About Me

My photo
Spofford, New Hampshire, United States
Jeff Newcomer had been a physician practicing in New Hampshire and Vermont for over 30 years. Over that time, as a member of the Conservation Commission in his home of Chesterfield New Hampshire, he has used his photography to promote the protection and appreciation of the town's wild lands. In recent years he has been transitioning his focus from medicine to photography, writing and teaching. Jeff enjoys photographing throughout New England, but has concentrated on the Monadnock Region and southern Vermont and has had a long term artistic relationship with Mount Monadnock. He is a featured artist in a number of local galleries and his work is often seen in regional print, web publications and in business installations throughout the country. For years Jeff has published a calendar celebrating the beauty of The New England country-side in all seasons. All of the proceeds from his New England Reflections Calendar have gone to support the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program at the Cheshire Medical Center. Jeff has a strong commitment to sharing his excitement about the special beauty of our region and publishes a blog about photography in New England.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Compositional Guides


 Divine Magic or Mere Mathematical Manipulations

Wouldn't it be great if we could find a
single law of
Abigail & Grayson Edgartown Light
 photographic composition which, when apply to every image, generates an arrangement of visual elements that are most pleasing to everyone's eyes? It is tempting to search for the magic formula in the wisdom of the great artistic masters or the beauty of fundamental principals of mathematics, but can this replace the "wisdom" of our own eyes. There are plenty of "rules" out there that for centuries have been used to define beauty and balance.  In photography, the rule of thirds has been the most famous. Many of the others guides appear to seek validation by adding the lofty adjective, "Golden"; The Golden Ratio, the Golden Spiral, the Golden Triangle, the Golden Mean, and as if Gold isn't sufficiently precious, the "Divine Mean". All of these guides have validity, but there are so many of them, they can't all dictate the perfect composition.

Golden Spiral

I've been aware of these various compositional guides, but I only recently noticed that my current version of Photoshop CC offers most of the common one as overlays for the cropping tool. It is amazing how it is possible to continually find new treasures in Photoshop, but actually some of these options have been available for sometime in both Photoshop and Photoshop Elements. I have routinely used the Rule of Thirds overlay, but other choices include the Golden; Rectangle, Triangle, and Spiral, as well as a simple grid and diagonals. If it is in Photoshop, it must be important. So where do these magic squiggles come from?

If It Looks Right, Do It!

Rule of Thirds

Rule of Thirds
I've told the story before, but my first introduction to the Rule of Thirds bares repeating. Years ago when I was getting more serious about my photography, a gentleman approached to compliment my images. He particularly liked my eye for composition and my "effective use of the Rule of Thirds". I thanked him and then rushed home to look up "Rule of Thirds". All I knew was that I had a sense that the subject of an image looked better when it wasn't placed in the middle of the image. Who knew I was applying a "rule"?  Simply stated, the Rule of Thirds is a graphic representation of the observation that
Rule of Thirds
subjects are more visually pleasing when they are placed away from the center and near the intersections of lines drawn to divide the image into nine equal rectangles. Studies have tried to find a psychological basis for this apparent preference, without much success. Perhaps our desire to move our attention away from the center evolved from a need to constantly scan the periphery for stalking lions. It's as good an explanation as any other.

It may seem that the Rule of Thirds is a somewhat arbitrary attempt to place key elements away from dead center. Many of the other compositional guides come from mathematical attempts to describe the "optimal" locations, but they all tend toward similar balance. As we discuss their archaic origins, it is important to realize that, no matter how thoroughly a guide is dressed in history and fancy math, the test of it's value must always come back the power of the composition as seen through the human eye. 

Ok, with that off my chest, let's talk about the "Golden" Ratio.

The Beauty of Math

The Golden Ratio
Beginning from the first time that ancient man discovered that 1 + 1 = 2, mathematicians have found beauty in their numbers and the "Golden Ratio" may be the perfect example. The Golden Ratio has also been called the Golden Mean or the Divine Proportion. It dates back to several hundred years BC and refers to two measurements or line segments that have the relationship such that the ratio of the smallest number divided by the larger is the same as ratio of the larger number divided by the sum of the two numbers Easy huh?  Here is a situation in which a formula actually can help.

Stated in a formula where "a" is the larger number and "b" the smaller then:

This Window is Sized to Match the Golden Ratio

The ratio can be illustrated with a line containing segments, a and b or with a rectangle built with the same components.

The value of the ratio of b to a is a irrational number which can be rounded to 1.6180. The number can be derived mathematically, but, we're photographers, not mathematicians and I won't try to slog through the proof. But, if you insist and want to sound smart, or nerdy, at your next party (depending on the party), you can always announce that, "the Golden Ratio can be derived from the limit of the Fibonacci Sequence".  And then walk quickly away.

Leonardo Fibonacci (1170 –1250) was one of the greatest western mathematicians of the Middle Ages. His sequence of numbers was created so that the sum of the any two adjacent numbers adds up to the next number in the sequence.


Leonardo Fibonacci


The Sequence
0 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 34 55 89 144 233 377 610 987 ... 

An interesting property of the Fibonacci Sequence is that,  as the numbers in the sequence increase, the result of dividing any number by the number preceding it asymptotically approaches the Golden Ratio:

3/2=1.5 .... 8/5=1.6 .... 987/610 = 1.6180...
It's a Miracle! Leave it at that!

Now that your success or failure at the next party has been assured, lets return to composition. 

The Golden Ratio has such nifty properties, it must mean something in the real world, right??  Of course!  It has been argued by many that it is a fundamental relationship found in nature as well as in pleasingly balanced compositions and designs. It is true that, if you look hard enough, you can find an approximation of this value in nature such as in the distribution of the seeds of a pine cone or in the spiral chambers of a Nautilus, but this relationship is not to be found in many other manifestations of nature.  It may be that, in the natural world, the "Divine Proportion" is explained more by the Divine expectations of the viewer.

The Golden Ratio may not be magical, but over the centuries many artists and architects have felt that using guidelines based on the ratio to arrange the components of an image or design leads to a balanced and harmonious composition. The Ratio can be expressed graphically in a number of ways.

The Golden Rectangle

 The ratio can be used to create a nine cell grid similar to the Rule of Thirds, but with the width of the center columns being smaller (0.618) than the columns on either side. The
result is a grid which brings the guide lines closer to the center of the composition. Whether this grid leads to a more pleasing composition than the Rule of Thirds is
Golden Rectangle vs Rule of Thirds
a matter of personal preference and may have more to do with the context and subject of the image. In the iPhone picture of Abby and Grayson, I started by placing the upper lines of the Golden Rectangle and the Rule of Thirds at the level of the eyes. The second horizontal line of the Golden Rectangle Guide may have been better placed at the level of the chin, but I wanted to catch the tool in Abby's hand, so the Rule of Thirds won out.  There is a story behind this picture which includes a lens cap deeply wedged in the rocks, and the resourceful use of an improvised tool to achieve its liberation.  My thanks to Abby's freakishly long fingers and to the fishermen who let us use their steel hook.

Abigail & Grayson, Rule of Thirds

The Golden Spiral

 The Golden Ratio can also be expressed as a spiral created by an arcing line drawn successively through the square parts of nested Golden Rectangles. The line spirals down to a point which is felt to be a powerful location for the most important element of the composition. The composition is felt to be even stronger if the rest of the image seems to follow the spiral into the "Golden" Black Hole, as seen in the image of a juvenile Bald Eagle from Juno Alaska.

The Golden Triangle

 Images with prominent diagonals may benefit from following the paths of the Golden Triangle. In its simplest form the triangle is an isosceles triangle in which the duplicated sides are in the golden ratio to the smaller distinct side, but, for photographic composition, it is drawn with a diagonal across the frame and then lines from the other two corners drawn to intersect the diagonal at right angles. 

Any of these guides can be applied to an image during the process of cropping in newer versions of Photoshop and Elements. The

Cropping Overlays
overlays can be selected from the tool bar and rotated to fit the image. Unfortunately, when superimposed on an image, the guides seem quite faint to my eye and for illustration I have created a series of guide layers that I can add to any image. With so many guides to choose from it is nearly always possible to find one that will fit any image, and that can be the problem. If we superimpose all the guides, it is hard to find a spot in the image that isn't close to a line or impaled by one or more intersections. I apologize for sounding too negative about the magic of these guides. They can help to focus attention on the importance of balance in an image, but they should never force you to alter what seems right to your own eye and to the message of the photograph.

Guideline Soup

Rectangle, Spiral and Rule of Thirds all Focused on the Moon

For me the lesson here is really very simple and distills down to two basic guidelines.

First, get the subject(s) away from the middle of the frame. Put the person or tree off to the side and the sky or ocean lines above or below the center line of the image. The Rule of Thirds and most of the other guides accomplish this nicely, but slavishly precise adherence to the lines is not necessary or always advisable.  Sometimes the best composition may focus attention on a strong subject by placing it unashamedly in the dead center.  Which brings us to my second and only absolute compositional rule.

Second, adjust the image to please your own eye. You can never make everyone happy, but if your image works for you, then you can ask for no better. At some point you need to throw away the guides and let the image speak to you. A simple set of lines on the screen can't know the importance and context of the various elements in the picture and that context can be the most important factor in the construction of the composition. 

Jeff Newcomer

 Thanks to Wikipedia for a number of the illustrations in this article.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

First Falls

The Roaring Catsbane

Chesterfield Gorge Spring

We are now firmly in our second "stick" season. The air is warming but the trees are showing only the swelling buds that promise the glory to come. Like in November after the leaf drop, we are in the middle of a few weeks of tough sledding for New England photography. Sadly, our spring stick season has the added disadvantage of being the mud season as well, but given the generous spring run-off, it has the major advantage of being one of the best times to enjoy and shoot our regional waterfalls. 

The waterfalls are the primary savior of this time of year. I've been out shooting some of my local favorites and I'm reminded of the benefits and challenges of capturing the flowing water in the early spring.

The Benefits

Spofford Cascade
The obvious advantage of shooting spring waterfalls is the generous flow of the spring run-off. At no other time of the year is the strength of the cascading water as predictably powerful. New England is full of small brooks which, for much of the year display only a trickle or go completely dry, but in the spring these reluctant streams burst into life. In my home village of Spofford New Hampshire there is a tiny nameless rivulet which generally has an unimpressive flow as it drains down a steep set of cliffs from the main road above. I regularly check the status of the stream as I drive by on my way into the village, and predictably, it has blossomed this spring into a lovely cascade. The brook is difficult to approach with the usual steep banks, slick rocks and damp leaves, but with permission from the owner, I was able to find a few stable places to grabbed my shots.

Catsbane Brook Falls, West Chesterfield, NH
A little later I will moan about the lack of colorful foliage to decorate our falls, but an advantage of the bare branches is that waterfalls are less obstructed, becoming more completely visible. The trails are also easier to find in the spring with a great expansion of the range of sight through the forest. It is for this reason that we on the Chesterfield Conservation Commission often use the early spring and the late fall to survey and set out new trails.

Awaiting the Light on Merriam Brook
Ok, a couple of days ago I crushed my first Black Fly of the season. Within a week or so the miserable plague will be fully upon us, but for a few weeks in the early spring we able able to clomp through the underbrush without constant attack. It is a great joy to settle by an isolated forest brook and enjoy the freshness without the pure air being poisoned by the DEET saturated fumes from my bug repellent. On a recent visit to Merriam Brook in Surry New Hampshire, I explored downstream from the more familiar Forty Foot Falls and, with the increased flow, I found some lovely cascades. Unfortunately the sky was bright, bathing the falls with highly contrasting dappled light. Fortunately, without the clouds of bugs, I was comfortable waiting the couple of hours that it took for the sun to drop behind the trees. I was rewarded with soft even lighting to capture the flow, and during the wait I was able to plan my shots and also write part of this blog.

The Challenges

Green Around Pond Brook Falls
For me the biggest difficulty of shooting waterfalls in the early spring is dealing with the drab, grey and uninteresting backgrounds. This time of year the dramatic, roaring falls are surrounded by bare trees and skeletal bushes. Even the brave little ferns are only beginning to pop their delicate heads from the soil. A few sharply outlined branches can add an effective bit of contrast against the soft path of a flowing cascade, but in general I focus on tightly framing my images, including as little of the bare surroundings as possible. Occasionally I'm able to find a waterfall nestle among evergreens to provided some desperately needed color, but, in general, the attention needs to be directed to the water.
Mist Fed Moss, Merriam Brook, Surry NH


Hubbard Falls Steep Bank
The other major challenge of early spring waterfalls is the difficulty of access. The combination of the last of the winter's snow and ice and the mud slicked leaves can make approaching the falls a potentially disastrous adventure. Hubbard Falls in Chesterfield features two dramatic drops, but both are are nestled at the bottom of steep gorges.  The key is to take things very slowly and to plan ahead. Whenever possible, I avoid steep slopes and slick rocks. I carefully pack away my equipment and, with one or two sturdy walking sticks, I pick my way one step at a time. I don't pull out my camera and tripod until I am on reliably stable ground.
Hubbard Gorge, Chesterfield NH

I previously discussed the special importance of protecting the equipment when photographing near water, where one misstep could send your expensive gear tumbling down stream. I always recall previous disasters and keep my camera strap safely around my neck, even when the camera is attached to the tripod.

Ashuelot Dam Falls,  Keene NH

Pulpit Falls

Pulpit Falls in HDR
Early this week I had the chance to guide my friend Steve Hooper to beautiful Pulpit Falls in Winchester New Hampshire. The weather was not ideal with bright sunlight bathing the gorge with excessive contrast, but the strong flow showed the falls at its dramatic best. A little HDR helped with the light, but as Steve explored near the falls, I climbed up the cliffs around the gorge looking for a new and loftier perspective. My adrenalin surged as I picked my way carefully along the barest hint of a trail which only intermittently cut into the steep bank. I finally found an opening in the trees and managed a nicely
Pulpit Falls from Above
elevated view of the falls that was only partially obstructed. I could have grabbed a cleaner view by sliding further down the steep bank, but with nothing separating me from the precipitous cliff and sure oblivion except a few damp leaves and pine needles, I decided that I would would concentrate on the task of finding my way back to the "trail". Waterfall photography in the early spring often means taking what you can reasonable get and living to shoot another day.

Arch Over Spofford Lake

The wonderful thing about photography in New England is that
Campus Crocuses
despite the variable conditions of our seasons and the constantly changing weather, there is always something interesting and beautiful to shoot. I am a sucker for the languid lacy beauty of failing water when captured with long exposures, but regardless of the season, the secret is to get out there and celebrate whatever nature chooses to provide.  After all early spring is also the beginning of Milky Way season and brave little crocuses are already bursting though the cold soil.

Jeffrey Newcomer

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Requiem in Orange

I come, not to bury the Keene Pumpkin Festival, but to praise it.
(With apology to W. Shakespeare)

On April 2nd the Keene New Hampshire city counsel voted 13-1 to 
refuse to issue a permit for the 2015 Keene Pumpkin Festival. The future of the event, or something like it, is not clear, but the decision was not a surprise. The festival started as a relaxed community harvest gathering to celebrate the beauty of our New England autumn. Almost incidentally it also became a reason to amass the jack-o-lanterns that are the symbol of the season's signature event, Halloween. In recent years the festival, had become a costly and barely manageable mega event that, while drawing tens of thousands of participants from all over the country, had chased many of the locals to the safety and calm of their homes.

At the first festival, nearly 25 years ago, the community gathered a total of 600 Pumpkins and by the next year garnered their first
"World Record" with only 1,628. It seemed like a lot at the time, but as, our harvest celebration morphed into the "Pumpkin Festival", the numbers and the people soared. In 2013 Keene claimed its ninth world record with 30,581 orange gourds. Last fall we fell a bit short with "only" 21,912 Pumpkins, but the 2014 festival will not be remembered for that number, but for the rampage of a few alcohol addled early post pubescent hoodlums whose mindless rioting appears, at least for the time being, to have killed the festival and provided Keene with
Campus Peace Before the Storm
a dose of undeserved negative notoriety. It is little appreciated that, when the violence of a few Keene State College students and other young visitors broke out, the Keene Police and and many regional emergency personal did a remarkable job containing the mayhem to a few streets around the campus. The rioters were not permitted to assault the actual Festival and thankfully, the thousands of families who were enjoying the pumpkins had no idea about the island of the chaos that was broiling just a few blocks away. No one was seriously hurt, the rioting was contained, and a few traffic signs were dislodged, but the serious damage had been done. The danger of a greater tragedy and the cost of maintaining security had become too high, making the city counsel's decision to pull the plug reasonable and responsible.

Over the years I have greatly enjoyed the Pumpkin Festivals. As a photographer it has provided a unique opportunity to capture a

Checking In
special part of the great beauty and the culture of our autumn season, but in the last few years I had come to believe that the event had gone WAY over the top and needed a substantial restructuring towards a more relaxed, community oriented celebration. Although it may be seen as traitorous, I found myself rooting for another city to grab the record with some obscenely large number of pumpkins. Perhaps one
hundred thousand would force us to throw in the towel and concentrate on celebrating all the varied aspects that make our
Pumpkin Run
New England fall so
special. The outrageous colors in the trees, the refreshing nip in the air and the wide range of harvest produce, even including pumpkins. I hate the fact that it may be that a bunch of brainless thugs forced us to make a change, but, in the end, it may be all for the good. Maybe we should thank them, but, please, don't raise a monument with a bronze statue of a kid heaving a beer bottle.

The Amazing Pumpkin Festival

Ok. That's enough about the last unfortunate year. My real intention is to celebrate a great run. For many years the Pumpkin Festival has
been a defining piece of autumn in the Monadnock region and I have enjoyed it immensely. The challenge of collecting, carving and lighting the thousands of pumpkins has united our community and Susan and I have volunteered in various aspects of that effort. When our children were young (and here!) we helped them savagely gut and carve numerous sacrificial pumpkins. Before the crowds became overwhelming, it was great fun walking Keene's Main Street and watching the kids faces as they marveled at the rows and rows of glittering, candle lite faces, always searching for their own contributions to the show. It really was a multi-sensory event and, for me, the biggest treat was to experience our downtown smelling pungently like fresh pumpkin pie. In later years Susan and I volunteered primarily as Pumpkin lighters. On windy evenings we had to continuously light AND relight the gourds. One year, after a torrential rain storm, we had to empty each Pumpkin and the candles were so wet that I needed to walk along the street with a flaming blow-torch. My goal was to either lite the candles or cause the damn Pumpkins to burst into flames.

Getting the Shots

The Crowd

The Crowd
My Photographic approach to the festival evolved over time. The two primary subjects of the festivals were the mass of pumpkins
and the hordes of people, and timing was everything. Amongst the throngs it was difficult to get a sense of the numbers of pumpkins. In fact, at its busiest, the crowds were
Above the Crowd
packed so tightly that it was difficult to move, let alone step back for an unobstructed view. I could only hold my camera high above my head and pray that if I stopped for a moment I wouldn't be stampeded. On one occasion Susan arranged for me to go up several stories in a Cherry picker to get an elevated view of the fully engulfed Main Street. The packed crowds were truly amazing, but my primary interest was the Pumpkins and the people were most often only a annoying obstruction between me and the orange stuff.

Orange Everywhere 

I had various approaches to capturing the Pumpkins through the crowds. The first was to elevate. For long views, I would often look for a chair or bench which might be stable enough to stand on and then hold my camera above my head. I still would have to hope that, of the thousands who fired their totally futile flashes, none would do so as I hit the shutter.


other approach was to get close, concentrating on individual pumpkins or small groups. The groups were especially dramatic when illuminated at night, but I had to keep a constant watch for people who might stumble over my tripod.


Festival Morning
For many years, my best approach to avoiding obstructing crowds was to go there when the people weren't around. I typically arrived on Central Square at 7 AM and wandered among the pumpkins largely by myself. It was the only time that the immense scale of the effort could be fully appreciated. Of course, in the early morning, I missed the twinkling candles, but the warm glow of the sunrise light provided its own special magic to the scene. The early morning was also the time to watch all the enthusiastic participants in the Great Pumpkin Run, triumphantly running, jogging and limping up and down Main Street.

And then, by 9am, I was able to escape well before the true craziness began.

As much as I have enjoyed the Pumpkin Festival over the years I recognize that change needs to come. I'm hoping that there will be a replacement that reflects the region in which I live. Many would like to see that include a return of the Pumpkin orgy. Perhaps, but there is so much more in the autumn season which speaks to the warmth and closeness of our community, and knowing how the Monadnock Region works together, I am fully confident that we can craft a fall celebration in the future that will reflect that wonderful feeling.

Check out my Pumpkin Festival Gallery on my web site.

Jeffrey Newcomer