Lighting & Composition

Isolating the Subject – Keeping it Simple…

A common problem in decay scenes is that there are often many different colors, patterns, textures, and light sources competing with each other for attention. This can make it difficult for the viewer to determine what the most important subject in the scene is. It’s the photographer’s job when composing the image to try to make it apparent what the subject is and to draw the eye to it. This section deals with some of the different techniques that photographers can implement to make sure the subject stands out in the composition.

There’s an acronym that a lot of photography instructors like to use: KISS. This stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. Kelly Johnson, the lead engineer at Lockheed Martin’s “Skunk Works,” which designed the spy planes the U-2 and the SR-71, coined this acronym. Johnson wasn’t implying that the engineers were stupid, but should be translated more like “keep it simple and stupid,” implying that a design is much better when it’s not too complicated. This is a great design principle to apply to your decay photography (or any photography, really). The simpler the subject the easier it is for the viewer to comprehend the image. Here are a few different tips on how to isolate the subject to simplify the composition.

–  Selective focus. This is one of the easiest and most artistic ways to isolate your subject. You do this by using a wide aperture to create a shallow depth of field. This allows your subject to be in focus while the background elements fade to an indistinct blur. This is one reason to get a lens with a fast aperture (f/2.8 or better).

Detail of piano pedals. Here I used an extremely shallow depth of field to isolate the subject from the background. Nikon D700 with Nikon 50 mm f/1.4G. 1/400 @ f/1.4 ISO 200

Fill the frame. This is another easy trick to do. Simply get close up or zoom in on your main subject. Or pick out one small detail of a larger subject and fill the frame with that. When the subject dominates the frame the viewer easily takes notice.

This image shows that filling the frame is easy and keeps the eye focused in the image. The photographer also notes: “My intentions were to show that there are interesting and beautiful things to look at a lot of the time in places where we don’t often look. That beauty can come from chaos. A lot of times when we explore abandoned buildings we pay more attention to the quietness of them and not necessarily the sounds we are creating. As I was exploring these buildings I kept hearing a crunching noise I was making by stepping on the broken glass. So I looked down and saw this beautiful mosaic with all these colors and shapes and textures and lines. So I decided to capture that. I use more of the presets in case I have to get out of somewhere quickly.” Nikon D3200 with Nikon 18–55 mm f/3.5–5.6G. 1/100 @ f/5.6 ISO 360 –1EV. © Chris Shipton

Perspective. Shoot from an angle that places your subject against a plain background. Oftentimes when outdoors, shooting from down low allows you to use the sky as a background. When indoors, you can sometimes use a wall, ceiling, or floor as a backdrop. Move all around and shoot from many different angles; straight on, from up high, and from down low.

The Dutch angle gives this image a fi lm noir feeling and creates tension in the image. Nikon D70 with Tokina 19–35 mm f/3.5–4.5 at 20 mm (30 mm equivalent) 1/125 @ f/4 ISO 200

Selective lighting. In low-light environments you can add lighting to the subject to brighten it up and bring it to the forefront of the composition. When using long exposures you can use a flashlight to “paint” light onto the subject. You can also use off-camera flash directed at a subject to make it pop out from the scene. This technique works best when using a relatively slow shutter speed to capture the ambient light as well. You will need a tripod to use these methods.

Light painting was used to illuminate the seats to separate them from the background. Sony a300 with lens. 30 sec @ f/8 ISO 200. © Chris Folsom

Add something different. Adding something pretty into a decay photo is a nice twist upon the theme – for example, including flowers into the composition can accentuate the decay while adding a bit of beauty.

Decay photography doesn’t necessarily have to be ugly. The flowering weeds in this image help to lend softness and serenity to an otherwise bleak scene. Nikon D200 with 18–70 mm at 34 mm (51 mm equivalent) f/3.5–4.5. 1/100 sec @ f/4 ISO 200. © Julian Humphries

Excerpt from Urban and Rural Decay Photography by J. Dennis Thomas © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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