The art of subtraction
Presented with a complex world, the nature photographer’s job is to identify a scene’s visually interesting elements and figure out how to use them in an image. While most photographers have no problem seeing what to include in their images, many struggle with what to leave out. But the best pictures usually work at least as much for what’s not in them as for what’s in them.
That’s because, as much as we seek beauty to add to our images, photography is ultimately an art of subtraction. Our ability to ruthlessly subtract elements that, despite their inherent visual appeal, don’t serve the image is an important skill that’s worth cultivating.
When I look back at old images that somehow ended up pleasing me less than the scene excited me when I photographed it (we’ve all been there, right?), I see now that often the problem was that I included too much. The product of my failure was an image with visual busyness that distracted from the main point, or that completely lacked a point, and confused viewers: “What am I supposed to be looking at here?”
As my photography evolved, I started identifying ways to distill complex scenes. One approach is through careful use of exposure variables to manage what I call photography’s “creative triad”: motion, depth, and light—motion blur to smooth turbulent or choppy water; focus blur to soften background and foreground distractions; and silhouette or high key exposure to erase unwanted elements and simplify the scene to just color and shape.
But even before working the creative triad, distilling a scene to its essence requires ruthless (there’s that word again) cropping—simply knowing what to put in, what to leave out, and the confidence (courage) to do it. Start by identifying the elements in the scene that draw the eye. Think in terms of implicit connecting lines that define their relationship to each other. Move around—forward/backward, left/right, up/down—until your prime elements feel organized.
If you’re still not feeling a connection between all of your prime elements, it’s time to start eliminating things—you can always return to that beautiful subject you composed out and feature it in another composition. And if you’re still not finding visual coherence, don’t be afraid to just click an image, stand back and evaluate it on your camera’s LCD screen, and adjust. Then repeat as necessary.
One simple way to exercise this skill is with the Crop tool in Photoshop or Lightroom. Start with any image (your own or someone else’s—the goal is to train your eye, not to create an image you’ll use), open it in your image processing software of choice (I use Photoshop for this exercise), set the Crop tool to 2/3 aspect ratio (or whatever your camera uses), and see how many new images you can find in the original. Whether the source image was horizontal or vertical, use both orientations of the Crop tool. Again, this is an exercise to train your eye, not to create a usable image, but I’m confident that you’ll find this new vision translates to your viewfinder when you’re in the field.
You can do the same thing on location with a telephoto lens. After you feel like you’ve exhausted all of a scene’s wide options, remove the camera from the tripod, increase your focal length by zooming tighter or switching to a longer lens, and slowly pan with your eye to the viewfinder. Closely monitor your reaction to what you see and honor any urge to stop. The goal isn’t to forgo wide angle compositions, it’s to help identify the scene’s essence, those visual aspects of the scene that matter most. I think you’ll be surprised by what you find (what your eyes originally missed).
Too often we get so caught up in a scene’s grandeur and miss the details that make it special. Most nature photographers when presented with a grand scene go straight to a wide angle lens—a perfectly valid way to start. The problem is, once we feel like we’ve nailed the wide shot, we move on—even if not physically, then at least mentally.
After a long drive from Iceland’s Snæfellsnes Peninsula, still basking in the thrill of the previous night’s aurora show (and oblivious to the show we’d enjoy that night), the Iceland workshop group wasn’t really thinking about much but getting comfortable at our hotel in Vik. But anyone arriving at Skógafoss near Iceland’s South Coast on this January afternoon couldn’t help being excited by the scene’s beauty.
Always an impressive waterfall for the massive amounts of water it dispenses, recent extreme cold (even for Iceland) had turned the abundant mist saturating the surrounding rocks into an icicle convention. But the real eye candy that grabbed everyone’s instant attention was the rainbow ebbing and flowing with the wind above the fall—one second it was there, the next it was gone.
Reinvigorated, we all charged from the bus and “rushed” as fast as our crampons could navigate the frozen path. Wanting to capture all this scene’s beauty, I instantly reached for my Sony α1 which was preloaded with my Sony 16 – 35 f/2.8 GM lens. Each time the rainbow appeared I clicked like crazy, trying a variety of wide compositions and continuing until shadow overtook the fall and the rainbow disappeared for good.
It would have been so easy to be satisfied with my bounty and retreat to the comfortable warmth of the bus. But before leaving I took a few seconds to scrutinize the surrounding ice more closely. And the longer I looked, the more I realized that I was seeing something truly special. I grabbed my Sony a7R V, attached my Sony 100-400 GM lens, and started panning the scene, finally stopping on this beautiful natural ice sculpture.
After attaching my camera to my tripod, I spent the next 20 minutes repositioning, then deliberately clicking and refining, until I was satisfied that I’d found the right location and framing. In the wider image with the rainbow, this section of ice was still illuminated by low, warm sunlight that created deep shadows and bright highlights. But by the time I landed on this composition, the sunlight was gone and all the ice was bathed in cool, soft shadow with minimal contrast.
This is another one of those simple images that probably won’t generate a swarm of social media attention, but it makes me happy because it taps one of the prime reasons I’m a photographer: to reveal Nature’s exquisite intricacies that are often overlooked in favor of more in-your-face beauty.
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The lead image is beautiful and unique Gary. I’m a hobby photographer who loves finding beauty in daily life. Your tips are very helpful and distill what I often do intuitively. Thanks, Brad
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