Near, Middle, Far

Gary Hart Photography: El Capitan and Floating Autumn Leaves, Yosemite

El Capitan and Floating Autumn Leaves, Yosemite
Sony α1
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
1/2 second
F/11
ISO 100

I’m in Yosemite for a workshop so my blogging time is significantly curtailed, but let’s see what happens…

Photography is the futile attempt to render a three dimensional world in a two dimensional medium. It’s “futile” because including actual depth in a photograph is literally impossible. But impossible doesn’t mean hopeless. One of the simplest things photographers can do to elevate their images is think about their scene in three dimensions, specifically how to create the illusion of depth by composing elements at multiple distances from the camera.

Many photographers miss opportunities by simply settling for the beautiful scene before them instead of looking for ways to make it even better. A more productive approach is to start with the beautiful aspect of the scene you want to emphasize (brilliant sunset, backlit flower, towering peak, vivid rainbow, plunging waterfall, whatever), then aggressively seek an object or objects nearer or farther to complement it. Of course that’s sometimes easier said than done, but this near/middle/far mindset should be present for every capture.

Thinking foreground and background is a great start, but merely having objects at varying distances isn’t always enough—you also need to be aware of how those objects guide your viewer’s eye through the frame. We hear a lot of photographers talk about using “leading lines” to move the eye, but a line doesn’t need to be a literal (visible) line to move the eye, because viewers will subconsciously connect objects to create virtual lines.

To help me achieve virtual lines that move the eye, I think in terms of “visual weight”: a quality of an object that tugs the eye like gravity, subconsciously pulling the viewer’s gaze in its direction. These qualities include, among other things: mass, shape, brightness, contrast, color, texture, and sometimes just position in the frame. A single one of these qualities can give an object visual weight, but combining then can be even more effective.

Additionally, an object’s emotional power can boost its visual weight. For example, a small moon can pull the eye more than a larger bright cloud, and Half Dome has more visual weight than a random rock occupying the same amount of frame real estate.

With my primary subject and complementary (eye moving) objects identified, I still need to consider the linear connection between these visual components. I like diagonal relationships because of the visual tension created by moving the eye along multiple planes. While creating these virtual diagonals requires careful positioning, it’s surprising how many photographers just remain planted with their tripod as if it has grown roots—either they don’t see the benefit of repositioning, or don’t think moving is worth the effort.

Whatever the reason, it’s important for photographers to understand the power of shifting position to control foreground and background relationships: move left and your foreground shifts right relative to the background; move right and the foreground shifts left relative to the background. Either way, the closer the foreground is relative to the background, the more dramatic the shift. And contrary to what you might believe, it’s impossible to change foreground/background perspective with focal length—to change perspective, you must change position: forward/backward, left/right, up/down.

An often overlooked shift that can be quite powerful is up/down. Often I’m able to un-merge objects at different distances by simply raising my tripod or climbing atop a nearby rock. Dropping low will emphasize the closest elements, and when my frame has a large and boring empty space (such as a field of weeds or dirt) between the foreground and background, I drop lower to shrink that gap.

It’s taken me a while to figure out the best way to convey these concepts to my photo workshop students. In most workshops, I find that many of the students haven’t picked up their cameras in weeks or months (or years!), so I’ve learned give them time to get back in their creative zone before laying all this stuff on them.

For example, in my Yosemite workshops I usually start with the classic shots that probably drew them to the park in the first place, places like Tunnel View and Valley View, where there are obvious compositions that lead to easy success. At the first image review I give a little talk on composition and moving the eye (among other things), then everyone shares images and I offer my feedback.

By the second day, armed with that foundation and a little Day 1 success, they’re usually ready to challenge their creativity and attack the less heralded spots whose beauty is more subtle. This growth is obvious as soon as the Day 2 image review. I’m frequently blown away by how quickly they’ve refined their inherent creative vision well enough to see beyond the obvious and find compositions that are both beautiful and unique.

One autumn favorite creative spot is the section of the Merced River from the Pohono Bridge upstream to Fern Spring, and even a little beyond. Fern Spring alone, with its stair-step cascades and a small reflecting pool that’s covered with color each fall, has enough to occupy a creative photographer for hours. And just across the road is a trail that skirts the river and traverses a forest filled with colorful maple and dogwood trees. The entire area is chock-full of creative opportunities that include whitewater, still water reflections, and of course (lots of) fall color.

In last month’s Fall Color and Reflections workshop, once I was satisfied that everyone was comfortable with their cameras and starting to trust their creative instincts, I took them to Fern Spring. Once there, I gave them the lay of the land and encouraged them to explore. Early in the workshop my groups tend to stick close to me, but this afternoon I was encouraged to see everyone instantly scatter. That’s always a good sign that they’re starting to get in the zone—even though it means I need to chase each one down to make sure they’re doing okay.

By the time I’d finished my rounds and confirmed that each person had things under control (and fearing that my presence might actually be a distraction), I was left with about 20 minutes to do a little shooting of my own. I quickly grabbed my camera and beelined upstream to a spot that I can’t take a group to because there’s no room for more than one person, no trail to get there, and it’s frighteningly easy to fall in the river. (I’ve had a couple of minor mishaps here that required changing shoes and socks, and maybe spending a couple of hours in pants wet to my calf, but was always grateful it wasn’t worse).

Rather than a standard fall color location, this is a fallen color spot that accumulates leaves that have drifted downstream from elsewhere to float among the rocks. Each year, the quality of the floating color varies from none to lots—not enough water and the leaves don’t make it into the rocks; too much water and the leaves just wash right by to locations downstream.

I was happy to confirm that this was indeed a good year for the floating color. Being in a hurry, I could have very easily snapped off a couple of frames from where I stood and called it good. But often the difference between an image that’s merely a decently executed rendering of a beautiful scene, and an image that stands out for the (often missed) aspects of the natural world it reveals, is the time it takes to identify and connect the scene’s visual relationships. So I took just a little more time to align the elements.

In this case that meant positioning myself so the foreground rocks and leaves aligned with the middle-ground rocks and reflection, which aligned with cloud-shrouded El Capitan in the background. Words cannot express how awkward this position was, requiring a grand total of 5 splayed legs—3 tripod and 2 human. But still it wasn’t quite right—until I dropped my tripod down to about a foot above the water to make the leaves more prominent.

After setting my exposure, I focused on the third small foreground rock, then dialed my polarizer to reduce the reflection on the leaves while retaining the upstream reflection. Click.

Near, Middle, Far

Click any image to scroll through the gallery LARGE

2 Comments on “Near, Middle, Far

  1. Gary,
    You are distinguished (in many ways, but also) by your concern for workshop participants’ safety. I’ve been on excursions with another who was more preoccupied with chatting up his friends. The results were twofold … mediocre photographs, and two broken bones. I take responsibility for the bad images. I don’t take responsibility for being led into dangerous places. Your students should thank you twice … for the photographic guidance, and the safety guidance even if they didn’t realize that was part of the deal.

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