the hidden language of composition by A. Cejunior



Sword Photography is by no means an easy task. It is not about taking pictures only. That is just the technical part. It is mainly about conveying the right ambience, the right set up. It requires that the photography customer makes a sketch of how he wants things done, gets a general idea of the feeling he wants to convey, bring some props and plan the color scheme. In fact, professional photography of a sword must be done bearing in mind what is the main purpose of the pictures.
As it can be guessed as you read on, this modest article concentrates specially on Japanese style sword photography, since this is the most difficult to portray.
Are they intended for a website? For a catalogue? For a leaflet? Have the printed matter contents been discussed already? Is it going to be of longish shape such as a 11.5 x 6 inches vertical leaflet or is it going to be more of a 10.5 x 7.7 inches such as the specialties magazines?
Horizontal pictures are the way to go for websites because the monitor's width is larger than its height. But magazines and leaflets are different. They are mainly vertical.

Apart from planning the pictures, one must source for a photographer. Most photographers don't know how to photograph swords and don't take the time to learn it, unless they specialize on it. BladeGallery can do the job of photographing swords in general, but for what I have seen, they fail entirely to show a katana's hamon in a full view picture.

Then  who to choose? So far, the best pictures of a full katana can be seen at Odd Frog Forge mainly in terms of hamon appearance. However, there are pictures like this one that I would have not placed because it is rather disturbing. It is much better to take separate pictures of details and place the information separately.

However any professional photographer will be able to take the pictures with the proper lighting, provided he is given all the necessary requests.
It is important to show that you know what you want and that your are looking for a photographer's know how in lighting and equipment.

Katanas have very reflective surfaces, both in the blade and in the saya. The steel tends to reflect light evenly if not directed in a proper angle so that it is illuminated yet it does not bounce the light back into the camera. This procedure requires reflectors to bounce light where it is needed and a long time set up for the picture to come out properly. The best thing is to do test shots for each position with a digital camera, and when the lighting is perfect, then just switch for a SLR with slide film. Slide film will allow for scanning of pictures to as much as 300 dpi per inch, the minimum required size for good quality printing.
Then it is much easier to downgrade to a lesser resolution for the internet.
However bear in mind that the composition must change when you do a vertical shot and then a horizontal picture. As can be seen at the end pictures, you cannot just rotate the picture from vertical to horizontal. It does not work like that.

The positioning of swords in sword photography is of paramount importance for the message to go through smoothly. There are many situations that the average viewer will not notice but it will help him be more or less attracted for what is shown to him. This is all subliminal.
First of all let's analyze some very bad mistakes that are connected with the background, with the lack of detail - we are talking mainly Japanese swords here - or the overabundance of props.

Picture 1 Picture 2 Picture 3

The tanto in Picture 1 is placed on a background that is entirely out of context, while the saya is wrongly placed above the blade. This shows a wrong hierarchy of the components plus a totally color disco-ordination of the background. The tanto in Picture 2 is better positioned, however the red textured box is claiming for attention, conflicting with the reading of the blade. The background serves a purpose; to place the blade into context without conflict.
In Picture 3 the composition seems to be fine. The background is neutral, the sword bag matches the color of the saya, so all seems to be perfect. But if you look at it you will see that the top left side is heavily unbalanced by the red color of the saya bag leaving the lower half corner too empty, and therefore the tanto appears to be floating or pulled by a top left corner magnetic force.

Picture 4

Picture 5

Picture 6

In Picture 4 the tanto is less distracted. However the combination of a samegawa background plus a tatami or beach mat and the under-exposure of the sheath, which is cropped out, gives a sense of an unfinished picture. Notice in the thumbnail how the lack of illumination of the black sheath unbalances the picture. The green is not strong enough.
In Picture 5 the tanto is placed horizontally with the handle to the left. We all know that if we were to grab the tanto a large percentage of us would use the right hand. So it is wrongly oriented. Then, on top a small corner of a tatami there is a matching red leaves scarf, so striking that if gets confusing. Never position a knife or sword on the opposite direction to which you would naturally grab it.
In Picture 6 the photographer was very clever. He found a background that is mainly black, with muted Chinese characters. He placed the blade on top of the saya in the center diagonal and balanced both other corners with pieces of earthenware that matches the saya color as well as the background color. Then the framing is correct. Our eyes are led to the central piece, the tanto and saya. The rest complements the picture without conflicting.

Picture 7

Picture 8

Picture 9

The crossed sword and scabbard is one of the worst compositions because it is immediately connected in a subliminal way to an X or cross as seen in Picture 9. A cross is usually connected in school with something wrong. Cross that out, as it's no good. Remember? It then stays with us in a subliminal way.
The only admissible way would be to have two swords crossed which is an insignia or a simple panoply.
Pictures 7 and 8 are a total disaster in the blending with the background.
Very few sword photographers seem to understand the hidden language of sword photography. It is not just a correctly exposed picture, but a harmonious picture is the sum of everything. Let's proceed.

Picture 10

Picture 11

Picture 12

These pictures are now much better. Picture 10 displays a good view of the hamon in the entire blade which is something very difficult to achieve. However the saya is not parallel to the sword resulting in an illusion that it is too short. The saya should not be positioned so high up.
Picture 11
shows the classical and best way of presenting a katana, though the saya should be aligned below the tsuba. The edge is correct, facing down. The sageo fills the lower space, so if a tsuba or another prop would be placed on the upper left half which is empty, it would be even more balanced.
Picture 12 shows again some mistakes to avoid. The sword is positioned with the tsuka to the left and the saya is inverted. Instead of a harmonious flow, our intelligence views that things don't make much sense.

Picture 13

Picture 14 Picture 15

There is a need to know when to stop with props. Pictures 13 and 14 are from Bugei swords, and have a low angle diagonal, resulting in the need to crop the height, though the background is intensely populated, or it may serve a distinct design purpose in the concept of the website.  However the hamon is entirely visible and this is a must for all studio katana photos. Bugei is possibly the most successful Japanese style sword website.
Picture 15 uses the wrong props in my opinion and the blue background does not relate to anything except it is not cheesy. Also the sword is pointed upwards. Not very nice the crossing with the saya in this case and we see that the use of plants are a very poor connection, compared with the richness of Pictures 13 and 14.

Picture 16

Picture 17


Picture 16 Here is an example of badly taken photograph. A totally wrong positioned katana with tsuka on the left and the edge up. The beautiful floor was ignored in exchange for a tatami substitute.
Picture 17 Is the example of a more horizontal photograph where the props - a cheap beach matt, a nice stone floor that is not well explored, and the unbelievable top of a chair in both pictures - show how things can be ruined if a shot is not carefully planned in advance and props carefully chosen for color and theme harmony. Further, the green plant is too weak for any balance.
Sikomi-zue is possibly one of the very few examples where, due to the sleekness and straightness of the sword and saya, placed parallel to each other, does not shock to have the sword oriented as it is.




Picture 18


This is possibly the nicest picture of all. Simplicity, yet striking. Because it was taken for a vertical view, the photographer was very fortunate (except for the lack of entire hamon) to blend the colors in a very nice way. The bag crosses the sword and saya that in this case do not shock because verticality has a different reading. Then the black tassels (fusashimo) do balance the left side, and since the tsuka's weight is downwards, it follows gravity. Finally the light circle in the center helps create an atmosphere.



This is an example that shows how the camera position is also another crucial point. Having rotated the same image, we feel that now the sword bag does not look good and the proportions seem distorted. For each composition the camera has to be positioned in the best possible angle to serve one single purpose. That very shot.



I took the picture of this tanto with the simplest of means, no reflectors, no special lighting and it is not particularly good. I just tried to fill the area and because the background was white I decided for a smaller height. The only prop I used was a bone Inro box and notice that I carefully positioned the saya just aligned with the tsuba. Why, you may ask, did I place the saya above the blade? Because it is the heaviest element, and in being so, if I placed the saya below, the picture would be very unbalanced. So I sandwiched it between the tanto and the Inro, making sure that the netsuke was in the opposite direction to the tsuka, to balance the black tsuka. There are apparent mistakes, such as the low angle I did on the composition. But if I placed the items in a 40-45 degrees angle, there would be plenty of white space.



This picture of the Seasoned Katana was taken with one studio soft box. But the lighting and reflectors were not enough to ensure a continuous reflection line on the saya lacquer, a must to show the perfection of the lacquer, nor there was enough dark reflector to darken the Ji and highlight the hamon. There is also a mistake with the saya being to high. It was due to the limited lighting I had. If I extended it more to the left, it would be worse.



Here let us just forget the immense area in blank. Let's just concentrate on the hamon being brought out. This is a must for a professional photographer to do. Mainly what you must look for is to obtain a black reflection on the ji-hada so that your camera can view and record that reflection which, due to the properties of polished steel will highlight all the activity.


The present article has no other purpose or intent other than being informational. In no way any pictures here are used for belittling anyone or any company whatsoever. Further, this article states my own personal views as an art & creative director whose entirely purpose is to bring an entirely objective and modest contribution to collectors on the picture taking process of laying out a sword photograph. 



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