Finding a Hero for Your Composition

“A vivid thought brings the power to paint it, and in proportion to the depth of its source, is the force of its projection.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I was not thrilled to go to the Morton Arboretum for the umpteenth time.  It was NOT spring, and it was NOT fall.  With all green everything, I expected to be unsuccessful in creating anything good.  What I discovered was that going to a familiar location and seeing it under a new set of weather conditions (and an expanded set of my own experiences since the last time I was there) can spark in me a new set of compositions.

I am in the process of preparing a talk on creating impactful photographic images from one’s own intuition and imagination, and so I paid particular attention to my own creative process on this outing.

Below is a sequence of images I created during this trip to Lake Marmo at the Morton Arboretum, along with observations of how my intuition and imagination led to each image.  I would be interested to know which images and/or observations you find most impactful and why.

Moody Marmo - Image 1

Image 1

For the first image above,  I was drawn to the brightest, most golden part of the scene – the trees at the west end of Lake Marmo.  They were bathing in the direct golden sunlight of a 7:00 AM sunrise.  Not a bad image, but I felt that the glowing trees in the distance were not interesting enough to be the leading presence in this scene.  I started walking west to get closer.

Moody Marmo - Image 2

Image 2

I stopped to take the image above of a stand of trees that were on the south side of the lake.  Here I am emphasizing the cloud-dappled pattern of the sky in the water taking up the bottom half of the image, and in the sky taking up the top eighth of the image.  The sun’s side-lighting glow on the trees adds warmth to the scene, like the glow of a hearth or the light on a ripe fruit.  It is a more shape-defining light, not the dimensionless direct lighting as in the first image.

Moody Marmo - Image 3

Image 3

The sky pattern reflection in the water was driving me to expand it even more and to look for a horizontal composition as in Image 3 above.  The sun had gone behind some clouds, cooling the colors.  The sky was still bright, but I was able to get this scene by merging two exposures in HDR.  This is a moodier, gloomier or more restful picture.  There are no warm colors in this image.  The clouds and their reflection take up the majority of the space, and the span of trees in the middle are silent, dark, waiting for a burst of warmer light.

Moody Marmo - Image 4

Image 4

Moody Marmo - Image 5

Image 5

These two images 4 and 5 above were taken from almost the same spot.  The sun was still hidden, and I was playing with trying to get something of interest in the bottom of the shot.  I often do this to give the audience the sense of standing there, witnessing from their feet forward what is in the space, how life at this instant is directly positioned on the edge of this water.  I like image 5 better than 4 because it shows a little more at my feet, and a golden or orange color enters the composition from the dried grass in the lower right of the frame.  There is also a rounder “glow-ier” look to the tree forms in the distance.  There are many layers in this image (I count 6!), letting the eye play deeper and deeper, seeing farther and farther.  My imagination loves this feeling of depth and spaciousness.

Moody Marmo - Image 6

Image 6

I was about ready to give up and head to another part of the arboretum, when I came through this little stretch of water next to a bridge (Always stop at bridges to check out the view!) that allowed me to get the reflection of this tree in the water in image 6.  Still, the image looked flat and cold as there was no direct sun, but THEN – there WAS!  It’s amazing to me how this tree with its white bark – looking like a faint white pole way in the distance in the image 1 above – is now the majestic, handsome / beautiful hero in this image.

So, my intuition and imagination led me around this lake, playing tag with the sun and clouds, looking for strong leading characters and supporting secondary staging and backgrounds, to come up with 3 or 4 pretty powerful images.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on which images you like — and why.

Canyon Spring

Canyon Spring

Canyon Spring

One of the peaks of the grouping of mountains named Court of the Patriarchs in Zion National Park. The river in the foreground is the Virgin River.

Getting this shot with the river in the foreground and the mountains up above required me to come down a steep embankment and find a dry spot close to the river.

This envisioned photograph worked out because of a little sweat and a lot of desire!

Chicago Cultural Center

Chicago Cultural Center

Chicago Cultural Center

The Chicago Cultural Center has two spectacular stained glass domes, two  beautiful mosaic and marble staircases, glass-block flooring that emits light UP, and the huge Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Room.  Here’s a description of the building from the website:

Designed by the Boston firm of Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge as the first home of the Chicago Public Library, the Chicago Cultural Center was completed in 1897. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on July 31, 1972, and was designated a Chicago Landmark by the City Council on November 15, 1976.

The Beaux Arts style was influenced by the buildings of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The building’s interior features rooms modeled on the Doge’s Palace in Venice, the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, and the Acropolis in Athens. Its lush ornamentation includes two stained-glass domes, rare marbles inlaid with sparkling mosaics, and intricate, coffered ceilings.

What inspires me are the curves, the arches, the twinkling glass and gold leaf pieces in the mosaic inlays.  And the lights in the floor are an unusual and dramatic sight.  The glass block in the floor was originally there to allow light from the second floor domed rotunda to illuminate the first floor. Now the light direction is reversed!

What specific photo skills could you develop at the Cultural Center?

First, the skill of composition.  Get high, get low, get left, get right, get tilted, get in the corner, get in the middle.  Moving your viewpoint around until you see something dramatic or symmetric or diagonal or colorful.  Playing with the bottom lighting.  Getting Escher-like with the staircases.

Secondly, setting exposure to handle available light.  This is primarily an indoor photo venue, and the existing lighting is set up for people, not necessarily for photography.  It is far from uniform.  On-camera flash is too harsh, so the key is using the available light with a vision to what you are creating in the frame.  This means longer shutter speeds on a tripod, and that brings in the light hidden in the shadows.

I think you’ll be amazed at the beauty of the place, and delighted with the compositions to be created there.

Masterclass :: Mastering Composition

Assignment: Composition on Location

“Imagine that a magazine or website has asked you to illustrate a feature on the techniques of composition and choose a famous landmark as you main subject.  Use every trick in the book to produce an unusual interpretation of a well-known local feature.”

— from Digital Photography Masterclass by Tom Ang


This was fun. I try to “use every trick in the book to produce an unusual interpretation” on all my shoots.  Or should I say, I look around and try to capture something beautiful on all my shoots.

The tricks are not all in a book, though.  I believe they come more from inspiration.

Choosing a single famous landmark for Chicago was something I tried to do and could not.  Sears (now Willis) Tower, the Hancock Building, Navy Pier, Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, boats, lake sunrises, and on and on.  What’s your favorite Chicago landmark?  What says CHICAGO to me is the Chicago skyline, and I was able to capture it in pre-dawn light, lit by its own city lights glow.

“Chicago North Panorama”, (C) Harry Hitzeman

See this panorama in full screen slide show mode at my Chicago Set on flickr, as well as images from Navy Pier, Ohio Street Beach, North Avenue Beach, and Millennium Park.

Building Bloom Vertical

“Building Bloom Vertical”, Smurfit-Stone Building, 150 North Michigan Avenue, from Millennium Park, Chicago, Illinois