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I am trying to make photos with a simple and obvious composition with large depth of field on a modern digital camera. The problem I keep running into is that details in the photos obscure the overall composition. An example where the eye wonders all over the photograph because of the details despite large differences in tonality:

example 1

When I look at documentary work by some great photographers (eg. Lu Nan, Jonas Bendiksen, W. Eugene Smith, Cornell Capa) I notice that they either use high iso b&w film that obscures unimportant detail with grain and lets the tonality emphasize the composition or use some sort of slight blurring of he whole image to emphasize the main figures. When I try to do this in digital I fail partly because excessive digital grain (especially chroma) detracts attention from the figure, grain or texture filters I tried look unnatural. I feel like the problem is that digital cameras capture too many details compared to film and any blurring or noise becomes very obvious and unaesthetic, but it is probably my lack of skill in capture and post processing. Is there any way to reliably keep details from obscuring the large scale of composition that would be "native" to digital photography?

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Your question seems to be based on the assumption that the problem is the digital camera. But it's not.

The key here is composition. When a shot, or, in fact, any image is properly composed, it looks naturally appealing and pleasant to look at because your eye travels through the image comfortably. When the composition is bad, the image literally falls apart and parts of the image start to get in the way.

Digital cameras have been more than capable of producing both technically and aesthetically great pictures for much more than 10 years now. It's true that the latter can be often greatly improved with post processing, but no amount of post can save a badly composed shot, ever.

If you want to become better at photography, I would advise reading some academic literature on the basics of composition for both photographers and artists. Opt for classic works of 20th century instead of modern and often commercialised issues. After all, our perception of composition have been practically unchanged for at least hundreds of years.

Digital is not worse than film or vice versa. It's just different. Like color is different to black and white, or like oil painting is different to the one made with pastels. The truth is, no camera or technique will make your shots great by itself. To make great shots, you have to see them and compose them in your head before you even press the button. And when you learn how to do it the camera becomes only a tool that allows you to capture what you see. That's why great photographers can make a masterpiece with pretty much anything, from top of the line cameras worth thousands of dollars to the most primitive ones like a pinhole camera made out of shoe box.

  • Thanks for the thoughtful answer, could you add any details on what composition choices are more important for digital than film? For example I know that focusing on textures in B&W is more important than in color, do similar rules apply to digital vs. film, do I have to watch out for anything in particular? – Chris Novak Jul 1 '17 at 18:51
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    @ChrisNovak no, both digital and film behave the same in regard to composition – lightproof Jul 4 '17 at 4:38
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[Caveat: This answer reflects my view of photography as no more (or less) truthful than sculpture or water color or etching]

For me, the course grained composition is the silhouettes in the foreground and the interesting details are in the vista. 'Printing' darker by adjusting the black point can remove substantial detail from the figures and emphasize the silhouettes. Since the faces are already in shadow, the figures are generally no less recognizable.

enter image description here

Working with a monochrome version sometimes helps keep the composition abstract and can downplay issues with color such as the red in the bag/coat in the foreground. The high red-green color contrast draws attention to it and (to me) the bag/coat is compositional noise that distracts from the red-green contrast of the village that is far more interesting. The tonal contrast with the bag/coat is still a compositional problem but perhaps less so.

enter image description here

Tighter cropping can reinforce the silhouettes and remove redundant information such as additional foliage. A slight rotation to align the foreground figure with the hard edge of the photograph allows for a tighter crop.

enter image description here

The color version of the tight crop that seems to be closer to the picture the photographer saw than the original from the question.

enter image description here

Discussion

Time spent 'developing' images in the digital darkroom helps me better see and analyse elements such as the bag/coat and foliage on the left of the original while looking through the lens. By 'analyse' I mean to decide that while the foliage at the left edge is fixable during development, the bag/coat probably is not given the larger picture and maybe I should take this picture:

enter image description here

Or this one:

enter image description here

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There are several tricks to drawing the eye's attention. Just off the top of my head, my go-tos are:

  • Exposure. If you want a picture of the figures in the front, increase the brightness to make them properly exposed. I'm going to assume, though, that this is NOT what you wanted, and instead want to highlight the silhouettes of those figures.
  • Selective focus. Using a wider aperture will allow the silhouettes to be sharp while the background is blurred, or vice versa. You don't need a full frame sensor camera for this, although using one allows you to get closer to the subjects which in turn allows you to be more selective.
  • Leading lines. Eyes follow lines. If there is a line leading in from the side of an image to a subject, the eye will follow it.
  • Eyes. We have millions of years of evolution behind our optic nerves picking out eyes that are looking at us. They draw our gaze like absolutely nothing else ever. Use them. In this composition, it feels like we are above everyone and so there is nothing compelling about the figures, from a raw animalistic perspective.
  • Implied action. Not much here, but we have their gazes. Hers is somewhat towards his (I am assuming the standing figure is a man and the seated figure a woman; if not, my apologies!). His, though, is down below the bottom of the scene. And his feet are cut off, leaving him ungrounded in the scene. This all could be used to great effect, if used carefully and intentionally, but I am not getting it here.
  • Balance. A "well balanced" photograph will lead the attention to its major elements, while an "unbalanced" photograph will tend to lead the gaze to where a major element is missing. In the example, I think the figure on the left is too close to center relative to the silhouetted figure to the right. The details behind him pull my eye.
  • Contrast. Obviously the silhouettes are a heavy contrast. But when I look at them closer I see distracting details. Increase that contrast to make them more pure silhouettes (damn, I don't think I've typed that word this many times in the past decade!).
  • Sky. Okay, this might seem counter-intuitive, but with an image like this canted down towards a village, I can only assume the village is the central object of the scene, and the guy is standing in the way. We are used to seeing sky above hills, sky above trees, ground below feet. When we don't see that, our eye is drawn to what is in its place, which is pretty much always the outside of the photograph, and which is almost always not what the photographer intended. The standing figure with a bright sky as background of his head would draw much more attention than one with houses and a blob of lake around it. Make the background less likely to draw the eye by making it look more ordinary.

Of course, as with any criticism, this is all subjective. You could do the exact opposite of what I suggest and also end up with a great photograph. If anything it seems too much "stuck in the middle", leaving me confused where to look and unconvinced that if I find the point of it it will be worth the effort. Master the approaches above, then learn when to defy convention, and use them to joke with the viewer.

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It is not at all clear what the focus of this picture should be.

The shadowy figures in the foreground? They are basically just negative shapes the eye flees from!

Update from comments: Those figures do not present anything interesting to the viewer, one hasn't even a face, or any intriguing posture. As it is, they are instead framing the village in the distance, leading the eye there more than anything.

The eye wanders, because there is nothing for them to lock on to, no specific focus of interest.

If you want to showcase the persons, you have to put some light on them. A flash would help there, or a reflector. A wider aperture that blurs the background would help, too. You wrote you used "not too wide an aperture" yet, judging by the image, you actually used a pretty far stopped down aperture that rendered everything in sharp focus.

Post processing can help to add blur to the background, with some work, brightening the shadowy silhouettes will require at least working from the RAW file.

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    Can't photographs have silhouettes as the figures that draw the eye? For example many of Lu Nan's photographs feature dark figures on light backgrounds that draw the eye, sometimes they are virtually silhouettes. – Chris Novak Jun 28 '17 at 19:03
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    I ended up looking at the village in the distance. The rest of it is "grass with some people & trees in the way" – Tetsujin Jun 28 '17 at 19:04
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    Hm, let's look at this goo.gl/images/fmfZo2 : b/w, hazy sky, prominent and detailed person in the middle. That's very different from your colorful picture with uninteresting faceless shapes and most of the detail in the distance. You might try turning it b/w, but there would still be no reason for me to look closer at those shapes. – ths Jun 28 '17 at 19:18
  • This is a picture of a seagull... i.stack.imgur.com/qe1bL.jpg On second thoughts, no it isn't, it turned out to be a picture of a supermarket & a fence... – Tetsujin Jun 28 '17 at 19:25
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    @ChrisNovak - the picture of the monk(?) has a wonderfully 'reflective' quality to it - he seems to be lost in thought & the mind invents that he has already travelled the hills you see behind, & is still to travel the ones you can't see in front. The sharp contrast of dark, shadowy monk against washed out sky & distant hills is really rather good. A great proportion of his body stands above the hills, on an almost white background, then the contrast of the white bag & tassels is against the darker foreground. Even the white soles of his shoes serve to separate him from the background. – Tetsujin Jun 29 '17 at 6:20

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