The making of.....

Everyone sees differently, and if I give you any thoughts today about how I created my images, please bear in mind that there are many ways an image can be constructed. I am not advocating that mine is the only way, or the right way.

You should try to find your own way, and I think the best way to do that, is by listening to what others say - particularly photographers that you like, and figure out what parts of their process resonate with you. If it makes sense : use it. If it doesn’t, then discard it. The key thing is to think for yourself and to decide what works for you.

Hokkaido-2019.jpg

Image prologue

I often find myself responding to the elements. If it looks good: shoot it. Don’t attempt the ‘I’ll come back for that one, as the reason you like it now, is because it’s working now. I’m not one to sit around for hours anticipating a good shot at a particular place. That’s a bit like trying to predict the stock market.

Interestingly, to contradict this, I don’t like chasing photographs either. Come on a workshop with me and you won’t find me chasing the weather forecast. You can often find something where you are right now. I prefer to stay where I am, and I seem to take a perverse delight in not knowing what the forecast is. My reason for this is - I don’t know what I’m going to want to shoot until I see it, and trying to put some kind of formula onto my shooting by watching or expecting certain weather patterns is just pointless in my view.

The adage remains true: if you don’t go, you don’t get. Or f8 and be there.

And I’ve had many workshops where the forecast didn’t look promising (for me - it’s usually a case of it being too sunny) only to find out that we found things to shoot and had a great time. You always find something.

The image

But this photo is a mixture of serendipity and of also waiting. I’ve been to this location many times and I’ve never seen it quite like this. It was snowing very heavily, and there wasn’t a breath of wind. So I knew that any small trees I used would be stationary for long enough. When I did find this composition - a small tree at the verge of the road that I’d never seen before, I knew that it would fit nicely with the background trees when the snow was blowing through. The sun was right in the centre of the frame and it kept popping through the snow clouds a bit too much causing a lot of extreme contrast. So once I settled upon the composition, I had to wait it out for about 10 minutes hoping the cloud front would thicken and obliterate the sun enough so I could record it on film without over exposure.

Learning to anticipate what the weather is going to do in the next few minutes is a good thing, but I often give myself a ‘time-out’ period and if I’ve been waiting far too long, I tend to abandon the shot and go find something that is working. I’m not in the fortune telling business. I’m here to work with what’s working now.

I used a telephoto for this lens. A 150mm lens on my Hasselblad, which relates to around 75mm on full 35mm format. The background trees were far away, so I had to pull them in and isolate them from the other noise outside the frame. But this left the foreground tree too large in the frame. So I had to walk back periodically into the middle of the road to get this shot.

Zooms shouldn’t be thought of as ‘how much you’re getting in, or how much you’re excluding’. They are really powerful at changing the emphasis between background and foreground. My trick is to do this:

  1. Set the focal length to make the background the size I want.

  2. Move forward or backwards to change the foreground to the size I want.

You see, once you set the focal length, no matter how many feet you walk forward or backwards, the background size remains unchanged. So once you set the focal length, your background is now fixed. Which then means you need to move forward or backwards to fit in your foreground. Moving a few feet either way can change the size of your foreground dramatically, while keeping the background the same size.

I’ve mentioned it many times, but for beginners, zooms are counterproductive. You tend to stay rooted in one spot and instead of walking around, tend to zoom in and out to get the foreground AND background to fit the frame. So you have two variables that change at the same time.

It’s much easier to work with one variable as a beginner, than two.

With a fixed focal length you have one variable to work with. Since you can’t change the size of the background, you only have the foreground to change. It makes for simpler composition if you only have one thing changing when you move. And besides, primes force us to move around the landscape - and that’s just great as they force us to discover things we wouldn’t have noticed by standing still.

Please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying. I am not saying that zooms are bad. Zooms are for the experienced shooter. Not the beginner. I just think that as beginners, working with fixed focal lengths is easier to master and as you become more experienced you can migrate up to zooms.

If you already own zooms, I’d suggest you try to prevent yourself from just standing still and zooming in/out to get a good shot. Instead, try to think of your zoom as a collection of fixed focal lengths. Try setting the zoom at 24mm, 50mm and 70mm and when you choose one of these, move around to see how the scene fits into the frame. Try to avoid micro-adjusting the focal length. In other words:

  1. Zoom to fit the background into the frame the size you want it to be.

  2. Move backwards and forwards to introduce / remove foreground elements until you get a good balance between background and foreground.

Back to the image

This image works well because I have the proportions between background trees and foreground tree about right. It also works well because I used the weather conditions to reduce the contrast of the sun to a manageable exposure.

It’s one of my favourites from this year’s Hokkaido trip. I’ve been to this place many times and yet this is the first time I saw this composition, which just goes to prove that nowhere is truly ever ‘done’ and going back and back again is always advantageous.

The idealised view

Photography isn’t about capturing what’s in front of us. It’s more about capturing what is within us. Often when I see workshop participants want to stop somewhere to make a photograph, it isn’t what’s in front of them that they are drawn to. Instead, they are drawn to an idealised view of what’s there.

I was laughing to myself when I saw this. It was simply too good to be true. Too symmetrical, too balanced, too orderly. Too close to an idealised view.

Image © 2019.

When we see a composition in our mind’s eye, what we do is take each element of the scene that is important to us, and discard the rest. Although the scene may be far from perfect, we focus on the parts that give us what we see in our mind, and discard the rest. This is often why many of us find our photographs never match what ‘we saw’ at the point of capture.

In other words: we have a tendency to idealise the view.

If we can find such an idealised view that requires little or no post-edit work, this is perhaps the goal we all seek. But it’s often not like that, and often most compositions out there are compromised in some way.

I think this is why I love Hokkaido so much. Although the landscape is heavily shaped by man, with a bit of work it is possible to find those rare moments when everything clicks into place and all the components before my camera lens fit into perfect symmetry. It satisfies my urge to make sense of the nonsensical, to make order of the disorderly, and to make pleasing compositions of random elements that come together for a brief moment in what seems like an intended way.

Square Variations

Today I feel like posting an old post. The post below was written in 2012. I feel it’s just as valid now as it was back then. Today I’ve been talking to a few people about aspect ratios. Since I wrote this piece, I’ve seen a few camera manufacturers offer more aspect ratios in their cameras, but it’s still not enough. Aspect ratios should be programmable on all contemporary cameras. It should also be implemented in a way that works without it being a bit of an afterthought (Canon, Nikon). Through the more recent introduction of mirrorless cameras, some have embraced aspect ratios (my favourite is the Fuji GFX50s which has just about every conceivable aspect ratio available, and it can be programmed as a dedicated button on the body).

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this article about me shooting images in Scotland.

Enjoy, Bruce.

April 2012

This past weekend, I was in Torridon conducting a weekend workshop. We had some very rainy weather, and one of the group - Steve - mentioned to me that he was glad the weather had been bad, as it gave him a chance to see he could actually make some good images despite the weather.

Top right

Top right

I often feel, that the reason why Scotland is so photogenic, is because of the changes in the weather. One minute it's misty, the next it's clear. And fog or low cloud levels can be a great way of making simpler images. Take the shot above for instance. This is Loch Maree. Normally, this group of trees have the massive Slioch mountain dominating the background. But with a bit of rain and poor visibility, Slioch was invisible. We were left with no horizon - nothing to give the shot context.

I loved the group of three or four trees clumped together. They were actually a subset of a larger group of trees, but I felt that we could easily 'remove' the rest and keep the entire shot very simple if we just had this small gathering of trees.

Variations

Variations

I made this shot on my little Lumix GF1. It's a great camera because it has interchangeable aspect ratios. I felt that square worked really well for this shot, as I could easily place the trees in three quadrants of the frame - top right, bottom right and middle right, as you can see in the above triptych. Question is, is one better than the other? And I like to consider that there is always more options than just one. So I guess the answer is 'it depends'. My personal favourite composition out of the three images is the first one. I feel the picture has a more 'uplifting' feeling than the rest, and it has more presence, because I'm really exaggerating the empty space in the frame more than the others. I also love the reflection of the trees.... I feel they have space below them to 'breathe'.

The middle composition, where the trees are placed in the bottom right, is perhaps less engaging for me, because the trees aren't so tight against the bottom of the frame. The picture feels less focussed for me, in terms of composition. I'd liked to have moved the trees even further down the frame, but I felt the reflections would not have enough space. I felt I had to keep moving the trees further up the frame. But it's a more relaxed composition than the first one - which I feel is more 'graphic' than being a photograph.

The far right composition is perhaps my less favourite. It is more of a 'standard' composition. I feel the horizon has been carelessly composed - for my taste. It's just a little below centre, and I think it might have benefited from being slightly above centre - giving that 'uplifting' feeling I was talking about in the first image, while at the same time, being more in-line with a 'standard' landscape image.

As much as I love square, maybe it might have suited more a 4x5 aspect ration as seen above?

4x5 crop

4x5 crop

Ultimately, when you have a simple subject such as this - trees and reflection, and nothing else, it's much easier to get down to the basic tasks of composition and placement in a frame. The less objects you have in the frame - the better, I feel.

I was immediately attracted to this scene when we were driving past, because there's little in there to distract. When was the last time you went out with your camera to shoot when the atmospheric pressure is so low, that almost nothing is visible?

Themes and variations upon themes

I believe that photographic work becomes stronger if there is a concept behind it. Concepts can be whatever you want them to be. There are no rules. There shouldn’t be.

I have a dear friend from Massachusetts who tells me ‘You know Bruce, you seem to be able to go anywhere in the world and take the same photograph’. He is of-course right. But I do hope it was intended as a compliment as I think it is. I think what Steve was telling me was ‘you have a style’.

But there is more to this than meets the eye. I do like to focus on certain concepts or themes, and it is not unusual for me to shoot the same scene in numerous variations. I even publish these variations in the same collection. Which leads me to another interesting comment I sometimes hear from viewers : ‘what is different between these two shots?’. The answer should be plainly obvious to us photographers: they are compositional variations. Rather than just picking one to publish, I sometimes can’t decide, as I feel each variation has something to say its partners do not.

Repeating themes in the work also makes the work thematically stronger. The work becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

But the trick I feel, or the talent in working with themes, is in finding them to begin with. It takes a rare eye to be able to see a theme in something that others may pass over as mundane, or in the case of some of my more recent Iceland images, landscapes that look quite close to being man-made quarries.

Themes can also go beyond a body of work, and leak into adjacent projects. You may find over time, that you have a propensity to steer towards certain subjects, or tonal responses. Again the trick, or ‘talent’, is in recognising this in yourself and your own work.

I feel that all too often photographers don’t ask themselves ‘why’, or ‘how did I create this?’, or ‘why did I create it?’. Too many of us are just busy making pictures without joining the dots, without recognising themes or variations in what we do.

We are missing clues that can help drive us forward in what we do.

Landscapes are never 'done'

With the proliferation of the ‘same view’ on many social media sites, it would be so easy to say that certain places in the world have been ‘done’. But I find that such an off-hand, reactionary view and quite absurd.

No place is ever ‘done’. Instead, what is often ‘done’ is the derivative view.

Image made in 2017, on my second visit. The sky was less blue, and the contrasts of the cone and black desert stood out more. I also choose to tighten the crop a bit to focus more on the conical shape of the volcano.

Image made in 2017, on my second visit. The sky was less blue, and the contrasts of the cone and black desert stood out more. I also choose to tighten the crop a bit to focus more on the conical shape of the volcano.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with photographers going to iconic places to reproduce a shot they have seen before: we are all into photography for many different reasons and motivations. For many of us, simply being able to go to the location of a shot we love and make our own version of it is very enjoyable, and dare I say it - educational. I know that when I have encountered locations that have inspired me, I often learn a lot by walking in the footsteps of the photographers that have influenced and inspired me.

I think that when we hear the statement ‘it’s been done’, it’s a way of saying ‘most of us can’t think of an original way of looking at the same landscape’. And so, I am always enthusiastic when I see a really interesting / different / original view of a well known place. More so if the picture is beautiful.

Similarly, being able to say we’ve ‘done’ a place, is just as folly. I’ve been going to the same landscapes for more than a decade and I still find something new on each visit. We have to go back, because a first encounter only gives us a hint of what is there. To really get under the skin of the place, we need to return and spend time becoming acquainted with it, and allowing the relationship to deepen.

For example, I’ve visited the Cono de Arita in Argentina three times now. On each occasion, it has offered up a new view of itself. One that I never saw, let alone failed to capture the previous time. Plus, I think that each time I return to a location, I am often looking for something different. Perhaps I have grown / changed, or perhaps it is that I just see something new in the same landscape. I am aware that any feelings of a place ‘being done’ say more about my approach to it, than anything about the landscape itself.

Landscapes are fluid changing places. If we are seeing many shots of the same scene, then that has noting to do with the landscape, but more to do with us. Being original has never been easy, because if we could all do it, then it wouldn’t be worth doing :-)

Originality is hard, and good photography is hard work. To be exceptional at what you do requires something that is intangible to qualify, something more than just making nice photos.

Original shots of landscapes may require a lot of effort and a new way of looking at them, but they are possible. No landscape is ever ‘done’.

My original shot of the Cono de Arita, shot in 2015. In this view, I’m more interested in trying to give it context. I felt it vital that I show the far off distant volcanoes on the horizon and give the Cono de Arita more salt-flat space.

My original shot of the Cono de Arita, shot in 2015. In this view, I’m more interested in trying to give it context. I felt it vital that I show the far off distant volcanoes on the horizon and give the Cono de Arita more salt-flat space.

The value of understanding Colour Theory

I'd like to say a big thank you to those of you who bought my Tonal Relationship series of e-Books so far. If you've been reading and following them, you should know by now, that I'm big on working with tones in a photograph, much like how an artist painter would.

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Photography is not just about clicking a shutter and 'getting it right in-camera'. Camera's do not see the way we see. And besides, if one considers that anything after the shutter has been clicked is 'manipulation', then they are forgetting that the choice of lens they used, the position they were in, are all interpretive.

For me, photography is no different from being a painter. I may not paint with oils or watercolours, but I have to abide by the same rules and concepts that a painter has to: if you do an art class you will learn a lot of valuable lessons about composition. Indeed, I encourage you to attend an evening art class. You will learn so much about tone and form that is all applicable to the art of landscape photography.

Which brings me to the point about my post today: as landscape photographers, we not only need to understand tone and form, but if we shoot colour, we also need to understand colour. How many times have you thought you could boost a certain colour in your picture only to find that although it seems as if it's present in the scene, it actually isn't there. This my friend, is all down to a lack of understanding colour, how certain tones are made up by multiple colours. 

For me, understanding colour, is paramount in removing colour casts, and by tuning certain colours to fit with others. Rather than boosting a colour, I often find myself reducing colours that are at the opposite side of the colour wheel to the colour I want to boost. And it's not just a case of boosting / reducing colour that is required. Often I find I have to 'tune' a colour - by adjusting its hue I can remove casts or even 'tune' the colour to fit more in-line with other aspects of the photograph.

So I think this is what I want to write about in my 3rd instalment of my 'Tonal Relationships' series. Right now, it's more a flicker of an idea. I haven't really figured out exactly what the e-Book will entail and I find that sometimes leaving it for a while helps me clarify the aim of such a book. This is what happened with the Tonal Relationships part 2 e-book. That one took me more than a year to work on. I got stuck at times, unclear if I was heading in the right direction and when that happens the best thing you can do is back off, and go and do something else for a while. So when you return to the problem in hand, it is often much clearer to see.

So that's my intention. I wish to write an e-Book about colour, and how it applies to editing photographs and also what it means when we are out in the field choosing our compositions. You may have noticed that over the past while, I've become a colour obsessive. Perhaps you feel my photographs have become more muted, almost monochrome (and for some of you they probably do look monochrome now), but colour once you begin to really work with it, becomes something that you want to apply delicately. Overly-vibrant, loud colour photographs, I have a theory - belong to the beginner. Once you start to really see all the colour distractions, it becomes a case of trying to calm things down a little (or in my case: a lot). I'm not for one second saying that everyone should go for the more muted look that I have adopted of late: I'm saying that if you are able to interpret colour and understand it better: you'll make more sensitive and worthy choices during your editing.

Please don't hold your breath for this e-Book. I'm pretty sure it will take me a while to find the right approach to tackling this subject, and due to my workshop schedule, time is in short supply.

Forest Shadow

Great photos aren't about pixels. Neither are they about resolution. They aren't about technology and they aren't about plug-in's or software. Great photos aren't about the camera we used to make them.

Great photos are about engagement. They are about having a great idea, a strong composition to start with.

Hokkaido-2018-(15).jpg

Much like a good story, good photographs don't need to be supported by gimmicks. Just as good songs don't require expensive production techniques to make them good, great songs can be played on simple instrument because the strength of the idea behind them carry them along. 

Good images just need a good idea. They shouldn't need much more to make them work.

Yet we live in an age where we can become lost in the technology. Where we are convinced we need another software-app, HDR, Focus-stacking or to blend images to produce good work.  This is not true. We just need our images to be strong ideas to begin with. An ill-conceived image will always be an ill-conceived image, no matter how much gloss we apply to it.

Jon Hopkins shows us that some very simple chords on a piano can bewitch us. Strip it back and it still works. It's a reminder that great ideas have a knack of carrying themselves.

When I'm out making images and selecting which ones to use later on, I always respond to how I feel about them. If they are strong, I usually know because strong work tends to let you know what it wants. Like strong song ideas that tend to write themselves, good images tend to come from nowhere and dictate to you what needs to be done.

Weak work on the other hand doesn't. Weak ideas often lack conviction and send confused muddled messages about what they are and where they want to go.

If you want to improve your photography, then I would suggest you dump your technology. Put to one side the HDR, focus-stacking, blending, software-apps for a moment, and instead, go out and listen to your intuition as it's the best photography tool you possess.

The quiet background

The same location can be much more simple to photograph when the background disappears. Using fog, snow showers or rain to obliterate the background can reduce the complexity of the image and it's something to consider when you visit a location. In fact, I love to repeatedly go back to a location under different weather conditions because the whole scene will be transformed if parts or the whole of the background disappears or comes back in to view.

Below I show you three images: the first two are variations on the same subject but both have varying degrees of success in removing the background for the scene. In the third and final image the background is evident and the picture is a little more complex as a result.

Before you look at the images below, I would like to stress that I am not saying one image is better than another. Each and every one of us will have our own preferences. So let's get beyond comparing them from the point of view of which you like most and instead, it would be ideal if you can just consider whether the image is more complex or less complex when the background disappears.

Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido Japan, January 2018 Image © Bruce Percy 2018.

Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido Japan, January 2018
Image © Bruce Percy 2018.

Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido Japan, January 2018 Image © Bruce Percy 2018.

Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido Japan, January 2018
Image © Bruce Percy 2018.

Hokkaido-2018-(32).jpg

Again, I wish to reiterate: I am not saying that one image is better than another. I am saying that when you remove more elements in the frame the image may become less complex or quieter. It's up to you which you prefer.

Going back to the same location and trying it again under different conditions can yield surprising results and it just goes to prove that the tired mantra of 'it's been done to death' is never true.

The importance of wallpaper

Space in photographs

With music, the space between notes is just as important as the notes themselves. Similarly, with photographs the space between the subjects is important.

But I think 'space' in music is easier to define to a point. With music we often use the word 'space' rather than 'Silence'. Except with Music, space in the music isn't simply conveyed by having silence between notes. Space can be conveyed though tempo and intensity and density (or lack off) of the sound.

Similarly, with photographs space isn't necessarily 'empty areas' of the frame. Although this is can be true at times it is not the whole story. Space can also be conveyed through the use of a pause, something that makes you wait before moving on to another area of the frame. How many times have you felt yourself wait at one area of a picture before moving on?

In addition, 'space' can also be conveyed by areas of the picture that are texturally dense but have nothing of particular for the eye to settle upon. I call these spaces 'wallpaper'. Wallpaper can be texturally rich, may even contain patterns, but ultimately, the eye tends to float over it because there is no one singular point of focus.

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If I am to interpret the image above, I would say that the bottom two thirds of the picture is wallpaper. It is texturally rich but I don't think there is one particular area of the frame that I focus upon or more specifically, feel is a compositional anchor point.

I would also say that the sky and water are wallpaper. They are silent areas where there is nothing going on. They are just used to create a pause between the foreground and the background hills. 

Even with the background hills, the black tones and the curving shape of the hills take the eye for a few seconds before we are pulled towards the groove marks in the green moss. So even the hillside is a kind of space in the picture.

It seems a picture can contain many things and yet still have a lot of space. For me, the main object of focus in the picture is the vertical grooves in the green moss on the hill. Everything else is there to just give context and space and although some of this space is texturally rich, it is ultimately wallpaper. Our eye spends just a moment in it, and is still free to move towards the main point of focus of the picture.

Thoughts on approaching a location

Sometimes you find a location that is so sweet, you know as you approach it, that it's going to work.

The above image was just exactly like that for me.

Below is a 'contextual' image showing me approaching these trees. I'd seen this location from a far distance, and felt that a telephoto would not be sufficient to work around parallax issues with the trees.

Before I'd even set foot outside of the car, I could already see the potential in my mind's-eye - I had already begun to visualise and dream how the final images might turn out!  

But sometimes as I approach a landscape, it turns into something entirely different. I am pleased to say in this circumstance it held up to what I was visualising in my mind.

Context shot, showing me on location in Hokkaido.  Image shot by my Hokkaido guide, January 2017

Context shot, showing me on location in Hokkaido. 
Image shot by my Hokkaido guide, January 2017

Although I love to edit my work and will often depart radically from what was there by using dodging and burning techniques, the final images you see here are pretty much verbatim. The only difference between the photograph of me on location, and my final images is that the sky clouded over once I got into the location, so there was more of a marriage between land and sky. 

My only on-site decisions were more about placement - of where I should be standing to get different vantage points of the trees, and to be observant to any patterns that the trees made (see central image of the three trees at perfect placement to one another). Further, it was also paramount that I remove the background hedge from the shot at all costs, so I spent a bit of time looking for vantage points where the hedge would disappear from view.

I'd like to finish today's post by stating that often as a photographer i'm tempted to go closer towards the subjects I wish to photograph. Whether it's the edge of a lake or the edge of a cliff. This can sometimes be a real failing because of two points:

1) If you like your subject from where you are standing, then chances are it's not going to look the same once you get closer. So shoot it from where you've noticed it, before moving in. Practice using different focal lengths such as telephoto view to accomplish this.

2) As you approach a location you like, the elements start to move around and sometimes things get lost or hidden from view. See point 1.

Your journey can sometimes become an exercise in 'chasing rainbows'. You think that by getting in close, the composition will get stronger, but as you do approach, the scene falls apart and the subjects do not hold together in the way you first saw them. Often times, it's because the best vantage point was from where you started.

I'm glad to report that although I was worried that the big hike into this location,  on snowshoes might have resulted in the trees becoming obstructed by hills, or by my being too low to photograph the trees straight on, the location worked beautifully.

I knew it at the time things were going well. As I slowly made my way forward, the trees and the compositions I had in my mind's eye remained in place. But I did keep an eye on how the compositions were changing as I approached.

I'm a great believer that when something is working well, whether it be in my photography or in my life, it tends to flow and come together easily. That's exactly how these images happened. It was as if they fell into my lap.

The Validity of a deliberate construction

What is the purpose of landscape  photography? Is it the act of capturing the natural world? Or is it the act of creating art? Is it perhaps both?

I think that many of us come to landscape photography through an appreciation for the outdoors and the quality of the light we enjoy. Photography seems to be a natural progression to want to be able to capture what we saw and felt.

Some of us, like myself,  come to photography through art. As a young kid, I was always drawing and painting, and when I was around eight years old, I was dabbling with charcoal pencils and paper and oil paints that my aunt Helen would send me (she married a famous painter). So for me, the art world had been part of my creative outlet from an early age and when I came to photography, it was through a love of the beautiful art that Ansel Adams created.  In his pictures I saw the same application to composition as I had studied while drawing still life's and painting pictures. Photography was a new way of painting pictures. I was drawn to the interpretive side of it from the beginning.

(Close) Christmas tree, Biei, Hokkaido, January 2017 Image © Bruce Percy 2017

(Close) Christmas tree, Biei, Hokkaido, January 2017
Image © Bruce Percy 2017

Even though many of us come to landscape photography through an appreciation for nature, I believe there is still space in our lives for the manufactured landscape.

Although I do love nature, and think that there is so much beauty in nature's 'randomness', I do however think that manufactured landscapes can also possess beauty. even though they are deliberate (read contrived) constructions.

In the case of my two photographs shown in today's post, there is very little about this scene that is natural.  The tree has been carefully planted in a farmers field. It has been manicured to be a precise shape. I think why this location works is because of its contrived-ness rather than in spite of it.  There is symmetry present, and I would go as far as to suggest that somehow, we all picture Christmas tree's as having perfectly symmetrical shapes. I think we would also like to believe that out there somewhere is the perfect Christmas tree, sitting in its own space. Well, now you know it exists: this place is indeed called the Christmas tree of Biei, Hokkaido.

But there is still one more aspect to this scene which makes it appealing. Despite it being a manufactured landscape, there is still a degree of nature at play here: the properties of light are at play here and the atmosphere of the location is wonderful as a result. It was an overcast morning with very very soft light. While I was there, I could not discern any difference between the ground and the sky as both were full of snow. With such soft wonderful light, the tree cast a diffused shadow on the ground. It was as if I was being shown the basic properties of shadow and light.

And so, I can't help but think that the reason why I love images like these, is because they are an interesting mix of the manufactured and the natural. They blur boundaries and make me look again. To the viewer who knows nothing about this location, it could simply be a rare occasion where nature has produced something so aesthetically pleasing, and I think the uncertainty of how natural a scene this is, intrigues us.

Isn't there space in our lives for images where the landscape has been constructed?

I think so.

 In fact, I think that if an image is compelling in some way, perhaps because it is at odds with nature, then that can be a good thing.

( Distant ) Christmas tree, Biei, Hokkaido, January 2017 Image © Bruce Percy 2017

( Distant ) Christmas tree, Biei, Hokkaido, January 2017
Image © Bruce Percy 2017

The three ingredients to composition

Composition is often thought about in terms of where to place the subject within the frame. But what if I throw the subject out of the frame, or at the most, give you a very limited set of subjects to work with? How would you compose your shots, and would you consider how each of them would fit together in a portfolio? What would be the unifying theme if you had to relate them in some way? Is it the subject, the location, or would it perhaps be the colour palette that would be a more useful way of uniting a set of images together?

Subjects are only one aspect of composition. Colour palettes and colour relationships are another, and lastly, there are also tonal responses. My own compositions are often sparse in terms of subject matter, so I think what unifies my work is either the colour palettes I play with, or the tonal responses.

In my latest Hokkaido work, I've deliberately gone for an almost black and 'light blue' tonal response to the work. The absolute blacks of the Crane birds match and unify with the dark tones of the trees of the Hokkaido landscape: this is one part of a two part ingredient list for making this portfolio work. The second part is the colour palette. Despite actually shooting a lot of 'pink sunrise' during my time on the island, I felt they were at odds with some of the stronger 'colder' colour palette images that I found lurking in my processed films. 

I've realised over the past few years just how important tonal responses within a collection of images is to unifying the set. Images are really made up of three dimensions: subject, colour and tone. For me, to think of composition as being about subject only, is to ignore colour and tone at your peril.

This is why I think my work in the Digital Darkroom is a vital ingredient to what I do. Clicking the shutter is only one small part of the image creation process. Identifying themes and relationships in my work is an important part of this process and is crucial in  bringing these themes tighter together.

Simple in design: the art of reduction

My good friend and client Stacey Williams made this shot on our Eigg workshop last week. I think it's highly atmospheric, effectively simple in composition and tonally very finely balanced. It tells me all I need to know without trying to spell it out either: there are no loud colours or over the top contrasts here, just an inner confidence to show you the beauty of one of Scotland's most photogenic beaches.

Bay of Laig, Isle of Eigg, Scotland. Image © Stacey Williams 2016, post-edit Bruce Percy

Bay of Laig, Isle of Eigg, Scotland.
Image © Stacey Williams 2016, post-edit Bruce Percy

And yet, to pull of a very simple composition like this is not easy for many of us. We struggle with the reduction that's required to distill a scene into one simple message.

I have a theory why this is.

For a long while, I've realised that when most of us start off making pictures, we tend to over complicate them. The final image often has a lot going on and within this complexity is the added dimension of tonal / colour conflicts. Photography is one of the few past-times where we start complex and spend a life-time aiming to make our photographs more effective by simplifying what we put into the frame (or perhaps more importantly, what we choose to leave out).

The reason why we start with overly-complex pictures is because we haven't learned to truly 'see'. Photography is a life-long discipline on being able to really see what is before us and translate that into an effective photograph and if we aren't really aware of tonal conflicts, or distracting objects in the frame, we will tend to leave them in. This is why we can often find our final image doesn't look the way we thought it would. We tend to 'see' differently at the time of capture than the way we 'see' when we look at an image on our computer screen later on.

I've been asking myself for a long while: why this is so? And the only thing I can come up with, is that we tend to look at scenery differently than we do when we look at images. The art behind many successful images is to be able to see the photograph within the scenery while we are on location. Many of us don't do this because we are overwhelmed by the elements of being there, and we still can't abstract a 3D location down into a 2D image.

But composition isn't just about where to place objects within the frame, and choosing what to leave outside of the frame. It is also about understanding the relationships between colours and tones within the scene. In fact, both are interrelated. 

Again, if you aren't able to truly 'see' the relationship between colours and tones within the frame, then the final image may be fraught with overcomplexity. 'I never saw that red telephone box in the corner of the frame', or 'the stone in the foreground is really dark and I can't recover it in post, I wish I'd noticed how dark it was at the time of capture'. This is a typical response because at the time of capture we were too busy thinking about stones rather than the tone or dynamic range of them and whether they would render enough detail in the final picture.

Visual awareness of what is really in front of us, is really at the heart of all of our photographic efforts. If we can't see the tonal distractions or see the conflicting colours at the time of capture, then it means a lot of massaging and coaxing in the edit phase, which isn't a great idea. In sound recording the idea of 'fixing it in the final mix' was always a bad approach and it's better to be aware of the problem at the time of capture and do something about it. If the colours are conflicting, then look for an alternative composition, if the stone is too black to render and will come out as a dark blob in your photo, then maybe go find a rock that is lighter in tone and will render much more easily.

Back to Stacey's picture. She chose a very empty part of the beach. She also chose some very simple foreground sand patterns that she knew were strong enough tonally, to attract interest. She also gave the background island a lot of space. The edit was very simple: we added a lot of contrast to the island to make it the dominant object in the frame, but we did it while doing almost nothing else to the picture because the picture was already working.

If you are struggling with composition, my advice would be to seek out simple empty places and work with one or two subjects within the frame. Add a rock into the picture and experiment with placing it at different areas. Also try rocks of different tonal responses. How would a jet-black rock look in this scene? Will it stand out from the background sand tones? How about a rock that is similar in tone to the beach? Will it stand out just as effectively?

The problem is, that what our eye thinks is pleasing, is often overly complex for our imagery. Good composition is not simply just the act of reducing down the subjects within the frame, but also of understanding which ones will work best tonally as well. Our eye loves more complex objects around us but they don't work when they are all crammed into one picture.

Good landscape composition is not something we master in a matter of weeks or months. It is a life-long journey in building up one's own visual awareness, of noticing what will work, and just as importantly what won't. If you're in it for the long haul, and you have a curious mind, then that's a very good start indeed.

 

 

Small adjustments go a long way

For me, improving my photography is really all about improving my visual awareness. 

The original image unaltered.

The original image unaltered.

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.

In this version, I've removed something from the image to 'simplify' the composition and hopefully make it stronger.

In this version, I've removed something from the image to 'simplify' the composition and hopefully make it stronger.

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.

 

Making Things more difficult than need be?

I remember Daniel Lanois, the Canadian record producer and artist was once asked 'how do you record a good guitar sound'? to which he replied, 'first find a guitar that sounds good'.

As I've progressed with my own compositions, I've noticed that I tend to be very selective about the places I shoot. I don't choose them because of how famous they are, but instead, I choose them because of how simple they are, and how little work they require make an effective composition.

So in today's post, I thought I would show you an example of that.

Myself in the landscape, Hokkaido, December 2015

Myself in the landscape, Hokkaido, December 2015

Last December I spent a week on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. The above image is included in this post to illustrate that the location I shot, was pretty simple to start with. This is my 'selectivity' at play - I choose certain locations because I know there will be little resistance or errors in the landscape that I will have to wrestle with later on. Like Daniel Lanois' statement about finding a good guitar sound to record, I too believe that finding a location where there is little in the way to correct is much better, than trying to make a difficult location work better once I'm behind my computer editing.

Below is the final image I made of this location:

Despite the simplicity of the location, I still felt there were many many options available to me at the time of capture.

Where one might feel that all I had to work with was a group of trees and a snowy hill, I felt I had to be very careful with the placement of all the objects in the frame. Despite this location being quite easy to make a decent image of, I think the real skill in photography is to try to improve upon 'decent' and look for that extra special something that will hopefully transform my images from 'decent' to 'great'.

For instance, I was aware of the background hedges that I had to try and reduce in the composition. I felt that including the hedgerow at the back of the image (that is clearly seen in the first image in this post) would have been too distracting to the main subject (the trees in the foreground). 

I also had to make sure that the foreground tree's branches didn't collide with the hillside (as subtle as the hillside is - If the branches had touched it - I think the image would have been reduced back down to 'decen't rather than something hopefully better than that). You can see in the first image to this post that my tripod is lying completely flat on the ground - that's because I realised I had to get the camera down low to avoid the branches touching the edge of the hillside.

My definition of a great location, is somewhere that I don't have to wrestle with the subject matter too much to make things work. I've been to many beautiful places that don't work as a photograph and I've learned that 'great scenery does not equal great photography'. In many beautiful places I may find distractions that I can't avoid. For example, If I had found that no matter where I placed my tripod, the branches always touched the edge of the hill side, I would have made a decision at the point of capture as to whether this would kill the image or not.

So ultimately, what I'm really saying is that with a location where everything is simple, you shouldn't have to work so hard to make it 'click'.

Keeping things simple is the best advice I've ever had. It applies to how I make all my decisions in life, and it should also be applied to your choice of location that you are hoping to photograph.

Of course, the real skill is to see distractions in the landscape and to know whether they can be lived with or have to be removed. That only comes with time and us working on our own awareness skills.

Landscape photography I feel, is often the art of subtraction. Of being able to isolate one tiny part of the landscape and make a strong photograph from it. But this can be achieved much more easily, if we work with very simple locations to begin with, and not the other way round, as is often the case for many of us.

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?

Density Ratio? - New Hokkaido Images

I've just completed work on a new set of images, shot over a six day duration on the Japanese island of Hokkaido.

I have wanted to come here ever since I got to know the beautiful mono work of Michael Kenna. He has been photographing this island for over a decade and his images are really a lesson in simplification.

Over the past few months, I've become aware that I seem to be very selective with regards to how 'dense' the scenes are that I choose to shoot. I think when you're peering through a viewfinder at a white canvas with only one tiny little tree, you are forced to think long and hard about what it is that you're trying to do. How minimalist can one go?

I know that many consider my style 'minimalist' but I've come to realise that I do look for a certain ratio or degree of emptiness in my compositions. 

I am wondering if each of us has a 'goldilocks' ratio for our own compositions? For example, perhaps if you look at your own work, you can see there is a trend to shoot very busy scenes over less busy ones? My feeling is that each of us has a gut instinct to go for a certain amount of objects in the frame. If we find a scene that is more empty than we are used to, we feel either unsure or insecure as to whether it 'feels right', and the same too if the scene is more complex than we normally shoot. If this is the case, I think it simply may be down to a matter of taste, something each of us chooses based on our own aesthetic sensibilities.

So with this thought in mind, I am going to actively give myself more permission to vary the complexity of my compositions in future.

I'd like to think this is perhaps a signal, something that is telling me that what I want to do with my photography is changing, or maybe it's just a recognition that I do tend to gravitate towards the very simple most of the time, and there are other kinds of compositions out there that are equally as valid, but I'm missing out on, because my own aesthetic taste keeps forcing me to work within a small range of 'acceptable compositions' Time will tell.

The new Hokkaido portfolio is up under my 'new work section of this website.

Sometimes it's about the sky, or ground, but seldom both

Disclaimer: Please note, that I write these articles to stimulate some thought. I will sometimes generalise a point or simplify an argument  in an attempt to convey a message. Ultimately,  it is just my point of view and of course is not the definitive word on the matter (as much as I'd love to think so!) ;-)

As much as I would love to fit both sky and ground into my compositions, I only have so much area within my frame to work with. So I have to figure out what is central to the story I'm telling in the image I'm composing. If I add a lot of sky in, then it should either compliment the foreground in some way (if both sky and ground have a relationship - by mirroring shapes or mirroring textures / patterns), or it should dominate the scene.

Picture 1   Despite many thinking this image is about the desert and the mountains, it's really about the sky. So much so, that the sky covers 3/4 the area of the frame, while the ground only covers 1/4 the area. My eye moves mostly around the sky with occasional visits to the two mountains - often in a triangular motion around the frame.

Picture 1
Despite many thinking this image is about the desert and the mountains, it's really about the sky. So much so, that the sky covers 3/4 the area of the frame, while the ground only covers 1/4 the area. My eye moves mostly around the sky with occasional visits to the two mountains - often in a triangular motion around the frame.

For me, it has to be either / or. You either have a lot of foreground and little sky in the frame, or you have a lot of sky and little ground in the frame. 

We have to figure out what is it that we're trying to say, when we choose the proportions of sky and ground. Is the photo really about the desert and mountains? Or is the image really about the sky, and the mountains are in the frame to give some kind of context?

Settling for something in the middle often results in a confused message. The end result is that the viewer is pulled between both sky and ground and a competition race between sky and ground ensues for the viewers attention (see Picture 2).

But it's hard to choose the sky over the ground as a dominant subject. We tend to give foreground or ground subjects more prominence than they deserve because they are usually what draws us to a location in the first place. In the first image above (see Picture 1), I had that very circumstance. I was first drawn to this place by the strange rocks and mountains to be found there. We can be so wrapped up in what grabbed our attention, that we may fail to see other motifs or interesting patterns elsewhere (such as in the sky). Picture 1 is all the cloud shapes and the light scattering upon them. It is a 'sky photo' with some contextual mountains in the foreground. Not the other way around. 

I've re-cropped the image so we can look at it from another point of view. In Picture 2, it would have been so easy for me to compose the shot in a more traditional format - with the sky only taking up 2/3rd's of the frame and the ground taking up 1/3rd. The net effect is that the horizon is more central and my eye is being pulled between two competing subjects: sky & ground. 

Picture 2   In my original shot, the ground covered 1/4 area of the picture. In this crop where I've reduced the sky, the ground has now 'gained' and covers 1/3 the area of the picture. The result is that the sky has less dominance while the ground has gained in dominance and I find my eye is being pulled between sky and ground in a competition between the two for my attention.

Picture 2
In my original shot, the ground covered 1/4 area of the picture. In this crop where I've reduced the sky, the ground has now 'gained' and covers 1/3 the area of the picture. The result is that the sky has less dominance while the ground has gained in dominance and I find my eye is being pulled between sky and ground in a competition between the two for my attention.

My advice would be to do the following:

1. Set up your shot the way you want it and make an image for comparison.
2. Adjust the camera so that you get a lot more ground in the frame than sky, and make an image.
3. Adjust the camera so that you get a lot more sky than ground in the frame, and make an image.
4. Compare.

I guess I try to avoid central horizons where I can, because mostly they just make a composition feel less focussed. But there are times when going central does work. If the sky and the ground have a tight relationship (such as similar tones, or textures, or perhaps a pattern in the landscape that is also encountered in the sky). I also find I will go central when I feel that sky and ground have little to add to a photo - the main point of attention is to be found in the middle of the frame, By doing this, I can use the sky and ground equally to give a lot of space around a subject, as in Picture 3:

Picture 3.   The horizon is just slightly above centre. I can get away with this composition due to the requirement to have a lot of space around the island. Note however, that I still didn't go central, because that would introduce the feeling of the island sinking (see Fish Tank article from a few days ago).

Picture 3.
The horizon is just slightly above centre. I can get away with this composition due to the requirement to have a lot of space around the island. Note however, that I still didn't go central, because that would introduce the feeling of the island sinking (see Fish Tank article from a few days ago).

Ultimately, often trying to have both sky and ground with equal attention leads to competition between the two, unless they are contextual (such as in Picture 3 above - where they just contribute a sense of space to the composition). I prefer to make things as clear as I can - either the image is about the ground (and therefore there is a whole lot more ground in the frame than sky) or it's about the sky (and therefore there is a whole lot more sky in the frame than ground).

Most often, you can't have both without it seriously compromising the strength of your composition.

Suffering from Fish Tank Effect?

Disclaimer: Please note, that I write these articles to stimulate some thought. I will sometimes generalise a point or simplify an argument  in an attempt to convey a message. Ultimately,  it is just my point of view and of course is not the definitive word on the matter (as much as I'd love to think so!) ;-)

Over the years I've been running workshops, I've noticed that many photographers tend to put a lot of sky in their photos, pushing fore & mid-ground interesting subjects towards the bottom of the frame (see Picture 1).

If I were to look at Picture 1 from the point of view of balance, I would be tempted to suggest that everything is sinking towards the bottom of the frame. My eye spends most of the time hovering in the lower area of the photo. If I had to use an analogy, it would be that of a fish tank, where everything that is placed inside the tank sinks to the very bottom.  In the case of Picture 1, I would go further and suggest that everything is not only sinking to the bottom of the fish tank, but it is also falling through the floor and beyond!

Picture 1.   Classic bad composition (Sinking)

Picture 1.
Classic bad composition (Sinking)

Picture 2 .  What many photographers would consider balanced, but in my view, is still sinking towards the bottom of the frame

Picture 2.
What many photographers would consider balanced, but in my view, is still sinking towards the bottom of the frame

Picture 3 .  In my view, this is balanced (not sinking). The composition appears central, even though everything is higher up in the frame

Picture 3.
In my view, this is balanced (not sinking). The composition appears central, even though everything is higher up in the frame

Overall, Picture 1 has a very 'low' feeling to it, caused by my eye being pulled downwards. 

I've seen this kind of composition repeatedly on my workshops over the years and I've often wondered why many photographers employ this approach? I think the reason may be that the photographer is simply trying to 'put everything in the same shot'. Or perhaps it's because they find composition difficult. But I suspect it's because, like most of us, they interpret the world as being made up of half landscape and half sky. So why would you put less or more sky in a photograph would be their reasoning.

A good framer will always add a little extra space to the bottom border of a matt, so the picture feels more central.

A good framer will always add a little extra space to the bottom border of a matt, so the picture feels more central.

Photographs are fixed perpendicular frames. They only have so much area in which to lay out a scene. We can't get all of what we see into the same frame (although I feel many of us try!), Photographs are not real. They are interpretations of reality. A photograph is a 2D representation of something, framed within a rectangle or square. Rectangles don't exist in nature - the world is not a rectangular thing, so we should understand that when framing the world through a frame, we have to use some kind of notion of balance in our compositions.

Simply composing your images like Picture 1 because you like a lot of sky, does not help the composition, and as explained, creates an imbalanced bottom-heavy composition that suggests everything is sinking to the bottom of the frame and beyond.

In Picture 2, I have corrected the imbalance by pushing the camera south (towards the ground), and therefore moving the mountain and tree towards the middle of the image. But although this is a huge improvement on Picture 1, it still feels imbalanced to my eye. And here's why. a good framer will never place images right in the centre of the frame, they will leave a little extra room at the bottom of the frame so the picture sits higher up in the frame. They know that when you do this, the eye perceives it as being central. They also know that when you put something in the middle of a frame, it is perceived as being lower than central. So even in Picture 2, the overall balance still has the suggestion of sinking.

In Picture 3, I've moved the horizon further up the frame and as a result, I've also heightened the distance between the branches and the mountain to give them more 'breathing space'. By placing the horizon a little further up the frame, I feel I've given the image a more 'uplifting' feeling and it also feels more centred. As discussed in the framing example above, images tend to feel more centred when they are placed higher in the frame. So too is the same thing evident in photographic composition: by placing the key elements of a composition higher in the rectangle, the image is given a more centred feel.

Before I close on this post today, I would like to show how I feel the viewer interprets the above three images by the diagrams below. The black circles indicate where the eye tends to be drawn to, and consequently, illustrates the 'weight' of the image. 

Picture 1. The mind interprets the balance of picture as sinking

Picture 1. The mind interprets the balance of picture as sinking

Picture 2. The mind interprets the balance of picture as more central but still sinking towards the bottom

Picture 2. The mind interprets the balance of picture as more central but still sinking towards the bottom

Picture 3. The mind interprets the balance of picture as central, even though the main elements of the composition are higher in the frame than the mid point

Picture 3. The mind interprets the balance of picture as central, even though the main elements of the composition are higher in the frame than the mid point

This subject is covered in my Simplifying Composition e-Book which is available in the store section of this website. I also cover this subject and many other aspects of composition on my Scottish based workshops.

New e-Book - Simplifying Composition 2nd Edition Available

I'm pleased to let you know, that as of today, I've released a second edition of my popular 'Simplifying Composition' e-Book.

completely re-written and expanded (now 68 pages long).

completely re-written and expanded (now 68 pages long).

I felt that since writing the first one in 2010, my abilities as a workshop teacher had moved on quite a lot. Over the years I've been teaching my workshops, I've added to my thoughts on composition, so much so, that I felt I needed to update the book to reflect this.

But rather than updating the e-Book, I've chosen to totally re-write it from scratch. So it's definitely worth getting if you liked the first one, and want to learn some new things :-)

Flow..... and relationships between similar shapes and patterns.

Flow..... and relationships between similar shapes and patterns.


More about the new edition


The new edition is double in size - 68 pages long to be exact, and is packed with lots of new advice and tips on improving your compositional awareness while out in the field and when reviewing the work later on.

In writing this edition, my aim was to utilise the experiences gained over the past six years teaching workshops, to give you an updated view on how to simplify your compositional skills.

The book is split into three sections:

  1. Flow. Learning how to guide the eye through the frame in a comfortable and pleasing manner    
  2. Compositional Devices. By using certain features within the landscape,  we can strengthen and simplify our compositions    
  3. Fieldwork. Best practices, techniques and approach while out in the field

And here is the table of contents to the new version:

S-curves and also background emphasis with focal-lengths.

S-curves and also background emphasis with focal-lengths.


Table of Contents


3    Introduction Part 1. Flow
6    The flow of your eye
7     Interpreting the flow within an image
10    An example


Part 2. Compositional Devices

13    Introducing the diagonal line
16    Looking for diagonals in the ground
20    Looking for diagonals in the sky
23    Introducing the curve
25    Curves & mirroring
28    Introducing the s-curve
31    Asymmetrical s-curves
33    Patterns, mirroring & tonal separation
35    Cohesion in the landscape


Part 3. Fieldwork

39    Foreground emphasis
41    Background emphasis
44    Vertical spacing between subjects
47    Avoiding the fish tank effect
52    Visualising in 2D
56    Working with parallax
59    Strengthening composition
62    strengthening cohesion
65    Improving your workflow
68    epilogue

Mirroring in the landscape, asymmetrical shapes in the landscape and parallax issues.

Mirroring in the landscape, asymmetrical shapes in the landscape and parallax issues.

I feel particularly pleased with this updated edition. I felt I got the sequencing of the chapters right because one aspect of composition seemed to lead onto another in a way that has made the book very easy to get into.

I do hope you enjoy reading this one. I fully intend it to be a reference that you can return to time and time again.