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Pastel Crescent, Mendocino Coast

Posted by
Gary Hart (California, United States) on 20 June 2010 in Landscape & Rural and Portfolio.

I just returned from the Northern California coast where I assisted Don Smith's Mendocino workshop. We had a great group and photographed a variety of beautiful scenery (redwoods, rhododendrons, rugged coast, waterfalls, wildflowers, a lighthouse, and many large elk) in this vastly underrated landscape. The training I do in these always gets me thinking about what makes an image work, and I find myself rushing to preserve my thoughts in writing, so here goes.

One of the things I try to emphasize in my workshops (and Don’s) is the amount of control photographers have over their compositions. From observing workshop participants in the field, and critiquing their images during image review, it's clear that photographers often become focused on their primary subject to the exclusion of the rest of the scene, in effect forfeiting their precious control. For example, most successful images aren't merely about a single subject in the center of the frame; rather, successful images are usually about the relationship of elements in the frame and to the frame. But I see far too many photographers simply accept the scene as it appears from wherever they stand, rather than moving about to assemble the elements in their frame in the best way possible.

Some very compelling images feature a single element in a simple scene. In that case the relationship that matters most is the element's placement relative to the frame's boundaries. But when other elements are added to a scene, the relationships become more complex and it becomes essential that they all work together.

During workshop image review I'll sometimes ask the photographer what he/she was trying to capture. The answer is often a list of two or more elements: that river; this rock; that tree; this line, angle, or curve; that color or texture, and so on. And while I generally agree that each is worthy of inclusion, unless they somehow relate to each other (the photographer’s responsibility), the presence of multiple strong (eye grabbing) elements usually becomes a distraction.

I usually try to avoid teaching compositional formulas or guidelines because I've observed that they are too frequently perceived as "rules" that wind up hindering creativity. While spatial relationships between elements can be conveyed in many ways, your primary job is to balance the frame. Balancing the elements in a frame requires you to understand two primary principles: the power of virtual lines and shapes (angular relationships), and visual weight. Not only do individual elements add weight (think in terms of visual gravity that pulls the eye)--viewers will also unconsciously connect strong objects with virtual lines, creating virtual shapes that also add weight to the frame.

To conceive this concept of visual balance, think of your frame as a rigid, flat plane that must balance perfectly on a needle placed at exactly its center (like trying to balance a book on a pencil). Each element in the frame has a weight that (regrettably) defies analysis: it can be any combination of size, color, density, significance (for example, Half Dome has more visual weight than some anonymous rock of the same size; or a thin crescent moon has more visual weight than a much larger cloud), and many other qualities.

For me a composition starts as an extremely analytical process, but it's the feeling side of my brain that must ultimately authorize its capture. I start by seeing the entire scene to identify the elements I want to capture. Assembling these elements usually means moving around--left/right, up/down, wide/tight--until everything feels (there's that word again) balanced.

This crescent moon scene from last week's Mendocino workshop started with a beautiful but unspectacular sunset. Fortunately, on these cloudless evenings the best light and color usually arrive 15 or 20 minutes after the sun disappears. That's when the light softens and the once harsh sky brims with rich pastels, an ephemeral moment when a single frame can capture the magical transition from day to night.

Shortly after the sun dropped into the Pacific a crescent moon appeared in the darkening sky, flanked by Venus. Of course the moon and Venus were beautiful, but I needed more than that to make an effective image. Scanning the scene I immediately identified several elements I liked: in addition the moon and Venus, I had the warm to cool day/night transition, the sky's color reflected in the surf and beach, and the two rock outcrops. Like a painter’s canvas, the sky and ocean were fairly static (with one little exception I’ll get to in a minute), which meant they’d be in the frame no matter where I stood. So the only elements I needed to worry about were the moon and the rocks (Venus wasn’t strong enough to compete with the moon, so I wasn’t too worried about where it fell in the frame). All I needed to do was move along the beach until the two rocks and the moon created a triangle that felt balanced.

With my composition set, I chose a small aperture, both to maximize my depth of field and to enable a long shutter speed that softened the waves; to further lengthen my shutter speed, I dialed down to ISO 50. I opted for a vertical orientation because a horizontal frame that included the moon would have been far too wide, shrinking the moon and introducing additional rocks that would have distracted on the left and right.

When I've found a scene I really like, and then feel like I've succeeded in assembling the elements into a worthy composition, I often take a series of images. Sometimes I experiment with different compositions; other times I experiment with depth of field or motion. In this case I watched the waves and tried to time my shutter click with the wave action. I knew that while the ocean and sky were fairly static, I had to time my exposure so beach and surf created horizontal lines that complemented the horizontal horizon and sky color (the sky color feels horizontal because a horizontal strip across any part of the sky will be more or less the same color). Allowing the waves to wash all the way up to the bottom of my frame would have erased an important horizontal component, so I took care to time my shutter click so the thin strip of beach stretched all the way across the frame.

So much thought for such a simple image. Go figure.

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Thanks for visiting. Even if I don't respond, your comments are always read and appreciated.

Tamara from Aarschot, Belgium

Wow ! How beautiful ! I love your composition and the soft tones in this photo... just perfect !
Have a nice sunday Gary :)

20 Jun 2010 8:04am

Tracy from La Selva Beach, United States

The image is absolutely beautiful! Not in an "in your face" kind of way, though- more of a quiet, contemplative image....This looks like a place I would go to just sit and feel the world around me :)
The lesson today is invaluable, too! Slowing down and REALLY thinking and feeling the composition and actually thinking it through remains one of my biggest challenges! So often I get home and think "Why didn't I just move one foot to the left?" I think I'll print this lesson out and keep it in my camera bag! :) Glad you had a wonderful trip---and someday I WILL be able to take one of your workshops!

20 Jun 2010 1:40pm

@Tracy: Thanks, Tracy--I'm glad the message helps. I'd love to have you in a workshop someday, though pretty soon you'll be doing your own. :)

George from Northern California, United States

Great shot Gary. It looks a lot better as a finished product rather then when I saw it on the LCD back of your camera. You are correct, as you pointed out during our workshop, that even though the moon is so small it carries a tremendous amount of "visual" weight.

20 Jun 2010 1:47pm

@George: :D I guess bigger really is better. :)

Thanks, George. It was great having you in another workshop--I'm looking forward to seeing your Mendocino images.

KriKridesign from Cully, Switzerland


20 Jun 2010 2:54pm

Vaido from Võrumaa, Estonia

Very nice colors on waves, and lovely transition... Slowing down, like Tracy said, is valuable skill indeed.

20 Jun 2010 4:38pm

Mike from United States

As the late Galen Rowell once said about landscape photography, the SLR camera suddenly becomes very heavy, as if it were a large format camera, forcing you to slow down and become very deliberate about composition and exposure. This is one of my favorites of yours, Gary. I follow your blog daily and find great enjoyment in viewing your images and reading about the thought processes that went into taking them. Truly inspiring. Thanks.

20 Jun 2010 5:37pm

Julie Brown from Indianapolis, United States

That strip of beach in the foreground is a crucial element-the impact would be reduced without it. You have given most of the frame to that gorgeous color in the sky, which is nicely reflected in the water. I am continually impressed by how you are able to verbalize your thought process when you start to analyze a scene. Thanks for the ongoing education, it really makes me think.

20 Jun 2010 7:21pm

Viewfinder from Bradenton, FL, United States

This is a brilliant composition, visually compelling and beautiful. Thank you for the insight into the "taking of this (or any) picture" visualization/composition process you generally follow. I absolutely agree that the right brain has a lot to do with the final outcome/balance and must be one of (perhaps "the") major factor in taking the picture.

20 Jun 2010 7:22pm

john4jack from Corvallis, Oregon, United States

Fabulous composition and colors!!

20 Jun 2010 7:38pm

Denny Jump Photo from Easton, PA, United States

I love the colors for sure and your entire image really clarifies what you are talking about (I think) in your written piece, Gary. The Rock in the surf, and the sheer color of the water give this thing a "base" too I think.

20 Jun 2010 11:16pm

Judy from Brooksville, Florida, United States

I love this composition ... in that less is more. Just beautiful, Gary!

20 Jun 2010 11:36pm

MK from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

WOW, the thumbnail is really misleading. I'm glad i clicked on it anyway

21 Jun 2010 3:09am

DarkElf from Perth, Australia

superb work! i think this frame really shows off what you describe! in the more minimal composition the balance between elements is always more visible and felt and therefore if one is not careful it would be easy to lose it! your composition skills are excellent as we can see it very clearly here!

21 Jun 2010 3:57am

KriKridesign from Cully, Switzerland

Second visit....A real masterpiece, a faboulous gradient...Mother Nature is the Best..

21 Jun 2010 12:12pm

Shelle from Washington State, United States

What a wonderful image and the lesson included was extremely valuable. Thank you for being so generous with your art.

23 Jun 2010 6:44pm

Dutch from Chicagoland, United States

The layers of color and light.. the way the light reflects in the water.. the entire thing is just dreamy. It is a photo that evokes emotion so I think your feeling side nailed this one, it's perfect!

25 Jun 2010 3:50am

Vitor Martins from Lisboa, Portugal

Very beautiful composition with a big fantastic sky and moon on the top. The color of the water on the foreground is fantatstic.

25 Jun 2010 4:11pm

Kelly Morvant from United States

Simply Lovely!

30 Jun 2010 9:40pm