Border patrol

Frozen, Merced River, Valley View, Yosemite

Frozen, Merced River, Valley View, Yosemite
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
1.3 seconds
45 mm
ISO 200
F16

If you’ve ever been in one of my workshops, or (endured) one of my image reviews, you know where I’m going with this (I can sense eyes rolling from here). But I hope the rest of you stick with me, because as much as we try be vigilant, sometimes the emotion of a scene overwhelms our compositional good sense—we see something that moves us, point our camera at it, and click without a lot of thought. While this approach may indeed capture the scene well enough to revive memories or even impress friends, you probably haven’t gotten the most out of it. So before every click, I do a little “border patrol,” a simple mnemonic that reminds me to deal with small distractions on the perimeter that can have a disproportionately large impact on the entire image. (I’d love to say that I coined the term in this context, but I think I got it from Brenda Tharp—not sure where Brenda picked it up.)

To understand the importance of patrolling your borders, it’s important to understand that our goal as photographers is to create an image that invites viewers to enter, and persuades them to stay. And the surest way to keep viewers in your image is to help them forget the world beyond the frame. Lots of factors go into crafting an inviting, persuasive image—things like balance, visual motion, and relationships are essential (topics for another day), but nothing reminds a viewer of the world beyond the frame faster than objects jutting in or cut off at the edge, or visually “heavy” (large or bright) objects that pull the eye away from the primary scene. To avoid these distractions, for years I’ve been practicing, and advocating, border patrol before clicking. Just run your eyes around the perimeter, note everything that’s on or near the border, and ask yourself if that really is the best place for the edge of the frame.

Sometimes border patrol is easy—a simple scene with just a small handful of objects to organize, all conveniently grouped toward the center, usually requires very little border management. But more often than not we’re dealing with complex scenes containing multiple objects scattered throughout and beyond the frame: leaves, rocks, clouds, whatever, with no obvious demarcation.

Incoming Storm, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley

Incoming Storm, Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley
Border patrol for this image was relatively simple—with nothing prominent near the edges, I was primarily concerned about visual balance, though I did conduct a bit of border patrol on the sky to ensure that I chose the best place to break the churning (rapidly moving) clouds.

The frigid Yosemite scene at the top of his post was as difficult as it was beautiful. With my camera in live-view mode atop my tripod, I relatively quickly came up with a composition that encompassed the beauty and felt fairly balanced, but all the snow-capped rocks, patches of ice, and randomly distributed hoarfrost made it pretty much impossible to find the perfect place for my border.

The circle of five snow-covered rocks in the left foreground was my foreground anchor—I needed to give these rocks space, and to balance them with the field of hoarfrost blooms in the right foreground. I was very aware of the rocks cut off in the left and right middle-ground, but going any wider introduced all kinds of new problems (just outside the current frame) at the bottom and on both sides. On the other hand, a tighter composition would have cut off the ice-etched trees that stood out so beautifully against the shaded evergreen background. Sigh. So, I did what every photographer must do in virtually every image: compromise. Compromise in this case meant opting for the lesser of multiple evils, hopeful that the unique drama of this frigid scene would be enough to overcome its flaws.

What flaws? I thought (hoped) you’d never ask. After several minutes of shifting up/down, left/right, forward/backward (while crossing my fingers that the ice on which I was stationed would hold out), and zooming in and out, I managed to get all of my icy trees at the top of the frame and find a relatively clean patch of water in front of me for the bottom of the frame. The large rock cut off on the middle right doesn’t bother me too much either—large objects cut in the middle can serve as frames that hold the eye in the scene. But if I could have had complete creative control over this scene (this is where painters have a distinct advantage), I’d have done something about those small rocks cut off on the middle left—I know nobody would be consciously aware of them, but there’s nothing like a clean border to hold a viewer in the scene, and those rocks just aren’t clean to my eye.

Because you can actually practice border patrol, and composition in general, in the comfort of your home, another frequent theme in my image reviews is the value of the crop tool as a learning device. Pick any image—yours or someone else’s—and see how many compositions you can find in it. The goal isn’t to create usable images (you’ll loose too many pixels for that), it’s to train your eye to see things you currently miss in the field. I promise that if you do this enough, you’ll find yourself naturally seeing compositions and fixing obvious problems before you click.

One Comment on “Border patrol

  1. Great post Gary.

    I was thinking about what you wrote about the rocks on the middle left and right. I think that the reason the rocks on the left may be more troublesome than those on the right is because there is more contrast around them on the left. They tend to pull the eye a bit more – right?
    Don’t get me wrong, I probably wouldn’t have initially picked up on that unless you pointed it out as you did. As you mentioned, the overall scene is powerful enough to overcome any small issues. Both shots are gorgeous.

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