Technically excellent, artistically abstract, impressively composed. That's what our judge, Philip Greenspun, saw in your January "What's That?" contest entries. After examining all four galleries, he decided to choose 40 as finalists. Those photographers can revel in that honor for a few days; we'll post the Top 10, including First, Second, and Third Place, on Monday.
By Philip Greenspun
Macro photography is technically challenging because high magnification of the subject also means high magnification of any mistakes, such as camera shake. When a photographer gets in so close that it is hard to recognize the subject, the aesthetic challenge dominates. The photographer is now an abstract painter who has to apply all of the rules of composition and color balance that they used to teach in art school before artists decided that it would really be much better to tear up the rule books.
Since the title of the contest is "What's That?", I quickly eliminated most photos in which any member of a carefully assembled panel of viewers (i.e., me and my wife Michelle) could easily identify the subject. The photos that made the cut are ones that could function as abstract paintings, a few that remind us of great photographic still lifes from the last century, and some that are simply technically excellent.
As a former 6x6 cm medium format film camera enthusiast, I have always been drawn to the square format. Two images submitted in January show the advantages of the square format. When the image is primarily about a texture or pattern, the square format is neutral. The viewer's eye is not led in one direction or another. This photograph is a good example of how to use the square format. This next photo is an interesting image, but it didn't make the cut; it is a good example of a photo that could be improved by cropping square -- the right third of the photo is out of focus and its brightness throws off the color balance of the image. If cropped out, leaving a square image, the overall effect would be improved.
A couple of photos are good examples of the color balance challenge faced by a photographer. Some colors are more visually prominent than others. When framing the photo, the photographer needs to try to make sure that red, for example, only covers about one third as much of the frame as green. This image is a good example of a photo that succeeds or fails according to the way that the human visual system processes different colors.
Still life is the toughest challenge of all. The photography not only has to choose where to put the camera, how wide an angle of the scene to capture (i.e., which lens to mount), and how much depth of field should be employed, but also how to arrange the subject. Just as Mozart was able to be creative within the constraints of form developed by Haydn, most of us subconsciously take photos that fit into a form established centuries earlier by painters. This photograph is one of my favorite still lifes here because the subject is a humble spoon, reminding us of the great work done with flatware by Jan Groover (1943-).
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