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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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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Desert Light

Sunrise comes with a bang in the desert. One moment the air is still, stars twinkling in the sky. The next moment, the birds shout with joy, and the sun rises over the horizon as if propelling itself for the day. The rising sun bathes the landscape with a warm glow that imparts a sense of life to everything it touches.

During a trip to Australia’s Northern Territory I traveled north from the town of Alice Springs to Devils Marbles Conservation Area, a distance of about 400km. Arriving late in the afternoon, I immediately began looking for a vantage point from which to photograph at sunrise.

While scouting for such locations, I often look for a subject that is 90 degrees from the point where the sun will rise, in order to take advantage of the side lighting. I’ll also look for a location with good foreground interest, should I decide to photograph into the sun.

After spending the night in the adjacent camping area, I started out well before sunrise to the spot I had previously located, eager to catch the photograph that was firmly planted in my mind.

DevilsMarblesAA

For this photograph, I chose a horizontal format, in order to emphasize the open horizon in the background, while focusing on the rocks and Ghost Gum (Eucalyptus) tree in the foreground. I knew that the Ghost Gum, noted for its almost pure white trunk, would reflect the warmth of the rising sun in a pleasing manner. This juxtaposition of complimentary colors, the warm orange of the tree trunk and the blue sky in the background provides a balance between the elements of the photograph.

Photo Details: First Light, Devils Marbles Conservation Area, Northern Territory, Australia. Toyo45AII camera, Schneider Symmar-S 135mm f5.6 lens, Horseman 6×12 roll film back on Fuji Velvia.

of Luck and Preparation

Writer and motivational speaker Brian Tracy tells us that “Luck is when opportunity meets preparation.  Perfect performance comes from painstaking preparation, often for weeks, months and years in advance.”

Truer words could not be spoken about the art of landscape photography. As landscape photographers, we have no control over lighting, weather or the scenic layout of our subjects. That’s where preparation becomes important. We prepare when we go out with our cameras, even though the weather doesn’t look promising, or when we would rather be sleeping in.

Following on from my last blog post, after following the Murray River to its outlet into the sea, I then followed the southern coastline in Victoria, an area known as the “Great Ocean Road" towards the city of Melbourne. Late in the evening, having just passed through the sea side town of Lorne, I was running quite low on fuel and being afraid of running out in the middle of the night, with no place open to refuel, I decided to pull over for the night.

As sunrise approached I recognized the potential for great light. It was dark when I had arrived the previous evening, leaving me unable to scout for a suitable foreground location in advance. This is where previous experience and preparation came into play; they gave me the edge in understanding the relationship between sea and land. Guided by a flashlight I found a great place to setup. This photograph is the result.

Blazing Sunrise, Great Ocean Road

In addition to helping pick the right location, preparation helped me to setup the large format camera, a bulky and exacting camera to setup even in the best of lighting conditions, well in advance of sunrise. Without an understanding of the camera, based upon years of experience, I could not have gotten the depth of field, while balancing the light and dark areas of the scene (by use of a split neutral density filter) that I desired for the final photograph.

The luck was in the sunrise itself, preparation allowed it to be captured on film in a pleasing manner.

Photo details: Sunrise, Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia. Toyo 45AII camera (4×5), Nikkor 90mm f8, .6 Split Neutral Density Filter, on Fuji Velvia 100.

of Favorites

Photographers each have their favorite photograph, which isn’t surprising. Quite often these photographs haven’t received as much acclaim or success as the photographer would like. The photographer is then left wondering why. Forgotten is that often it is the story behind the photograph which makes it a favorite.

Several years ago, I made a trip to Australia, the purpose being to follow the Murray River, from Albury, New South Wales, to the point where the Murray River flows into the sea in South Australia. After arriving in Echuca, my first stop of the day, I had just enough time to check into my hotel, before I needed to scout for a location from which to photograph the sunset.

Driving along a backroad I came across a bend in the river with a small nearby dock that looked promising. I setup for the camera for the shot, and then waited for the light to get “just right” – a rich, warm tone on the surrounding trees and river – before tripping the shutter.

AU4034AA

What makes this photograph memorable, for me, is not just the photograph itself, but what happened after it was taken. The sun began setting, and a calm, quietness extended over the landscape, presenting a serene landscape. Soon afterwards, came the glorious Australian night sky, with its multitude of stars – a serene ending for such a productive day. I knew then that I had experienced a scene that would remain in my memory for some time to come.

Photo Details: Echuca, Victoria, Australia. Toyo 45AII camera (4×5), Schneider 135mm f5.6 lens, on Fuji Velvia 100, Tiffen Warm Polarizer.