Sam Abell's classic image of cowboys branding cattle in Montana

Sam Abell’s classic image of cowboys branding cattle in Montana


It’s not often that you get to hear a master photographer explain how he made one of his greatest images, so I was thrilled to find this short video of Sam Abell describing how he made his classic photograph of cowboys branding cattle in Montana.

I love this statement: “What we’re all trying to do is make a layered, deep, complex, complicated photograph that doesn’t look complex or complicated.”

In talking about composition in my workshops and books I emphasize simplicity, since I think the single most common mistake people make is including too much in the frame. But my favorite images are rich and complex, without crossing the line into being busy and confusing. Obviously it takes years of experience to be able to make photographs like that – and Abell’s experience and mastery are on full display in this image.

My favorite Ansel Adams photograph, Clearing Winter Storm, also fits this description. It’s rich and complex, with interesting elements filling every part of the frame, but it’s message is instantly clear and compelling. Or look at this more modern landscape photography example, Trees in Fog, Boulder Mountain, from my friend Charlie Cramer. This is another favorite of mine, with beautiful details filling every corner of the image, yet the strong overall pattern of vertical lines keeps it simple.

Think about some of photographs you’ve seen over the years. Are some of your favorites in this category—complex, but not busy or confusing? If so please share them by posting a link in the comments.

I found the Sam Abell video through John Kennerdell’s article in the Online Photographer titled “In Defense of Depth.” Great article, well worth reading, and it generated a lot of discussion.

—Michael Frye

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters, plus the eBooks Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, and Exposure for Outdoor Photography. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.