If you bore your left hemisphere for long enough, it switches off and allows the right one to take charge, and it’s the right one that will find the spectacular in the ordinary.  The left hemisphere is easy to bore, the right one doesn’t understand the concept.

‘When you pay attention to boredom, it gets unbelievably interesting.’   Jon Kabat-Zinn

‘Boredom always precedes a period of great creativity.’  Robert M Pirsig

Once you start to look at the ordinary with new eyes, it becomes quite extraordinary.  Just about everyone remembers or knows of the scene in American Beauty of a plastic bag being randomly blown around in the wind.  It’s like watching a hypnotic and very beautiful dance. If you’d like to be reminded, here it is:

Why is this scene so memorable? – I think it’s because most of us would never have noticed and would have walked straight on by, because, surely, some rubbish blowing around on the pavement is boring.  But boredom is usually a failure of curiosity and attention – pay enough attention, cultivate curiosity, and you’ll never be bored.

Despite knowing this, I still get bored sometimes when I go out to photograph, and some of those times never lead to anything more than that.  But when I allow myself to open up to the possibilities, something good almost always emerges.  The photograph at the top of the post is of oil spilled in a ditch and eventually led to a whole series of images created from a polluted ditch in an uninspiring place.  I’ll leave you with a few more photos of ‘boring’ things in ‘boring’ places – I’ve tried to choose images from some of the most unpromising places I’ve ever been.  I doubt any of them would get a ‘wow!’ on Flickr, but they do demonstrate that you can make a decent picture out of almost anything.

My version of the beauty of the plastic bag – part of a torn plastic carrier bag floating in a murky boating pond.  A little bit of cropping and processing turned it into something resembling a delicate sea creature.

Carrier bag floating in pond

A whole class of photography students walked right by this red puddle. I was left behind, jumping up and down and yelling ‘look!’  It still fills me with questions – what made it so red?  why was this paving slab missing? why didn’t anyone else notice it?  I could have done something better than this with it given time, but I had to catch up…….

A dull day in Rye harbour, but these pieces of rope, built up over years and years of boats being tied to a mooring post, caught my eye.  The images work on their own, but they work even better as a set.

Rope, Rye harbour

And this little arrangement was next to a dead pigeon underneath a park bench:

Feather with red leaf

Taken in a Thai restaurant, while waiting for our meal to arrive:

SONY DSC

Another restaurant, this time a Pizza Express, some red bus motion blur through the window, and a mirror reflection next to it.

Red buses reflected

Even grass can be interesting if you get down low and create a background out of a red-leaved shrub:

Grass

And finally, a dull wet day, a car park, and an autumn tree seen through a rainy windscreen:

Autumn tree through rainy windscreen

More on boredom and creativity:

The science behind how boredom benefits creative thought

How being bored and tired can improve your creativity

 

‘Picture this’ – how the elements of a picture work

Since I’m going to be quite busy developing some new products/services/ideas over the next few weeks, I thought it would be good to re-post some older posts.  This one was something I got quite caught up in when I wrote it, and I thought it was worth resurrecting.  If you find it at all interesting, I’d recommend getting hold of a copy of Molly Bang’s book, Picture This: How Pictures Work, as it’s one of the best books I’ve ever come across for showing clearly how the elements of a picture work together to create an emotional charge.

I picked up a fascinating little book in a second-hand shop recently. It’s called Picture This: How Pictures Work and it’s by Molly Bang.  Molly is a writer and illustrator of children’s books, but one day she realised she didn’t have any great understanding of what makes a picture work.  She decided to experiment using simple geometric shapes cut out of craft paper, to see how these could be used to evoke emotion through their arrangement and colour.

She was working with young children at the time and she did an exercise with them where she cut paper in four different colours – red, black, pale purple, and white – into shapes to create an illustration for Litte Red Riding Hood.  She got the children to give her directions about what made the picture more or less scary – the kids weren’t too enthusiastic (they wanted to make pictures that looked real) but as she went on to try this exercise with a range of children of all ages and with adults too, she found that there were fundamental principles of design that gave an emotional charge to certain arrangements of shapes on the page.  In this book she takes us through the process of decision-making that leads to the most effective illustration of the Red Riding Hood story and then pulls out the principles at work behind them.

So, for instance, she starts with trees like these one, made out of triangles (the slight shading to the right of all of these images is a result of the scanning process):

but then changes them to this (Little Red Riding Hood is represented by the red triangle):

Using tall rectangles that disappear off the edge of the page makes us feel that the trees are very tall and overbearing, giving a better sense of being in a threatening space.  Placing some rectangles higher in the frame and making them narrower gives a feeling of depth to the image as the trees appear to recede.  But upright trees are too static and reliable, which is at odds with the tension of the story, so to increase the feeling of tension she introduces some trees that lean and look as if they could fall on Red Riding Hood.  Placing her inside the triangle formed by two trees also makes it look as if she’s trapped, even though we know rationally that she is situated further into the distance than this.  She’s also been made smaller, to increase the sense of her vulnerability.

The book continues in this vein but this should be enough to give you the idea. Although the basic principles are all things we intuitively feel, it’s less usual for us to have a conscious understanding of why we feel as we do.  I can see that having an awareness of these principles could be very useful in photography, perhaps a little less so for spontaneous shots, but definitely so for those that are planned ahead.  It also offers a way of assessing photos we’ve already taken, to understand why they work or don’t work. It’s a very thin and deceptively simple book that actually delivers rather a lot.

The final, finished image, with the wolf in it, looks like this:

The key elements here are the trees as described before, the largeness of the wolf in relation to the smallness of Red Riding Hood, the red eye, the lolling red tongue, the sharp white pointed teeth, and the lilac background that gives the feeling of it being night, or at least ominously dark.

I thought it would be interesting to look on Amazon to see what existing book covers are like, and to see if they use similar means to get an effective illustration.  I found the books fell roughly into two camps – the modern versions, mainly designed for very young children, had played down the scariness of the story, sometimes to a ridiculous extent.  The wolf in the illustration below looks more like a big friendly dog than anything Red Riding Hood would want to run from:

Of course, this book is aimed at really young children who could end up having nightmares if things got too frightening.  There are lots of variations available on the basic story, some of them telling it from the wolf’s perspective, some turning it into something funny, and some that are adult stories based on the original.  You’d expect the covers to be quite different for each of  these, and they are.  Despite the fact that we consider fairy tales to be for young children, the original stories were often grisly and frightening.  It’s been argued – by Bruno Bettelheim for one – that fairy stories help the child make sense of the world and cope with its own fears and baffling emotions, and that they have to deal with frightening and confusing scenarios to do this.  Modern versions frequently take a Disney-esque approach that changes them into something they were never meant to be and removes a lot of their power.

However, some of the covers, even though still aimed at children, stay more true to the original intent of the fairy tale, and go for a scary, threatening feeling even where some ‘cuteness’ is still in evidence.  In these covers we can see quite a number of the features of Molly Bang’s geometric shape image.  This one has the trees disappearing off the top edge of the frame, some trees that lean, and the wolf hiding behind the trees, but I think it loses effectiveness because the wolf is quite small relative to the girl and actually not very noticeable.

Here’s another cover that contains a lot of the elements in Molly Bang’s image, but the wolf looks a tad too friendly to be really threatening, and Red Riding Hood doesn’t look particularly alarmed or concerned either.  It looks more like a happy game of hide and seek than a scary story.

In both the above images, however, Red Riding Hood is facing the viewer. If we were to see her from the back, it would give a much greater feeling of threat – as if we’re sneaking up behind her, like the wolf is.  Molly Bang uses a red triangle to denote Red Riding Hood so we don’t know for sure which way round she is, but for some reason I assumed we were seeing her from the back.  Despite trawling through pages of book thumbnails, I could only find one cover that shows her from behind and it belongs to a book that tells the story from the wolf’s point of view.  The wolf in this version is a decent sort, but imagine this cover if he had a hungry and predatory expression on his face.

Of the traditional versions of the story, I managed to find a couple that take a side-on view. This is one of them, and the change of viewpoint plus the fact that the wolf is made significantly bigger, delivers geater impact in terms of scariness than the ones where Red Riding Hood faces us.  However, the colours are very gentle and pretty, and the trees rather manicured and orderly, and this works to tone down the frightening aspects of the story.

The next one omits the setting of the woods, but is probably one of the scariest images on offer. Many of the wolf’s features – open jaws, sharp white teeth – are similar to those used in Molly Bang’s image.  The dominance of the colour red also imparts a feeling of danger, with its associations of blood, and the positioning of the wolf above the girl also helps.

One of the covers I like best, and find most effective, takes quite a different approach. In the following cover, all we have is an area of scribbled red, with a tiny Red Riding Hood running towards the corner edge of the image.  I tend to like simplicity, so perhaps that’s why this appeals so much, but that scribble of red says a lot about danger to me, hanging over Red Riding Hood like a threatening storm cloud, with her tiny figure running for safety.

Finally, this image forms the cover of an adult take on the original fairy story. Again we have the tall trees disappearing off the top of the frame, with some leaning in threateningly towards Red Riding Hood.  No wolf in this one, but look at the spiky branches sticking out from the trees – don’t they remind you of sharp teeth?

I got a lot more swept up in these comparisons than I thought I would, and it struck me what a good way it is of figuring out what works and what doesn’t in an image, and why.  You could take any book of which there are a number of versions or editions and do something similar.  I think there’s a lot to be learned from this that could be incorporated into our photographs.  It was fascinating to see the same elements occurring again and again, but also to find covers like the red scribble one above that are quite different in concept.  I wonder how minimalist you could get with this – what’s the least amount of information needed to get the emotion and, to a lesser extent the storyline, across?