Composition: Obscurity

This is going to be quite a long one. If that’s not your thing, that’s perfectly fine, and I’ll be back to posting new images soon enough. However, if you are interested in my approach to composition, and the mindset behind my images, this is the post for you. This is the first in a series of posts that I want to write covering various compositional elements that I draw from when shooting. These aren’t rules that you need to follow to create a good image – more a matter of my personal preference in trying to achieve what I aim for in my photography.

The first of these is obscuring details of an image, and instead emphasising its form. As any long-term followers will know, I take a lot of inspiration from Michael Kenna, and he uses this technique in many of his images to great effect. Kenna’s photography always has a peaceful air, and part of that is in the minimal composition.

Glastonbury Tor Study 3
Glastonbury Tor, Study 3, © Michael Kenna
Huangshan Mountains Study 2
Huangshan Mountains, Study 2, © Michael Kenna

I find that this simplifies the image – scenes with lots of detail can get cluttered and confusing for the viewer, and that is the antithesis of what I am trying to communicate with my photography.

Chapel Hill Tree, Skipton, 03
Chapel Hill Tree, #03

In the image above, the landscape in the foreground is completely black, leaving only its form. Coupled with the detail in the clouds above, this makes for a dramatic image.

Often, obscuring the details of the subject simplifies the composition, and helps to capture my state of mind when I’m shooting. In this way, the photography becomes almost meditative. The philosophy behind my work is a whole other blog post, and one that I would love to write, but for now, I will try to focus on the composition itself.

Another aspect is the implied detail of obscurity. I find this important in my architectural work, especially with my photographs of the religious buildings of York. The viewer can see but a glimpse of the detail in the image, but the rest is hidden from them, and they can only interpolate it. As human beings we like to be able to see all the details, and having that taken away from us can be intimidating. This is what I am trying to do with these photographs – a far cry from the calmer landscape images that I create.

York Minster, 01
York Minster, #01
Church of St Lawrence, 01
Church of St Lawrence, #01

Another topic that I find fascinating is the relationship between a photograph and its viewer. One of my current projects, Ghosts, is an experiment in communicating an atmosphere through a series of images. One way (although by no means the only way) to do this is to hide details from the viewer, forcing them to really study the photograph, and imagine the details themselves. In the process they place some part of themselves into the image, and the work becomes a two-way exchange – I provide the image, but it is up to the viewer to figure out where it sits in relation to themselves.

By the River Ouse
By the River Ouse

I could go on and on about the various ways in which I use darkness and obscurity in my photographs, but I doubt you’d want to read it all. I have thoroughly enjoyed writing this post, and I have plenty more ideas for entries into this series. I hope you have found it an interesting read, and if you have anything you’d like to share, feel free to leave a comment!


Evening Light on Cobblestones (Flickr).jpg
Evening Light on Cobblestones

Sometimes the most beautiful compositions come from the things we’d walk past without a second thought, like the beautiful summer evening light shining on these cobblestones. You don’t have to travel to the far-flung corners of the world to see true beauty – just start studying the world you walk past every day.

A Change of Pace

Work has changed the way I do photography. Having just started a year-long placement, I am working 8 hours a day, leaving me with only the evenings and weekends to shoot and edit my images. This means that I often can’t edit my images straight after shooting them. When taking into account other hobbies and commitments, I often don’t get round to editing an image until at least a few days after it’s been shot – maybe even as long as a week. The strangest thing is, I’m beginning to quite like this pace.

I find that leaving the images for a week or so before editing them makes the process much more enjoyable. I won’t always leave them for this long – sometimes I get so excited about an image that I simply can’t wait to start working on it – but when I do, it makes the editing feel fresh and independent of the shooting. This, in turn, allows me to discover the images in a way that I would never have done had I been blinkered by the lingering thought from the shoot.

Trees on a Hill, 01
Trees on a Hill, #01

That’s exactly what I did with these images from a trip to Skipton a couple of weeks ago. The delay between shooting and processing allowed me to approach the images with a fresh mind, and work with them much more thoughtfully.

Trees on a Hill, 02
Trees on a Hill, #02

Plenty of times I have gone out for a shoot and come away disappointed, before angrily formatting my camera’s SD card. Although I don’t like to admit it, the times when I do come away with nothing are frustrating, and it is hard to think calmly in that state of mind. If I leave the images, however, and come back to them a week or two later, that frustration and anger has melted away, and I can look at the image with a new pair of eyes.

The Church of St Lawrence

The most difficult thing about moving to a new area is finding that, without even realising it, you had built up all of your habits and activities based on your previous location. This is especially true of my photography. When I moved house in June, I found that all of the places I loved to photograph, once within walking distance, were now too far away to visit, especially now that I’ve started full-time work.

Now that I’ve settled in, I’ve begun exploring my new location. On Lawrence Street, in the city of York, is the Church of St Lawrence, the second-largest religious building in the city. This beautiful structure has been my subject over the past few days, and I am very happy with the results so far.

Church of St Lawrence, 01 (Flickr).jpg
Church of St Lawrence, #01

I love using photography to get to know a place, and that is my intention with this church. Expect many studies in the future.

52 Weeks of Yorkshire – Weeks 27 & 28

I’m still catching up – it’s now week 33, which puts me 5 weeks behind after these images. Nonetheless, I’m committed to producing a photo for every week (with the exceptions of those weeks that I’ve previously talked about), even if these images are taken long after the weeks for which they were intended.

York Walls (Flickr).jpg
York City Walls

This first image brings us to York City Walls. These walls surround the medieval city, and have stood for centuries. One of my fascinations, both with regards to photography, and in general, is with the monuments left behind by our ancestors. Sometimes these monuments are intended as such, like the Minster, but these walls were never intended to inspire awe in future generations – or at least, that wasn’t their main purpose – but to defend the city from attack. It’s rare that you get to walk the circumference of a centuries-old structure, still as stable today as it was when it was built.

Tower, Church of St Lawrence (Flickr).jpg
Tower, Church of St Lawrence

This second image comes from the grounds of the Church of St Lawrence. Many people know of York Minster, but York has plenty of other churches dotted around, each with its own story. There has been a church on this site as early as the 12th Century, although the current church is more recent. The current church is the second-largest religious building in York, which, given the size of the Minster, is impressive. I can’t say I’m particularly religious, but part of me is thankful to those who are for providing us with such beautiful monuments. They would say it is a monument to God, but I am more inclined to say it’s a monument to the beauty that we human beings can create.

52 Weeks of Yorkshire – Weeks 25 & 26

A lot has happened in the last month. If you’re wondering where 52 Weeks of Yorkshire had gone, it was probably hiding in between a house move, a new job, and a week-long trip to Cambridge, the photos from which I have on three rolls of 120 film somewhere in my bedroom. I’m back now, the job is going well, and my house is actually clean, so I can begin to catch up on the stuff I’ve missed.

These first two images come from my home town of Skipton.

Gateway to the Dales
Gateway to the Dales

This is the view from the top of the moor in Skipton, looking out across the Yorkshire Dales. I grew up with this view, and I still feel, even after two years of living in York, that the Dales are my home. It’s a place that has been featured in images from this 52-week project before, but I come here so much that it deserves the attention it gets.

Two Cairns
Two Cairns

I have photographed these cairns many times, as some of you will know. They are special to me. This is a place where I am well and truly alone. You cannot hear the sound of cars rushing past the window, or of people shouting in the streets. It is a contemplative place, and I hope my photography reflects that.

Cairn: Study in Silhouette

I wanted to try using the form of one of the two cairns, objects which I have studied and photographed many times now, to form an almost-silhouette against a midday sky. Normally I would shoot a scene like this at sunset or sunrise, but as I found myself on the moor at about 4pm, I decided to try shooting in more difficult conditions.

Smaller Cairn, Skipton Moor, 02 (Flickr).jpg
Smaller Cairn, Skipton Moor, #02

The focus is on the cairn in the bottom-right, its tantalisingly vague form creating an area for the viewer to study and question. This dark shape is surrounded by dramatic, swirling clouds, their forms, comparatively well-defined, standing in contrast to those of the rocks.

I’ve been focusing a lot on silhouettes recently, especially in architectural work, and I have been studying the use of light, especially a lack of it, and the effect that it can lend to an image. It’s a topic I may very well write a slightly longer post on soon enough.