Posts like this one, exploring composition, are the perfect and proper place for all of us to give our opinions on the subject of composition. Notice that when I write about composition, I use my own imagery for any negative comments. Despite the fact that I share many images on these pages from other photographers.
Point of focus, and subject placement within the picture frame can make or break an image. Depth of field is at a premium with close focusing distances, so notice the spider is tack sharp, while the web slips into a fuzzy haze. You may also notice where the spider is placed in the picture frame. It is close to the power point of the upper left hand side of the image.
With this crop of the same image, I use the same compositional philosophy. That comp still works, but the difference is that it becomes less dynamic without that sea of web surrounding the spider. The first image is about a web with a spider, the second is a spider in a web.
When there aren’t a lot of grand landscape possibilities available during the autumn season, just composing colors can leave you with some great shots. The idea is to look at all those leaves, and simplify what you find. Less is more. I have always found that a composition of fall color, benefits from having one visual anchor in the scene. The one anchor that is often available, and works logically in an autumn scene, is a tree trunk. I also use things like rocks or bridges.
When you look at the two images below, you might be compelled to think, well anybody who stood where you stood would do something like this. This area of a local county park is confusing to the eye, in almost every way. It can be difficult to “see” the trees for the forest, or the forest for the trees.
The question with these images that is the most arguable, is where do you place the tree trunk, and do you make a vertical or horizontal photo? As I worked the area I settled on these two variations.
The horizontal picture might seem like a no brainer. Get the anchor (tree trunk) out of the middle, and compose the variations of tone and color around it. Agreed. When you switch to vertical it becomes a tighter composition, but the same technique is employed. That slightly off-center tree trunk multiplies the viability of this image by 1,000. That having been said, I personally much prefer the horizontal. It might seem logical that with a single vertical tree trunk as an anchor, a vertically composed picture would be preferred, but I like the horizontal mainly because I was able to take that trunk farther from center. Add to that the fact that I like those varying colors, tones and shapes that inhabit the horizontal.
Obviously composing wildlife pictures is a little different from pictures of autumn leaves with tree trunks. We are somewhat at the mercy of the actions of those animals.
The two images below are the same picture composed (via crop) differently. In the original file there was an out of focus pheasant in the lower left corner, and the rear end of another one in the upper right corner. They were removed by cloning snow over them. The right and the wrong of those actions, is for another post.
The general philosophy of composing a picture like this would dictate that I leave more room in the direction the birds are looking. Such is the case in the first photo. That is a basic and usually understood technique that makes the viewer more comfortable. The birds have somewhere to go. An issue develops with birds like Ring-necked Pheasants because they have long and often beautiful tails. I sometimes will compose a tight image where the birds are actually closer to the picture’s edge, the left side in this case, and make it a point to include the whole tail. That can work because I think most viewers automatically understand that the tail is part of the composition. In this case however, the birds tails are in terrible shape. They are most likely birds raised in captivity just for hunting. Those birds often lose their tails when they are caged. Which comp works best?
This third photo is of the same two birds, but is a different picture. You can tell that by the head position of the nearest bird, and of course it is also a vertical. As with the other shot, I also removed a small portion of that same out of focus pheasant from the lower left hand corner. There was no way to include the whole tail in a vertical composition. That made my job of decision-making very easy. I composed the image without any thought to the tail. I left a little space in the direction the birds are looking, and composed top to bottom in accordance with whether or not it left me with a pleasing picture.
All of the waterfall pictures below were made at the same location and within a few minutes of each other. They were all created from the same side of the river. I made some small physical adjustments to my position and that of my tripod, and I changed zoom settings or lenses quite often.
This image is not a favorite of mine, although I find it acceptable. It is an example of trying some different compositions and seeing if they work. I didn’t begin with this comp, I arrived here after making other pictures first.
I find this composition to be even more uncomfortable than the first. I do like the fact that the picture opens up into the woods. It puts the falls in context with the forest. Just the same I do not care for the overall position of the falls within the picture frame. That may be because the falls bends to our left. That tells the viewer that the water will disappear out of the picture too quickly with this comp. This despite the fact the image was meant to be primarily about the falls.
Now we’re getting much closer (pun?) to a composition that I enjoy. The falls itself is becoming the theme of this picture. It is gaining power. I wouldn’t mind it if the falls was a bit off-center right. That would send the flowing water on a journey that is both a little more logical, and a bit more artistic.
With our final image we are beginning to see what this falls meant to me on the day I made these pictures. The falls gains power. The contrasts of black rock and green moss become more apparent. The waterfall almost seems to be illuminated as it stands out from the dark rock.
I made several hundred pictures of Morgan Falls on that day, and I have made thousands in my life time. I have been there in every season, and I have photographed every portion of the 80 foot waterfall. I have photographed the falls as it gushed thousands of gallons of water a minute that spilled over the all of the rock, and when it was almost bone dry. My photo selection above was meant to give you an idea how one (me) photographer, thinks when he is in the field.
I have never been very good at composing some good images (in my opinion), and making some intentionally bad ones, just so at a future date I could use them as examples in an article such as this one. At the same time I do experiment and some of those experiments fail. Yes I admit that I sometimes make some poorly composed images.
We each have our own vision to fulfill. Rules of composition are there as an aid, but are not meant to be absolute. The best way to learn from what other photographers do, is to look at their work and think about it. Think about what you would have done in their place. You can laugh ( quietly) at their work or be inspired by it. That is your decision. My goal at Earth Images is to present pictures and thoughts in an effort to help “set the wheels turning” in the inner recesses of our minds.
In recent months I have been sharing with you not just photography, but paintings as well. I am considering combining the two. Photographers who paint, or painters who make serious photographic images. I am not looking for painters who make snapshots to paint from. Art Wolfe was a painter before he became a photographer, and photographic landscape artist Joseph Rossbach is a photographer who has begun to paint. I believe I will begin my journey with those two individuals.
America has been privileged to have had a great many profound writers, speakers, and thinkers. One who was all of those things was a President called Lincoln. Of his many profound words none has remained in our minds like the Gettysburg Address.
The featured speaker that day was Edward Everett. He was famous for his orations and he gave a fine speech that lasted over two hours. President Lincoln was also scheduled to speak. I imagine the audience that day wondered if they could endure another two hours, but given the location and the speaker, they would politely survive the ordeal. Lincoln’s address was three minutes in length. It remains one of this nation’s quintessential moments. He spoke over the hallowed ground that so many thousands had “given the last full measure of their devotion“.
We should all reread these words.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that this nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
November 19, 1863
Thank you President Lincoln, we wish you were here now.
I thank each of you and please come back, Wayne