week sixteen — a frozen sunrise

it took about two months of setting alarms for 5am on the weekends and being thwarted by snow and overcast skies, but i finally had the opportunity to take sunrise pictures at north ave beach this morning. it was totally worth the wait.

if you see a panorma of chicago’s skyline, 9 times out of 10 it’ll be taken from solidarity drive by adler planetarium. this view provides your stereotypical chicago posters and postcards. but i prefer north ave beach for my skyline pictures. there are so many more opportunities for interesting foregrounds. in this case, the frozen lake michigan (is anything more chicago than that?), the icy cement pier, the beacon, and a fellow photographer all make for an entertaining foreground.

i particularly enjoy having the photographer in this shot. he graciously offered to duck out of the way for my panorama, but i told him not to worry about it — i think having him in the shot makes this a far superior photo. see, every photo tells a story, and every good story needs a punch line. most average photos have one straightforward punch line. in week 10, i showed a skyline photo i took from solidarity drive. the only thing that saves this from being a completely average photo is adequate composition and the fact the subject was so pretty. why wasn’t it better? it told a simple story with a one-dimensional punch line: the city is pretty.

in order to take better pictures, you have to tell better stories. and in order to tell better stories, you have to have a punch line that weaves together multiple plot elements. the plot elements in this shot are the rising sun, the frozen lake, the skyline, the pier, the photographer, and the beacon. without the photographer in the scene, the punch line is: the rising sun makes the frozen lake and the skyline extra pretty. already, this is much better than the punch line in week 10 because there’s action (the rising sun is acting upon the other elements in the story). but throw the photographer into the mix, and the story becomes: the rising sun makes the frozen lake and the skyline extra pretty, and a photographer is enjoying and capturing this beauty.

the punch line now not only has one more layer, but another layer with action. when you start creating connections between all your plot elements, your punch lines become extra powerful.

one final comment…you might have noticed that not all the components of the entertaining foreground (the plot elements) made it into the punch line. that’s ok. if they had all made it into the punch line, that would have been awesome, but that’s tough to do when you have that many components (as is often the case with panoramas). you could argue that the additional elements (the pier and the beacon) shouldn’t be included because they distract from the punchline. in this case, i would disagree, however, because i think the punch line is strong enough to capture the viewer’s eye despite these potential distractions, and both elements add something to the photo.

the pier is important because it draws the viewer’s eye towards the city (twice — the first time is to the left of the photographer, helping you see what he’s seeing, and the second time is near the right of the photograph, after the viewer has had a chance to investigate the beacon). the beacon isn’t necessary, but it was impossible to eliminate without some black belt photoshopping and it adds a slightly ironic secondary punch line: the beacon is useless when the entire lake is frozen. i especially enjoy this twist since beacons/lighthouses are often used to convey loneliness — what could be more lonely than a beacon whose light shines on a frozen lake, but no ships?

but that’s more than enough rambling for one post…see you all next week.

  1. I like to think the photographer is you…it makes the "punch line" more personal, as if we are there with you standing out of the way while you take a picture.


    1. ooh i like that…especially since the perspective makes you feel removed…like you’re at the farthest point out, looking back on everything


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