Maekan Classroom Photography —
Part 1: Fundamentals
The MAEKAN Classroom is a series created by the MAEKAN team to pass on the skills we’ve learned in the past few years. We don’t plan to wait until we have a “masterclass” or spent decades honing our craft to share experience and knowledge that works. We want to help get self-taught creatives started telling and publishing their stories today.
In this first part of our Classroom series on Photography, we’re going to look at some of the fundamentals on how to approach photography from a non-technical standpoint, drawing comparisons between what factors go into an image and how each of those factors affects us emotionally.
• Do you want to tell a story or achieve a mood with your photos or some combination of both?
• How realistic or fantastical do you want your images to be?
• Do you have a preference on having glassy smooth or down-to-earth rugged textures?
Throughout this series, we’re going to try to explore photography as both an art form and now thanks to technology, one of the most widespread means of creation people have at their disposal. As people who know and admire plenty of long-term photographers and as people who also picked up photography later in life, we hope to demystify photography as a mode of expression and communication just as our mission is to demystify creativity itself.
If you’re thinking about getting into photography as a hobby or want to re-examine how you photograph things now, you might consider what you want to do with it:
- Present: Record information and physical reality with an image, that helps to assist or replace words.
- Document: Record information and physical reality as a story, converting “a thousand words” into one picture.
- Depict: Describe the events taking place in front of the person taking the picture.
- Portray: Depict a subject or event in a certain way.
- Evoke: Stir a combination of emotions in the person viewing or intrigue them into reflecting deeper.
- Discover: Photographic technology allows us to see reality in ways the otherwise unassisted human eye can’t.
- Supplement: A photograph might serve as the basis for or a part of another larger work.
There’s going to be overlap between each specific purpose and each act of photography might accomplish different goals. The idea is recognizing that our personal reasons and drives for taking photos can vary widely.
This image from RC Shen lays out some of her many ceramic works. Spreads like these (of edible and inedible but tempting foods) present visual information through a photo, not unlike if you drew a chart to communicate more complex information.
Of course, you could describe what’s in the picture in several paragraphs, but sometimes taking a picture is easier — if not more impactful.
This image by Brian Kelley captures and records the massive Champion trees growing throughout the United States
This shot by Alex from Hall of Flowers Season 3 depicts the laid back interactions at a cannabis tradeshow.
Photography can be used to portray subjects or events in a certain way.
In this image by Heather Sten of Julie Zerbo working from home, we get a glimpse into her lifestyle and personality.
This shot of a bonsai in the arctic is by floral art collective AMKK for their Shiki series that contrasts the ephemeral and vulnerable tree with various extreme environments.
In this instance, we are not necessarily concerned with how the metal box and the tree got there, but perhaps we’re astonished or concerned by the tree’s presence there.
In this case, a photograph acts as a base for a photo illustration. Like any other art form, a photograph needn’t be the end in itself and can serve as the starting point for something bigger.
At the end of the day, how you choose to get into photography and where you take your craft is up to you. You can focus on capturing your daily routine or highlight people with a story to tell — or you can choose not to tell a story at all. You can record every special meal you’ve had or paint your own pictures on the canvas that is film or your camera sensor (or another photo-sensitive medium).
You can choose to shoot with the intent of getting into the industry and building a career or you can leave your craft as a hobby that brings you happiness.
If you’re not sure what you want to do with your photography right now, just keep taking pictures and looking at them, then decide later!
‘Natural’ Versus ‘Unnatural’
Another theme we’re going to use to describe a lot of concepts before we start to use anything more technical is the dynamic of natural versus unnatural. With this spectrum, we’re not just looking at not just the things we include in the frame, but also the reactions those things provoke through human eyes and perceptions.
This way, we can explore how different photographic techniques impact the way our photos come out and how we and our audiences feel when we see them. Unsurprisingly, even if photographs are made using something as “unnatural” as a camera, the impact of the finished image still appeals to human sensibilities that are somewhat consistent regardless of individual aesthetic preferences.
These factors will carry over into the next section when we talk about cameras and unpack how we can use them in creative ways:
- Dimension: Our perception of flatness or depth in a scene as well as our size in relation to what’s depicted.
- Stillness: The sense of balance from an orientation perspective and perception of motion.
- Readability: The ability to smoothly read through the different elements and layers in an image without leaving the frame.
- Drama: The sense of calm or intrigue that comes from how soft or pronounced the difference is between light and shadow.
- Color: The impact the different colors (or shades of grey) in the image have on us.
- Texture: The crispness and “cleanness” of things in the image as well as the final image itself.
When we say dimension, we refer to the sense of where things are in the space — including ourselves — and the scale of the space and everything in it.
In this shot of multidisciplinary artist Veeeky by Ash Lin, we can make out exactly two layers: the one with the subject and the wall behind her. We can also gather that the two are relatively close together and the viewer is slightly lower than her eye line.
In this image of photographer and philanthropist Jamal Burger (Jayscale), how many layers can you count? How far do you think it is between Tyler Hayward (who took this photo) to the metal bars outside?
There’s no right or wrong answer, but notice how the layers between the windows, cars and brick wall seem closer together, keeping our focus in the room. While Jamal is the only subject in the first image, there’s several distinct layers to this scene and you know roughly where it ends. Lastly, notice that we’re seeing him from roughly eye-level, almost as if we’re in the room sitting across from him.
In the next shot of Tokyo, taken by Nate sometime in the late afternoon, the depth of the massive city is communicated by the flow of cars and people towards an imaginary point near the bright sky at the top left.
However, in the next shot by Chris De Canha of a man in Vladivostok, Russia, the sky and sea behind him seem to stretch on forever, but their consistent color helps to flatten our perspective so our focus gravitates back towards the diver.
Here’s another example where the background is deliberately flatter so that the three-dimensional objects at the front, a set of cookware by Pattern Brands in this case, stands out more.
While we were still at eye level with the subject in the last image, consider how the relationship between us the viewer and the subject changes in the next one.
This shot by Edward Barnieh looks upwards towards the sky, as the surrounding buildings appear to tower over us, adding a sense of their height and their scale.
Similarly, in this shot by Christina Choi, we see an unfamiliar angle to an object we’re familiar with that’s a lot bigger than us. But given the amount of sky around it, we get the sense it’s much farther away.
And if we were to assume the viewpoint of the airplane, similar to this drone shot taken by Varun Thota, our relationship with the space changes yet again as the city shrinks below us.
When we talk “stillness,” we mean the sense of balance and ease you might derive from a photo that’s perfectly level with immobile subjects. But of course, that’s only one way of communicating that.
This next photo Charis shot of David Arsham’s aptly named “Static Mythologies” conveys energy even with subjects that are completely motionless.
In the next photo by Holly-Marie Cato of off-peak hours near Westminister in London, you can see that sense of stillness — of that moment “frozen in time” in spite of there being several elements in motion such as the birds and the Thames’ currents. The London Eye and the man standing vertically and balanced help reinforce the sense of calm.
Contrast that with this action shot by Bo Bridges of Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible II. Where the above photo has the man in the blue suit standing upright, this one is tilted. We get the sense we’re tensely “leaning” into the turn with him on the motorcycle.
Notice how some fast-moving elements you can make out (like the flying stuntman) while others are still blurry from the speed, like the spinning tires on Tom Cruise’s motorcycle and the edges of the fire. This ability to stop time and fast moving objects with our own hands through a camera is one of photography’s greatest appeals.
That said, you can also find this energy in shots where the frame is perfectly level too. In this shot of Wild Ballers in China by Cheuk-Yin To, everyone is obviously in motion, but in this instant, which players appear to be stable and steady and which ones appear temporarily unbalanced?
There are many other ways to convey stillness or energy whether your images have moving parts or not. You might even find them in patterns, structures and other elements that have an oddly satisfying quality to them because they communicate a sense of rigidity or life.
When we talk about “readability,” we’re referring to how elements are arranged in the frame to be seen by the viewer — no matter how few or many there are.
In the following image taken by Collin Hughes, there are only a few elements with the dish taking center stage. Its simplicity makes for an image that’s unassuming and easy to read.
In the next photo, which Eugene took at Copenhagen-based agency Norgram, there are many more elements but it still remains easy to read. What is the first thing your eye gravitates towards? And after that? Where are most of the elements grouped in the frame?
If you could draw a shape around the elements that carry the most visual weight (that catch the eye the most), what would that shape look like? As you explore the image, do you reach any invisible “boundaries” inside the frame of the photo that keep your eyes focused on the image?
Notice how everything in the previous photo was more or less visible and clear from everything in the “front” to the objects behind the glass in the “back” of the image . In this next photo, also shot by Eugene at Namu Stonepot, if you look beyond the stack of books and jar of chopsticks at the front, the elements start to get less and less clear.
How readable would this image be if everything including the plants and other items in the background were as clear as the elements at the front of the image?
If we look at the things in our environment (and assuming our vision is at or corrected to 20/20), the difference in clarity between the things we’re focused on and everything else isn’t as big as you’d see in the photo above.
This is where cameras and their lenses allow us to “edit” reality before we take a photo, making different elements readable on not just a flat two-dimensional plane but also across different layers in a 3D space.
Make no mistake, though, not everything is meant to be easily readable. You can choose to aim for or flout this sense of readability depending on what you want to express.
For example, this shot from Zhou HanShun’s “Frenetic City” perfectly captures the dizzying pace of Hong Kong’s densely populated Mong Kok area, encouraging us to look further and explore it in a different way.
Drama (again, not a technical term) is the mood we get from the relationship between light and shadow in the picture. Under regular circumstances, there are very few occurrences of pure white (that reflects all light) or black (the reflects no light) that we can observe in nature with our eyes. But in a photograph, we can play with these two extremes and the shades in between to create images that have a strong “dramatic” contrast or a lower “dreamier” contrast.
This shot by Maurice Li helps to convey the intensity of bright sunlight along with shadows that help to separate the subject from the sand and the individual dunes from each other.
You can also have images with a subtler contrast for another type of mood. Both the light and shadows in this shot of Walden Woods by Mitsuru Wakabayashi are softer in a way that matches the Kyoto coffee shop’s minimalist aesthetic.
The exact way we want to portray this light/shadow relationship carries over into all times of the day. Below, we have a shot of Hong Kong by Vivien Liu that captures the metropolis’s energy and warmth long after the sun has set.
In contrast, this photo by Zoral Naik captures the pioneers of the underground music scene in Karachi, Pakistan, who often have to operate in secret and after hours. In this way, photos can make use of and accentuate the mystery and beauty that accompanies a lack of light.
How you choose to portray this connection between light and shadow depends will vary between if you’re shooting in color or black and white — and if you prefer to work with available light or you want to have greater control over it.
In this portrait of artist Luna Ikuta, photographer Christopher Lim uses studio lights that were angled and shaped to get the desired mood.
One advantage to shooting in black and white is it constrains the variables you can rely on to craft an image. If you’re just starting out, shooting this way can have benefits, as Singapore-based photographer Lee Yik Keat says:
“Shooting black and white back then allowed me to filter out all the colors in all the images. So it allowed me to just focus on framing, composition. You’re finding subjects something to tell the story without worrying the additional factor of colors because if you put colors in an image, you have to worry about many other factors, so it came at the right time because I was just starting out.”
Where shooting in black and white forces us to create our emotional connection using black, white and all the shades of grey in between, shooting in color opens up other possibilities depending on what colors we see before us in the scene and how we (or our cameras) want to treat that color.
In this shot of Eric Lau by Jennifer Cheng, the the colors are muted and right at home with the faded artwork found on the Old School albums the music artist has in his home.
But if you’re hoping for colors that look more “retro,” they needn’t necessarily be faded either. Every type of physical film stock and digital camera sensor “sees” and treats color differently. Consider this next shot by Alex, shot back in 2016 in Tokyo, where the primary colors are especially pronounced. As with a lot of factors regarding style, a lot of it comes down to preference (which is often swayed by popularity), something you’ll discover the more you shoot.
Another consideration is how close to reality you want the colors to appear. In the case of this other shot by Alex of Takashi Murakami’s “MURAKAMI vs MURAKAMI” exhibition, staying true to the actual colors of the space was important.
Of course, nothing says you have to even obey the way colors are in reality and you can choose to work with a given tone as you wish, whether it’s already in the environment as in this photo of DJ Matthew Law.
As you see more and more images that you like, you’ll start to develop an idea of how you like your colors to look and how you want to portray them in your photos.
One last factor to consider is texture. In nature, relatively few things are perfectly smooth and even, but many of the things produced by humans can be, and that includes our images that reflect what we see.
Consider this shot of a Tesla Model X “Founders Edition” shot by Alex for our story with Nic Jammet of sweetgreen (unrelated to the sweetgreen but rather transportation). The texture of the hood puts the focus on the front grill and often, technology has enabled to shoot with virtually no grain at much higher ISOs than say traditional analog film.
We can likewise opt for a film look that not only handles colors a certain way, but retains the texture of the film stock’s natural grain. This shot by Repeat Pattern of a derelict hotel from ’80s Japan deftly pairs the format with the subject matter.
And here we have a film shot of director and filmmaker Santiago Arbelaez by Juan Ortiz. In this case, the background shows the film’s natural texture, especially on the ceiling.
Regardless of what the subject is, there is no right or wrong choice and it’s up to personal preference. Here, we have a digital shot of Magic Spoon co-founder Gabi Lewis by Carmen Chan. Notice the texture of Gabi’s shirt and skin versus the smooth background.
But when it comes to texture, it’s not just a matter of shooting film or digital. You can find it by seeking it in the things you shoot. This digital image of Chris Ashworth’s work finds all the different textures in the physical layers of material fixed on a piece of paper.
But don’t let your exploration of texture end at a decision between digital or film, but in exploring the dynamic between perfect and imperfect, smooth and rough, lofty and approachable, fantasy and realism and seeing what appeals to you for a given subject.
- Dimension: The sense of where we are in relation to the scene, how far it extends and the scale of the things in it.
- Stillness: How frozen or blurry the motion is. The type of energy we get from the orientation of the frame or the things in it.
- Readability: How elements are arranged from top to bottom, forward to backward in a frame. How crisp those elements are compared to each other.
- Drama: The relationship between light and dark parts in the scene. How soft or hard the shapes of lit areas and shadows are.
- Color: How vivid or muted colors are overall or how individual colors are treated by the camera sensor or film.
- Texture: The smoothness or roughness of the actual things being photographed and the texture of the image itself whether from film stock or digital film emulation.
That’s all for this first part on fundamentals! Stay tuned for the next one on equipment where we look at what film and digital cameras and their accessories can and can’t do.