While everyone loves a pretty scene, I’m afraid our aesthetic sense has been numbed by the continuous assault of “stunning” images online. A picture grabs our eyes on Instagram or Facebook and we reflexively click Like and move on to the next (similarly) stunning image. The photography equivalent of pop music, formula fiction, or (most) network television, these images exit our conscious about as fast as they entered because they fail to make a personal connection.
But every once in awhile an image surprises us and we pause, float our eyes around the scene, examine detail, bask in its mood. Who knows the trigger for such a response? Maybe is as simple as aspect of the scene that spurs a memory or taps a longing. Or maybe the connection reaches deeper than that.
Pictures succeed not just by virtue of their visual elements, but also by how those elements are connected. I used to believe that the sole purpose of including visual elements throughout my frame was to create the illusion of depth in photography’s two-dimensional medium. While I still strongly agree, I think the value of multiple points of visual interest goes deeper than that. Just as humans seek interpersonal connections in our daily lives, I think we’re programmed to favor images with relationships between heterogeneous elements in the nature. Not just Grand Canyon, but Grand Canyon speared by lightning; not just Half Dome, but Half Dome beneath a rising full moon; not just glowing Kilauea Caldera, but glowing Kilauea Caldera beneath the Milky Way.
Creating relationships between elements work on a smaller scale as well (albeit, usually without the opportunity for planning that celestial or meteorological phenomena provide)—small forest scenes and intimate macros benefit from inclusion of multiple elements as well. Of course an image with a disorganized arrangement of elements, no matter how beautiful each is individually, probably won’t get a second look. But find a way to organize a scene’s elements in a way that allows the eye to flow effortlessly through the frame and you have the potential for visual synergy—an image that’s greater than the sum of its visual parts.
The opportunity to connect disparate elements is everywhere if you look, from the broadest panorama to the most intimate macro. Whatever the scale, the key is not locking onto your subject until you find something to pair it with. In other words, finding a photo-worthy subject should never be your goal, it should be your starting point.
Without diving too deeply into the concept of visual weight (a subject in and of itself), I try to create a frame with balance between visual elements (not loaded too much in on of the scene’s quadrants: upper left, upper right, lower left, lower right). I also try to keep objects with a strong visual tug away from the edges of my frame. And finally, I look to position my elements so they’re connected by virtual diagonal lines.
About this image
On the final morning of last month’s Yosemite Autumn Moon photo workshop, I set the group loose in the forest beneath Bridalveil Fall to scour the possibilities in and around Bridalveil Creek. Always a workshop favorite, I usually save the Bridalveil Creek until the workshop’s final day, when my students have found their creative zone after three days of shooting and training. This approach seems to pay off, because no matter how much time I give them in there, it never seems to be enough.
When I found this accumulation of just-fallen autumn leaves floating in a glassy pool, I knew I had the start of a nice scene. Scanning my surroundings, I didn’t have to look hard to find a small cascade to connect with my colorful leaves. But with the pool tucked beneath a fallen log, accessing the best angle was tricky. Sprawling nearly flat on my back beneath the overhanging log, with one tripod leg in the water, turned out to be the best way to maximize the virtual diagonal connecting the leaves and cascade.
The other consideration here was depth of field—the leaves started no more than three feet from my lens, while the cascade was about 12 feet away. To ensure maximum sharpness throughout with getting too far into the diffraction zone, I stopped down to f/16 and focused on the back of the leaves. I wasn’t too concerned about shutter speed and the cascade’s blur because the difference between one and six seconds was insignificant, and freezing the water would have required a ridiculously high ISO, while the pool was so still that I could discern no motion at all.