For me, improving my photography is really all about improving my visual awareness.
So in today's post, I thought it would be good to try and discuss how the tiny details can often make a huge improvement to the overall composition. The way I'm going to do this, is by cloning a tiny part of the above image out. Now before I continue, I wish to make it very clear that this post is not about 'here's how to clean up your images using cloning'. Instead, the point I wish to make is that by 'noticing small distractions at the time of capture you can strengthen your compositions'. The most effective way to illustrate how the above image may have been improved is by using cloning. But it's not a tool I would encourage you to use, except for maybe seeing where things could have been more tidy.
A side note: I would suggest that if you are using cloning to clean up your images a lot, then it might be an idea to ask yourself why you aren't seeing the problems in the first place. Failures are really an opportunity to see areas of our photography that require further improvement. If your visual awareness isn't good, then it will show in the tiny distractions you will see in your final images and if you spend time fixing the issue at source, you'll find you won't have to continually cover up the cracks later on. This is feel is at the core of our photography skill - being able to notice distractions (even small ones) at the point of capture, because they can help us strengthen our compositions by a large margin.
With this in mind, I'm going to show how much stronger the image would have been if certain distractions had not been present. I'm going to do this by cloning an area of the scene out. I use this technique in my workshops as a way to help improve participants visualisation technique - so they can understand that if these small distractions in the frame hadn't been present - the image may have been much stronger. Again, I'm not saying 'here's how to clean up your images using cloning'. Instead, I'm really saying 'let's look at how the image may have been stronger if we'd taken care of some of the distractions'.
Below is the altered image. I've chosen not to tell you what I've changed, because I think it would be really useful for you to look and try to find it. Suffice to say that if you do notice it, ask yourself why I maybe chose to remove that particular area and also ask yourself 'which photo feels the calmest?'. My belief is that when something is wrong or jarring in a photograph, we tend to feel it. And feeling things in your photography is key. Your gut should lead you in the right direction not only with how you choose to balance a composition whilst out in the field, but also in your choice of edits. Photography is an emotional art.
Personally I feel this edit is simpler, more elegant and I think the message is clearer. But you may be asking 'that's all fine Bruce, but how could I have removed the part of the scene while I was there, rather than use a cloning tool later on?'. My answer would be that you have to weigh up the errors you see at the time of capture and whether you can do anything to remove them whilst there. Perhaps if I'd repositioned the camera, the distraction may have been hidden by other branches? I do remember thinking there was no way around it - whatever I did - the distraction was still there. So I feel a sense of pragmatism was employed: I asked myself - can I live with it? Or does it kill the image?. In the case of this photograph, I felt I could still live with the distraction and you'll even see that if you go into the respective image gallery on this very website, the unaltered version is there. Because I felt that there was more working in this image than not.
So in general, here is my thought processes about distractions:
1) Can I reposition to remove it? And will it upset the balance of the composition if I do?
2) If I can't reposition without upsetting the balance of the composition, can I leave it in without it killing the image?
3) If the distraction is going to kill the image, then I would prefer to walk away and find something else to work with. Otherwise, I'm happy to leave it in.
4) Don't over-edit your work. It's fine to leave tiny errors in the picture if you feel the entire image still works. You can over-do cleaning things up so it's always a balancing game. Too much editing will leave the image looking very contrived. Too little and the image isn't fully realised.
So how does anyone go about improving their visual awareness?
One way I would suggest, is to look at your work on your computer and ask what might have been improved if it wasn't present in the photograph. You can even go as far as cloning distractions out to see if the image would have been improved - but just to see if any improvement would have been made only - I'm not advocating you start to clone things out all over the place - that's not the point of the exercise - you're just doing it to exercise your visual muscle.
The simple act of imagining how an image may have been with something removed is a great visual technique to exercise regularly. If you do this while editing your work, it will become second nature while out in the field.
Visual awareness is all about asking yourself questions - by having a sense of inquisitiveness - at all times about what you're doing. Rather than accepting a photograph doesn't work and discarding it, you can learn a lot about what went wrong by looking at the errors and asking yourself 'why doesn't this work?, what would have happened if I'd managed to get rid of the error?'.
I think that good imagery comes from going that extra 5%. if you can improve a good image by that 5%, it can be transformed into a very fine image indeed. It's up to you to notice and work with distractions whilst you are out in the field and that will only happen once you start to ask yourself questions all the time.