Tag Archives: composition

More Than One

The Church At Black Mesa (No. 2). Near San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico, 2016.

My previous post was the Church at Black Mesa (No. 1), so this week I thought I would post the Church at Black Mesa (No. 2).

These two images were made the same day, from the same location (quite probably from the same tripod position), and likely within no more than about half an hour apart, if that.  While the subject is the same, and even the key compositional elements are the same (same sky, same mesa, same crosses), I think the two images actually communicate quite different impressions of the scene.

They also illustrate my approach to working the scene.  Rarely is the first composition I see the one for which I put the camera on a tripod and shoot.  Almost always I move around a bit and check out the subject from different angles and positions first.

But even after I shoot my first composition, I typically look for more.  Why would the first acceptable composition I found necessarily be the best one?  What else is there to shoot that I would not otherwise see but for having kept looking for it?  If time is not an issue, why not move the camera left or right?  Up or down?  Put on a telephoto or wide angle lens?  Switch between portrait and landscape orientation?

If it sounds arduous, it’s not.  The looking is fun, like solving little visual puzzles, and keeps me engaged with whatever it was that caught my attention about the scene in the first place.  The process of trying all the possibilities helps to uncover all the potential worthy images that can be found in the scene.  And yes, usually there’s more than one.

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Fill the Frame

Marin's Figures, Study No. 3 Denver, Colorado, 2017

Marin’s Figures, Study No. 3 (Equilibrista 90 by Jorge Marin)
Denver, Colorado, 2017

I generally don’t take a “rules” approach to photography, as in where some say that following certain rules or formulas are what it takes to produce compelling photography.  The one possible exception may be the “rule” that says to fill the frame with your subject.  Nine times out of ten, I find that doing this results in a stronger composition.

It’s been said that photography is a subtractive art – taking things out of the frame until the only things that are left are those that are necessary for the photograph, and nothing else.  Because the world is a visually chaotic and cluttered place, this is where much of the challenge of composing for a photograph comes from.  Indeed, I often have found it simply is not possible to compose a photograph that I want, because I cannot eliminate distracting and non-essential elements from the frame.

Filling the frame with your subject is one way toward subtracting out those kinds of distracting and non-essential elements.  Obviously, the more space your subject takes up in the frame, the less space there is for anything else.  It probably seems intuitive and simple to understand when I write it here this way, but I think many novice aspiring fine art photographers make the mistake of not filling the frame with their subject, and consequently having too many distracting and non-essential elements therein.  I know I did.  It really is a skill to learn just where to draw that fine line.

On a related point, filling the frame with your subject really requires that you pay attention to your background.  If you have filled the frame with your subject, odds are you are either standing very close to it or have zoomed in on it with a telephoto lens.  This makes it easy to change how the background looks, since slight shifts in camera position will have a big effect on what appears in the background.  So I rarely accept that the first spot in which I’ve chosen to stand is the best.  Instead, I move around and try out different camera positions to see how that affects what appears in the background.  The background is a critical part of a photograph, and is worth investing the time to get right.

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Unexpected Opportunities

Matchstick Trees. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014.

Matchstick Trees.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, 2014.

Last week, I drove up to Rocky Mountain National Park (about an hour from my home in Northern Colorado) on a great weather day.  By great weather day, I mean stormy – rain, thunder, and lightening moving through the area in the late afternoon and early evening.  Stormy weather often creates great conditions for landscape photography, in the form of dramatic cloud formations, interesting plays of light, etc.  I envisioned these elements superimposed on the already stunning landscapes of the Trail Ridge Road area, and was really looking forward to seeing some expansive vistas and grand landscapes.

What I found when I arrived was – none of that.  The cloud deck had sunk down below the tops of the peaks, and the entire area was fogged in.  Thick, soupy fog of the kind where you can hardly see the taillights of the car on the road in front of you.  There was nothing to shoot, because there was nothing to see.  I figured the day was a bust and was about to turn around and go home.

But then I remembered a stretch of the road where there was a large grouping of tall, bare trees that, from a distance, look like a collection of matchsticks.  I had photographed these trees before, but was never pleased with the results.  The frames always looked cluttered (I never could seem to find a simple, clean composition), and the light on the trees always looked too harsh and with too much contrast to my eye.

How would these Matchstick Trees look in the fog, I wondered?  Quite nice, as it turned out.  The fog reduced the distracting clutter in the frame, enabling me to create more simplified compositions.  And, naturally, the fog diffused the light substantially, evening out the overall contrast in the scene.  My vision for the image was to create a high-key, almost abstract rendering of these trees, and the foggy conditions really played right into that.

When confronted with unexpected conditions, it can be difficult for me to let go of my expectations and adapt to what’s going on around me.  But, it’s my feeling that there almost always is something worthwhile to photograph, so I’ll have to remember to remind myself that it’s just a matter of being open to seeing it.

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Do You Have a Favorite Element of Composition?

Sunlight on Mount Chapin, Colorado

If you’re a photographer, do you have a favorite element of composition that you use over and over again?  If you enjoy looking at photography, is there an element of composition that you find yourself repeatedly drawn to?

Opinions vary a bit in the details, but most lists of the elements of composition generally include line, shape, form, pattern, and texture.  Of course, these elements don’t exist in isolation, and indeed often build on each other:  lines give rise to shape, shapes give rise to form, forms give rise to patterns, and patterns give rise to texture.  Still, photographs often will display one of these elements with more emphasis than the others, and it seems fair to assume that a photographer’s body of work might skew towards the use of one of these elements more than the others.

It’s dangerous to analyze one’s own work, but if I had to take a guess, I would say my eye is drawn to line.  For example, the image in this post, “Sunlight on Mount Chapin,” exhibits a very strong line dividing the relatively darker lower half of the frame from the relatively lighter upper half of the frame.  To me, this line dominates the composition, arcing out of the lower left corner and creating a sense of movement in the composition.  Again, it’s hard to view one’s own work objectively, but I find it nevertheless to be a useful exercise, not only in creating my own work, but in helping me to analyze and understand why I may like or dislike the work of others.

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Bend in the Road

Here is a simple image of a simple subject by a simple photographer.  That’s not a put-down, simplicity is a virtue.  I’m not a big believer in applying rules to photography, but one “rule” I learned early on is to keep things simple, and it continues to serve me well.

When I refer to simplicity, what I really mean is keeping compositions simple.  The reason I put the word “rule” in quotation marks is because, really, I don’t think of simplicity as being a rule.  After all, what does it mean to be simple?  Unlike, say, the rule of thirds, or the rule against putting a horizon line in the middle of the frame, there’s really no rote, mechanical way to apply the “rule” of simplicity.

Instead, simplicity is a fluid concept that adapts to the subject matter and circumstances in which I am photographing.  For example, simplicity really isn’t about how much detail there is in a subject:  here, there’s a fair amount of detail in the branches of the trees, the clouds in the sky, and the grasses on the ground.  It also isn’t about the number of elements in the frame:  here, there are at least four – the trees, the sky, the ground, and the road – and any number of components of those.  Moreover, simplicity also is not the same as minimalism:  while most minimal photographs probably are simple, a photograph can be simple without being minimal.

I suppose for me, simplicity is the absence of unnecessary complexity.  This image, for example, eliminates the fence that was just out of the frame to the right, the house that was just out of the frame to the left, the pastures and trees that were just over the rise in the road, and the mountains in the distance that were behind that.  It’s not that any of these elements weren’t photogenic, it’s just that they weren’t necessary for this image.  They would have introduced unnecessary complexity into the composition.

The title of this image is “Bend in the Road.”  Again, simple.

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Latest Work – “Spire at Rock Cut”

Spire at Rock Cut

Here is an image called “Spire at Rock Cut.”  Rock Cut is a location along Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park where the road passes through a cut in a massive outcropping of rock.  For photographers, I suspect the cut is most well known for providing a dramatic natural frame through which one can photograph Longs Peak, but this image is not that view.  Instead, the spire is the subject of this image – it is this spire that roughly would form the right side of the frame in the more classic view.

This image has me thinking about my approach to shooting landscapes.  I like to keep things as simple as I can, so I’m usually only thinking of three things when I evaluate if I’m going to click the shutter or not.

First, the quality of the light.  This is by far the most important, and if it’s not there, I don’t shoot.  In this image, the sun had already set over the mountains, out of the frame to the right.  This created a nice glow in the sky as twilight set in, which set off the clouds and evenly illuminated the spire and the mountains in the background.  Check one!

Second, the composition.  If the light is good, but the composition doesn’t work, I don’t shoot.  Here, my eye was attracted to the shape of the spire and the complementary shape of the grayish cloud in the immediate background just behind the spire.  I believe there are several additional shapes and symmetries in the frame, hopefully creating a sense of rhythm.  Check two!

Third is what I just call “camera stuff.”  This is all the technical details associated with operating the camera to get the desired image.  There’s actually a lot of potential details here (you really could become way too obsessed about this, and many people do), but for me it is by far the least important concern, far behind points one and two.  If the light and composition are right, I’ll usually try the shot even if I’m unsure about the camera stuff.  This image is a good example.  Without going through all the technical details, suffice it to say this image was captured just on the edge of being able to use the natural light.  If I had tried five minutes later, I doubt there would have been enough light to show any detail on the spire or the peaks, regardless of how I adjusted the camera.  As it was, I used a relatively long shutter speed of 15 seconds, which created the motion blur in the clouds.  But I got the exposure I wanted out of the camera, so check three!

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