December 8, 2009

Shooting in the Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC

If you have ever visited Washington, DC, you probably stopped at the Sculpture Garden right off the National Mall. It's a really nice place to walk while admiring the great works of art in the form of big sculpture installations. And as most visitors would do, you would most likely have your camera and would be ready to shoot.

    Sol Le'witt - Four Sided Pyramid, 1999
     The diagonals are always very strong compositional
    elements. The tree on the side balances the sculpture shape nicely.

But, how to get the most from this great visual opportunity without the luxury of expensive equipment, no time limitations and a team of supporting people like most professional photographers would have available? Let’s say you only have your little "point and shoot" digital camera and about two hours to shoot. Can you get any images that would really impress your friends and family?

     Joel Shapiro - Untitled, 1989
Do not be afraid to come really close to your subject. By cropping tightly I eliminated
distracting elements in the background and let the sculpture shape itself to work 
nicely within the frame borders.

Of course you can! The secret is that the most important tool for any image creation is the photographer’s eye – your eye! If you have a good eye, you can more than likely make better pictures with your little camera than some pros with their expensive SLRs and all that equipment. I used my little "point and shoot" Fuji camera to take all the images shown here.

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen
Typewriter Eraser, Scal. X, 1999
Vertical format and a strong diagonal shape make
this image dynamic. I also saturated colors a little
more and darkened corners in post - production.

So my advice to you would be to relax and to take your time. Don’t approach the subject (in our case a sculpture) in a hurry taking one or two snaps and moving to a different subject. For the first couple of minutes I don’t take any shots. I just observe the subject from different views and angles – not just moving left or right, but also changing the height of the camera and distance from the subject. I examine not just the subject, but everything in the frame – using the camera’s viewfinder or LCD without actually taking the picture.

David Smith - Cubi XI, 1963
Beautiful directional light shows the quality of stainless steel surface and its texture. I explored
different angles and camera positions extensively before taking this shot.

As we all know, lighting is the crucial element in photography. You probably won’t be able to influence available light in the garden very much, but you should try to take advantage of it instead. See how the shape of a sculpture and the whole image mood changes just by taking a shot lit from the front, side or back. Think and decide what light direction would emphasize your subject the best.

Mark Di Suvero - Aurora, 1992-1993
Find interesting details! This sculpture didn't look very
good in direct sunlight that particular day, so I decided to find an
interesting detail - framing that would make it pop out.

Another good idea is after you are done observing your subject would be to take a first shot that best “describes” the subject (see first image below) – the kind of shot you usually see in the books. Your next step would be to find your own creative way, how to capture the same sculpture by using a different camera angle, zoom, crop and light direction. Imagine how many people may have already taken the same shot of this sculpture. Try to find an interesting shot that nobody else has taken before (see second image below).

                                        George Rickey - Cluster of Four Cubes, 1992
                         Examples of a descriptive shot and its creative interpretation.
               I shot the sculpture as a whole first to show it as if it was a part of an art history book
               (first image). My next step was to find my own unique interpretation (second image).

Spend as much time with each subject as you can and force yourself to relax and to stay focused on the subject at the same time. Use your imagination, study your subject and focus on your visual thinking.

Louise Bourgois - Spider, 1996
The importance of a right camera angle. I realized it was essential for me to take this shot with
the camera positioned very low to make it successful. Look how the spider's head is just above
the building thanks to a low camera angle.

And when you are back home in front of your computer going through your images don’t hesitate to experiment with severe cropping, creative color changes or even black & white conversions – just to see if that would help your subject and ideas pop out from the frame even more!