Composition

Simplifying Forest Scenes

Lichen-covered rhododendron, northern California, USA

Lichen-covered rhododendron, Northern California. This was an overcast day, and the soft, even light helped simplify this complex scene, and emphasize the color contrasts between the pink rhododendrons and various shades of green. I used a long lens to isolate the rhododendron against a dark, leafy background. Moving closer with a shorter lens would have required looking up at the top of the tree, forcing me to include bright, distracting patches of sky. 159mm, 1/4 sec. at f/16, ISO 800, polarizing filter to cut reflections on the leaves.

Forests can be challenging to photograph. They’re beautiful, but cluttered, and often visually chaotic.

Creating order out of that chaos requires finding ways to simplify things. That’s one of the reasons fog is so helpful for these scenes: it obscures the background, reducing the clutter. (It also lends a wonderful atmosphere to the photographs.)

During our recent workshop in the redwoods we did get some fog, and even sunbeams. I’m sure I’ll post some of those photos down the road.

But there were also many occasions before, during, and after the workshop when we didn’t have fog, and I was photographing forests in soft light, or with sunlight filtering through the trees. What then?

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Desert Designs

Luminous ravine, Death Valley, California. The repeating diagonals and V-shapes create a strong pattern, while the curve of the ravine adds another design element.



Death Valley’s landscapes are elemental. You’re often photographing bare earth: rocks, sand, dirt, mud, and salt. Those things don’t sound very photogenic – not like, say, photographing a snowy mountain peak, or a rugged sea coast.

But in photography, light, composition, and design are more important than the subject. You can have a great subject (like that snowy mountain peak, for example), but if the light or composition are mediocre the photograph will be mediocre as well. On the other hand, a “mundane” subject can make an amazing photograph – with good light and a strong design.

Death Valley is full of “mundane” subjects like rocks, salt flats, badlands, and piles of sand. But wind and water have sculpted those elements into wonderful shapes and patterns. It’s a great place to learn to think abstractly. In other words, instead of thinking about subjects, you can concentrate on finding lines, shapes, and patterns, and putting those elements together to create strong designs.

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Photographing Forests

Dogwood and giant sequoia in the fog, Sierra NF, CA, USA

Dogwood and giant sequoia in the fog, Sierra Nevada, California. Fog is a wonderful complement to forest scenes; here, some ephemeral fog lasted just long enough for me to capture this image. 70mm, polarizer, 0.7 seconds at f/16, ISO 100.

People seem to love trees and forests. I know I do.

But forests can be difficult to photograph. Natural forests are usually a study in chaos, with haphazard arrangements of branches, trunks, logs, and leaves. There’s an organic order to all that, with trees and understory plants growing to take advantage of small patches of sunlight, and a cycle of birth, growth, death, and decay.

But visual order can be hard to find amid all that clutter. The chief challenge in photographing forests is usually finding a way to simplify things, and make order out of chaos.

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Balance and Tension

Spring colors, Mariposa County, CA, USA

Spring colors, Mariposa County, California. 78mm; seven focus-stacked frames blended with Helicon Focus; each frame was 1/8 sec. at f/16, ISO 250.

I hope you’re all staying safe and not going too stir-crazy. I’m sure, like most of us, you’re anxious to be able to get out and photograph again. In the meantime, here are some thoughts about an often-overlooked aspect of composition that I hope will help you the next time you pick up your camera…

Balance doesn’t get talked about much, but it’s a vital aspect of composition. While looking for compositions I’m always thinking about balance – so much so that it’s become an unconscious act. I intuitively reject any composition that would feel unbalanced, and I’m often making subtle shifts in my camera position or framing to improve the balance of a photograph.

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How to Keep Your Photography Eye Sharp While Stuck at Home

Huntington Gardens

Huntington Gardens – an irresistible pattern! Captured with my iPhone, like all the photos in this post.

I had planned to write this post before the whole coronavirus lockdown. After all, even in “normal” times, many photographers only pick up their cameras when they’re traveling, or taking a workshop. Then when they go on that special trip they’re rusty, and it takes several days just to get back in the groove and start seeing better.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are two simple tips for keeping your photography eye sharp while you’re stuck at home – and even once you go back to your normal routine.

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Photographs That Flow

Autumn lakeshore, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Autumn lakeshore, Yosemite. 50mm, 1/2 sec. at f/16, ISO 100, polarizer.

I sometimes get asked to recommend a book about composition, and my first suggestion is always Ian Plant’s ebook Visual Flow. Ian understands composition well, presents his concepts clearly, and doesn’t have much use for rules.

The title of the book suggests an important concept, but one that’s often overlooked. I think the best landscape compositions have a natural visual flow. Your eye doesn’t get stuck, but travels freely through the frame, pausing briefly at the key areas.

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