Aperture-Priority. Twisted Steel. And a Bowling Ball

In the spirit of my recently declared pursuit of craft-honing, I walked down my block to an abandoned lot where an art collective’s warehouse burned downed a couple of years ago. I brought my still and video cameras. Such a beautiful day, I wanted to try my first outdoor video self-portrait (part of my “Myself As Another” project here). But the real reason I was there was to learn at least one simple thing about my digital still camera. I’ve been reading a bit about photography composition and camera techniques toward different purposes. I’ve always known that cameras had tons of flexibility and room for creativity, but I’d never given myself the time to learn even the basics. I’ve always been at least okay at framing shots, but my technical knowledge has been embarrassingly inept. So down the street I went, camera-in-hand.

I wanted to learn at least a little about shooting in a aperture-priority mode. From what I understand, aperture is all about depth-of-field. Basically, the aperture is the little round part of the camera (sort of like our iris/pupil), which gets bigger or smaller, depending on how much light I want to let into the camera. But since the other major factor in taking a photograph is shutter speed, aperture is really more about how quickly I want to let light into the camera. I think. (If anyone wants to correct or adjust my thinking on this one, that would be great.) If you want to have a deep range of focus, you want to have your aperture (f-stop) as high as possible. (I guess f/64 is a very high value. Ansel Adams used it, and he basically had all elements of his photographs in focus. On the low end is something like f/2.8, and that will give you a very thin depth of focus. For instance, if you wanted to photograph someone’s face, but you wanted a blurry background and foreground, you’d use a very low f-stop value.

click here for larger image.
click here for larger image.

I put my camera into aperture-priority mode, and dialed the f-stop down to it’s lower ranges. I’m not going to get super technical here, because I’m just trying to learn and think about the principles to begin with. I’m leery of getting lost too soon in the details. To practice this mode, I wanted to look for things that might create some depth. Something close and something farther away that I could capture in the same frame.

The first thing I found was this great, rusted I-beam that had been twisted violently in the intense heat and pressure of the collapsing warehouse. (If you wanna try something new, click here for a “narrated reflection” on what I learned from taking this photograph.) I tried to make the “head” end of the beam my focal point, and let the rest of the beam trail out of focus behind it. Not for any particular reason. No metaphor or story here. Just wanted to see if I could make that happen, given my understanding of what I was trying to learn. I like how it turned out, but the intended effect AND the sense of balanced composition. I like the energy the curves in the head and body of the beam create, and how this energy sort of “peels off” in the two shadows in the upper-left corner and the right half of the frame. This energy seems to even intensify with the slightly diagonal lines of the bolt shadows on the head. The lines look like they are straining to be straight in comparison to the rest of the curves and rough textures inthe rest of the picture. I love the complementary colors of the beam (orange) and the shadow (blue). I like the variation in textures, too. The color-created texture on the smooth parts of the head. The green dots of the glass strewn about in the gravel. And although I like the balance that the piece of plastic offers in the lower left corner, I just don’t get the sense that it really “fits” this composition. Rats.

click for larger image.

But for some reason, I’m more compelled by the bowling ball I found in the tall grass surrounding the crumbling concrete slab. (Here’s another “narrated reflection” on what I learned from taking this photograph.) I love that it looks so much like a globe, but that it’s sort of been abandoned along with this burned-out lot. The composition isn’t really too bad, I think. The horizon line across the top is just slanted enough to give it a little energy and to cut the eye off before it trails off the page, and that line is broken nicely by the white figures on the right and the clumped stalks in the center and slight left. Then there’s the little brown twig on the far left to draw the eye down the side of the image, where it stalls at one of the three slightly-dark shadow patches in the grass. There’s a slight incline of tone leading back up to the bowling ball. I love the color combinations of the black and blue scattered blotches on the ball and the sharp, jumbled pick-up sticks of grass and twig filling the rest of the frame. And I really like the dominant, sort of out-of-focus light-brown blade of grass stretching up and across the center of the image peeling off away to the right of the ball. What I don’t really like about this photo, I guess, is that that the lower-right half of the image isn’t very interesting or stimulating. Noisy, but not in an energetic sort of way. More like static. Less kinetic. I have to say that I find the image itself, just on the merit of its content, sort of charming.

Narrated reflection on photo of a twisted steel i-beam

Narrated Reflection on photo of a bowling ball in tall grass

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