Kirk Marshall Photography Kirk Marshall Photography


Tension Modes

September 10th, 2019

We can introduce tension into our images using a number of mechanisms or modes. 

In my last post I talked about creating tension through the placement of our subject or focal point. The closer the subject or focal point is to the center of the image the less tension will be present in the image. Moving the subject or focal point away from the center creates increasing levels of tension.  

Part of the tension that’s introduced when we decenter the subject is due to the imbalance that’s created. Consider this image from the Reichstag Building in Berlin, Germany. 


(Canon 5DMII, EF24-70 @ 60mm, 1/200s, f11, ISO 1250)

The people in the image have been placed on the right side of the image which induces tension through their placement (placement tension); like the marble hovering up the side of the bowl (see blog post from Sep 3). Additional tension is also present due to the comparatively dark tonal values on the right side of the image (tonal tension). These dark values are visually heavier and induce feelings in the viewer that the weight should drag down that side of the frame. 

While the horizontal placement of elements seems to have the greatest effect on balance and tension, vertical placement has an effect as well, though it may be more subtle. In this image of the Carillon in Berlin, Germany there are several modes of tension acting on the viewer. 


(Carillon, Canon 5DMII, EF24-105 @ 105mm, 1/160s, f11, ISO 100)

The most noticeable tension is the placement of the Carillon itself, left of center. But there are also elements of tension through the vertical location of elements, or rather the division between elements. The division between the trees and the sky is about a third up from the bottom and the top of the Carillon placed about a third down from the top. The placement of these divisions adds tension that wouldn’t be there if they were placed centrally. There is also a strong tonal and textural imbalance between the light, smooth sky and the darker, leafy trees. 

As a photographer understanding tension and being able to architect the right amount of tension to convey your vision is key to composing an image you’ll be proud of. 


September 2nd, 2019

Another basic concept in image composition is tension. What is tension and how does it relate to photography? 

When the Microsoft Windows XP development team contacted Charles O'Rear about his image Bliss (see my blog post from Aug 6) he reportedly thought "Were they looking for an image that was peaceful? Were they looking for an image that had no tension?“ (

To understand tension, imagine a bowl and a marble. If you take the marble and release it near the upper lip of the bowl it’s going to roll down the side and eventually settle and stop right in the middle of the bowl. The center of the bowl is a static place of rest and peace for the marble. If sometime later you walked by the bowl and caught it out of the corner of your eye, you’d see the marble at rest in the bottom, center of the bowl and think ‘all is as it should be’. But, if you walked by and saw the marble NOT in the center but saw it half-way up toward the rim, you’d do a double-take. You’d have to stop and look closely and ask ‘WTF, how is it doing that?’ That’s tension; something that is not at rest or out of balance. Tension is the something that captures and holds a viewers attention.

Consider these two images.  


(Canon 5DMII, EF24-105 @ 24mm, 1/180s, f13, ISO 100)

In this first image Pippa is the focal point and I’ve positioned her dead-center, like the marble in the bottom of the bowl. Creating a restful feeling and an image with very little tension. 


(Canon 5DMII, EF24-105 @ 58mm, 1/400s, f5.6, ISO 800)

Now consider this image of a Thai vendor trying to sell her wares to tourists. The vendor with her wares dominates the center of the image and the tourists are cornered by her along the left edge. The image is very out of balance and–I hope–conveys the tension and pressure a tourist feels at the onslaught of the horde of vendors at any tourist attraction.  

Many of the compositional ‘rules’ of photography are designed to help you as the photographer capture tension in your imagery. The rule of thirds suggests putting your subject or focal point about one third of the distance in from one edge. Supposedly this creates an ‘optimal’ about of tension; not too much, not too little

Should all photographs have tension? Clearly the answer is ‘no’. Bliss is virtually tensionless and yet sold for a large, but undisclosed, sum. If you’ve been commissioned to provide photographs for a dentist office, it’s probably best to minimize tension, the patient experiences enough just sitting in the chair. 

On the other hand, if you’re photographing environmental abuses you probably want to maximize tension to unsettle your viewers and motivate them to action. 

How much tension is enough? I think right amount is whatever it takes to convey the photographer’s vision and mood.

Compositional Ideas

August 27th, 2019


When I started out, I’d get my prints back (this was back before digital) and look at the images and think ‘why did I take this picture?’ ‘What about this scene captured my interest?’ And then I’d look closer and see the tiny speck of the subject that I was trying to capture.  Over time I learned the lesson that Robert Capa said best with “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

If the subject of the image isn’t prominent enough the resulting image is weak and the viewer is left wondering what they’re looking at. Now, as I look at my photographs I find that the ones I like best have a strong, prominent subject that occupies at least a third of the image height or width.

This image from a canyoneering trip in southern Utah illustrates my point. The two rappellers are the subject of the image and so they are prominently featured in the image. I’ve kept them large enough so that it’s clear the image is about them and left enough context so that the viewer get’s an idea of where they are and what they’re doing.


Figure / Ground

Another reason that we might dislike a photo we’re reviewing is due to poor figure/ground separation. The figure/ground relationship can be thought of as the contrast between positive space, the figure, and negative space, the ground or background.  

This image strongly illustrates the figure/ground relationship. The three kids are the figure (positive space) while the water is the ground (negative space). 


(Three Sibs on a SUP, Canon 5DMII, EF70-300 @ 195mm, 1/125s, f9.0, ISO 400)

The following image is a more subtle example. 

A few years ago I spent a week Oregon and was fascinated by the moss growing everywhere. (I live in southern Utah; we don’t have much green.) Try as I might I couldn’t get an image that I liked. All my images were of vertical brown tree trunks covered with moss. There was so much verticality in the images that nothing stood out. And then I found this scene.  The horizontal branches break up the mass of verticality and create a figure that has some separation from the ground.  


(Mossy Branches, Canon 5DMII, EF24-105 @ 96mm, 1/40s, f7.1, ISO 800)


As a photographer we’re responsible for EVERYTHING within the frame of our images. 

If a branch is encroaching on the blue sky in the upper right corner of the image it’s going to create a distraction for the viewer and draw their attention from the subject toward the edge of the image and allow their attention to move out of the frame. Tree branches, road signs, trash, bright objects, etc. can all create distractions and draw attention away from the subject and cause an image to be rejected. 

If we keep these ideas in mind while shooting we can eliminate them by repositioning ourselves or otherwise removing the distraction from the image and thus ensure that the resulting image isn’t rejected after the fact.  


August 20th, 2019

Oh my! So much has been said about composition as it relates to photography that I hesitate to even broach the subject; but since this is a blog about photography, broach it I must.

The first decision you have to make as a photographer is ‘what am I going to photograph?’ Photographers shoot anything and everything from galaxies to molecules, so the answer really is you can photograph whatever you want. 

Typically, we start out shooting something/anything that captures our interest, a sunset, a mountain, a funky house, a cute girl/boy, the cat, etc. Some of the pictures we like, some we reject. The key to improving our photography and taking better pictures is taking the time to understand why we like some but not others. 

But before we talk about possible reasons why we like one image and not another, let’s talk about subjects and focal points. 

The subject of an image considers the whole scene. The focal point is something unique, usually small, that breaks the scene and calls attention to a specific area of the image. These concepts are probably most easily explained through examples. 

In this image the subject is the Huayhuash mountain range in Peru. The focal point is Mitch. 


(Fujifilm X100T, 23mm, 1/160s, f11,  ISO 200, IR Conversion)

The subject of this image is my family’s 4th of July celebration, the focal point is my nephew’s grass stalk. 


(Samsung SGH-N919, 4.2mm, 1/120s, f2.2, ISO 80)

In this last image the subject is clearly the colorful hills of Paria, Utah; the focal point is the truck.

(Canon 5DMMII, EF70-300 @ 220mm, 1/25s, f8.0, ISO 400)

Not all images have a focal point, but they all must have a subject. 

Metering and Exposure Compensation

August 13th, 2019

There are several camera settings that allow us to control or adjust how a scene is metered. 

Most middle to upper end cameras include several metering mode options that control how much and which parts of a scene are used to assess the light intensity. The most basic of these metering options uses the entire visible scene to evaluate the exposure; this mode gives equal weight to the middle, edges and corners of the scene. Another mode, sometimes called spot metering, only uses the center of the image, sometimes the spot is as little as 1% of the total scene. Most cameras that include the ability to adjust metering have other options that fall somewhere in between these two modes. 

Using the appropriate metering mode for the subject that you are shooting will help you get closer to an optimal image. For example: when shooting a wide landscape I probably would want to use a mode that takes into account the full scene. On the other hand when shooting an event where there is a strong central subject (see Faceplant below) I would most likely use spot metering to ensure the exposure on the subject was spot-on and not care about the less important edges and corners.

(Faceplant, Oakley Rodeo; Canon 5DMII, EF70-300 @ 135, 1/125s, f6.7, ISO 6400)

Another option to control the metering of a scene is exposure compensation. As I stated previously, by default the camera attempts to achieve middle grey for the exposure. Using the exposure compensation setting allows you to tell the camera to purposefully under or over expose an image. 

The exposure compensation setting is frequently present on the camera as a dial labelled -2, -1, 0, +1, +2. Setting the camera to 0 (zero) allows the camera to do it’s default thing and try and adjust to middle grey. Adjusting the dial to -1 tells the camera to adjust the target from middle grey to one full stop darker. (Recall one full stop is a halving/doubling of the light.) Conversely, adjusting to +1 will tell the camera to make the image lighter by one full stop. When shooting a winter snow scene using a setting of +1 or +2 will ensure that the snow is rendered whiter than middle grey.  

(Canon 5DMII, EF16-35 @ 30mm, 1/1000s, f6.3, ISO 250)

Understanding how your camera interprets the light intensity of a scene is the first step to achieving a keeper image. Using the most appropriate metering mode and, if needed, adjusting the exposure compensation setting will help get you closer to expressing your vision. 

Metering to Middle Grey

August 6th, 2019

When you point your camera at a subject with the camera in auto mode it evaluates the various light intensities across the scene and attempts to determine the proper settings to achieve a balance between the light and dark regions. It tries to determine settings that will produce middle grey in the resulting photograph. 

Middle grey is a tone that is perceptually about halfway between black and white. Middle grey is defined as a tone that reflects 18% of visible light. Oddly enough green grass and blue skies both translate to values very close to middle grey.

This photograph by Charles O’Rear illustrates my point. (The image was used by Microsoft as the desktop background for Windows XP. Due to the pervasiveness of Windows XP this might be the most viewed photograph in the history of photography.)

Here it is again converted to black and white using the saturation slider in Lightroom.

The tones in the sky and grass are very similar and close to middle grey (some variances exist but hopefully you get my point). 

Letting the camera do it’s thing and adjust to middle grey works great most of the time but middle grey isn’t always desirable. Sometimes you want your photograph to be lighter than middle grey. If you’re shooting a winter snow scene allowing the camera to produce middle grey is going to result in grey snow which doesn’t match our expectations and will result–most of the time–in an unappealing image. On the other hand if you’re shooting the night sky and the milky way, allowing the camera to auto adjust to middle grey is going to render the blackness of empty space too light, again resulting in an inaccurate representation of what our eyes see and most likely an unappealing image.

Next week I’ll talk about two of the settings that allow us some control over how the camera adjusts to the light intensity on the subject we’re shooting.  


July 30th, 2019

Our eyes are amazing organs and can see a huge range of light intensities. A snow field on a bright sunny day is near one end of our visible range while a moonless, overcast night is at the other. 

Light intensity is measured in candelas which is defined as the luminous power per unit solid angle emitted by a point light source. Whatever! To a non-physicist that probably doesn’t make much sense; as photographers how do we make sense of light intensity? 

In photography light is measured in stops rather than candelas. A stop represents a halving or doubling of light. (I’ll discuss stops again in subsequent posts. For now I just want to introduce the concept.)

Measured in stops our visible range is about 30, which mathematically corresponds to a billion candelas since two to the thirtieth power is about a billion (2^30 = 1,073,741,824). In the graphic below our full visible range in stops is represented by the black number line. 


We can see an incredible range of light intensities but not all at once. Our eyes adapt to the current intensity of ambient light but at any one time we can only see just under half the full range of 30 stops; or about 13 or 14 stops of light (represented by the red line in the graphic above). 

Our ability to see a wide range of light intensities is referred to as ‘dynamic range’ and is controlled by our pupils which open or contract to allow an appropriate amount of light in. At any given time our eyes adjust to give us the most visibility by averaging the light intensity over a scene and adapting to that average. We might lose the brightest and/or darkest areas but we see the majority of the scene. If we move our focus to another region of the scene, perhaps to a darker zone, our eyes adapt by opening the pupil to allow more light to come in helping us to see in the darker areas but by doing so we lose visibility into the brighter regions.

Cameras work in a similar way to our eyes with the aperture acting like our pupil to control the amount of light reaching the film or sensor. But while our eyes can see about 13 stops of light, cameras can only see 10 or maybe 11 stops of light (represented by the blue line in the graphic above).  (The better cameras on the market today can see about 10 or 11 stops of light; lower end cameras have a much more limited range and might only see 6 or 7 stops of light.)

If the dynamic range of light in a scene exceeds 13 stops, the brightest or darkest areas block out and we can’t see any detail in those areas. The same is true with a camera; areas in the scene that exceed the dynamic range of the sensor will block out and be rendered either white or black with no details. 

This image was shot with my cell phone which has a limited dynamic range. The orientation is looking south with the sun just out of the frame. The bright sky was rendered completely white and the crack in the rocks below the back tire of my bike is completely black; both lack any detail whatsoever. 


(LG G6, 1/800s, f1.8, ISO 50)

For comparison, this next image was shot at the same time and location but this time looking northwest. In this image, with the sun at my back, the scene is more evenly lit and it has a narrower dynamic range; one that is within the abilities of the camera’s sensor. In this image the sky is rendered blue and the crack in the rock has some detail. 


(LG G6, 1/640s, f1.8, ISO 50)

Understanding the intensity of light and your camera’s abilities and limitations to capture that range of light is foundational. Using that knowledge to capture an image that conveys your mood and interpretation of the scene is what being a photographer is all about.

Light Color

July 23rd, 2019

The light’s temperature or color is the first characteristic of light that we have to address within the camera’s settings before we shoot. The setting is called ‘white balance’ and typically has options for ‘daylight’, ‘incandescent’, ‘florescent’, ‘cloudy’, etc. Each of these settings attempts to modify the camera’s interpretation of the scene and compensate for the color of the light based on an average of ‘cloudy’ (or whatever) light color.  They do a decent job but the problem with these settings is that there are only a handful of them and actual light temperature/color is a massive range (Lightroom supports values from 2000 up to 50,000). (Most cameras have an ‘auto’ white balance setting and from my experience it seems to do a decent job under normal conditions.)

A better way to address white balance is to set your camera to capture in ‘raw’ format and address the matter in post processing. Not all cameras can store images in raw format so this may not be an option for you. Once you choose to save in raw format the white balance setting can be ignored (still it’s probably best to set it to ‘auto’) and all color correction can be performed in post processing using software. While this process relies on you the editor to visually get the right color balance you’ll probably be able to tune the image better than using only the handful of settings built into your camera. 

The best way to address white balance is to capture in ‘raw’ and include a ‘color card’ in a test shot of the subject. Color cards are small 3x5ish items that include a number of small squares of precise reference colors, including true white. The test shot can then be loaded into your post processing application and the color card can be used to set the reference for true white. The software then chooses the right white balance to achieve true white for that square on the color card. The white balance settings can then be quickly duplicated across the other images in that shoot. This process, while a bit more fiddly, ensures an accurate and precise white balance setting. If you need a high degree of color accuracy in your images, this is the way to go. 

(A quick search at Amazon for “photo color checker” turns up a long list of color cards, several that include more than one ‘white’ which can be helpful to fine tune the white balance.)


(Rio Grande Depot, Salt Lake City, UT; Canon 5DMII, TS-E45, 1.6s, f10, ISO 400)

(White balance adjustments can be made on a non-raw image (jpg, etc.) but are not as extensive as with raw format images. If your camera can’t save in raw format your best option is to get as close as you can in-camera and then fine tune the color balance in software.)

Light Temperature

July 16th, 2019

Lastly, we need to understand the temperature of the light source. Defining light as having a temperature is confusing, unless you’re a physicist; we really should call it color which is more relevant to our experience of it.

Let’s talk about temperature first. One of the definitions for red-hot is ‘glowing with heat’; white-hot is defined as ‘being at or radiating white heat’.  These terms (red-,  white-hot) are in our lexicon and come from experiments with hot metals which glow different colors depending on how hot they’re heated. At about 2500K a metal object glows with a yellow-white color while at 5500K it will glow blue-white. (K stands for Kelvin and is a temperature scale that starts at absolute zero.)

Some common temperature approximations are 7500K for shade, 5500K for daylight and 2750K for sunset. 

The temperature of the light matters if you’re trying to accurately duplicate the colors of your subject in your photograph. If you’re photographing a room in a house with white walls you don’t want the walls looking blue or yellow or green, they need to be white. The same is true for skin tones; your client won’t be satisfied with your portraits if their skin is orange or some other weird tint.  

It’s especially challenging when capturing two different light sources in the same image. This image of my sister’s dinning room illustrates the problem. Outdoors there is hazy sunlight and the light has a blue tint (high temperature) while inside the light is from an incandescent bulb with a warm yellow glow (low temperature, note: the warmth is accentuated from the wood tones and yellow walls). 


(Canon 5DMII, EF24-105  @ 28mm, 1/60s, f8, ISO 100)

Light Sources

July 9th, 2019

Having considered the direction of light, next let us focus on the light source. 

The source of light illuminating our subject can be either a point of light or a diffuse curtain of light. The most common source of light that is a point, is the sun. (The sun isn’t a point, its actually rather large but it’s so far away that for our purposes it appears to be and acts like a point source.) Sunlight on a clear day creates a hard separation between areas illuminated by the source and areas that are not directly illuminated, i.e. shadows. Such light is often referred to as hard or harsh lighting. 

(Canon 5DMII, EF24-105 @ 105mm, 1/320s, f18, ISO 400) 

The other option is a diffuse light source which softens the light transitions and creates a very evenly lit subject with minimal or no shadows. A perfect example of a diffuse light source is a cloudy sky. As you might suspect, this type of light is referred to soft light. 

(LG G6,  1/30s, f1.8, ISO 200)

Of course there is a whole range of light sources in between these two extremes that can provide a wide variety of light-to-dark transition abruptnesses. As the photographer it’s up to you to decide what light source best illuminates your subject and conveys the feelings you have about it.