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April 1990

Email : Volume 5

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We’ve received some very nice comments from some of you subscribers recently – so thank you for your kind words! We hope you’re finding this weekly email useful – or at the very least, we hope you like the photos.

This week’s topic? Lines and composition. What I’m about to say isn’t ground breaking – but it’s definitely a core piece of our style and how we compose our shots. We’ve been photographing so much over these past nine months that these days, everything we see if a photographic composition. Driving down the road, walking the aisles in a grocery store, or just looking at the trees and sky. All of it – all the time. How would I compose this shot? For us – we start simple and for the most part we stick with simple. Okay – enough talk – here’s the principle we follow when composing shots.

Find strong lines, and then throw people in there.

That’s… rule number 1.

I know. Profound huh? Maybe not. But having strong lines in your composition gives your photos weight and can hold them together even when your subjects are going wild (kids!).

You already know that you can use lines to frame people and ‘lead’ the viewer’s eyes – but there’s a difference between artificially creating diagonal lines by turning your camera sideways at a 45 degree angle, and actually using the already present lines created by the environment. First – you’re not making it more difficult for the viewer to see your photo. For every diagonal photo turned on its side 45 degrees, you have a viewer that has to turn their head 45 degrees. Do that more than 3 times and you’ll have viewers start wishing for someone who can hold their camera evenly.

There is a reason why you don’t see photos from Annie Leibovitz, Richard Avedon, or Henri Cartier-Bresson, taken at a sharp 45 degree sideways angle (just to name a few great photographers.)

Since we are often in man made environments – there are strong lines everywhere already present. Let the lines frame your subjects and balance your photos, rather than making the lines compete with your subjects. People are dynamic and curvy and they can provide all of the excitement in your compositions. You don’t need to muddle your composition with lines that detract from the people in your photos.

Of course – you can use people to create new leading lines. It’s easy to do this when you’re posing a shot, but try doing this at events. It’s trickier – but not impossible. You just have to be really alert and know what shot you want… and then wait for people to fill in the frame. Sometimes, when it happens… it’s kind of like magic.

Of course – sometimes you just have to move people around and make them stand there. Even they’re not ‘literally’ creating lines in your photograph, just positioning them in a certain direction will create lines that viewers can follow – so make sure your focal point is something you want and don’t leave it up to chance – and that’s one of the many things we’ve learned over the past year of photographing. As much as it seems like great shots ‘just happen’ or people ‘just get lucky’ – there is a lot of work that goes into making ‘luck happen’. You have to know what shot you want before people ever show up into the frame.
A few weeks ago I photographed a CARE charity event for their own staff living and working in Haiti. As you look through this gallery, notice the ‘posed’ quality of the photographs, but know that very few of them were actually ‘posed’. It was a lot of work – but I worked really hard at being patient, looking for shots, and WAITING for shots – so much that it felt like I was really… willing people to move where I wanted them to be so I could take that photograph I had in my head. Yeah. I know – I get crazy about this stuff.
Now – different from ‘framing’ a shot – you can use lines to highlight certain qualities of a photograph. The photo above? The hard diagonal lines of the wall and buildings in the lower half of the frame guide you inward towards the middle (obviously) – but then once you get to Molly’s face – the explosion of tree and sky bring your gaze upward while the fence and powerlines actually help to open everything back up and out, rather than closing things in since they’re ‘lighter’ than the diagonal lines of the building and wall.

So it accomplishes guiding the viewer’s gaze by pulling them in through the lower half of the frame and then back out through the upper half. You should start thinking about what path your viewer’s gaze will follow when you are making your photographs.

In this photo of Ashley, we have the same leading diagonal line that you’ve seen a billion times. What helps to make this frame a little different is that Ashley’s vertical stance is repeated by the tower, the smokestack, the lamppost and even the fence posts – all of these vertical lines help to balance the very strong diagonal lines that pull us to the right side of the frame.
In this photo of April – the wall on the left is obviously leading the viewer inwards toward her. The strong line on the right again balances the horizontal line from the wall, but also guides the viewer’s gaze upwards towards her face.So even though technically the lines coverge in the lower right corner – the viewer’s gaze is led upwards towards her face – where their gaze should be. The two buildings in the middle of the wall on the left? Also there to help balance out the shot.

Of course – most of the time you shouldn’t be thinking so hard about all of this and you should just be taking photographs. However, when you’re looking at work by other photographers, really look at their compositions and see if you can tell if they were just getting lucky, or if they actually had a purposeful hand in making the photograph.

We think the term ‘photo-journalistic’ is too often an excuse for poorly composed photographs, and if you’re hiring a photographer, you should expect much, much more.

Thanks for reading and we’ll see you next week.


Leah and Mark Tioxon

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Email : Volume 4

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Simply put – if you need light – bring it in. This goes for everyone – not just event photographers like us, or strobists with their off camera flashes. This includes point and shoot users. If you’re at home, or anywhere really – when you need more light, turn on some lamps. You’d be surprised by how much people prefer to have good photos than ‘mood’ lighting. Of course – I’m getting ahead of myself here.

If you’re really interested in learning about light and shutter speed and f/stops – check out the Lighting 101 page on But I know you’re probably not going to sit down and read all of that just yet so here are some basic guidelines that we follow regarding light when we make photos. One thing though – when we say exposure – we’re talking about whether or not something is completely washed out, completely black, or right on. Those aren’t bad things, but you should be able to control and decide what areas are exposed whichever way in your photos.

  • Don’t use only on-camera flash. Ever. (Okay, 99.999 percent of the time don’t use only on-camera flash – even a few inches to the side and attached to a bracket is better than right on the hot shoe.)
  • If there is enough ambient/available light – use it and don’t add any flashes
  • If there isn’t enough light – or worse, if it’s boring ambient light – bring in the flashes and bounce them off the ceilings/walls
  • Don’t be afraid to shoot directly at a flash
  • Make sure you have enough ‘fill’ light so people’s fronts aren’t in darkness
  • Don’t be afraid to move people around so their faces aren’t in shadow (people would rather have a good photo than be comfortable most of the time!)
  • Check.Your.Exposures! (look at the back of your camera and make sure everything’s still exposing correctly – light conditions change)
  • Shadow areas can still be your friend
  • Flat, even light is boring
  • Focus on exposing the areas you want to expose and don’t worry about getting ‘everything’
  • Learn how to handle ‘flashes’ and ‘natural light’.

Now – as event photographers – light’s always an issue. When we set up our lights, there are three areas we can make adjustments. On the flashes themselves with power settings, on the flashes again by adding diffusers, and finally in-camera with the f/stops. We recently photographed a wedding reception held in a restaurant – which meant dim mood lighting. In situations such as this – we try not to just blast bright white light everywhere to fill the room. We want flickers or slivers of light – hardly noticeable at first – and after a while people don’t notice them at all.

We used a three light triangle setup. Now – you might think that it’d make more sense to space them out evenly, making an isosceles triangle, instead of the right triangle you see above. An isosceles triangle would give even light from every angle. But remember – we don’t want even light. We want shadows because they add a look of deeper dimensions to spaces – and the only places we ever see even light is in controlled studio situations – so we avoid that in our event photography.

You may or may not be able to tell in these photos – but the light is actually a bit softer than it would be had we just aimed bare flashes at the table. Unless they’re really close to the subjects – and we’re talking within a foot – bare flashes deliver a really hard light. So whenever we can, we soften them up by adding a diffuser. In this case, we used our IKEA cabinet liner diffusers.

Made from opaque IKEA cabinet liners and some velcro from Home Depot. They fit over any of our 15 various model flashes and work better than most of the ‘official’ diffusers that are little more than really great tupperware.

But how do you learn how to handle outdoor lighting? If you’re using a point and shoot camera, turn off your flash. I know – this goes against the idea of using your flash for ‘fill’ light – especially in the shadow areas with the sun shining brightly – but try this instead – first focus your camera at the darkest area of your photo, and let your camera meter for that area. It’ll totally blow out the ‘white’ areas of your photo, but you’ll get a clear bright shot of your subjects. What you’re trying to do is fool your camera into metering for the areas you want to photograph, and not the areas that you don’t care about.
For example – this photo above. Shot about 3 hours before sundown – the sun was really bright and it’s just outside the frame. I exposed for the couple and not ‘everything’ – which left the right side of the frame washed out white. If this was shot on an ‘automatic’ setting, the camera would’ve compromised and tried to keep the sun area toned down, and at the same time expose for the the darker spots – and this is why automatic on your camera sucks. It’ll choose a middle exposure that’s either really boring, or just really bad. This is why snapshots look like snapshots.

Knowing how to control your exposure will completely change the look of your photos, so that even posed snapshots and natural light can be photos that you’d want to keep.

And… this has become a monster post! and I could go on forever talking about light. So we’ll just end it here and see you next week.
Thanks for reading.


Leah and Mark Tioxon

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