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General Theory: Strive for Layers of Interest

I could stare at the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson for hours on end. I love them. The more you look at them, the more interesting they get.

You might be wondering what the work of a genius like Cartier-Bresson has to do with lighting. After all, he was the consummate hunter, armed with black-and-white film, a Leica and available light.

Oh, and maybe the best sense of dynamic composition ever to grace a human being.

His photos ooze multiple layers to draw you in and hold your gaze. Compositional layers. Layers of light. Front-to-back layers. Top to bottom. Right to left. And then there's that sense of timing.

I bring up Cartier-Bresson to remind you of one of the pitfalls of creating cool light. One of my biggest weaknesses as a photographer is to be satisfied with well-executed lighting. Nothing wrong with good light, but good light does not a strong picture make.

Light - like timing, composition, content depth, etc., is a layer of interest - not a complete photo. As someone learning about artificial light, it is easy to get caught up in the idea that a picture is hot because the light is hot. That's a big mistake. Light can take a mediocre photo and elevate it, but it can't make something out of nothing.

Let me back up for a second.

When we all started out making photos, we were pretty much taking snapshots. Just point the camera at something interesting and press the button. Good aim meant getting the subject dead in the center.

Later we graduated to the Rule of Thirds. And then, the idea of Breaking the Rule of Thirds in an Interesting Way.

Tom Kennedy is a long-time compass point of mine. Kennedy has run the photo department at the Philadelphia Inquirer, run photo at the National Geographic and, most recently, runs an outstanding online photography division at the Washington Post.

He has also counseled about a bazillion young photographers - myself included - after suffering through their college portfolios. I jokingly say "suffering through" because looking back, I think our stuff must have pretty much looked all the same. College PJ programs tend to produce a lot of similar photos from similar shooters. See if any of these ring a bell:

1. Tight, clean football action shot.
2. Abortion (or, anti-abortion) protest.
3. Candlelight vigil for some very sad event.
4. Frisbee freestyle feature (maybe even a silhouette!)
5. Feature story on a homeless guy.

Kennedy was an early member of the "don't get a 300/2.8 too soon" camp. He said they tend to produce what he called "eye candy."

He's right.

"Eye candy" is a photo that looks cool and clean and has exactly one layer of interest. They look great for about half a second and then there is no reason for your eye to linger any longer.

It's a shame, really. Because shooters who get to that level have usually broken past the "ugly, cluttered, too much crap in your photo" level. But if you are a thinking photographer, you soon realize that you need to break free from the "eye candy" genre and head back toward busy photos. Only the busy photos have to work as busy photos.

Chris Usher, a long-time friend and mentor, introduced me to the idea of consciously rating my photos based on the number of interesting layers that I could identify. Try it. It works. When you start to get it, learn to think that way while you are shooting.

"Top to bottom, left to right, front to back," The Washington Post's Mike Williamson told me once. That's the standard. Fill the frame. Make it work. Make someone want to stay there a while.

Usually, the more layers of interest I can pull off in a photo - and still have it "work" - the happier I am. (Click on the photo for a larger pic.)

Some people never get there.

Others - like my friend and former staff colleague Stefanie Boyar - were disgustingly good at using a wide-angle lens to produce complex, layered, interesting photos right out of college. It was seemingly effortless for her. And on top of that, she's really nice. Which made it impossible to hate her for being so good at such a young age. Oh, well.

Good composition can fill a photo with layers. Getting your static compositional elements lined up and waiting for a dynamic (timed) element can make a photo sing. People like Cartier-Bresson dealt in multiple static and dynamic layers at once. He called it "the decisive moment." But in reality, it could frequently be several decisive moments coming together at once. The guy really was a genius. If you have not studied him, you should.

Light is an element. A single layer. Something to be combined with other layers in a photo to make the photo that much better. If you are taking a portrait, the subject's engagement with the camera (and, thus, the viewer) is another layer. Once nice thing about creating good artificial light is that it frees you up to look for (and snag) those compositional and subject interaction moments.

Don't be satisfied with just "good light." Think of good light as setting the stage for the possibility of a great photo. If you are going to take the trouble to light a scene, take those extra steps to build on your photo's good foundation.

The work you put in at that point will make a world of difference.

Is the next Henri Cartier-Bresson out there stalking the world with a Leica? Probably not. He (or she) is probably figuring out how to use their Nikon D200 (or Canon 30D) just like the rest of us.

Heck, he might be reading this column right now.

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