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.
* Website: Eloquent Images
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