Photography: Finding order in chaos

Over the past couple of years I’ve been more than pleased, thrilled even, with the praise I’ve gotten from a wide range of people — friends, colleagues, family, readers, etc. — for my photography.

Often times, the individual photos that are praised are the well composed shots. By that, I mean, generally, there was conscious effort on my part, some creative thinking, or just making sure all the factors aligned properly. I love it that such pictures, pictures I’ve taken care or effort in creating get praise.

But there is another kind of picture I like to make that rarely seems to get much feedback. Maybe I overvalue these photos, or maybe people just don’t know what to make of them. Perhaps, I think, the “art” I see in them is more subtle than today’s “glance at the web” culture misses. And I don’t mean that to be as pretentious as it sounds. I’m just really wondering if people see what I see, or if it’s just missed, or if it’s not there in the first place and I’m just delusional.

The shots I’m thinking about are what I think of as finding order in chaos. The situation is fast moving, there are multiple elements that are out of sync, but as the photographer, I sense there is something here — if I keep peeping through the view finder, perhaps I’ll spot some order and make a picture at the right time, or with a continues shutter fluttering, perhaps a pattern will emerge after I import the photos into Lightroom. In all of these shots, there’s a bit of what I recognize in the view finder as a possibility and a happy accident.

Take the photo above. It was taken, of all places, in a photography studio. When I lifted my camera, I just sensed an order of people I wanted to capture, but as soon as I lifted my camera, the two people in front struck a pose. Still, as I clicked, I felt good there was a possible composition in the frame and not just chaos. When I chimped (looked at my LCD screen) I could see I had horrible blownout areas (over exposure) in the frame. So I dialed down my flash and snapped again — fearing, even knowing, the composition was falling apart — but I had over exposed areas again. I took several more pictures, seven total, each stopping down more and more trying to rescue the situation. Later, I would figured out that in this photography studio where the action was taking place, my flash was triggering the strobe in the light box to my left. But here’s the happy accident: My instincts about the composition of the first picture were right. The composition isn’t perfect, but the people do make an attractive pattern, and the overexposed areas actually — to me at least — help the composition.


Above, however, is a case where I have no idea what I’ve snapped until I’m working in Lightroom. This photo was taken just six or seven hours ago, and what got me thinking a little more on this topic. This is not a good sports photo. The real action is the two players back of frame — one carrying a ball and one about to make an unsuccessful tackle. To please a sports editor, this picture should tell more of a story, but the actual story of the shot is confused. The kid carrying the ball is about to score, but the real action of the photo is one of his would-be blockers getting knocked on his ass while the guy who should have been blocked, and should NOW be involved in tackling the runner is moving away from the play. None of what happening in the frame, however, is important to me. I just like the symmetry of the shot. It feels more like street photography than sports photography.

Here’s a case of three men at a public event. I’m just trying to capture an interesting composition. The man in the middle is moving around a lot. The photo I have in my mind to try and capture — the three men in parallel profiles is being thwarted by his movement. I decide to go ahead and snap a couple of frames while he’s moving forward. What emerges is not a formal portrait, but rather something that has a feeling of action, spontaneity and still some symmetry.

Sometimes you just snap the shutter, and snap and snap and snap, and hope for the best. I took 20 frames of this kid throwing balls at the Elba dunking tank. This was the only one worth keeping. The lines aren’t obvious at all, but everything seems to line up so beautifully — it’s pure chaos, but a compositional whole, I think.

Here’s a case of what I got isn’t what I was after. When I snapped I was just interested in the kid on the horse. The chaos and symmetry comes from the other clear figures in the picture, most notably from the clown, who struck an inexplicable forlorn pose just as I clicked. These are actors of independent notions forming a compositional whole. A triangle is formed from boy on horse to clown to man on the right who is also looking down, giving the frame some unplanned symmetry.

Curves are great compositional devices. When I took this shot, I could see through the view finder that the lead singer struck a pose that could potentially give the photo great energy. It’s one of those rare cases where I knew instantly that chaos had been given order.  What I saw later was how the singer’s curve creates a yin to the guitar player’s yang as he stoops forward. Nobody has ever commented on this photo, but I always find something new in it every time I look at it.

This is a case of taking several frames of action hoping one shot will work. When I opened this frame up in Lightroom, I was immediately struck by the classic “newspaper wild art” feeling of the shot. I’m sure community newspapers across the country have run this same exact photo hundreds of times over the years, which is why I like it so much. But the emergence of lines forming a triangle in pretty much the final frame of the series is what turns a chaotic situation into symmetry.

So, I’m making no claim to great photography here, just expressing some thoughts on interesting compositions arising from fast moving situations and wondering if anybody else — especially accomplished photographers — see what I see.

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