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Picture Perfect: A Lesson in Photography
November 21, 2002
101 Walter Library

Presenter: Tom Foley, University Relations photographer

Tom FoleyPhotographer Tom Foley has been at the University for decades, and his work is here to show for it, and well it shows. He is a renowned photographer among departments and units. The image of the robed college graduate jumping with certificate in hand between collegiate pillars is one many recognize. In addition, Foley is "the creative force" behind the University Relations Images Library, in which most images are his.

Developing a Visual Language:
The Comma Space

In this presentation, Foley explained that developing a "visual language" is as important for us as the written language when it comes to creating or finding images to use in our materials. For instance, in written stories, if you don't know immediately what the subject or verb of a sentence or paragraph is, the story isn't useful. The same holds true for images. If you can't tell who the subject is or what they're doing, the image isn't as powerful as it could be.

The way to illustrate the subject of a photo, Foley says, is much like as in the written language: you define objects with the "comma space" (as in, "Sally, Jane, and Dan went to the store"). In photographs or images, "negative" or empty space between subjects and their surroundings is the equivalent of the "comma space." Otherwise, they become a group of people with no individual identity. Of course, you might want the subject of the image to be a group of people, in which case the "comma space" wouldn't be between the individuals, but rather between the group and its surroundings.

Classical Formulas & the Use of Contrast
Foley shared classical compositional formulas that create a soothing and non-threatening image. These include the ratio of 4:5 (vertical:horizontal or vise versa) (as in 8x10 photos) of a cropped image, the placement of important subjects in the cross-sections of three imaginary vertical and horizontal lines, the (magical) number 3 (or more) objects or subjects needed to establish repeating patterns, the use of perspective, the placements of subjects such that they're not too close to the edge of an image, and more.

To offset this traditional style, Foley suggested using contrast. Contrast can be achieved in any number of ways. In a classical idyllic image, you might include non-idyllic "reality" items, such as a post office box, cars, or sewage drains. In an image of antiquity, as with a very old building, you might compose the image to portray how it is surviving as a decaying relic of itself.

Additional Tips for Photographers
Foley shared his experience from start to finish on a photo shoot of a multicultural education class in action. His technique is to first photograph all the students in the room to assess their response to the camera. Then he goes back to focus on specific individuals.

A tip for auto-focus cameras and/or lenses: Foley said it is important to use settings on your camera or lens that allow you to immediately engage the shutter. Time delayed auto-focus features will be problematic, especially when photographing people, because there's a second or two delay between when you hit the button and when it actually fires. To find out how (and if) you can still use the auto-focus feature while getting the immediate response in your shutter release, refer to your camera's manual.

Releases, releases, releases. Remember that without model releases for all photographs that identify individuals, the photo can't be used.

Foley's Personal Photography: The Use of Narrative
Finally, Foley shared some of his personal photography in black and white using the boxier frame of 120mm film (medium format Hasselblad camera) that has a 1:1 aspect ratio: a perfect square, as opposed to the common rectangular shape of a photographic image. He found the extra space available in this format provides for more room to create narrative and dramatic insertion, which are essential elements of still photography, according to Foley. For instance, the extra space available above the subject can be used to express the mood of the clouds at that instance.

The audience was sufficiently captured in Foley's presentation to stay five or 10 minutes over the allotted time. Questions were taken privately.

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