Photography is an art of subtraction. While many photographers seem driven to collect as many objects of visual interest as possible, my favorite pictures usually work as much for what’s not in them than for what is.
Unfortunately, it’s usually easier to see things to add to an image than it is to know what to subtract—and how to do it. The good news is, photographers have many tools for subtracting potential distractions. In fact, one of the reasons I’m such a fan of the tripod is that it allows me to scrutinize my scene, identify distractions, and determine the best way to subtract them from my frame—at my own pace.
Subtracting distractions can be as simple as tightening the composition, shifting the view, or repositioning the camera. For example, admiring a dramatic waterfall in the distance, you might walk around until you find a colorful bouquet of wildflowers to add to your foreground—so far so good. With your camera at eye level, you frame the scene with the flowers at the bottom and the waterfall at the top. But then you notice a vast empty region in the middle of the frame that does nothing more for your image than occupy space. The solution is as simple as dropping your camera to ground level, allowing you to subtract the empty space and replace it with larger flowers and waterfall (because with the flowers and waterfall more aligned, you can increase the focal length).
But compositional subtactions like this are only the beginning. Many photographers don’t stumble until they encounter an opportunity to simplify an image using aspects of their camera’s vision that differ from their own vision: light, focus depth, and motion.
Photographers frequently lament their camera’s limited dynamic range. And while extra dynamic range in a camera is great, limited dynamic range creates wonderful opportunities to subtract distractions and emphasize shape over detail by burying distractions in deep shadows or overexposed highlights.
Underexposing a backlit scene can saturate color in the brightest part of the image while hiding distracting details in blackness. To achieve this, I often look for striking subjects that stand out against the sky. Hilltop trees work well for this, but I can think of no subjects in nature more suitable to silhouette photography than El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite. And since a crescent moon is always in the brightest part of the sky just before sunrise or after sunset, I always look for an opportunity to pair a waning crescent against Yosemite’s striking skyline.
But this approach isn’t limited to silhouettes. I love finding a flower in full sunlight, then under- or over-expose the background to make my subject stand out against a black or white canvas.
One of my favorite techniques for photographing colorful wildflowers and fall foliage is to narrow the range of focus until just a select part of my subject is sharp, softening the rest of the scene to an appealing blur of color and shape. This blur effect improves as depth of focus shrinks. Depth of focus shrinks with:
While I’ve used pretty much every lens in my bag to blur my backgrounds (and foregrounds), I most frequently use telephoto to decrease my depth of field, and a macro lens and/or extension tubes to focus closer.
Not only does this approach help the primary subject—or specific aspects of the primary subject—stand out, when executed properly it can eliminate virtually any background distraction. When composing shallow depth of field images, it’s important to remember that even when blurred beyond recognition, the background matters.
Blurred water often gets labeled as “unnatural” or “cliché.” The unnatural part I’ll dismiss as misinformed—it’s no less natural than the alternative: water droplets suspended in midair. While I’ll acknowledge that reflexively attaching a neutral density filter at the slightest hint of whitewater might be overdoing it a bit, the cliché label ignores the fact that blurred is often the only way to render moving water (ever try freezing a waterfall or churning cascade in shade or overcast?).
Regardless of your position on blurred water, detail in moving water can create a distraction that competes for attention with the primary subject. Smoothing moving water to one degree or another subtracts this distracting busyness.
Motion blur isn’t just about water—pretty much anything that moves can be softened, smoothed, stretched, or eliminated with motion: clouds, blowing leaves and flowers, stars, and so on. And while it’s not landscape photography, a technique employed by architectural (and other) photographers is adding many stops of neutral density to slow the shutter speed so much that people and vehicles moving in the scene completely disappear.
Regardless of the object that’s moving, as with narrow focus depth, softening the secondary areas of a scene also helps the primary subject stand out by allowing viewers to focus their attention where it belongs.
It’s all about control
Because of the zero-sum relationship between exposure variables that control light, depth, and motion—changing one variable requires a complementary change in another to maintain the proper exposure—managing these variables is next to impossible without jettisoning full auto exposure to start making your own exposure decisions. While sufficient control is possible in aperture or shutter priority modes, because I don’t want my camera making any decisions for me, I’ve always used manual metering. In fact, I’ll go as far as insisting that you can’t really call yourself a photographer unless you can shoot in Manual mode (even if you choose not to). The good news is, manual metering not hard.
Rather go into all the detail in this post, here are some links from my Photo Tips tab that will help:
About this image
I’d love to say that Don Smith and I scheduled this year’s Oregon Coast workshop to coincide with the new moon, but that’s just the way it worked out. I will take some credit for knowing that, once the workshop was scheduled, the best night to capture the crescent moon was our first night, and that the Bandon sea stacks would be the best place to be.
Before setting our group free on the beach, Don and I made sure they knew a 3% crescent moon would appear low in the west shortly after sunset. Because the beach at Bandon is so expansive, with dozens of sea stacks spread over nearly 1-mile stretch of sand and surf, it wasn’t long before the group was so spread out that I spent most of my time wandering around, trying to catch up with everyone. Each person I got to, I updated them on where the moon would be once the sky darkened, encouraged them to plan a moon composition before the moon appeared. I also strongly suggested that they give themselves time to check out the south end of the beach, where the most (and best) sea stacks are.
I made it all the way down past Wizard’s Hat before was satisfied that there were no more workshop participants to check on. By that time the sun was about ready to disappear—it was time to decide on my own crescent moon subject. I ended up heading back up the beach, to the view of (aptly named) Face Rock.
The moon appeared shortly after sunset, faint at first but quickly brightening against the darkening sky. With the moon visible, it became easy to refine my position relative to Face Rock. Aware of other sea stacks trying to photo-bomb my frame on the left and right, I chose a relatively tight vertical composition that made the scene entirely about the moon and Face Rock.
As with many crescent moon images, this scene was mostly about subtraction. Not just the neighboring seas stacks, but also the texture caused by Face Rock’s many nooks and crannies, and the ever-changing surf. Sea stacks, texture, and waves are nice, but this scene was all about the moon above Face Rock’s distinctive profile.
It helped that Face Rock stood out nicely against the brightest part of the sky. Slightly underexposing to turn the rock black had the added benefit of enhancing the sunset’s natural orange hues. To smooth the waves, I waited for the sky to darken enough to allow a multi-second exposure. I clicked a dozen or more frames, timed with the waves, to give myself a variety of motion effects. I chose this one because I like the way the sunset color reflects in the wet sand.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.