On Copyright, part 1

I had an interesting conversation this week with a photographer that has been working in the industry for nearly 30 years.  He had been accused by another photographer of copyright infringement and had asked for feedback from his peers.  I sent a quick reply which he then followed up with a call.  I knew that my students always have a lot of misconceptions about copyright but it struck me that if a seasoned professional had questions too, that it might be a good topic to share here.  So here it goes – part one of two.

Back when I discussed the ethics of photography, I mentioned that our Founding Fathers laid the groundwork for our existing (US) copyright laws.  Here’s what they wrote:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;
-Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution (1)

They knew that giving innovators a way to earn money from their work would be good for the economy and for society.  After all, if someone else could profit from our work without our permission, what incentive would we have for doing our jobs – It would be so much easier just to take what others have made.  Of course the laws have changed over time but those changes, by and large, have been to help define how that original principle pertains to our modern society.  The bottom line is that if a person creates something, they probably own the copyright to that creation.

Before going forward, it is important to say that an idea cannot be copyrighted – just the execution of that idea.  You might have the Next Big Thing in literature all mapped out in your head but until you put those words to paper (okay, or type it into a Word file), you do not own a copyright.  Similarly, you might have a fantastic idea for a beautiful photograph, but until you press the shutter on your camera, you do not own the copyright.  The important take away here is that nobody can own a copyright for an idea or concept.  If you want to protect those things, you’ll need to look into patent law.

So then, how many copyrights do you hold?  Zero?  1,000,000?  The answer is probably higher than you think.  See, every time you write something, make a sculpture, make a painting, take a photograph, et cetera, you are creating a new copyright.  Except for when you are not.  That’s clear as a bell, right?  Let’s work to clarify things a bit.

A photo doesn't even have to be anything special to have a copyright.  I snapped this photo with my phone of Spring after I finished bathing her.  I took it share with Robin and had no plans to use it professionally.  Even this image was copyrighted at the moment the image was created.

A work doesn’t even have to be anything special to have a copyright. I snapped this photo with my phone of Spring after I finished bathing her. I took it to share with Robin and had no plans to use it professionally. Even this image was automatically copyrighted at the moment of creation.

The basic premise is that when you create something then you own the copyright.  This is true for all original work unless you meet one of three conditions.  First, if you create something under a ‘Work for Hire” agreement, then the copyright belongs to the person that hired you to create.  It can be a little confusing because this doesn’t automatically mean that an employer owns the copyright to all work created by their employees but depending on their work contract, they might.  Same goes for independent contractors but in that case, the contractor holds the copyright without question unless the work contract specifically says otherwise.  The second way that the copyright you’ve created might belong to someone else is that you give it to them.  This can only be done with a legal contract transferring ownership (like a will for example) so you’d definitely know if that pertained to you. The third way is if the work is a derivative work.  This is one point where things get confusing.

Derivative work is, as you might have guessed, work that is based on something else.  A great example here is fan fiction.  There are many, many beloved characters in books, television, movies, etc. that so inspire the imagination, that fans are compelled to write their own stories based on those characters.  I already said that newly written stories are protected as soon as they are written BUT those characters and places need to be of your own creation.  Love Harry Potter and you wrote about the time Harry found himself in somebody else’s vault at Gringotts?  Well, J.K. Rowling now owns the copyright to that story.    See, you can write a story about a person getting locked in a bank vault and own the rights, but if you write about characters and places based on someone else’s copyright, then you do not own the copyright.

Confused yet?  It only gets worse from here.

Fan fiction is a great example because it is relatively clear.  In the above example, J.K. Rowling created an elaborate world in her Harry Potter series.  That world is pretty much off limits to everyone unless they have permission from Ms. Rowling.  Clear is good.  So how does copyright law pertain to derivative works in the visual arts?  In a murky way.

In visual arts, a derivative work needs to be substantially different from the original piece to become a newly copyrighted piece belonging to the new creator.  The problem is, ‘substantially different’ is a VERY subjective thing to define and of course we all have our own opinions on what that might mean.  You probably see where this is going then.

We have had updates to the original copyright law over the years (there have also been treaties so by and large, copyrights are respected across international boundaries).  This helps us further define the scope of the original copyright law but there is always room for interpretation.  The bottom line is that in order to know with 100% certainty whether or not something runs afoul of the copyright law, it needs to be challenged in a Federal court (copyright law is a Federal law so State courts have no say).  Intellectual property attorneys and even adjunct professors (yes, that’s me) can have a pretty good idea about how a case might go, but until a judge decides a case (and perhaps the case goes through appeals), we can’t know for certain if a copyright infringement claim has any validity.

I’m going to leave it here for the week.  Next week, I will talk a little about Fair Use – an oft cited example that people use when they try to get around using someone else’s work.  I’ll also share some examples including the recent Ellen DeGeneres Academy Awards group selfie and the monkey selfie.

Oh, and I know you are wondering about the photographer mentioned above so I’ll give you one example today.  In my opinion, there is VERY little chance that the accusing photographer’s claim had any validity.   Click here and scroll down to the second photo entitled Pachliopta Kotzebuea to see the photograph created by the long time pro.  He took a photograph of the butterfly and wildflower then used a stock image as an overlay to give a terrarium vibe to the image.  Now click here to see the work by the photographer making the copyright infringement claim.  You can see she has an entirely different photograph of butterflies given the same treatment with the stock photograph.  While she could have made her own overlay image that no one else could use as an overlay, she instead used a readily available image that everyone is welcome to license (and the original creator owns the copyright to that image anyway).  She’s mad because she has a photo of butterflies that she used with the stock photograph and she is asserting (essentially) that she now has control over all images of butterfly images made to look like they are in a terrarium.  She’s dead wrong because as I’ve already said, it’s not possible to copyright an idea.

I don't have the right to stop other people from photographing stinking cute puppies against a white seamless background (and idea), but I own the copyright to this execution of that idea.

I don’t have the right to stop other people from photographing cute puppies against a white seamless background (an idea), but I own the copyright to this execution of that idea.

(1) You can learn all about the United States Constitution at http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/tocs/toc.html

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On exposure

Today I want to take a step or two back to discuss a fundamental concept of photography – exposure.

We’ve all been there – bad exposures happen.  Sometimes those bad exposures can be fixed after the fact while other times we are stuck knowing that we almost had an amazing photograph.  The key is to understand what it means to make a good exposure and then to take the time to dial in the right settings for the image.  But what are the right settings?

It’s fair to say that the exposure meters built in to cameras today are VERY sophisticated.  When pointed at an ‘average’ scene the camera will correctly determine the exposure needed to make a good image.  The problem is that the camera doesn’t know what you are trying to achieve in any given image and there is no one absolute correct setting for any given scene.  Learning how to adjust the settings on your camera will allow you to help your camera use the right settings to help you achieve your vision.

So before we dive into the three parameters that affect exposure, I want to take a moment to discuss focal points.  On fully automatic mode, your camera will determine what it thinks should be in focus and then it will base the exposure settings on correctly exposing the element in the frame that it decided should be in focus.   By learning how to change where your camera is focusing, you’ll help your camera expose properly for the object that you think is most important.  But of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  And that’s an oversimplification but making sure that your camera is focusing on the right part of an image (like someone’s eyes instead of the tree in the background) is an excellent starting point.

In this image, I felt the eyes should be the sharpest part of the image.  While the tongue and sucker are important to the photo, they are not the main subject (Maebe is) so therefore her eyes and expression should be the focal point of the image.

In this image, I felt the eyes should be the sharpest part of the image. While the tongue and sucker are important to the photo, they are not the main subject (Maebe is) so therefore her eyes and expression should be the focal point of the image.

A useful metaphor here is a bucket of water.  Imagine your exposure is a bucket and that you want to fill the bucket exactly to the top.  You know that you need a set volume of water to achieve that goal.  Too little and you have an under filled bucket.  Too much and, well, you get the point.  A properly exposed image is like that – the digital sensor needs a set amount of light to ‘fill’ it.  Too little light and you’ll have an underexposed image, too much light and it will be overexposed.  Seems simple enough, right?

There are three tools that a photographer can use to set an exposure:  shutter speed, aperture size (often referred to as an f-stop), and ISO setting.   When any one of the settings is modified, then one or both of the other two need to be adjusted accordingly to balance out the exposure.

I think ISO is the least interesting of the three.  The ISO  (International Organization of Standardization) is something that you want to change with decreasing light.  Basically, the darker your scene, the higher ISO setting that you’ll want to use (if you are hand holding your camera) but that higher ISO setting comes with a cost – digital noise.  This noise will manifest itself in one of two ways – luminance noise (gray pixels) and color noise (red, green, and blue pixels).  This noise will reduce the fine detail and sharpness of an image so you want to keep your ISO setting as close to the default setting as possible (using 100 or 200) for the best possible image quality.  Check out this photo (and zoomed in detail shot) to see of an example of what the high ISO noise looks like.  It’s important to note that had I not turned up the ISO, I would have had a blurry mess of a photo so sometimes it’s important to crank up the ISO to get something rather than missing the shot all together.

A family of javalina came for a late night visit.  This image was made with a very high ISO (25,600).  It looks decent enough when you look at a small version of the file.  This image was 'cleaned up' significantly in post-processing to reduce the noise.

A family of javelina came for a late night visit. This image was made with a very high ISO (25,600). It looks decent enough when you look at a small version of the file. This image was ‘cleaned up’ significantly in post-processing to reduce the noise.

This is just a cutout of the above image.  There was no post-processing done to reduce the noise on this image.  Click on it to see a larger version.

This is just a cutout of the above image. There was no post-processing done to reduce the noise on this image. Click on it to see a larger version.

 

Okay, so I know you wondered what it looked like when the camera was set to the low ISO setting (100).  It resulted in a 30 second exposure which is obviously WAY longer than a camera can be held perfectly still.  Also, it is important to note that even had I been using a tripod, the image would have been unusable because the javalina were moving so while the background would have been sharp, the javalina would have been blurred so much that it would not have been present in the image.

Okay, so I know you wondered what it looked like when the camera was set to the low ISO setting (100). It resulted in a 30 second exposure which is obviously WAY longer than a camera can be held perfectly still. Also, it is important to note that even had I been using a tripod, the image would have been unusable because the javelina were moving so while the background would have been sharp, the javelina would have been blurred so much that they would not have been present in the image.

The next setting is shutter speed.  This one’s pretty obvious I think.  The longer your shutter is open to the light, the brighter your image will turn out.  A relatively long shutter speed will cause anything moving in your scene to appear blurred in the photo whereas a relatively short shutter speed will freeze motion.  Relative is the key term here.  A person standing for a portrait might be able to hold still for 1/15 sec while a cat batting a paw will appear streaked at 1/200 sec or faster.  You should choose your shutter speed in consideration to what you are shooting AND how you are shooting it.  If you are using a tripod, then any shutter speed is likely fine.  If you are hand holding without any stabilization methods, then a rule of thumb is 1/the focal length so if you are using a 100 mm lens, then 1/100 sec should be relatively sharp.  Are you with me so far?

Notice the far leg - even at 1/200 sec there is noticeable motion blur.

Notice the far leg – even at 1/200 sec there is noticeable motion blur.

The final setting, and perhaps the most important for a majority of subjects is the aperture size.  The aperture is the hole in the lens that allows light into the camera.  The larger the hole, the more light that will hit the sensor at any given shutter speed.  So it might seem that a wide open aperture is the way to go then, right?  Not necessarily.  Aperture also affects Depth of Field (DOF).  The wider the opening in the lens, the smaller the plane of focus is on your image (the confusing part is that these settings are ratios so f/1.2 is really a large opening while f/64 is a very small opening).  This is a great tool for helping to focus the viewer’s attention exactly where you want it in an image.  Take a look at this still life series to help you understand.

This image has the widest aperture.  Notice how the lead duck's eyes are sharp but that focus quickly falls off.  That's called a shallow depth of field.

This image has the widest aperture (f/2). Notice how the lead duck’s eyes are sharp but that focus quickly falls off. That’s called a shallow depth of field.

This image was made with the aperture at a medium setting (f/8). Notice how there is pretty good detail in the lead duck but while the back duck is out of focus, it is starting to show some definition.

This image was made with the aperture at a medium setting (f/8). Notice how there is pretty good detail in the lead duck but while the back duck is out of focus, it is starting to show some definition.

This image was made with the smallest aperture (f/20).  Notice how the lead duck is pretty sharp throughout and while the back duck is not sharp, it is well defined enough to be easily recognizable.

This image was made with the smallest aperture (f/20). Notice how the lead duck is pretty sharp throughout but although the back duck is not sharp, it is well defined enough to be easily recognizable.

So there you have it.  Three different tools that you can use to help achieve a good exposure.  My recommendation is that you experiment with each of these three settings.  Some might be available as scroll wheels on your camera while others will be menu level adjustments.  Once you feel you have a good handle on that, I recommend that you use aperture priority mode for most of your shooting.  This will allow you to manage the depth of field (area in sharp focus) while letting your camera figure out the right shutter speed and/or ISO.  Practice with it a bit and let me know how it goes.

One last image to leave you with - notice the shallow depth of field?  it makes it very easy to see the hummingbird and flower.  Had I used a smaller aperture, finding the hummingbird would have been a 'Where's Waldo' type of experience.

One last image to leave you with – notice the shallow depth of field? it makes it very easy to see the hummingbird and flower. Had I used a smaller aperture, finding the hummingbird would have been a ‘Where’s Waldo’ type of experience.

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Stock imagery

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You might not have stopped to consider it, but the stock imagery industry is a part of your daily life.  Photos and videos are everywhere and short of locking yourself in a dark room or spending the day hiking in the woods, you will see stock imagery every day of your life. I define stock imagery to include all photographs and videos that were created on speculation (or were the ‘leftovers’ from a shoot) and they are then licensed for use in just about every way possible.  My own stock photos have been used on everything from book covers (thank you Jon Katz), to advertisements, to custom wall art prints (you can make them on demand at Costco).  They have been used in things that I know about and in ways that I can only imagine.  Stock imagery used to be quite profitable but with the advent of inexpensive but excellent digital cameras, the market has become saturated.  There is still money to be made in licensing stock imagery to be sure, but it is not the industry that many photographers make it out to be.  Today I want to share my thoughts on where the market is today and where I see it going.

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Not long ago, there used to be two varieties of stock imagery (and just photography for most practical purposes) – Rights Managed (RM) and Royalty Free (RF).  For RM photos, a company would specify a very specific use for the image (say a page in a monthly calendar), the number of copies that would be made, and the length of time that it would be used.  In exchange for the right to use the image, they would pay a certain amount and they would use the image as they promised.  If they later changed their minds and wanted to use it for something else or for a longer period of time than agreed upon, then an additional license would need to be purchased.  RF photos are sold on a different model.  Instead of specifying how the image would be used, the company buying a license would just say they want the right to use the image with no strings attached and they would pay a set fee for that usage.  Historically, RM images were the highest quality images that commanded the top dollars while RF was considered the lower quality imagery that was sold in bulk.   That was mostly before my time and I’ve always sold my work under the RF model.  While in theory I could have earned more by selling RM licenses, the trade off is that you can usually sell many more RF licenses than you can RM licenses and the accounting is much easier (no need to verify that the terms of the license are being followed).  Photographers typically earn a small percentage of the licensing revenue in exchange for the stock agency’s service of marketing and managing the business end.

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Sometime around the mid-2000s, a new model hit the market and started making waves – microstock.  Where traditional licenses were sold for hundreds of dollars for a high resolution image, the new microstock industry sold them for dollars (usually less than $5 but maybe as much as $10).  The microstock industry was able to offer these prices because there was a new demographic supplying imagery – the hobbyist photographer.  There have always been excellent photographers that consider photography a hobby rather than a profession but around this time, the consumer digital camera quality became good enough that the cameras were capable of creating technically excellent images.  Professional photographers (with rare exception) could not compete in that market because while the volume of sales were higher, it took hundreds or thousands of sales in order to break even on the production cost of the image.  This combination, along with strict quality control guidelines from the microstock companies created a new source for low cost imagery at a time when the demand for fresh imagery (think explosive internet growth) was at an all time high.  Anyone looking at the quality of the photos available and looking at the cost that they were being offered (using the RF model) could see the writing on the wall.  A decade later the big stock agencies are still working to find a way to stay competitive against that market.

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To adapt, we’ve seen some of the expected and unexpected solutions from the large traditional stock agencies.  First, there has been a consolidation of the industry.  While Getty and Corbis were long the big names in the industry, now they are THE two because they’ve bought most of their competitors and then they tightened their belts to reduce redundancy.  Second (and they always did this to a certain extent), they have made agreements to have rights to certain kinds of images that are largely unavailable on microstock sites (for example Associated Press images can be licensed through Corbis).  Third, they have been ahead of the curve for licensing video clips.  While microstock sites thrive on the hobbyist producers, videography is much more complex so there are many fewer producers of quality video even though today’s consumer cameras are capable of producing excellent video files too.   Finally (for now at least), Getty made a very interesting gamble a few months back that will likely pay them (it remains to be seen how it will benefit the content producers) big dividends down the road.  They started giving away (some of) their imagery for free.

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I know, it sounds crazy but I suspect, it is more crazy like a fox than crazy foolish.  See for a long time bloggers and other small content users have been just taking what they want to use for their sites thinking that a simple credit was sufficient (it is not – that is copyright infringement).  Now Getty has given those people a way to use the work for free without any fear of copyright infringement (which can come with statutory damages of up to $150,000 per image plus legal expenses) by allowing them to embed those photographs from their site using their own embed tool.  So what’s the catch?  Every time a viewer  opens a page with one of those photographs, Getty is able to track that usage (and depending on browser security settings, likely very much more).  Simply put, they are exchanging ‘free licenses’ for the ability to data mine from the people consuming the imagery.  And it is no surprise – if Facebook has taught us anything, it is that data mining is BIG BUSINESS.  (I’m a big spender!  What kind of consumer are you?  Take the Quiz!)

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So the question then is where do professional photographers go from here if they wish to continue to tap into the stock imagery market?  To my mind, there are a few possible solutions.  First, production costs need to be minimal for any session that is done for stock photography.  That might mean using friends and family members instead of paid models or that might mean not shooting anything on speculation at all.  In my own work, I only submit images that I am shooting anyway for other reasons (for the adoptable pets or for personal projects).  That’s not really any different than what the microstock shooters are doing.  Second (and maybe contrary to the first), pros need to take full advantage of the tools they have that separate themselves from the hobbyists.  I’m sure you’ve noticed that there is a big trend towards natural light photography today.  Sure it looks nice (when done well) but everyone has equal access to natural light while not everyone has studio lighting.  Those additional tools at the pro’s disposal need to be used to add additional production value so that the images can compete at the higher price point.  Finally, I think professional photographers are going to have to learn to become professional imaging professionals – simply put, they need to start shooting video if they want to keep stock imagery a relevant part of their business model.

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So there you have it.  Stock imagery in a nutshell from my point of view.  I hope you found the topic interesting and that you didn’t see my post as any sort of sour grapes.  It really isn’t a call for the good old days but rather a reflection of the thoughts I’ve considered about how (and if) stock imagery might remain a part of my business model.  There are no easy answers and there is certainly no going backwards.  Instead, I think these are issues that any stock photographer needs to consider if they wish to continue licensing their work as stock imagery.

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Landscape photography tips

I promised that I’d circle back to the topic of landscape photography before the fall colors arrive so today I want to pick up where I left off a few weeks ago. When last I wrote about landscape photography, I wrote about big picture kinds of considerations. Today I want to give you a few tips to consider for the individual photos.

First, I promise not to recommend a lot of gear to you as I write to you each week but today will be an exception. The one piece of gear (other than a camera obviously) that I recommend for every photographer is a polarizing filter (a circular polarizer in most cases). I’ve written about the magic of Photoshop before and in most cases, there are ways to achieve the same effects that you can when you use filters but the polarizer is the exception. Simply put, it affects the way that the light hits the sensor in a way that cannot be changed in post-processing. I could go into this in more detail but I suspect that you are not really interested in a physics lesson so I’ll just tell you what it does to for a photograph.

First and foremost, the polarizing filter is a tool to reduce or eliminate reflection. A classic example is that if you photograph a body of water, with the polarizer off, you’ll likely see a reflection of the scene on the surface of the water whereas if you have the polarizer on, you will see into the water (assuming it is clear enough). Angles of reflection are a factor here and you just need to practice in order to get a feel for it but reflections can be manages on all surfaces including glass and (key point coming up here) leaves. You may not realize it but a lot of light is actually reflected off of the waxy surface of the leaves. If you use a polarizing filter, you’ll be able to manage that reflection in order to get brighter and more saturated colors. Polarizers are also useful for helping to darken the blue sky. This is a nice look for many images but also, it helps to give you contrast between the sky and the clouds giving the clouds more impact in the scene. Oh, and have you ever had a hard time photographing a rainbow? Yep, the polarizing filter will help there too.

The main rainbow was easily visible with and without a polarizing filter but by using the filter, I was able to bring out the detail in the second rainbow and I was able to add contrast between the primary rainbow and the clouds.

The main rainbow was easily visible with and without a polarizing filter but by using the filter, I was able to bring out the detail in the second rainbow and I was able to add contrast between the primary rainbow and the clouds.

One key bit of information for using polarizing filters is that the effect is strongest when the sun is 90 degrees away from the direction that you are shooting. A quick tip to use to see if a polarizing filter will help you is to hold your hand like a child pretends that it is a gun. Point your thumb at the sun then everywhere your index finger points might benefit from a polarizing filter.   Oh, and since you asked, yes, I even use a polarizing filter on my cell phone camera for landscape photos. It makes that much of a difference. One last thought here before I move on. You absolutely can use the polarizer at the point where it has the maximum effect but sometimes the best effect is achieved somewhere between the maximum and minimum effect that it is capable of producing.

This is an example of an image made with my cell phone camera.  The only difference between the two is that I used a polarizing filter in one but not the other.

These photos were made with my cell phone camera. The only difference between the two is that I used a polarizing filter in one but not the other.

Next I want to briefly mention the value of composition guides. The big one that is most often cited is the rule of thirds. Imagine a tic tac toe grid overlaying your scene. Every point that two lines cross is a minor focal point in the image – that’s just the way our brains work. Now imagine putting something important in one of those intersections. That is how you use the rule of thirds in an image and believe me; it can add a lot of impact to an image. This is a very useful tool for helping photographers from falling in the trap of always putting the most important part of an image in the center of the photograph. The center can work but oftentimes central placement tends to work best for an image that has natural symmetry. If there is no symmetry, pushing your main subject off to the side is usually a good idea (keep that in mind for portraits too!).

I added an overlay to this photo of the saguaro and sun.  Note that the saguaro hits two of the four cross points.  Also note that the sun is about a third of the way down in the image and the major flare is about a third of the way up in the image.

I added an overlay to this photo of the saguaro and sun. Note that the saguaro hits two of the four cross points. Also note that the sun is about a third of the way down in the image and the major flare is about a third of the way up in the image.  Also, getting back to the polarizing filter – in this photo with the sun in the composition, the polarizing filter would have no real effect on the image

The rule of thirds and the use of symmetry are both great tools to use for improving your compositions but they are not the only choices.   You could also use the ‘snapshot aesthetic’ which loosely means that you are consciously avoiding using compositional guides but as with any tool, you should only use it when you have a reason to use it. Another formal compositional guide that you might consider is the ‘golden spiral’.

I spared you from the physics lesson but now it’s time for some math. Have you ever heard of the Golden Ratio, the Fibonacci Sequence, or the Fibonacci Spiral? They are all variations on a theme.   It seems that nature likes order and efficiency and the Golden Ratio is something that can be seen over and over again in nature. Anyhoo, back in 1202, Fibonacci published a book entitled Liber Abaci. It was a math book and he realized that a particular sequence of numbers (which we now call the Fibonacci sequence) was reflected over and over in nature. That sequence is 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and so on. The formulate is Fn = Fn-1 + Fn-2 so the sequence continues infinitely. That sequence also can be represented as a ratio 1.618 (rounded to 3 decimal points but also continues infinitely). So then, how does that help us with landscape photography? Just like the rule of thirds can give us a graphical representation, the advanced math that Fibonacci taught us can be presented as a graph. When graphed out, they look like these examples and as you might have guessed, placing important elements of your image along those lines and intersections can lead to stronger compositions.

270px-FibonacciBlocks.svg

This is how the Fibonacci sequence can be graphed out as blocks. It is of limited use for photographers this way but…

915px-Fibonacci_spiral_34.svg

… see how it can be used to form this spiral? That’s referred to as the Golden Spiral and it can be a very useful way to help you organize your compositions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

That seems like a lot to take in so I’ll wrap it up here and leave you with some examples. Happy shooting!

Real world landscapes will probably never fit exactly into the neat confines of a Fibbonacci spiral.

Real world landscapes will probably never fit exactly into the neat confines of a Fibonacci spiral.  One of the main uses for this tool will be to get you to think about having major lines resolve neatly into the corner of the frame.  Your viewers might not appreciate exactly why the image looks ‘right’ but very often viewers will appreciate the composition.  As a photography instructor, when I see that a student has one or more of their lines resolve neatly into the corner, I know that they were paying attention to the details of their composition.

Consider these slightly different crops of the same photograph.  The one on the left has the mountain resolving neatly into the corner while the other leaves open sky.  Which do you prefer?

Consider these slightly different crops of the same photograph shown above. The one on the left has the mountain resolving neatly into the bottom left corner while the other leaves open sky. Which do you prefer?

This one mas o menos follows the rule of thirds.

This one (más o menos) follows the rule of thirds.  The grain silo is near a cross point and the horizon line meets the wheat field about a third of the way into the composition.  I included this one because I wanted to stress that these compositional guidelines are there to help you compose and not to be rigid rules to be exactly followed.

 

 

 

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This is art because…

Last week I shared with you a series of work that one might or might not consider art and asked for your opinions.  Today I want to discuss those results.  As one might guess, you universally considered some but not all of those examples as art.  Interestingly (to me at least), none of the examples were universally rejected as art.

Before I go any further, I think it might be time to define art.  If you look up the word art, you’ll likely find something along the line of ‘an expression of human emotion’ or perhaps ‘an application of creative skill and imagination’ but those lines seem a bit lacking.  Worse, some definitions try to link art with aesthetics (a set of principles concerned with the appreciation of beauty) but some art is decidedly ugly so surely that can’t be right.

The problem is, ‘What is art?’ is really more of a philosophical question than something that can be precisely defined.  For example, if you state that art is the product of ‘an expression of human emotion’, then does that mean that other animals cannot create art?  Alternately, if you believe art is ‘an application of creative skill and imagination’ then how do you consider something like the GPS navigation?  Surely it took some creative skill and imagination for someone to think if they put some satellites in orbit then we could use these little devices in our cars to help us get from one place to the next.  Still most people think of that as science or engineering and not art.

Elephant painting. http://luigiburks22.blogspot.com/2010/01/elephant-painting.html

The art question is actually one that’s been considered for a LONG, LONG time.  Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle famously pondered it as have many philosophers since.  For the sake of keeping this somewhat shorter than a doctoral thesis, I’m going to share with you just two lines of thought on the subject.

  • Family Resemblances – You know that XXX (say the Mona Lisa) is art. You then see YYY (say Girl with a Pearl Earring). Since you know that the former is a work of art (because Leonardo da Vinci was a famous painter), even though you may never have heard of Johannes Vermeer, you understand that there are similarities between the two paintings so if the former is art, then the latter must also be art. (Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory)
  • Institutional Contexts – Something becomes art because an authority deemed it was art (George Dickie’s theory)

While these two concepts do not define what art is, they at least give us some useful guidelines.   In our cumulative experiences, we’ve all come to recognize certain objects as art and that knowledge provides a foundation for how we experience new work.  If we find two works to be sufficiently similar, then we conclude that the new work is also art.  So on and so forth.  The second and no less important idea is what Dickie called Institutional Context.  Simply put, if someone in the ‘Art World’ deems a work is art, then it is in fact art.  I like this idea because it gives us a starting point for developing our foundation of what is or isn’t art.  We were not born knowing that Michelangelo’s David is art – someone had to tell us but now because we recognize that sculpture as art, we can now consider how, for example, Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker might also be art even though they are stylistically quite different from one another.

So then, one final thought before I get back to the survey.   Art is not a value judgement.   Just because we might recognize something as art, doesn’t mean that it is automatically imbued with value.  There is art that you will like and art that you will not like.   And believe me, that can be very subjective.  So why is some art worth so much more than other art?  Well there’s no simple answer to that either but a few factors are historical significance (Vincent Van Gogh died a poor man because his work was not appreciated in his time but now sells for millions of dollars), luck (sometimes it there’s no getting around the value of being in the right place at the right time), and marketing savvy (some people just know how to sell).

The survey then – everyone agree that the following are art:

  • Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture
  • Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam
  • The petroglyphs made by the Hohokam people
  • Pollock’s Eyes in the Heat
  • Dickinson’s Little Arctic Flower
  • Michelangelo’s David
  • Mondrian’s Composition No. II, with Red and Blue
  • Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera
  • The ceremonial mask of the Pwevo people

Of the disputed items, I want to focus on just a few of them before wrapping things up for the week starting with Duchamp’s The Fountain.

Yes, it is a urinal that he signed (albeit with a pseudonym) but it plays a very important role in the history of art.  Think back to the time of the Great War (they didn’t know it was going to be a series at the time).  As you might imagine, there was a lot of unrest (over 37 million people died in the war so rightfully so) and out of that unrest sprung the Dada art movement.  Dadaists thought that in a time of such destruction, that the world didn’t deserve beautiful things like art.  And so they started making things like collages (some in protest) but more and more often, they started to make things that seemed not to make any sense at all.  In fact, they chose the term Dada to represent their movement because it was a nonsensical word.  With that as a background, Marcel Duchamp learned about an unjuried art exhibition (i.e. all work submitted was accepted into the show) so he went to a plumbing store, bought the urinal, signed it, and submitted it to the show.  It was rejected (no surprise there) and Duchamp used that rejection as a platform for furthering the agenda of the Dadaist movement.  And what happened was that, over time, people started to think that an idea itself can be art (Institutional Context at work).  That was hugely freeing because now EVERYONE could be an artist regardless of whether or not they had any skill.

Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ
http://www.usc.edu/schools/annenberg/asc/projects/comm544/library/images/502.html, accessed 1/7/13

The next piece that I wanted to comment on is Serrano’s Piss Christ.  Yes, it is vulgar.  Serrano put a Crucifix in a jar, filled it with his own urine (I guess I’m working on a theme here), then photographed it.  That photograph earned a Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts award (which was partially sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts – i.e. with your tax dollars).  As you might assume, the work has been controversial.  The Catholic Church doesn’t like it (Crucifixes are an important symbol for the Church) and conservatives in general hate the idea that their tax dollars went to Serrano because of it.  On first blush, it seems like a huge slap in the face to Christians everywhere but like much art, there’s more to the story.  Like the Dada artists and artists even before that, some artists use their work to address a broader concern.  Read what Serrano has to say about the piece:

“At the time I made Piss Christ, I wasn’t trying to get anything across,” Serrano told the Guardian. “In hindsight, I’d say Piss Christ is a reflection of my work, not only as an artist, but as a Christian.”

“The thing about the crucifix itself is that we treat it almost like a fashion accessory. When you see it, you’re not horrified by it at all, but what it represents is the crucifixion of a man,” Serrano told the Guardian. “And for Christ to have been crucified and laid on the cross for three days where he not only bled to death, he shat himself and he peed himself to death.

“So if Piss Christ upsets you, maybe it’s a good thing to think about what happened on the cross.”

Well, he’s got a point.  Sometimes the horrifying can become such a part of our every day lives that we don’t stop to really think about what that means.  If a photograph, painting, sculpture, et cetera, can make people stop and take notice, is that such a bad thing?

I’m afraid I’m getting a little long here so I’ll wrap it up.  I didn’t find it too surprising that you all tended to lean toward thinking the parody and the flash mob was not art (I think arguments could be made either way) but the one that did surprise me a bit was the Milwaukee Museum of Art.  To my mind, architecture can be an art form (although clearly some designs are more inspired than others) and the design of this building in particular is art.  The design of this building is sculptural in appearance but then again, I didn’t take the survey.  Of those of you that did, 40% felt that it was not art.  And that’s okay too.

Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by Santiago Calatrava, photo by Carol M. Highsmith,
http://www.factmonster.com/us/history/milwaukee-art-museum.html, accessed 1/7/13

Thanks for bearing with me on for a long one this week.   Check back next week and I’ll share some additional pointers for landscape photography.

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