Do you filter down (reduce), or build up (introduce) objects into your compositions?

I'm always intrigued by the journey from the moment I step out with my camera and come up with the final image. It's a filtering down process for many, but for me it's the opposite way around. Let me explain.

Many workshop participants tell me that when they are confronted with some new location, they find it hard to filter it down to one or two main subjects. I remember one participant telling me that they 'start with everything and have to reduce it down to one or two things over a matter of an hour or so'. Certainly, I'm aware that for some - being confronted with some new scenery can make things very hard to distill into a coherent composition. Everything is vying for your attention and it can be hard to give some elements priority over others.

In the main image to this post today, I show you the final image from a shoot in Hokkaido last December. For me, I tend to be drawn to a subject instantly. It's the opposite of the 'filtering down' approach that some of my participants describe. For me, what tends to happen is I see one thing in the distance and I'm so attracted to it, that everything else around it disappears. Let's zoom out from the image above and have a look at the surrounding landscape near it in the image below:

This is exactly what I saw from the side window of my guide's car and I felt compelled enough to ask him to stop so I could go and make a photo of the tree. In fact - if you look closer - you'll see i'm in the shot - making my way across a river bed that was covered in snow, to get to the tree. 

This is exactly what I saw from the side window of my guide's car and I felt compelled enough to ask him to stop so I could go and make a photo of the tree. In fact - if you look closer - you'll see i'm in the shot - making my way across a river bed that was covered in snow, to get to the tree. 

Can you spot the tree I photographed? 

I like to think that if something is worth photographing - is strong enough as a compositional subject -  it will tend to catch my eye. Like window shopping, I often find something jumps out at me. I think this is a combination of visual awareness and visualisation at play. The awareness to spot something and the visualisation to imagine how it could be with other items removed or reduced in the composition.

I often find I start with one object, and introduce others. In the instance of the main image in this blog, I did exactly that - despite all the clutter and confusion of other trees at the roadside, I could 'see' the lone tree sitting on its own, and I knew there was potential. I also understood that I would have very little else in the frame to draw attention away from it once I got closer. I saw all this from the passenger seat of my guide's car and I believe I utilised my visualisation skills in order to 'see' it.

Once I was closer to the tree, I started to think about the surrounding landscape and which elements, if any, I could introduce into the scene. I've introduced the sun into the frame, as this was more a fortuitous event rather than something I'd noticed in advance. I made several shots - some without the sun and some with, because I can never tell at the time whether I'm overcomplicating something, so I like to make insurance shots for later on. I'm convinced I can only do good editing while at home behind my computer, not while on location. But the key point I'm trying to make is that I started with the tree and slowly started to introduce the surrounding landscape into the scene.  

So which way do you tend to visualise your compositions? Are you a 'start with everything and filter it down to a few objects', or do you start with one thing that grabs your interest, and slowly introduce other objects into the frame?