Consider The Elements That Help Shape Your Subject

By Don Kohlbauer

February 1, 2008 4 min read


Consider the elements that help shape your subject

By Don Kohlbauer

Copley News Service

Q: What is the one thing you know now that you wished you had known when you were starting out?

A: Crop inside the camera. Get closer to your subject.

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What stands out to you in a photograph?

Color? Shapes? Patterns?

What helps you see the shapes and forms of your subject?

Light? Shadows? Texture?

Everyone oohs and ahs at a spectacular sunset. But what if your subject lacks the color that makes it interesting? You have to find another way to make your photograph sing.

Black and white photography helps you focus your eye more on the graphics and composition of the subject rather than the color. That is why beginning courses in photography are taught in black and white. Students must use shapes, contrast and composition to give interest to their subjects.

My assignment was to photograph the new elephants at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Because they had just arrived from Africa, they could not roam the large grass area of the park - something that would add interest to the photograph. They were stuck in an area enclosed by metal and cement.

I needed to find an angle that I could highlight.

While watching the elephants, I was struck by the wrinkled skin and the unusual pattern of the veins behind their ears as they fanned themselves in the heat. I decided that I would focus on these two elements. I knew I would have to be patient since I had no control over my subjects. I looked around and noticed one area of the pen had a large cement wall.

I waited until one elephant wandered toward the wall. The strong sunlight highlighted both the skin and the veins. The other element that was important was the timing. I used a fast shutter speed to catch the ears when they were all the way forward showing the veins the best. The unusual angle and crop of the elephant helped bring the focus from the tail and wrinkled skin up toward the ears.

If you have a computer and a photo program, you can easily remove the color from your images. Look at the ones that are your favorites.

Are they still you favorites?


- "Black and White Landscape Photography" by John Collett and David Collett (Amherst, $29.99).

Basic through advanced concepts, including techniques of art, composition, the Zone System and the darkroom.

- "Digital Black and White Printing" by George Schaub (Amphoto, $24.95).

Advice on creating successful black and white images whether shooting digitally or scanning from prints and film.


Web site of the Nature Photographers Network, an international group of amateur and professional shooters. Lots of interesting critique and discussion of creative and technical issues, including using reflectors for macro photography.

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Don Kohlbauer is a senior photographer for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Visit Copley News Service at

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