Learning how to ‘Crop until it hurts’

March 22, 2015 in Composition, Context, Cropping by T.J. Thomson

I sat in the northeast corner of rural Nebraska in 2012 eating a shrimp salad and listening to Charles Snare, Chadron State College’s Vice President of Academic Affairs, talk about leadership.

“You know, it takes 10 years to become an expert on a topic?” he said during the conversation. I think he was right.

I’ve been editing visuals for two years and still find myself being challenged and stretched. Recently, I’ve been paying special attention to cropping. Sitting in weekly critiques with editing greats Brian Kratzer and Jackie Bell has forced me to reevaluate how and why I crop.

“Crop until it hurts and then crop some more,” my friend Tim Tai likes to say.

Today I edited four photos for an article about the Columbia’s bus system. The lead photo I chose was pretty loose. Here’s the original:

Columbia resident Steven Ward smokes a cigarette before boarding a Columbia Public transit bus and heading west on March 19, 2015. Photo by Jenny Justus/Missourian

Columbia resident Steven Ward smokes a cigarette before boarding a Columbia Public transit bus and heading west on March 19, 2015. Photo by Jenny Justus/Missourian Metadata: f/6.3; 1/160; ISO 400; 14mm focal length

My attention goes to the bus first. Steven, who’s front and center in the caption, is a pretty measly portion of the frame. With the “safe crop,” we trim a lot a bit off the sides to reduce the apparent distance but haven’t really improved the photo much.

The "safe crop" slices off about 50 pixels from the sides but doesn't materially improve the photo.

The “safe crop” slices off about 50 pixels from the sides but doesn’t materially improve the photo.

Pretend that the edges of the bus are limbs. Photographers are often very careful when composing so that subjects’ limbs aren’t loped off awkwardly. Editors, too, many of them former photographers, appreciate the photographer’s attention to detail and will leave the “limbs” fully in. The problem is that most of the action happens around the core of the subject’s body. The feet, while sometimes important, often allow a lot of empty space to run wild in a photo.

Back to the bus. If the edges of the bus are limbs, what happens when we chop off the bus’s head and feet? Thanks to Gestalt and the law of continuity, we expect that the bus will have a roof and wheels. Do they need to be in the frame, then?

Let’s try the “crop until it hurts” version.

Steven is now a more prominent part of the composition, is in an intersecting third of the frame, and the color similarities between the bus and his jacket are highlighted.

Steven is now a more prominent part of the composition, is in an intersecting third of the frame, and the color similarities between the bus and his jacket are highlighted.

This version gets rid of the tilt, brings us closer to Steven, and plays up the repetition of color we see in his jacket and on the front of the bus.

We take a somewhat static photo of a bus and inject some vitality with the human element.

Such a tight crop makes me focus on the man and the "Wabash" lettering more. The bus is still there to add context, but it isn't overpowering and no longer dominates the frame.

Such a tight crop makes me focus on the man and the “Wabash” lettering more. The bus is still there to add context, but it isn’t overpowering and no longer dominates the frame.

Learning in the Sooner State

March 7, 2015 in Analysis, Travel by T.J. Thomson

Two children peer over the second-floor overlook at the University of Oklahoma's Sam Noble Museum of Natural History on March 7, 2015. The building's construction was finished in 1999.

Two children peer over the second-floor overlook at the University of Oklahoma’s Sam Noble Museum of Natural History on March 7, 2015. The building’s construction was finished in 1999. Metadata: f/8; 1/320; ISO 1,250; 50mm focal length

I love learning. It’s what led me to the Missouri School of Journalism in 2013 and why I began applying for doctoral programs last year.

When I was a child, I fancied the three letters that followed a name for the exclusivity they imparted. Now that I’m older, I understand a Ph.D. as being more about the opportunity to continue learning, self-development, and the chance to interact with and learn from a diverse group of individuals.

As politicians and university presidents are fond of reminding the public, education correlates with opportunity.

A father watches his son interact with the “Columbian Mammoth Tableau,” a life-size sculpture of a family and mammoth at the University of Oklahoma’s Sam Noble Museum of Natural History. “Twelve thousand years ago, giant mammals—remnants of the great Pleistocene megafauna—roamed across Oklahoma,” according to a nearby plaque. “Columbian mammoths would have been found on this very site.”

A father watches his son interact with the “Columbian Mammoth Tableau,” a life-size sculpture of a family and mammoth at the University of Oklahoma’s Sam Noble Museum of Natural History. “Twelve thousand years ago, giant mammals—remnants of the great Pleistocene megafauna—roamed across Oklahoma,” according to a nearby plaque. “Columbian mammoths would have been found on this very site.”

I spent the past two days meeting and interacting with the faculty and students at the University of Oklahoma’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, and man, am I impressed with its branding.

It’s the little things — like the soap dispensers with the school’s logo, the welcome and directory banners, the innovative printing station, and the half-dozen iWood information kiosks (costing $4,175 a pop) — that leave such a positive impression. The architecture, furniture and trapping all come together to make the place unique and memorable.

It doesn’t feel at all institutional. A third-level terrace offer stunning views of the campus. The walls are personalized with the accomplishments of past students and the faces of future professionals.

A boyscout peers over the second-floor overlook at the University of Oklahoma's Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.

A boyscout peers over the second-floor overlook at the University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.

The college is the fourth-largest on OU’s campus and houses about 35 faculty. I casually met many of these and enjoyed longer meetings with Ralph Beliveau, Peter Gade, and Glenn Leshner.

In a Q&A session earlier today, members of the graduate admissions committee shared their insight on how to make one’s application stand out:

  • Identify a problem or research area you’re interested in. This shows interest and demonstrates maturity, the committee members said.
  • Make contact with someone at the school and reference this connection in the applciation. “This shows us that you didn’t just print out 70 copies of an application, throw them up in the air, and see where they land,” one committee member said.
  • The sun sets on the stone bridge at the University of Oklahoma's Brandt Park. The space, which sits on the east side of campus, is named in honor of OU's sixth president, Joseph August Brandt.

    The sun sets on the stone bridge at the University of Oklahoma’s Brandt Park. The space, which sits on the east side of campus, is named in honor of OU’s sixth president, Joseph August Brandt. Metadata: f/2.2; 1/500; ISO 32; 30mm focal length

    Larry Laneer, assistant to the graduate director, accurately described OU’s campus as sprawling. At more than 3,000 acres, it’s nearly three times the size of the University of Missouri’s main campus.

    And now, as a reward for reading to the end, I reward you with this fun fact: my dad was born in Oklahoma and his dad spent a year at OU in its engineering program.

    Let the cold get to you

    February 16, 2015 in Assignments, Philosophy by T.J. Thomson

    A man walks down Ninth Street amid blowing snow on Sunday. Columbia could see from six to 10 inches of accumulation by Monday, according to the National Weather Service. Metadata: f/4.5; 1/250; ISO 25,600; 124mm focal length

    A man walks down Ninth Street amid blowing snow on Sunday. Columbia could see from six to 10 inches of accumulation by Monday, according to the National Weather Service. Metadata: f/4.5; 1/250; ISO 25,600; 124mm focal length

    The snow started falling Sunday night. I’d been keeping a watchful eye trained on the heavens all day, hoping to venture out and photograph in its frosty beauty. Alas, nature didn’t reward me until 7:30 p.m., after the sun had already set.

    Despite this setback, I still went out, after donning a ridiculous number of jackets and making sure my only exposed flesh was a small patch for my eyes.

    Blowing snow swirls around a lantern attached to the front of Memorial Union on Sunday. Snow began falling in Columbia around 7:30 p.m.

    Blowing snow swirls around a lantern attached to the front of Memorial Union on Sunday.
    Snow began falling in Columbia around 7:30 p.m. Metadata: f/8; 1/500; ISO 25,600; 300mm focal length

    I invested two hours in the biting cold. The snow only picked up its intensity and fell harder the longer I stayed out, yet, I lasted long than my iPhone. It died after about an hour in my pocket, even though it was still half charged.

    Visibility was the hardest part. Every time I raised the camera to my eye, my breath would fog up the viewfinder. I felt like an impressionist painter, composing from vague shapes and muted colors. I tucked my camera inside my jacket every chance I could get, knowing if I left it out, the cold would halt its autofocus system. With a 300mm lens attached, it wasn’t an easy feat.

    A group of three visits on the Missouri United Methodist Church’s second floor on Sunday. The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for eastern Missouri that is in effect 'til 6 p.m. Monday.

    A group of three visits on the Missouri United Methodist Church’s second floor on Sunday. The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for eastern Missouri that is in effect ’til 6 p.m. Monday. Metadata: f/4.5; 1/60; ISO 25,600; 150mm focal length

    When the cold finally broke me, I carefully stood outside my apartment building, peeled off my outermost jacket and snugly wrapped up my camera body and lens. (Internal condensation can form within the lens and/or body when exposed to drastic temperature changes, so creating a “vacuum” of air with the jacket allows my gear to undergo the transition more smoothly.)

    I fed Instagram first and then created a gallery on the Columbia Missourian’s site. After chatting with Missourian Director of Photography Brian Kratzer, I drifted off to sleep for a few hours.

    When my eyes fluttered open, it was just past 6 a.m. and I had a text from our DoP, informing our staff that the University of Missouri had canceled classes and asking that we photograph what we could from where we were and transmit as we were able.

    I foolishly thought I’d venture out for just an hour, until the sunrise, to capitalize on the great morning light. Sunrise never came. It got brighter, but the clouds were too dense to allow the sun to fully pierce them.

    The driver of a jeep brakes on snowy roads for a stop sign on Ninth Street early Monday. About 6 inches of snow fell between 8 p.m. Sunday and 4 a.m. Monday, according to the Columbia Public Works Department.

    The driver of a jeep brakes on snowy roads for a stop sign on Ninth Street early Monday. About 6 inches of snow fell between 8 p.m. Sunday and 4 a.m. Monday, according to the Columbia Public Works Department. Metadata: f/7.1; 1/640; ISO 12,800; 182mm focal length

    One hour turned into eight and produced a few more galleries, dozens of Instagram posts, and even some pizza while listening to Pictures of the Year International judges Kim Komenich and Janet Reeves share their insights with us.

    Then David spoke. David Rees chairs the photojournalism faculty at MU and is beloved by all equally for his wisdom as well as his wit. A student asked how to convince others of his ambition; how to make others think he wasn’t just another kid hoping to run off and cover a bloody conflict.

    David’s reply? Photograph the snow.

    An MU Campus Facilities employee uses a snowblower on the parking lot behind Pickard Hall on Monday morning. At 6 a.m., MU canceled classes and closed the university for the day.

    An MU Campus Facilities employee uses a snowblower on the parking lot behind Pickard Hall on Monday morning. At 6 a.m., MU canceled classes and closed the university for the day. Metadata: f/9; 1/500; ISO 12,800; 146mm focal length

    In his delightfully concise reply, Rees imparted his wisdom in a gracious and profound way. Some yearn for accolades, recognition, and the right to cover “topics that matter,” usually grand photo epics involving international travel and exotic locales.

    Gear alone doesn’t make great stories. Connections don’t. Experience doesn’t. These are all variables that can allow a story to be told more efficiently, but without photographing the snow — without covering one’s own community and learning how to connect with people that you might not ever see again — you can’t build character and instill trust, two variables that matter infinitely more than the most expensive gadget or the industry’s most vaunted connection.

    Stay cold, friends.

    Returning to Colorado

    December 23, 2014 in Feature by T.J. Thomson

    A man jogs past Douglas Kornfeld's 2008 "Gordian Knot" sculpture at the Colorado School of Mines campus on Dec. 22, 2014. The accompanying plaque reads, "In 333 BC Alexander the Great attempted to untie the Gordian Knot. Finding no end to the knot, or a way to unbind it, Alexander sliced it in half with his sword. "Cutting through the Gordian Knot" is often used as a metaphor for a complex or intractable problem solved by a single or bold stroke."

    A man jogs past Douglas Kornfeld’s 2008 “Gordian Knot” sculpture at the Colorado School of Mines campus on Dec. 22, 2014. The accompanying plaque reads, “In 333 BC Alexander the Great attempted to untie the Gordian Knot. Finding no end to the knot, or a way to unbind it, Alexander sliced it in half with his sword. “Cutting through the Gordian Knot” is often used as a metaphor for a complex or intractable problem solved by a single or bold stroke.” Metadata: f/7.1; 1/250; ISO 4000; 70mm focal length

    It looks like we’re in for another snowy Colorado Christmas.

    I flew from Kansas City to Denver on Sunday. It was just raining then. Monday, the snow hit while we were having lunch with my sister for her birthday. Today and tomorrow are supposed to be clear skies in the 30s, but on Thursday, Christmas day, we’re supposed to have temps in the 40s and more snow that evening.

    During yesterday afternoon’s flurries, I walked over to the Colorado School of Mines’s campus. The construction projects I had last seen almost a year ago had largely finished and new ones had taken their place.

    A man jogs through the Colorado School of Mines campus on Dec. 22, 2014.

    A man jogs through the Colorado School of Mines campus on Dec. 22, 2014.

    The campus was largely deserted and quite peaceful. I love the public art, modern architecture, and seclusion that university campuses provide. They’re their own little cities.

    Despair to dominance

    November 28, 2014 in Events by T.J. Thomson

    Missouri linebacker Eric Beisel watches from the bench during the second quarter of the Tigers football game against the Razorbacks at Memorial Stadium on Friday, Nov. 28, 2014. Metadata: f/5.6; 1/1600; ISO 1250; 400mm focal length

    Missouri linebacker Eric Beisel watches from the bench during the second quarter of the Tigers football game against the Razorbacks at Memorial Stadium on Friday, Nov. 28, 2014. Metadata: f/5.6; 1/1600; ISO 1250; 400mm focal length

    Missouri didn’t pull ahead until the fourth quarter of today’s game. It was looking pretty dreary, so during the second quarter, I tried to capitalize on that mood and kept my eyes out for the players on the bench that reflected this feeling.

    The cool and warm tones of the blackish-blue uniforms and the fiery red beard drew me in. It was one of those situations where I had him in my camera’s sights and just waited for his head to turn and look wistfully at the scoreboard.

    The sun sets on the MU Spirit Squad as it forms a pyramid during the third quarter of the Tigers football game against the Razorbacks at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 28, 2014. Metadata: f/16; 1/1000; ISO 1250; 18mm focal length

    The sun sets on the MU Spirit Squad as it forms a pyramid during the third quarter of the Tigers football game against the Razorbacks at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 28, 2014. Metadata: f/16; 1/1000; ISO 1250; 18mm focal length

    My colleague Tim Tai locked down hard on sports action, so I focused on features. When I wasn’t editing, I shot the first two quarters with a 400mm and then switched to a wide-angle lens for the final two.

    Fans rushed the field after Missouri beat Arkansas 21-14 at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 28, 2014. Metadata: f/4.5; 1/85; ISO 1250; 16mm focal length

    Fans rushed the field after Missouri beat Arkansas 21-14 at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 28, 2014.
    Metadata: f/4.5; 1/85; ISO 1250; 16mm focal length

    In a very long and drawn out fourth, Missouri made a comeback and beat Arkansas 21-14.

    Chugging through southwest Illinois

    November 22, 2014 in Feature by T.J. Thomson

    Watco's Dome Facility houses a freight car repair plant north of St. Louis, Mo. <b>Metadata: <i>f/10; 1/500; ISO 1250; 50mm focal length</i></b>

    Watco’s Dome Facility houses a freight car repair plant north of St. Louis, Mo.
    Metadata: f/10; 1/500; ISO 1250; 50mm focal length

    I was breathing heavily as I jogged to the Amtrak Station in Carlinville, Illinois, a modest city in central Illinois. The station was a simple brick square with glass windows and a few benches. A haggard-looking man sitting on a suitcase nodded when I arrived.

    “You heading to St. Louis,” he asked. I nodded. He said he was, too, and I asked the him if he had family there.

    “No. I’m going there to chase women,” he said. “It’s a full-time job.”

    The Valero Hartford Distribution Center, in Madison County, Illinois, is a commercial petroleum bulk station. The facility emits benzene, a toxic chemical, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Metadata: f/2.5; 1/4000; ISO 1250; 50mm focal length

    The Valero Hartford Distribution Center, in Madison County, Illinois, is a commercial petroleum bulk station. The facility emits benzene, a toxic chemical, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
    Metadata: f/2.5; 1/4000; ISO 1250; 50mm focal length

    About a half-hour after boarding the train, an Amtrak coach attendant walked through my car gripping a huge bottle of alcohol in his hand. A drunk passenger followed shortly after, protesting the confiscation of his drink.

    As we chugged on, small town after small town whipped by, interspersed by large commercial plants and manufacturing facilities. Finally, a massive green bridge spanning the Mississippi river appeared and I knew we were close to our destination. In five minutes, we were on top of the river and had arrived at the gateway to the west.

    The Gateway Arch stretches more than 600 feet into the air next to the Mississippi River. Metadata: f/6.3; 1/400; ISO 1250; 50mm focal length

    The Gateway Arch stretches more than 600 feet into the air next to the Mississippi River.
    Metadata: f/6.3; 1/400; ISO 1250; 50mm focal length

    Lighting up the night

    September 1, 2014 in Art by T.J. Thomson

    A lighted stairwell at The Lofts at 308 Ninth shines while rain falls over Columbia and the University of Missouri's Jesse Hall on Sept. 1, 2014.

    A lighted stairwell at The Lofts at 308 Ninth shines while rain falls over Columbia and the University of Missouri’s Jesse Hall on Sept. 1, 2014. Metadata: f/1.4; 1/20; ISO 50; 50mm focal length

    I was sitting on my bed doing homework when the near-constant flash of lighting outside my window piqued my attention and compelled me to grab my camera, tripod, umbrella, and head outside.

    I worked each of the four sides of the Hitt Street Garage, photographing both the sky and the street life below with mixed results. The lighting was almost directly overhead, so I wasn’t getting any streaks in my landscapes. I continued photographing, though, and soon had a composition I liked, with Jesse Hall’s dome on one side and the ever-changing light from an apartment complex’s stairwell on the other.

    My camera’s auto white balance settings weren’t cutting it here. The parking garage’s unflattering yellow-red light was much too strong. Using the camera’s custom white balance feature, I cranked the white balance down to its lowest setting — 2500K.

    The result? The vivid yellow-red become a less garish, more muted amber.

    I used a two-second shutter delay to avoid camera shake and waited until the stairwell turned aqua, knowing that blue and then purple were next in the sequence.

    A father’s prayer

    August 21, 2014 in Events by T.J. Thomson

    Teeney Franck, 7, was one of hundreds who gathered outside the Boone County Courthouse on Aug. 21, 2014, during "A Call for Justice for Michael Brown," a rally organized by the Missouri NAACP.

    Teeney Franck, 7, was one of hundreds who gathered outside the Boone County Courthouse on Aug. 21, 2014, during “A Call for Justice for Michael Brown,” a rally organized by the Missouri NAACP.

    “We have gathered together on this hill, in this place, to ask for the simple things.

    Give us wisdom, that as we raise our voices, we might be able to speak truth to power. Give us courage, that when, the winds and waves of racism, and sexism, and homophobia and economic disparity come against us, we might be like a tree planted by the rivers of water and say, ‘We will not be moved.’

    Give us power, that we might speak and move and change things, and not accept things as they are, but expect things as they should be.

    Judge us. We know that we have no money. We have no power. Our mommas and our daddies don’t live and go to the country club, but we know that you can use ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

    MU NAACP Youth and College Division member Storm Irvin speaks during an NAACP rally while Columbia attorney David Tyson Smith listens.

    MU NAACP Youth and College Division member Storm Irvin speaks during an NAACP rally while Columbia attorney David Tyson Smith listens.

    So Lord, here we are before you, and we believe that you will empower us, and as a sign that we’re going to trust you in these dark days, we hold our hands up. It used to mean we surrender, but we hold our hands up to signify that we are still here.

    We hold our hands up that the world might know that we are somebody. You can beat us, you can imprison us, you can shoot at us, but we are still somebody. We hold our hands to say to the world, ‘No more!’

    Denise Tucker, wearing a sign that reads, "Hand's up. Don't shoot. Let-me-live-2-C-"my" dream come true. No more killing in this world," listens during the rally.

    Denise Tucker, wearing a sign that reads, “Hand’s up. Don’t shoot. Let-me-live-2-C-my dream come true. No more killing in this world,” listens during the rally.

    And if you would, mama, father, God, if you would. Hold our hands while we run this race. And you know what? We’re going to learn how to love a little better, do a little better, speak a little more powerfully.

    Missouri NAACP President Mary Ratliff grasps the hand of a Missouri Faith Voices affiliate during an NAACP rally in Columbia, Mo., on Aug. 21, 2014.

    Missouri NAACP President Mary Ratliff grasps the hand of a Missouri Faith Voices affiliate
    during an NAACP rally in Columbia, Mo., on Aug. 21, 2014.

    I ask this in the name of the God who’s the God of all creation, and if there’s anybody who’s believing, won’t you say ‘amen’?”

    — The Rev. C.W. Dawson Jr., speaking at a NAACP-organized rally, “A Call for Justice for Michael Brown,” in Columbia, Mo., on Aug. 21, 2014.

    Six months after firefighter Bruce Britt’s world collapsed

    August 17, 2014 in Analysis by T.J. Thomson

    At 4:45 a.m. on a frosty February morning, 48-year-old Lieutenant Bruce Britt died after a walkway collapse at a Mizzou apartment complex prompted the evacuation of Building 707’s 18 residents.

    The incident triggered a slew of inspections and an eventual decision by the university to shutter the complex and displace its more than 100 residents.

    Six months later, more collapses are happening, but they are supervised by men wearing hard hats and neon vests. Bulldozers sit where residents’ cars once did and mounds of rubble, the remains of the apartment buildings, dot the complex’s expanse.

    A soccer ball lies amidst the rubble of a demolished apartment building at the University Village complex in Columbia, Mo.

    A soccer ball lies amidst the rubble of a demolished apartment building at the University Village complex in Columbia, Mo.

    Signs of the residents’ former lives lie alongside heavy machinery and construction equipment.

    Workers separated scrap metals from the other rubble in the condemned University Village complex.

    Workers separated scrap metals from the other rubble in the condemned University Village complex.

    A soccer ball covered with Valvoline’s logo rests curiously next to the remains of a downed tree. The residents’ mailboxes lie in a heap next to other metals, such as a sink from the Community Center and drained water heaters from residents’ apartments. A sign advertising a church service still hangs on the bulletin board next to a destroyed flight of stairs.

    The picnic tables and barbecue pits are gone. Gone too are the rusted metal clothes lines and the bright textiles that used to hang on them. The volleyball net that once stretched between two trees in the middle of the complex has vanished.

    No more do burqa-wearing mothers chat while their children romp adjacent the site’s playground. The facility’s daycare center is still littered with toys but the children who played with them are absent.

    A bit of irony rounds out the drab scene. Near the entrance to the complex rests a doorframe devoid of surrounding walls with a sign that reads, “Please Keep Door Shut!”

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    Shadows of the past, visions of the future

    August 10, 2014 in Events by T.J. Thomson

    Paper lanterns decorated to commemorate the 69th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki's bombing float in waters of Stephen's Lake on Aug. 9, 2014.

    Paper lanterns decorated to commemorate the 69th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s bombing float in the waters of Stephen’s Lake on Aug. 9, 2014. Metadata: f/4.0; 1/50; ISO 25600; 105mm focal length

    About three dozen figures slowly walked along the perimeter of Stephen’s Lake in a snaking line illuminated by the pale bluish light of several LED flashlights.

    Five minutes later, the cool light offered by the flashlights was replaced with the warm hues of candlelight as Mark Haim launched hand-crafted lanterns into the lake’s inky black waters.

    The lanterns bore peace signs, names of famous peace advocates, and depictions of sunny, war-free landscapes kissed by rainbows.

    “It’s a memorial to all the other lives lost in war and the other senseless militarism we’ve engaged in,” an event organizer said before the ceremony. “Those lights are also lights of hope.”

    The ceremony commemorated the lives lost by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 69 years ago.