Simplicity in Composition

“The landscape is a complex subject but understanding that something is complex doesn’t mean that one must necessarily present the subject in a complex manner”. David Ward, Landscape Beyond – A Journey into Photography. (p.33)

In landscape photography, photographers are often confronted with the need to take a complex composition, and extract a clearer and easier to understand composition from it. The difficulty lies in determining which elements enhance, and which elements distract. This simplification is the key, however, to achieving meaningful results. There are three main aspects of simplification to consider.

1. Simplify by removing unwanted clutter from the frame. Begin by looking not at the subject, but at the frame around the subject. Remove any unnecessary clutter from the composition that may lead the viewer’s eye outside the composition, or away from the subject itself.

The subject, or the essential element, of the composition, may, at times, be the tiniest of details. In those cases, the composition isn’t necessarily of that element, but of the other elements of the composition that revolve around and give context to it. For example, in the following image, that tiny, essential, element was the small island named “Chinaman’s Hat.” The surrounding water served to show the environment where it is located. It provides a scene of solitude, peace and tranquility.

Chinaman’s Hat at Sunrise

Chinaman’s Hat at Sunrise. Kahaluu Bay, Oahu. Hawaii. Chamonix 45N-1 Camera, Schneider APO Symmar 210mm f5.6 lens on Fuji Velvia 50, using a Horseman 6×12 roll film back.

However, including the beach in the foreground (where I was standing to make the composition) would have served to pull the eye away from the tiny island as it woke to the rising sun, and destroyed its simplicity.

2. Simplify to concentrate the viewer’s attention on the subject. Secondly, what is it about the subject that stirs your emotions and ignites your desire to photograph it? That is the element  that the composition should emphasize.

Try “seeing” the underlying elements that caught your attention in the first place, and then exclude, or minimize, those elements that distract from your feelings toward the subject. One way to do that is to close one eye when looking at the composition. This gives a feeling for how the subject will appear in the photograph, and will help to determine what should be included or excluded. Remember, what you omit from the composition is just as important as what you include.

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Oregon Moonrise

A few years ago, on a trip to photograph the Oregon coast with Per Volquartz and a small group of large format  photographers, we camped for the night not far from Devil’s Punchbowl Natural Area. Being the only photographer in the group specializing exclusively in color, I got up before sunrise to photograph from the nearby park.

Being on the US West Coast, with a small mountain range to the east, I knew that conditions weren’t ideal for a sunrise photograph. However, when I arrived at the park, I found the tidal flats were empty, the tide out, with a full moon in the sky. I knew that I couldn’t ask for better circumstances.

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Oregon Moonrise. Devils Punch Bowl State Natural Area, Oregon. Toyo 45AII camera, Nikkor SW 90mm f8 lens on Fuji Velvia 50.

I’ve always found the Nikkor 90mm SW to be a difficult lens to work with, the small F8 aperture makes focusing on the ground glass difficult. As a result, while the foreground is sharp, the horizon isn’t as sharp as I would like. Since this time, I’ve upgraded to a Schneider Super-Symmar XL 80mm f4.5, which is an absolutely, beautiful lens to work with.

Later during this trip, we were able to meet with noted landscape photographer Christopher Burkett, in his home/workshop in Portland.

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Angry Sea at Makua Beach

Many photographers get wrapped up in the technical aspects of photography. But, it’s not about the number of pixels or the toe and shoulder curve on the tonal range of a film base, it’s about vision. It’s vision that transforms a mundane scene to one that is memorable; one that sticks in our minds.

One Sunday afternoon I drove to Makua Beach on the Waianae coast of the island of Oahu. I had vision of a photograph taken at particular rock formation near the end of the beach. In the late afternoon, during the winter months, it isn’t unusual to get a bit of overcast skies, with a smattering of rain. So, I knew from experience that it was possible to get a bit of cloudiness and a sun lit sky, close to sunset.

The problem was, the rock was teeming with fishermen and children playing in the surf. With a slight sprinkle, everyone soon decided it was time to move on, and I was left with the location to myself. I hurriedly waded out into the sand, camera mounted on the tripod, Nikon F5 slung around my shoulder to use as a light meter.

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Angry Sea. Toyo 45AII Camera, Schneider Symmar-S 135mm f5/6 lens, on Fuji Velvia 50.

Watching the movement of the sea, I timed my exposure for a point in time when the surf was receding from the shore, which I knew would leave the sea wet. I also knew that a slow shutter speed would leave “fingers” of water.

Since, I’ve taken this photograph, I’ve learned a bit more about how others perceive a photograph. The photograph that appears above isn’t my favorite of the session, but it’s the one most popular with others. My favorite was taken just after the first, from a different point of view.

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Field Tips: Being Aware of Your Surroundings

They say that Australia is home to some of the deadliest snakes in the world. But, in all my trips there, I’ve never seriously considered the possibility of encountering one in the wild. I guess that after living in in Hawaii for several years, I’ve become somewhat complacent about the possibility. After all, there are no snakes in Hawaii. 

A few years ago on a visit Western MacDonnell National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory,  a situation arose that made me aware of the need to consider such possibilities. I’ve visited Australia on numerous occasions, and have photographed in the Outback several times, but I’ve never actually seen a snake in the wild. One morning at Ormiston Gorge, I arose well before dawn, to make the 2 km walk up the White Gum Lookout Walk. With the help of a full moon, and excellent night vision, I was able to make the walk in the dark. I arrived at the lookout well before sunrise, spent an hour or so photographing, then made my way back to camp for breakfast. A nice morning shoot.

Sunrise, Ormiston Gorge

Sunrise, Ormiston Gorge. Toyo 45AII, Schneider Symmar-S 135mm f5.6 lens on Fuji Velvia 50.

However, that evening a situation at the campground that reminded me of the need to be more careful, and how that pre-dawn walk was probably not the wisest decision I had made.

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Surfing Pleasures

One Sunday afternoon, I had traveled to one of my favorite locations on the island of Oahu, Hawaii; Kaena Point State Park. Unfortunately, the light wasn’t working for me that afternoon (or I just wasn’t perceptive enough to see it), so I left early. Generally, I never leave until at least 30 minutes after sunset, but this day I left about 45 minutes before. As I was leaving the seaside town of Wai’anae, I saw that the sky was starting to turn a blazing red. Finally, the color was so incredible that I pulled into the first park that I came across.

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Hurriedly parking the car, I jumped out, grabbed my 4×5, and proceeded to setup for a shot. Not having time to properly meter, I used my Nikon F5 to take a quick meter reading. As I was setting up the camera, and metering the scene, I noticed several surfers in the water, waiting for a wave. Finally, they lined up in the water, and I snapped the shutter. While it seemed like I waited a long time for the different elements to come together, in reality it was perhaps no more than 5 or 10 seconds that I waited.

I learned one lesson out of this incident; stay put wherever I am, regardless how bad the light seems; it may change quickly. Fortunately, in this instance the situation worked out for the best.

Who says you can’t take surf photos with a large format field camera, and a wide angle lens?

Photo Details: Kahe Point Beach Park (Electric Beach), Oahu, Hawaii. Toyo 45AII camera, Schneider Symmar-S 135mm f5.6 lens, on Fuji Velvia 50. No filters used.

Urban Landscapes

Most of the time I am drawn to the wild landscape, although, on occasion I find myself behind the lens in an urban environment. Photographing in this type of environment is just a little out of my comfort zone, normally. So when I find myself in this situation, I look for the same type of aids that I would look for in a natural landscape. These aids include locating areas of interest such as cloud cover, surface reflections, and the color of the light itself as it strikes objects in the field of view, as well as identifying the natural patterns in the landscape.

Ala Wai Boats

There are natural patterns that most experienced photographers recognize in any composition. Most widely known is the “Rule of Thirds”. However, less known, but equally valid is the “Golden Mean” (or Golden Section). The Golden Mean is a ratio of numbers in the Fibonacci sequence. Based upon a mathematical sequence of numbers, the Golden Mean manifests itself in various forms, including the Golden Spiral, Golden Triangle and Golden Proportion. These manifestations have been known, and used since ancient times, because their simplicity leads to pleasing patterns.

Learning about these various forms of compositional patterns can be valuable in choosing compositions that are more pleasing to the eye. Many photographers, who flaunt the breaking of the Rule of Thirds are unknowingly following one of the forms of the Golden Mean, without realizing it. These patterns are all around us, and become natural to our eyes, even when we can’t identify them.

To learn more about the Golden Mean, there are some excellent articles at the following links:

For those photographers using Adobe Lightroom, you can view how your photographs fit these forms of the Golden Mean. See the following article on how to set this up: http://www.revellphotography.com/blog/?p=2853&cpage=1

Photo Details: Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii. Toyo 45AII camera, Schneider Symmar-S 13mm f5.6 lens, on Fuji Velvia 50. No filtration.

Those in Toronto, Canada can see this as a 20×24 print at the Elevator Gallery.

Golden Light

Many photographers have a favorite location that seems to draw them out the best in their photography. One of my favorite locations lies at the end of the road on the Leeward side of the island of Oahu, at Kaena Point State Park.

Late one afternoon in November, I made the long drive up this side of the island. During the winter months, the Leeward side of the island gets strong surf patterns, making it ideal for photographing vibrant patterns and shapes in the sand.

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Many non-residents of Hawaii don’t know that sunsets here aren’t generally the “big ball” blazing sunsets many photographers love. There is almost always a layer of clouds on the horizon, which the sun sets behind. Knowing this, I decided it would be better to concentrate on the reflection of the sun off the sand instead. This led me to seek a spot where I could get both the reflection of the sunlight, as well as the flowing water.

Once I found the right spot, I waited for the incoming surf to hit and begin to flow on the beach, then I waited for the next incoming wave to just begin to break. These elements all came together in one brief instant. I was also fortunate that there was a little haze in the air, causing the sun to appear as a vague ball, while keeping the contrast level down.

This photograph illustrates another photographic technique that I employ for controlling depth of field. With Large Format cameras, changing the aperture is not the only way to control depth of field. Using a technique based upon the Scheimpflug principle, the film plane of the camera can be tilted forward or backwards to increase depth of field. Tilting the film plane backwards increases the depth of field, although it tends to exaggerate the foreground.

Photo Details: Kaena Point State Park, Oahu, Hawaii. Toyo 45AII camera, Nikkor SW 90mm f8 lens, Fuji Velvia 50 film, Lee .3 (one stop) split neutral density filter.