Building Subject Using the Challenge of Three: Examples from Barcelona and Lisbon
I made these photographs during my recent three-day workshops in Barcelona and Lisbon. I would not have made (or printed) some of them if I had been working on my own, but I was playing my game, the Challenge of Three with my students as a way to warm up for a day of street photography.
I developed the game to help my students find subject and then photograph the subject in the most effective manner very quickly, because time waits for no one. Sometimes a potential subject comes our way and we miss the shot because we are not ready and the visual masterpiece is lost forever.
We must be ready to push the button exactly when the mind makes the command after considering all of the elements that make an effective photograph. Time is the big barrier that we documentary and street photographers are forced to deal with. Situations are always moving, so we need to develop methods for photographing very quickly.
The game, Challenge of Three, is based on my 5F’s system for finding and figuring out subjects and then photographing the subject with carefully considered framing, focusing and only then firing off the shot. It is a simple Guide to help photographers build their own effective working technique. (More on my 5F’s system is described in previous posts).
The game can be played alone or in a small group. I have always said that keeping things light relieves the tension of trying to find subject and helps photographers relax and have fun. The main thing to remember is this pastime is supposed to be fun. The rules are simple: nothing posed or fabricated and every photo needs to have at least three connected considerations or relationships between people or objects.
Little pieces or parts of subject are lying around everywhere to catch the attentive eye. When my eye is caught by the smallest insignificant detail. (“finding”) the game begins by evaluating the detail and deciding (“figuring”) how to make it part of a worthy subject. I call this building subject.
We need to find at least three things in the subject area that we can control only by moving the position of the camera relative to the subject in such a way as to bring the important elements, details and factors together to give the viewer an accurate rendering of what the subject is all about. We need to find three elements about the relationships between values in the subject area. It could be the background and how it relates to the center of interest, or the foreground and how it relates to the center of interest and to the background. It also could be how much of the background or foreground is going to be included in the frame and for what reason. There are many, many questions to consider.
Too much of any one detail might detract from the center of interest. Too few of the important details and the viewer will not have enough information to understand the photograph and your intent.
In street and documentary photography we need to get in close and photograph situations in a smooth and quiet way so as not to disturb the subject or the surroundings with our presence. In my experience, to accomplish this we need to not make quick movements and always be polite and smiling. The object is to get in close. Henri Cartier-Bresson said that one must be a part of what one photographs, therefore, getting in close is very important.
A still life challenge is a great way to slow down in order to learn how to photograph at the speed of life. A still life can offer us a unique opportunity to take as much time as is needed to make the photograph. This gives us practice in the 5F’s and the importance of including at least three elements in a photograph. The subject is still, not moving, and will not change in the next few minutes so we have tmie to slow down and consider the subject at length in order to better determine how to use the various parts in the subject area to effectively build an interesting photograph out of what’s just lying around. The framing of the desired image may take a few minutes, with constant checking of the framing and focus placement, then re-checking each corner of the frame and how a slight movement of the camera, or the placement of focus, can have a large affect on the intended photograph.
A close-up photo of an ordinary item changes that item into something else, perhaps something beautiful in its coincidence of line, texture and light.
During the workshops we all laughed at the absurdity of what we were doing, watching each other get into strange awkward positions to make sense of the framing of an image. This was a good way to keep warmed up. To be very quick in the actions, and doing if for hours at a time, prepares us for that shining moment when we notice a very powerful subject situation and we are warmed up in body and mind and ready to quickly make the photograph with our practiced skill in figuring, framing, focusing and firing. The photographers who play this game are more apt to be ready when a great opportunity comes their way.
We spend the days photographing simple subjects and events, subjects that would not pass our strict criteria that we normally hold for our subjects. However, these simple subjects allowed us to be constantly considering subject material and gave us practice in framing and focusing , which kept us fluid and precise in our movements so that we were ready when the real and powerful potential subject came our way.
My subjects ranged from a man digging a hole, with an ironic twist involved, an abstract photo of discarded construction material, an action photo of a boy caught in mid air, a drunken street person pretending to attack a photographer and a boy having his photo taken with the approving look of a woman in the background. I included three things in each photograph that were tied together with effective framing and a good sense of trying to create photographs that stand on their own without the need for a caption.
I photographed a group of young boys huddled by an immense and ancient wall, with three things being evident in the image, the huddled boys kneeling down, the wall and the boys’ relationship to the tall and aged wall and their relationship to each other. Not all of the three things need to be visible, but at least three things must be considered and must be evident in the photo.
The street fighter image includes information that is needed if the photo is to be understood by the average viewer. What is needed? The street fighter in a threatening pose, the photographer in the act of photographing and little else so as not to distract fro the important center of interest (the fighter and the photographer). The second image of the street fighter includes a person holding a cell phone nearby, who seems unaware of the fight situation, adding a whole new element to the photograph.
This abstract photo of some old boards and other pieces of wood shows how I considered each piece and its placement and relationship with the other objects. Another decision I had to make was where the focus should be placed, and, if there is little light, and therefore little depth of focus.
In this photo of a group of boys trying to get water out of a fountain, I included the boy standing and holding the top of the fountain, the relationships are there to see, and all the information was considered very quickly before the event disappeared forever, to be lost to us all.
What did I consider in the photo of the boat in a lake in a park? First, the setting, which means to me to include the foliage in the foreground which acts as a frame. Since the boat was the center of interest, I needed to focus on the boat and place it in the water within the frame of bushes, and then to include what was happening in the boat, that is, the young boy being taught how to row. The composition makes itself when all of these logical considerations have been made concerning a subject.
Someone once said that there is no composition, only facts. I enjoy this perception of a good photo. The inclusion of the important facts in the frame of the viewfinder will make the composition automatically. I made a photo of a small girl in front of an immense machine, which might be called an example of contrast and irony.
Another example is a group of men drinking. What is needed to make the photo effective? The men with smiles, the drinks on the table and little else which might distract from the men and their good time together.
The most ironic and magic photo that I made, was the first image I made on the first day of the Barcelona workshop. We met in the middle of a famous square, and then after a brief talk explaining the game we were to play, we started our day looking for subject. Unfortunately, the square was almost empty so I suggested that we look in the refuse containers, which I have found to be an excellent way to find abstract images.
Sometimes I will find my own last name in the trash. The first container I looked into had a homemade sign in English that read “freedom.” What was the chance of finding something like this in the first container? In all the trash containers in Barcelona, or even all of Spain, what are the chances? This, for me, is the magic of photography.
In the whole six hours of working at the game, I used only a roll and a half, which for me is about 50 images. Even though we were in effect practicing, I was able to make several photos that I like. The first photo of the first day of the workshop and it was made of the contents of a trash container and had the greatest word that people all over the world cherish, lying cast-off as worthless. Even more ironic for me, is that it was written in English. A trash container in Spain with the word “freedom” written in English.
Near the end of the day in Lisbon, after we had been working at our game, we came upon a ceremony in a little square. People were there with the police putting a wreath on a monument and since we were all warmed up and practiced, we were ready to finish the day with some close-up photos of the serious subject. We photographed respectfully and quietly and I produced these photos of the event.
The Challenge of Three game is fun to play while practicing the 5F’s, and is an excellent way to always be ready and it will improve our ability to make photographs at the speed of life!