Tundra swans at sunrise in a San Joaquin Valley marsh, CA, USA

Tundra swans at sunrise in a San Joaquin Valley marsh

Happy Valentine’s Day!

This photograph of tundra swans seemed appropriate today. Swans mate for life, so you always see them in pairs, or in a small group when parents are joined by their young cygnets. The two subjects of this photograph were undoubtedly a mated pair.

One of the challenges of photographing these swans was that they kept their heads underwater for long periods of time while they were feeding. Periodically one of their heads would pop up briefly, but then plunge underwater again, and it was rare for both swans to have their necks raised at the same time. I expended many pixels trying to capture moments when both swans had their heads up. Even when I managed to catch both of them with their heads visible, often one of the swans would have its back to me, or be in some other awkward position.

But I stayed alert and patient, and eventually things came together. Both swans lifted their heads for maybe ten seconds – an eternity, it seemed – while I held down the shutter button. At one point the swan on the left even turned its head and looked back at the swan on the right. Perfect. That little gesture made a big difference in the photograph by creating a visual connection between the two swans.

This next photograph is another case where a fleeting change in an animal’s position made a big difference. I captured many less-interesting images of this black-necked stilt walking and feeding in the shallow water, but at one moment, while it was walking away from me, the stilt swung its head to the side and stabbed at an insect, striking a much more appealing pose:

Black-necked stilt feeding on insects, San Joaquin Valley, CA, USA

Black-necked stilt feeding on insects, San Joaquin Valley

Of course this is no big revelation. Anyone who’s photographed animals or people learns the importance of such small changes in pose or expression. You have to pay close attention to such details, and be alert for moments when the animal or person’s pose speaks more strongly than others. And you have to be willing to take a lot of frames in order to get one that’s a bit more special.

Recently a workshop student sent me a copy of Jay Maisel’s excellent book Light, Gesture, & Color. Maisel uses the term gesture to encompass many things. He writes, “Gesture is the expression that is at the very heart of everything we shoot. It’s not just the determined look on a face; it’s not just the grace of a dancer or athlete. It is not only the brutalized visage of a the bloodied boxer. Neither is it only limited to age, or youth, or people, or animals. It exists in a leaf, a tree, and a forest. It reveals the complicated veins of the leaf, the delta-like branches of the tree, and when seen from the air, the beautiful texture of the forest.”

This is, obviously, a very broad definition of the word gesture. I’m not sure I would go quite so far, but the book got me thinking about the role of gesture in photographs of inanimate subjects, and landscape photographs in particular.

Some obvious and common examples of gesture in landscape photography can be found in trees. Trees are living things, after all, and many of them have expressive shapes. This photograph of a wind-bent juniper is a case in point:

Sierra juniper and the Milky Way, Olmsted Point, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Sierra juniper and the Milky Way, Olmsted Point, Yosemite

Here’s another tree with an expressive shape:

Oak, sun, and fog, Sierra Nevada foothills, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Oak, sun, and fog, Sierra Nevada foothills

But gesture certainly isn’t limited to trees. It’s hard to describe this gesture, and I hate to anthropomorphize something like this, but there’s something expressive about the shape of this wave:

Waves in the Merced River near Happy Isles, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Waves in the Merced River near Happy Isles, Yosemite

And there’s something organic, flowing, and harmonious about the shape of this dune:

Sand dune at sunrise, Mesquite Flat dunes, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Sand dune at sunrise, Mesquite Flat dunes, Death Valley

It should be no surprise that clouds can have gestures too. Here the radiating lines of fan-shaped clouds imply an expansive gesture:

Melting ice on a high-country lake, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Melting ice on a high-country lake, Yosemite

In this photograph, a fleeting shape in some mist created a gesture:

Swirling mist, El Capitan Meadow, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Swirling mist, El Capitan Meadow, Yosemite

Gestures can be created, or a least emphasized, by your choice of camera position and framing. Pointing the camera straight up into this aspen canopy created a pattern of converging lines that suggests a heavenward gesture:

Aspen grove, June Lake Loop, Inyo NF, CA, USA

Aspen grove, June Lake Loop, eastern Sierra

These are just a few examples, and I’m sure you can find many more as you look through books, magazines, online photographs, or your own images. Thinking about gesture is perhaps another way of thinking about the expressive power of lines and shapes. What feeling is conveyed by a series of horizontal lines? How about diagonal lines, radiating lines, or curving, flowing lines? How can you emphasize expressive lines, shapes, or gestures in a composition in order to enhance the meaning of a photograph and the story it tells? Understanding the power of these design elements is an essential part of becoming a strong visual communicator.

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: Telling a Visual Story; Finding Rhythm; The Power of Diagonals

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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael 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.