Nov 142019
 
Choose Wisely

“Choose Wisely,” Acadia National Park, ME || Prints available! Click on photo to order yours!

If you’ve spent any amount of time in photography, you’ve inevitably heard about the “rules” of composition. Specifically, we hear messages like “Make the most of leading lines,” “Look for balance,” and my favorite, “If you place your primary subject in the center of your frame–outside one of the four intersection points of the Rule of Thirds–you’ll spontaneously combust.” Then, once we understand what those rules are, we’re advised to “Break the Rules.”

The so-called rules of composition were designed to help photographers organize the chaos of nature into a rectangular frame. Although well-intentioned, such simplistic advice has unfortunately misguided many-a-photographer into believing that following the rules will result in an effective photograph. See, the trouble with rules is they only get you so far—at best, a beautiful, technically-perfect image…which may also look formulaic and uninspiring to you and your viewers.

The key to better composition in photography is not adhering to the Rule of Thirds “better.” It’s not “Making the most of leading lines” more often either (To be honest, I have no idea what that even means). The rules tell us what to do, but fail to explain why we should employ such techniques.

The path to better composition starts with developing your own meaning of a subject or scene then deliberately designing your frame such that you convey that meaning through your use of positioning, visual weight, balance, lines, layers, light, and color. If you understand human perception, you can arrange your visual elements to get your viewers to see and feel exactly what you wish. That is, if you pay attention to how humans think and interpret the world, you already know the “rules” of composition.

I call the above photograph, “Choose Wisely.” When I came upon the scene at Little Long Pond in Acadia National Park in Maine this past fall, I was first drawn to the stark contrast between the colorful and vibrant maple tree on the left of the frame and the bare one on the right. I started wondering what could have caused such a disparity between two trees so close together.

I also started visualizing how I could compose my frame to showcase this difference. I had already decided I didn’t need the full set of branches included in my frame, which dictated the use of a telephoto lens to zoom in on my subject. I had already decided I didn’t need the foggy sky in my frame either to convey my message. It was only after I asked myself whether I needed to show the trunks of the trees when I noticed the small conifer beneath these two maples and a new, more powerful message started to surface.

I started making up a story about this evergreen tree, thinking it appeared to have two choices ahead of it as it grew into adulthood: a vibrant and full life (left tree) or a bare one. But it actually had a third: to be its own self in the only way a conifer knows how. This story set the foundation for all my compositional decisions—I wanted to convey this story, or at least one close to it, with my viewers.

To do so, I intentionally positioned the evergreen an equal distance from either maple tree to show a “stuck-in-the-middle” pull between the two “choices,” the two trees, which I gave equal space to in the frame to create a balance of power between the two—a classic “good vs. evil” conflict. By including a substantial amount of the height in the deciduous trees relative to the smaller conifer in my frame, I established an authoritative relationship (e.g., an adult-child relationship). I experimented in raising and lowering my tripod to give the evergreen just enough space to imply upward growth. (I definitely didn’t want any of its branches touching either of the other trees.) I chose a vertical composition over a more peaceful horizontal orientation to increase tension and drama. In processing, I darkened the background to allow the little evergreen, which was catching a touch of light from the sky on the side facing me, to stand out more.

Did I make the most of leading lines? No.

Did I place my subject in the intersection points of the Rule of Thirds? Again no. (And guess what? I haven’t spontaneously combusted…yet…).

Did I pay attention to balance? You bet I did, but not in the way I’ve been told to do.

Did I do so to follow rules of composition? Honestly, I couldn’t care less.

Did I deliver the story in the way I wanted to? Absolutely. This is what I wanted to say about my experience with these trees in Acadia that afternoon.

As Robert Henri said, “Making lines run into each other is not composition. There must be motive for the connection. Get the art of controlling the observer – that is composition.”

So when it comes to composition for your own photographs, rules or human perception? Choose wisely.

May 162013
 
Waves of Change

“Waves of Change,” Ecola State Park (Prints available for purchase – click on photo to order!)

Almost eight years ago to the day, Craig and I celebrated the end of our first temporary stay in Oregon by standing on the headland at Indian Beach at Ecola State Park just north of Cannon Beach.

Sunset at Indian Beach

“Sunset at Indian Beach” from 2005 (Prints available for purchase – click on photo to order!)

I remember that evening in 2005 so vividly, I can still feel the memory today:  The gentle ocean breeze.  The smell of the tide change.  The warmth of the setting sun.  Two of the photographs I captured that evening – with my Contax 645 medium format film camera – now rest above our bed in our Arizona home to serve as a daily reminder of one of our favorite places and moments along the Oregon coast.

Months ago, as we prepared for our second temporary stay in Oregon, a rush of thoughts overwhelmed my mind based on our first experience.  Where to go, when to go, what to see, who to see, and how to record such ample and different beauty in Oregon. As they say, “So many places to see, so little time.” The list of places to see and things I want to do became longer than a child’s Christmas list.

Sea Stack Sunset

“Sea Stack Sunset” from 2005 (Prints available for purchase – click on photo to order!)

Despite the seemingly endless new photographic opportunities this transition presented, I decided to start my photographic journey in Oregon in the same place I left off:  on the headland at Indian Beach at Ecola State Park.  It’s a place I’d been countless times before, and yet when I arrived on Tuesday morning, nothing, nothing, looked the same as 2005.

Upon coming to the realization that nothing, nothing, had remained the same, I smiled as big as the little girl who got everything she wished for on December 25.  In that instance, I mouthed the words as the wind whispered, “No man ever steps in same river twice, for it is not the same river and he’s not the same man.”  ~Heraclitus.

(Turns out Heraclitus’ quote applies to oceans and women too!)

I couldn’t have been happier to learn that in eight years, everything, everything, has changed.  Mother Nature altered the landscape such that I can no longer stand in the same place as I did before, thanks to landslides.   Those landslides pushed new rocks into the ocean, and each wave crashed a little differently on those new sea stacks.  It’s not possible for me to re-create the same compositions I did in 2005, even if I wanted to-I didn’t.

On top of significant natural changes and differing light/weather, I’m thankfully not the same person, photographer, artist that stood on that headland before.  I replaced my film camera long ago with two generations of digital cameras.  I now know what to do with a graduated neutral density filter.   I’ve embraced my love affair with the coast, despite living in the desert.  Endless experiences – conversations, readings, successes, failures, travels, and other inspirations – have challenged and changed my perspectives over time so that when I look at a scene I’ve seen before, I’m looking through an entirely different lens.

Ansel Adams summed it best:   “You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”

Hang On!

“Hang On!” Ecola State Park, Oregon (Prints available for purchase – click on photo to order!)

Whether we know it or not, as time passes, we and the world around us are constantly changing.  But, neither change nor creativity needs to be a passive activity.  If we seek to create new images in the same spots, we must change as a person.  Simply buying a new lens won’t cut it.  Oh sure, new gear can help execute new visions, but we need to start with new ideas and make different associations among the knowledge we already possess to see, and ultimately photograph, something new in places we’ve already been once or a hundred times.

Consciously and subconsciously, we can gain fresh thoughts everywhere and anytime, not just while photographing.  Some ideas how:

  • Reverse engineer photos you like to understand the process they used to achieve a specific result.  How’d they do it?  Then how would you do it differently?
  • Keep asking “what if.”  What if you used a different lens?  What if you climbed the hill for a more aerial perspective?  What if you saw the ocean as the desert, metaphorically speaking?
  • Devour books.  Not just photography books, but anything that tickles your passion and stimulates your brain.
  • Listen to music, watch movies, attend plays.  And then think about how you can incorporate the concepts and ideas you hear, see, and experience into your photography.
  • Talk with and exchange ideas with others.  Not just other photographers, but also those who know nothing about photography, who explore other activities and fields you enjoy, and think differently than you.  Surround yourself with people who know more than you.
  • Screw up.  Often.  Then learn from the experience to develop even more new ideas.
  • Engage with your environment.  An experience you have in one location can help trigger ideas in a different location.  Ride a bike, go for a hike, take a field-based class – whatever gets you closer to your subject.

So last Tuesday, I brought with me to Indian Beach all my experiences from spending 90+ days in Acadia National Park in Maine over the last four years, every critique I’ve conducted during all the photography workshops I teach, the entire process of writing a book about Arizona wildflowers, and more simply, even the songs I heard on the radio as I drove to Ecola State Park, among so many other things.  And as a result, my photographs look nothing, nothing, like they did in 2005.

What other tips do you have to see the same place with fresh eyes?

Spring Emergence

“Spring Emergence,” False lily-of-the-valley at Ecola State Park, Oregon (Prints available for purchase – click on photo to order!)