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.