Cluttered Backgrounds and Other Distractions

Snowy Trees and Snowy Fences PastoralOne of the key principles I keep in mind when composing an image is to simplify, simplify, simplify.  If it’s possible, anything that doesn’t directly support the composition I’m aiming for has to go, and if it’s not possible, I usually simply will pass on capturing the image.  Perhaps nothing has improved my photography as much as this simple concept.

The thing that probably ruins more potential images for me than anything else is a cluttered background.  I’ve been having a great time over the winter shooting the wonderful, stark trees that can be found on the plains near my home in Northern Colorado.  However, this area is relatively thickly settled, and while there is no shortage of great trees, there is a shortage of trees that don’t have roads, subdivisions, farm equipment, or something else cluttering up the background.  I can’t tell you how many great potential compositions I’ve had to abandon because there was some unwanted element I could not exclude from the frame, no matter where I stood or how I positioned my camera.  A nice, clean background really is a thing of beauty.

The image in this post employs two of my most used techniques to get rid of a cluttered background.  First, it was captured in the middle of a snowstorm.  Nothing will clean up a cluttered background more quickly than making it disappear into the receding gray of rain, snow, or fog.  Second, I was able to position the camera below the horizon line, in this case at the bottom of a slight incline, such that the remaining visible background elements disappeared over the crest of the hill.  As a result, the composition really emphasizes the forms of the snow-covered trees that I was after.

But what about those fences at the base of the trees?  I’ll admit, my first inclination when visualizing this scene was to capture it without the fences.  But, there simply was no way to eliminate those fences from the frame and still keep intact the forms of the trees that I wanted.  And, as I continued to observe the scene, I became more comfortable with leaving the fences in.  From a compositional perspective, I think the horizontal lines of the fences complement the horizontal of the horizon, and from a philosophical perspective, I think the presence of the fences references the nature of the area in which I live.

On this last point, I’ve adopted a naming convention to address situations like this.  Where the subject of an image is primarily landscape or nature, but includes a certain amount of man-made elements like the fences in this image, I call the image a “pastoral.”  Hence, the title of the image in this post, “Snowy Trees and Snowy Fences Pastoral.”

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