Photo Cascadia Blog
Archive for the ‘Composition’ Category
Abraham Lake is an artificial lake found in the Canadian Rockies. It can be reached by taking the David Thompson Highway off the Icefields Parkway and driving North for around 20 minutes. On the right, you will see a pullout parking lot called Preachers Point. This pullout is a great place to access the lake. From here, you can easily walk down to the lake. Once on the lake, there are many opportunities to photograph within a short distance of your car.
Over the past few years, I have had the chance to visit Abraham Lake in different seasons. By far my favorite season is winter because of the unique conditions that occur due to the colder temperatures. It can reach as low as -30 in the Abraham Lake area. These frigid temperatures create conditions to develop on the lake that is one of the most unusual natural phenomena of the world. The decomposing plants on the lake bed release methane gas which freezes as it gets closer to the much colder surface causing “Frozen Bubbles.” As the temperature drops the bubbles start to stack below each other forming a pretty incredible and unique sight.
Photographers from all over the world come to Abraham Lake to capture this unique occurrence. I’ve written this article to list some of my most essential tips for successful images when photographing Abraham Lake.
- Abraham Lake is often very windy and cold. Due to its geographic location, the wind channels through the valley. Winter temperatures can be extremely frigid with the windchill. Prepare to bring more clothes than normal to stay warm. Bring a balaclava or facemask to keep your face warm. Bring fingerless gloves so you can operate your camera while keeping your gloves on. I combined fingerless gloves with a second layer of gloves that are known as touchscreen gloves. I have included a link below for what I believe to be the best on the market.
- Give yourself lots of time to find compositions that will interest your viewer. The first comment that most people say to me on a workshop is how overwhelming it can be when you first see the lake. Due to its size and vastness, there can be many choices to photograph, which may seem at first very daunting. I arrive several hours early to explore several different compositions. I research ahead of time some of the images that appeal to me. I then work up a theory and pre-visualize the story I would like to translate through my image.
- Bring several camera batteries with you as the colder temperatures shorten how long a battery will work. It is not unusual to go through two or three batteries in one hour when photographing during the winter on Abraham Lake. It is helpful when trying to conserve battery life to keep a couple of spare batteries in a jacket. Finding a way to storing the extra batteries continually in a warm place will go a long way to extending the battery life while photographing.
- Related to the previous tip, bring hand warmers and feet warmers. I can’t stress the importance of using some accessory to keep warm. It can make the difference between a pleasurable time and a challenging one. With the combination of a good warm winter boot and gloves, you are ready for any conditions on the lake.
- Bring a good heavy duty tripod. Having a good sturdy tripod will help immensely in keeping your tripod from slipping on the ice. Place the tripod low to the ground to avoid vibrations from the windy conditions. As mentioned before, winds can get very active on the lake. It does not take much to make your tripod shake. The wind and camera shake will cause your image to go soft and blurry.
- In windy conditions, raise the ISO of the camera to 800 or even 1600. The faster shutter speed will help prevent camera shake and blurry images.
- Don’t be afraid to try several different types of compositions as you continue to look for ways to piece together elements within a scene. I will often try to keep the camera low to the ground at roughly a 45° angle. As I continue to try different compositions throughout my scouting, I develop a story of how I want to approach the final image.
- Bring a very wide-angle lens with you to capture the bubbles and enhance the size of the textures that are nearest to the camera. When using a wide-angle lens on the lake and photographing very close to the bubbles within the ice, the wide angle lens will accentuate elements that are near the lens and make objects in the distance appear smaller. The placement of the lens and camera near to the ground gives the image the appearance of three-dimensional depth throughout the scene.
- Have a microfiber lens cloth close at hand to keep the lens as clean as possible. Watch for any condensation that might build up on the front of the lens in colder conditions. Also, avoid changing lenses on the lake when winter conditions are present.
- It’s a good idea to bring a medium telephoto to photograph some of the distant mountain peaks in closer detail. The look of the longer lens will offer a different look than the wide-angle images that are often seen at Abraham Lake. I like to try different lenses at Abraham Lake to give the viewer several different looks. Also, don’t be afraid to bring a macro lens to photograph the unique textures of the bubbles found just underneath the ice.
- When exposing for the scene, I will often exposure bracket my images depending on the tonal range. In extreme conditions, I have bracketed my images all the way from three images to nine images for one scene. The highlights of the ice can be very bright as well as the snowcapped peaks. It is essential to capture several exposures of negative value to avoid blowing out the highlights. I will then use post processing methods to combine these images into one image with all tonal values combined.
- It is critical in winter to bring an apparatus that can be placed on the bottom of the boot. It can be any accessory such as spikes, crampons, or any other device that provides traction on the ice. Abraham Lake is very slippery and can cause serious damage if you try to maneuver without some sort of traction on your boot. I like to use spikes that I wrap around the bottom of my snow boot which allows me to walk comfortably and safely on the ice.
- Dress in layers, as you will find yourself quickly heating up while actively walking around looking for compositions but losing heat quickly once stationary in one spot. I use several layers of winter clothing that can easily be taken on or off depending on my activity at the time. For example, while actively searching for compositions I will expend energy and thus create sweat while walking around on the ice. Once I find something regarding composition I’m happy with, I might be stationary for time periods of several minutes or more. Having access to changing or removing clothing is critical to keeping at a comfortable temperature while photographing on the lake.
- Don’t be afraid to lie on the ice and try creative framing and pairing of elements. I often will find myself trying to explore new possibilities when composing images on Abraham Lake. Don’t hesitate to try new things, and photograph the lake in new creative ways. For example, I tried placing my camera on remote focusing at infinity and putting it on a timer or a remote to capture an image from inside the ice shelves to create the look of ice caves.
- Make sure to photograph during the twilight hours before sunrise and after sunset to expand the variety of images you capture. Shooting during the twilight hours will give many different moods to the overall look of the lake.
- Make sure on your LCD monitor to frequently check the detail of each image. I will often go in at 100% on the back of the camera to check that all elements are sharp and focused. Because of the wind, movement of the tripod can occur in small increments but enough to cause the image to move. Without going in all the way on the back of your camera LCD, it is hard to see whether it is sharp all the way through the image
- Use caution when exploring on the lake. The lake can be several layers thick with ice, use common sense if areas that appear to look less safe. For example, during warmer periods, melting and instability can occur.
- Bring snacks and meals with you in your bag. There is nothing very close to the lake regarding food. You will find your body, needs the extra carbs from the colder conditions. Having a snack in your bag that is easy to grab will help keep your body energized and prevent you from wasting time going back to your vehicle.
- Give yourself several days including sunrises and sunsets to maximize your opportunity of capturing several different images. Capture the lake in as many different settings as possible. One option is to rent a camper or RV so that you can be situated next to the lake. The other alternative is to look into accommodation near the lake.
- Try to remember to have fun and take the time to enjoy the experience.
As you might have gathered from my website or prior blog posts one of my favorite wilderness areas is venturing off into Three Sisters Wilderness of Central Oregon. Even though I have been many times there are still new places in this wilderness to visit. One of these I have tried a couple times before but been unsuccessful is Tam McArthur Rim. All prior trips didn’t work out because I was too early (too much snow) or too late (no snow).
View from trail of Three Creek Lake and Tam McArthur Rim (iPhone 6s panorama)
I mention the too early or too late for a couple reasons. If you are early you can likely still make it up with a completely snow covered trail yet know the first .75 to 1 mile is pretty wooded so have a map and GPS. If you go too late when the snow has vanished for the season there is no water. Your only water is on your back and that won’t do well for me to backpack. Plus too late in summer and the peaks have less snow which is not as photogenic, little shade from the heat, and there will likely be more people. Well this year my friend and I timed it right minus the total blue bird skies which means don’t expect colorful sunrises and sunsets in this post. We pretty much had the place to ourselves.
Me standing on lower portion of McArthur Rim looking over Three Creek Lake (iPhone 6s taken by my friend)
All images were with my Sony a6000 except for a handful of snapshots taken with my iPhone. I will fully admit it was one of those trips where I was going the semi-lazy route and probably used my iPhone more than I normally would. You know the saying. The camera that is closest and easiest to get it is the one you will use most.
As the sign articulates trail may or may not be clearly visible. Be prepared to navigate without trail as needed. (iPhone 6s)
The trailhead is located just before the campground at Three Creek Lake. Rather than spell it all out here, I would recommend this link to get more details. If you are familiar with Sisters, Oregon the trailhead is only a matter of about 25 to 30 minute drive from here. It does require a Northwest Forest parking pass.
The harsh light and dark shadows along with dull gray and canyon red made for an interesting abstract of contrasts (iPhone 6s).
As far as hikes this is not a long or steep one overall. Depending on where you finish up the hike or backpack trip it’s about 5 to 5.5 miles RT and 1,200 to 1,400 feet elevation gain. If the snow is melted you have a trail the first half. After that the trail fades in and out yet as long as the weather is decent navigation isn’t tricky. We hiked the full distance to the edge of the rim near broken top to camp for the night.
You can hike up further closer to Broken Top than you see in my photos yet we did not do that this trip.
I have not taken the hike up here late summer but I am sure it’s a big dust bowl, hot and waterless as I have hiked other areas of Three Sisters Wilderness during the summer months. As mentioned if you go when the snow is melting you can usually find a small run off area. That said it’s not as easy as you might think. It’s a really gradual slope in most places thus the water absorbs into the sandy volcanic soil before it pools up. We found one really good spot about a 1/4 mile walk from camp.
You certainly can pack in all the water you need which is fine for the day but staying overnight for a night or two you need to have drinking and cooking water. I am not eager to pack that much H2O!
Not much better place to have breakfast than sitting with a view like this! (Sony a6000)
More interesting rocks. Basalt looking more like Swiss cheese from the trapped gases that bubbled out thousands of years ago. (iPhone 6s)
When to Go
We went the last week of June and based on past experiences in this area late June to early July is likely the best time. Obviously it varies every year depending on snow pack. I look for updated trail reports on Deschutes National Forest website; they are pretty good about providing updates on many roads and trails. I have been here before around the same time of year where I had to park the car before Three Creek Lake because snow was still blocking the road. The trailhead starts at 6,550 feet meaning it can take a while for full access on road and trailhead free from snow. Keep in mind when the snow first melts this also is prime mosquito breeding time. Bbzzzz! They were pretty bothersome at the car but shortly up the trail they diminished with none at camp.
My buddy Josh hiking up one of the steeper slopes on the rim. (iPhone 6s)
What to Photograph
The peaks to be seen seem like they are endless on a clear day yet up close you have Mount Bachelor, Broken Top and all Three Sisters as far as larger peaks go. Then there are many other smaller mountains and buttes. Not a bad vantage point. Besides that you can peer down to Three Creek Lake and Little Three Creek Lake. Very cool wind bent and sculpted trees. No shortage of interesting rocks which I am always intrigued by.
It’s important to note that you have some nice views looking north to vast open landscape. If you are wondering why you can’t see Broken Top or Three Sister mountains you have to hike to the end of the rim to get that view.
The ghosts of Tam McArthur Rim live on! Old tree near camp. (Sony a6000)
Overall this is a 5 star hike or backpack trip for the sheer number of mountains and views you get without needing to trek very far. Oh and how can I forget about the best part? Completing any hike on a warm dusty trail day is not truly complete until you cool off swimming in a cold lake. Three Creek Lake fits the bill perfectly! Have a good time hiking, photographing, and of course swimming.
Sunset light warms up landscape features along the rim looking towards Mount Bachelor and Tumalo Mountain. (Sony a6000)
Sunrise alpenglow lights up Broken Top and Three Sisters. Click image to view pano large. (Sony a6000)
I saw this opportunity and couldn’t pass it up. My buddy Josh standing on the edge of the cliff starring off towards Mount Jefferson and Mt Hood with Little Three Creek Lake below. (Sony a6000)
I did a blog post a number of years back on abstract nature photography yet it’s been a long time and thought I would revisit this topic. I really enjoy this type of photography especially when you find hidden gems that others may not have seen or might have passed over many times before you. Often what ends up being the final photo doesn’t jump out at you without surveying a scene for potential compositions. Sometimes I dig in and strike it rich finding those gems and other times I come up empty handed which is part of the fun.
Rather than a lot of typing for this post I will let the video do most of the talking this time around. I am not normally the video tutorial kind of person yet I am getting myself to branch out into this type of work. Below is the video and three photos I discuss in greater detail. For each scene I show several compositions I took leading up to the final to help understand my thought process to build a compelling abstract or intimate nature photo.
Standing Tall – In cold wet forest of the Columbia River Gorge in early winter
Desert Lizard – In the dry cool desert Southwest in Fall inside Zion National Park
Final Flames of Fall – Above a forest in the Columbia River Gorge during the final days of fall
Video covering the three photos above in much more detail. Happy viewing!
Late last year we were out as a Photo Cascadia group along the Oregon Coast when the idea was brought up to head to the Canadian Rockies for fall 2015. I was in! I had not been there while it sat on my list of must see places to visit for too long. Fast forward to the last week of September 2015 and we were off for a one week trip.
After the first 6 hour leg from my house in Portland, Oregon I met up with Chip in Spokane, Washington to finish out the next 6+ hours to our destination and meet up with Sean and Zack who had already been there a day. After a long day we arrived at Lake Louise Campground shortly after sunset. No sunset photos that night. We pulled in. Hung out with Zack and Sean for a bit while eating dinner then off to catch zzz’s for sunrise.
Getting up this time of year for sunrise feels like a treat after the droopy tired eyes of summer. We made our way to our first photo stop, sunrise at Moraine Lake. I expected busy. It was a little more than I expected. Far and away the most crowded location on this trip photographing with 100+ of my closest friends. Amazing to see yet it loses the appeal a little for me with that many photographers all jockeying for limited space. I kept setting up high in the trees, in the dark, only to find someone else eventually moving around already setup in my shot. One gal was getting aggressive when a photog got too close and he wasn’t moving. I was waiting for a fight but he eventually moved. I left the main viewing area on the top to join my peeps along the shore where I had a great rest of the morning with this splendid view!
This trip would not involve lollygagging around the same campsite for multiple nights. We had breakfast in town, back to camp to pick up Chip’s trailer and then off to the next location, Yoho National Park. A rather short drive away (~ 20 kilometers) we checked in at Kicking Horse Campground which was a good location in the middle of Yoho Park.
We spent the afternoon checking out Takakkaw Falls, walking part of Emerald Lake shoreline and then finishing with sunset at Emerald Lake. It’s only seconds after arriving here to know how it got it’s name. “Hiking” around the lake is more like an extended nature hike. At least the section we did was pretty flat yet very scenic. As we all know not all great scenic photos require long bouts of strenuous activity.
Up plenty before daylight and off to Bow Lake for sunrise. The drive was about 50 kilometers. The wind was whipping pretty good. I was not happy with any of my images from this morning yet we had a fun time regardless. The clouds rolled in and we could tell things would get wet later in the day. Back to Kicking Horse for breakfast at camp, fill up on water and off to the next campsite closer to the Bow Lake area.
Our next stop was Mosquito Creek Campground on Ice Fields Parkway. We filled up on water before arriving as this time of year it’s a dry campground because overnight lows dip below freezing. By the time we arrived the rain had already started dropping. We spent the afternoon chilling in our campers reading, listening to podcasts and napping. Having warm dry shelter was very welcome at that moment.
After getting bored we decided to drive and see if could find a place to have a beer. First stop was Bow Lake restaurant. The lady at the desk was indirectly kind in trying to say the restaurant was for guests only yet suggested we head a ways down the road for a bar. Mind you this is National Park with few places to stop and all tree lined roads. After driving another 40 km in the pouring rain at dusk we arrive at the mildly depressing oasis called Saskatchewan River Crossing. We were happy to have this place pretty much to ourselves sitting on couches drinking a beer and snacking on mediocre wings. Out into the rain and 50 km later we are back at camp. Rain still pouring outside we eat dinner in the camper then hit the hay.
I wake up shortly before dawn. I step outside the camper and can see nothing but endless grey with rain still coming down. Feels like home. We decide to bag sunrise and go back to bed. What seemed like 5 min later, in reality over an hour, I wake up and look out the window to see a huge patch of blue sky. Shorter than the click of a shutter I yell for Chip to wake up and jump out the camper. No courteous knock, I whip open the door to Sean’s camper and say “get up now, we need to leave!” Minutes later we are on the road. It did not take long to see this was going to be a fantastic morning. The snowline went down low overnight but only brought a dusting. With the sun coming over the horizon and quickly clearing skies we had to act fast. After pulling into Peyto Lake we made a short hike to an area with a perfect view and away from the main viewpoint.
While still on a morning high from the scene at Peyto Lake we make our way down to wander around Waterfowl Lakes. After breakfast back at camp we decide very early tomorrow is the time to make it up into Lake O’Hara with the slowly clearing weather pattern.
Midday we head back into Lake Louise Village for supplies. Mainly the $6 dollar bear spray rental since I left mine back home. I know now I can take it across the border next trip. As the kid in the store weighs the bear spray he proceeds to tell me that if I end up using it and the weight is not the same upon return I will have to buy it. My response “if I have to use this I have much bigger concerns than the retail price of a can of bear spray!”
That night we photographed sunset along Waterfowl Lakes. The partly cloudy skies made for a really nice scene. We don’t stick around long as we need to hit the sack early since wake up will be 3:15! No time for s’mores or kumbaya this trip.
My soothing alarm ring goes off at 3:15 am. Surprisingly I slept better than expected and feel pretty good. We eat a quick breakfast, as much as my body wants to eat this early in the morning and out into the morning cold crisp air we head as we start our trek to Lake O’Hara.
Spots in and around Lake O’Hara are amazingly scenic like out of Lord of the Rings or where you truly might find that pot of gold with a leprechaun. This is the reason it’s not easy to get there. For most normal people there are two options; camping or the lodge. Both options book up months in advance. Our plan would be to hike the 11 km gravel road in the dark to make it by sunrise. You can see why I rented bear spray. Although we were a group of four it’s prime bear country. With our head lamps moving around like the light in a lighthouse and plenty of “hey bear” shout outs we arrive at Lake O’Hara shortly before sunrise. I would not necessarily recommend this approach yet it worked for us.
We quickly find out the hiking is not over. We have at least a few more kilometers of all steep terrain to make it where we want to go. I am on a high and power through the next part. The sky starts getting lighter to slowly reveal this magical landscape. We spend a couple hours hiking around and taking photos. Honestly it’s a place you could stay all day with the perfect conditions we had yet we needed to ensure we could get a bus out. We leave it behind taking our photos as constant reminders for years to come.
We decide our next stop is Kananaskis. Kananskis Country is known for large photogenic groves of aspens. After the 160 km drive (about 2 hrs) we were pretty wiped considering the early morning wakeup call and long hike. We pull into a campground in Kananaskis area and take a long nap.
We decided on Wedge Pond for sunset, a short jaunt from camp. The golden aspens line the pond and do not disappoint. Not only did we have a beautiful view yet on the other side of the pond were what appeared to be two female yoga instructors doing poses in a wildly colorful yoga pants while a male photographer taking the shots was cheering them on. They were the only people there besides us.
Up the next morning and fortunately another not too far away drive which allowed for a more normal wake up time. It was a nice little marshy pond area not far from the road with a perfect view of Mount Kidd. A thin layer of ice continued growing on the small ponds as we photographed which was all we needed to tell us the temperature outside.
After that we spent the next few hours chasing around different aspen groves before the light got too harsh. Daytime photos are beautiful with golden aspens mixed with blue skies yet we had other plans in mind given it was our last day.
A late breakfast and on the road to the town Banff we go. There is a campground just outside of town where we setup camp. After “roughing” it for the week we decide an evening on the town is in order to finish this phenomenal trip. I highly recommend a soak in Banff Hot Springs and grabbing a beer with dinner at Banff Brewing Company. The next morning before dawn we head home.
If you have not been it’s a must add to your bucket list. In my home state of Oregon I feel lucky to live near mountains to play and photograph yet in all honesty they feel less dramatic in scale and size when comparing the endless large mountains around every turn in the Canadian Rockies.
Timing: The first part of any fall color foliage trip is timing. We all had it Sharpied in our calendars many months in advance and while peak fall colors certainly change every year none of us had much wiggle room. Fortunately our timing could not have been better. Normal peak for this area is middle to late September. As a side note you can easily spend a couple weeks in the Canadian Rockies and still feel like you are only scratching the surface.
Transportation: Living in the Pacific Northwest we are in reasonable driving distance. I only lug all my camping or backpacking equipment at 30,000 feet when necessary. The drive was about 12 hours, pushing the envelope to do it one day. Flying you will likely need to come through Calgary, the closest International airport at 120 kilometers from Banff.
Weather: This time of year you need everything from t-shirts to thick down jackets. We experienced snow, rain, wind and bright blue sky mild days. Be prepared for it all. Our coldest morning was about -3 degrees and our sunny warmest day about 15 degrees Celsius.
Lodging: There are plenty of options from budget camping to deluxe pampering hotels. We would be camping the whole time which made it very cost effective. Campgrounds we stayed at in Yoho and Banff ranged from $18 to $27 Canadian a night with additional $8 if you want to have a campfire. Beautiful Lake O’Hara I mentioned, lodging is a mere $600 to $900 CA a night for two.
Locations: Overall there many different parks and places that are part of Canadian Rockies yet we had no problem filling the days with our focus on three of them…Kananaskis, Banff and Yoho National Parks.
Physical Activity Level: You can make it as adventurous as you want from photographing out the window of your resort room to backpacking deep into the mountains. If money is no object then the best of both by staying at mountain lodges in the back country. Given we had only a week most of our locations were short hikes to nature walks with one long strenuous hike.
by Zack Schnepf
As I’ve mentioned before, composition is the most challenging part of photography for me. It’s also one of the most rewarding aspects of photography. Bringing together different elements into a compelling composition is a wonderful creative process. It can be a very “zen” experience as well. When I photograph on my own, it’s a kind of meditation for me. I’ve never been someone who get’s too preoccupied with following compositional rules, but there are a lot of very useful composition ideas that I try to keep in mind while composing in the field. In this article I’ll discuss some of the different composition models I look for when composing a landscape image. There are a lot of composition models that have been used throughout art history. I’ll be focusing on just a few, otherwise we might be here all day. The following are some examples of my favorite composition archetypes I look for in the field.
Rule of thirds
This is one of the oldest compositional rules and is one of the first compositional rules many of us learn about. The ancient greeks used the rule of thirds in their architecture and it was probably used even before that. The human brain seems to like compositions balanced by thirds. We also naturally look toward the power points where rule of thirds lines intersect. Compositions that utilize this theory tend to feel balanced and are more compelling.
Frame within a frame and natural framing
I love finding elements that naturally frame a scene. Using elements that also tell a story about that particular place are even more compelling. This first example is a composition I found my very first year photographing. I didn’t capture the light I was hoping for so I came back years later and captured the same scene with better light. I love the way the tree frames the scene and helps tell the story of Crater Lake. This next example is Teardrop Arch in Utah. A beautiful scene framed in this tear drop shaped arch in Monument Valley
S and C curves
S curves and C curves help viewers travel through an image and add an interesting visual flow. I love incorporating curves in my compositions. In this example the C curve of the petrified sand dunes in white pocket draw your eye in and through the scene creating visual flow. This image also uses a type of symmetry that I’ll talk about later.
Puzzle piece compositions have elements that visually fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. These can make for very interesting compositions if constructed well. In this example, David Cobb deliberately composed this image with the shape off the ice berg mirrored in the reflection above it.
When most people think of symmetry, they think of mirror symmetry, but there are several more types of symmetry I look for when composing as well. This image of death valley is a good example of rotation semmetry, or inversion symmetry. The curve of the dune is mirrored and opposite that of the blue in the sky. This is one of my favorite kinds of symmetry to find while composing. It’s not always possible, but when things line up, this is something I have my eye out for. To learn more about basic types of symmetry you can follow this link: http://mathforum.org/sum95/suzanne/symsusan.html
These are just some of the composition models I look for when composing. There are a lot more and I encourage everyone to try find different composition types when you’re in the field. You can learn about many different styles of composition by simply viewing art. Whether it’s looking through a book of artwork, viewing an exhibit at an art museum, or just looking through images on 500px. Studying the work of artists you admire is a great way to learn about composition and influences how you look at a scene. This is one of the best ways to improve your photography and progress as an artist. I studied art and art history in college and it has had an enormous influence on how I perceive the world and try to capture it. There is so much to learn from the masters of different eras, artistic movements, and styles? It’s a humbling and incredibly enriching experience.
In part four of this series I’ll talk about the elements that I try use to build compositions.
Of all of the terms that typically appear in discussions of photographic composition, the word “subject” may be the most confusing. In typical explanations, a photograph has a subject when it presents a main feature as being distinct from its setting, which is everything else in the image. These explanations usually assert that the lack of a subject will cause the eye to become restless as it searches for something to lock onto, making the viewer lose interest quickly. Without a subject, they say, the viewer will be left wondering what the photo is ‘about’.
While there is some real value in this concept, the use of the word “subject” to describe a compositional feature conflates the realms of form and meaning, making it potentially confusing for anyone who would like to apply the concept in their own photography. The main problem with applying the term is imagining its opposite, the idea that a landscape photograph could be devoid of a subject. We are likely to see the river, the desert, the ocean, the chain of mountain peaks, or whatever feature might have inspired us to press our shutter button, as the subject of our resulting image—after all, aren’t the features in the image what the photo is ‘about’? What follows in this article is an attempt to answer that question by cutting the cake a different way, to provide an alternative framework for understanding the ideas behind the typical usage of the word “subject” and for determining when these ideas might be relevant for a given photograph. This framework can be explained with three simple concepts: Hierarchy, Intention, and Meaning.
Hierarchy: Providing a Sense of Order
In a previous article for the Photo Cascadia blog, I discussed the concept of visual hierarchy and provided a brief explanation of what it can accomplish and why it is not the only mode of organization that can result in compelling photographs. The use of the word “subject” in discussions of composition aligns closely with what I described as the primary point of interest in an image—the locus where the eye knows to stop between explorations of the frame. While there may be other points of interest in a photo, the primary one will stand out from all else and will generally provide a sort of terminus for eye movement in the composition. Light, color, texture, mass, or form may all contribute to establishing visual hierarchy, but the result will be the same: the eye will have a home base where it can rest, and the overall image will seem well resolved.
Although hierarchy is only one possible organizing principle, it is essentially what discussions of the proverbial subject aim to describe. A common alternative term is “anchor”, a label often given to any compositional element that has the most visual weight in an image. While that term nicely avoids the suggestion of meaning, it comes with its own set of potentially confusing implications. An anchor stops movement, yet it is something that is connected to the ground and that has great mass; therefore, it is an awkward term to use when describing something like a sunstar or a crashing wave that may be at the top of a photo’s visual hierarchy. Regardless of what you call the primary point of interest in a photograph, it will help to provide a sense of order. Besides hierarchy, schemes that can establish order include, patterning, connecting forms, visual echoes, and dualities, among others.
Intention: Providing the ‘Aha Moment’
But is order really necessary? What do we gain from it?
The main benefit of any organizational scheme is that it makes the decisions that went into a composition seem intentional: order indicates the will of the photographer who found or created it. Without any such scheme, a photo is likely to seem random and unresolved, leaving viewers to wonder what they are supposed to make of its various elements. Therefore, a lack of order tends to be less satisfying than compositions that indicate a high level of intention. When a viewer recognizes a clear photographic motivation, they have a satisfying ‘Aha Moment’, which will secure their interest and will encourage them to appreciate the other merits of the photo more fully.
So while there may be artistic arguments in favor of compositions that seem arbitrary or accidental, the most compelling images tend to be the ones that allow viewers to make sense of what they are seeing so that their appreciation can extend to deeper levels.
Meaning: What a Photo is ‘About’
Those deeper levels of appreciation ultimately involve interpretation, the process of deciding what an image is about, which involves more than just recognizing a subject within it. Contrary to what the term “subject” implies, a main compositional element is not necessarily the source of a photo’s meaning. Meaning emerges out of the organizing principle that governs an image as a whole, not merely from any single feature within it. In other words, what a landscape photograph’s various features collectively suggest is ultimately what the photo is ‘about’. If a photo depicts a rainbow over a dried lakebed with arcing mud cracks in it, the photo is not simply about one of those two features or the details within them; the echo of the rainbow’s form in the mud cracks indicates a relationship between the rainbow and the lakebed, and therein lies the potential for identifying meaning, however anyone wants to interpret it. (To read some possible interpretations of the described image, see the article that I wrote about it previously.)
Putting it All Together
In short, the simple answer to the question posed in the title of this article is no, landscape photographs do not need a “subject”. What they need is to hold the interest of the viewer, and that is most likely to happen when an image conveys a sense of intention. An ordering principle such as hierarchy can get a viewer past the point of looking for purpose and onto deeper levels of appreciation. The age-old term “subject” has earned its place in so many discussions of composition because it attempts to identify what is probably the most common method of creating order. Clearly the term has its shortcomings, but the ideas behind it are relevant for many photographs and are worth salvaging. I hope that reformulating those ideas through the connected concepts above may help more photographers to appreciate the value in the ideas and may help to prevent misunderstandings.
As with any compositional decisions, the time for conscious analysis of these concepts may not be while you’re out in the field, rushing to catch some spectacular light. An instructor once said to me when I was in art school, “Creativity is a messy place.” We don’t always arrive at our best ideas by thinking methodically about them, and compelling compositions don’t always result from stopping to ponder the full implications of our decisions. Nonetheless, analysis is extremely valuable when selecting images for editing and when tricky compositional situations present themselves in the field; if creative instincts alone are not quite bringing about that ‘Aha Moment’, a bit of analysis can help to point the way forward. Also, thinking about composition helps us to internalize ideas about it and to draw upon them later subconsciously.
Can you think of any other compositional terms, like “subject”, that may be confusing to many people? If so, please feel free to share them in the comments below. And as always, your thoughts about this article are also very welcome!
Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Slovenia, traveling and photographing extensively from home bases in both locations. Make sure to bookmark Erin’s site at www.erinbabnik.com. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter and 500px.
In this online world of the selfie crazed photo posts there is still the more classic selfie of putting up a tripod with camera for setting up the perfect scene. I like to say I have a selfie stick and jokingly point to my tripod. Taking a more old school approach I feel it can tell a better story to the viewer of what the place is like and how it might have felt. I do realize selfie as the word is coined for photos of today means holding the camera yet I am not covering big in your face shots here, it’s more nature self-portraits with purpose.
You might think it’s as easy as setting up the camera for the nature scene in front of you, setting the timer, jumping in front of the camera and waiting for the shutter to trip. Well sometimes it is, yet often it’s not. For those that have done them you know what I am talking about. Many takes to get one image that works well can get frustrating. The angle was off with your body, the way you were stepping on the trail doesn’t look natural, you are too large… or too small compared to the rest of the subjects, and the list goes on.
Why do I take these shots? Simply put because I want a human in the scene for one of a variety of reasons and in these cases I am typically the only one around or the only one willing to take the time to get the image I am after. I am not taking them for an Instagram account filled with selfies although don’t let me stop you if that is your cup of tea.
Here is me and my “selfie stick” just playing around during a hazy forest fire smoke sunset on the Oregon Coast. It usually gets some interesting looks when I use it. A family member off in the distance said “Is that Adrian taking photos with a selfie stick!” There you go… a tripod and selfie stick in one.
Now to more worthwhile information. Here is a list of things to think about I have learned over the years when trying to setup and pose myself into a scene with some example photos.
- You will want the basics. By basics I mean setup of camera, tripod and timer remote is essential. Without these you may find it very tough to impossible to get what you are conceptualizing.
- Does it look natural or too set up, the composition just like without people in the photo is critical to get right. Ask yourself how the scene balances with you in the shot and where you plan to stand, sit or do some awesome jumps!
- Besides composition of the scene the placement and body stance is very important. It should look pretty natural. If it looks overly posed or contrived you won’t be as happy with the photo in the end. You won’t know what this feels like until you practice and look at the results.
- Are you using newer equipment that allows you to see the scene in real time such as apps on phones with WiFi or Bluetooth. This way you can stand a ways from your camera to click the button when it looks right on your phone instead of setting a timer, running and stand still just in the nick of time for ‘click’.
- Show a much more of the scene and a lot less of yourself. You will see in the many examples below I am only a fraction of the scene. Sometimes you can see it’s me and other times I am small enough you can’t tell.
- Look away from camera vs always looking at camera. A viewer will tend to look more into what the image is about and what you are looking at if you are not staring at the camera.
- Bright colors might be better or worse depending on what you are after yet it’s good to think about this before you head out. Are you looking to stand out or blend into the scene.
- Buckles, straps, zippers should be checked before taking the shot. I can’t count how may times I looked at the image after the fact to find I had undone sagging buckles or straps that drew attention to what I was wearing or carrying not in the way I had hoped.
Golden Rays – While teaching a workshop a number of years back I was showing participants how putting themselves in the photo might be another composition to think of. I kept a strong composition with leading lines from the bottom corners with the road, placed myself in the power point and let it snap when it was to a natural looking position in my walk.
Mount Rainier – This is a case where color helps. It is an amazing scene yet if I had a pack that blended in the scene it would not be as dramatic. Notice the way I am positioned at an angle towards the mountain with a step up on the edge of the trail.
Alvord Desert – Notice where my right foot is placed. It’s right where the larger crack starts giving it a stronger look. The cloud also appears to stretch from the top of my head. These combined with my stance I feel provide a stronger image than simply standing anywhere on this playa.
Mount Adams – It was a fine morning along this lake and I wanted to capture what I was feeling eating breakfast and drinking coffee. Again I positioned my self in a power point and looking towards the mountain making sure none of the trees are spearing my head. This is a case where I used the app on my phone to look at the composition and then clicked the 2 second timer on my phone, very handy!
Broken Top – The intent here was to keep myself small and have a big open sky as I was staring off into it just day dreaming . I don’t like I how left the branch of the tree poking in the back of my head yet it’s less of an issue with how small I am in this image.
Walchella Falls – Notice I placed myself in one corner and the falls in the opposite corner to help create balance from those two sides. Notice the un-clipped buckles on the left side of my pack. I forgot in this case and did not notice until later.
Abiqua Falls – This was a tough one. I wanted to get myself in the stream of the falls get the side stream in the foreground. It took a number of takes to line myself up right. How did I avoid standing in the same spot each time in a sea of rocks that look at the same and about 40feet from the camera? I purposely marked each spot with a wet rock before I went back to my camera so I knew if it didn’t look quiet right to move slightly next time.
All of these images and others I have taken of myself, other objects and people can be found in my adventure gallery. If you have further thoughts to add around this topic please share them here for others to see.
By Erin Babnik
When a photograph depicts a person, it is likely to suggest storylines in a fairly straightforward manner. A single or predominant person appearing within a scene will read easily as the story’s protagonist, and details in the image will help to establish strands of the narrative. Even photographs that contain only hints of human activity may express stories with relative clarity; the inclusion of a vehicle, a tent, or a personal belonging of any sort can provide a host of clues for surmising the circumstances of a scene, the events that may have preceded them, and the events that are likely to follow. But what about photographs that present no indications of human presence or even any animals in relatable scenarios? How do they tell stories?
Whereas images with figures in them have the potential to narrate quite literally, those that display natural features exclusively tend to require more interpretation, a difference not unlike that between prose and poetry. Landscape photographs generally tell their stories with relative subtlety, ambiguity, open-endedness, and mystery, but they are nonetheless capable of narration. If we find nothing meaningful in a compelling landscape photograph, it is only because we haven’t considered the implications of what makes it hold our attention. As I hope to demonstrate with a single photograph, landscape images can communicate stories on at least three different levels: the natural, the personal, and the metaphorical.
The photograph that I have chosen to use as an example shows a scene from the Mojave Desert, just after a rainstorm. The view presents a playa etched with wide mud cracks, lying beneath a dark, cloud-filled sky. Arcing across the darkness, a full rainbow springs from a mountain ridge at the left to open desert at the right. In the foreground, two especially wide cracks in the playa dominate the rain-splattered earth, each curving inward from either side of the frame and echoing the form of the rainbow above them. This simple description identifies the essential features of the photograph, but it omits any attempt at explanation or interpretation. Reducing a photo to its descriptive attributes misses out those qualities that make landscape photographs special as representatives of an art form that combines ‘found’ views with personal experiences and expression. Even though it may happen subconsciously, ideas about a landscape photograph will eventually come forward for the interested viewer, affecting the connection that the viewer will have with it. The following three categories explore some of the ways in which a photograph may convey those ideas and thereby suggest stories.
THE NATURAL LEVEL
Any nature photograph tells a story of creation, one about the natural processes that were at work in the formation of the geological features depicted. In the case of the desert playa, the bowl-shaped depression with its pattern of cracks sprawling across the surface evince the evaporation of a shallow lake that once existed in this location. What was originally muddy sediment of the lake’s bed has since contracted and cracked through the process of desiccation after the last of the water evaporated. The rainbow, as an indicator of both the sun and the rain, demonstrates the role that weather plays in affecting the topography of the area: rain created the lake, and then the sun caused it to vanish. These events are distinct chapters in a story that is perpetually in progress.
THE PERSONAL LEVEL
While a photograph may omit people within its frame, one person is always implied by its existence: the photographer. Behind every landscape image is a story of its making, even if that story never accompanies the image in any written form. Looking at the photograph of the desert scene, a viewer could guess much about the experience of the photographer at that moment: this person traveled to a remote area, hiked to a dried lakebed, probably got a bit wet from the rain, and then was treated to the spectacle of a full rainbow. Anyone who has visited a similar area or has witnessed similar conditions will be able to project additional details into the story based on personal experience, while others may embellish the narrative with details derived purely from a vivid imagination. The story could be envisioned as one of great adventure, of personal struggle, or of simple pleasures, but regardless of how well any of these ideas may match with the actual circumstances of the photograph’s creation, they still form part of its story for the viewer who imagines them. In this regard, the viewer mentally occupies the space of the photographer, and the two become elided as that implied individual who appears nowhere in the picture and yet serves as its protagonist.
THE METAPHORICAL LEVEL
The symbolic power of natural features allows them to suggest stories of a more timeless and universal quality. While symbolism can be very culturally relevant, the realities of nature provide experiences that people across the globe tend to share and to understand similarly. For example, a rainbow may have different spiritual or political connotations in different cultures, but most people will understand it as a phenomenon that occurs when a storm breaks and the sun begins to shine, so it is likely to register as something that marks the end of a difficult experience and as a herald of positive change. At the very least, a rainbow represents something highly ephemeral, a marvel that lasts a short while and is always fresh and new. In the photograph from the Mojave Desert, the rainbow appears in alignment with much older features, the cracks in the playa surface that resemble the rainbow’s form. For the viewer willing to ponder it, this coincidence may suggest a story of rebirth or renewal: the fractured past versus a bright future. Alternatively, it could suggest a happy symbiosis between old and young, an encapsulation of the cycle of life, or an epiphany revealing a connection between disparate ideas. Many more possibilities for interpretation exist, and any one of them may resonate without the need to go through any amount of deliberate analysis—sometimes we simply know that a photo is ‘speaking’ to us, without being fully conscious of what it’s saying.
Thinking about photographs as bearers of meaning may not be necessary for the creation or the enjoyment of them, but it can be very worthwhile in either case. For the photographer, giving some thought to the stories that a location may suggest can help with the creative process, both in the field and during image development. Interpretation can also help with the process of self-curation, since those images that seem to narrate most clearly are often the ones that hold the greatest visual interest. For the viewer, taking a moment to consider a photograph’s possible narratives will slow down the viewing process, allowing greater appreciation of what an image has to offer, which is infinitely more rewarding than having knee-jerk reactions while consuming images in rapid succession.
If you enjoyed reading about the possible implications of my desert photograph, you may be interested to hear the actual story of its making. I will share my experience of that morning in a post to my Facebook page on August 3, so I encourage you to follow me there and to look out for that post. In the meantime, please feel free to share your thoughts on this topic in the comments below.
Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Slovenia, traveling and photographing extensively from home bases in both locations. Make sure to bookmark Erin’s site at www.erinbabnik.com. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter and 500px.
By Erin Babnik
Landscape photography entails a variety of challenges that can make a successful outing feel like a real triumph, but chief among them may be the task of ‘organizing’ nature through image composition. Nature’s many forms typically coincide in haphazard displays until an act of framing and alignment brings a sense of order to the chaos. Fortunately for those of us who are willing to look for them, there are numerous patterns common in the natural world that can give an image some essential structure. The five patterns that I have chosen to feature in this article each work well as a primary compositional scheme, providing an image with strong grand forms that can register a clear sense of intention. While these five are among the more prevalent patterns in landscapes, there are many others worth finding, and creating an exhaustive list of them would probably be impossible. At the same time, even these five patterns have qualities in common, owing to their shared reliance on aesthetic principles. Having a strong understanding of the fundamentals and complexities of those principles will always provide the greatest foundation for making compositional decisions, but recognizing patterns can be an excellent aid in thinking abstractly and in responding to visual stimuli.
While I chose to feature these five patterns because of their prevalence in nature, they also have in common a tendency to work well in combination with strong hierarchical arrangements: compositions that feature a point of visual interest that registers as the primary one in a scene. Of course, not all successful compositions must employ the principle of hierarchy; for example, some images, especially many abstracts, derive their visual interest from a complete lack of it, presenting instead a kind of patterning that keeps the eye entertained by subtle variations within an otherwise homogenous collection of forms. My own habits favor hierarchy, however, so the examples that I have included here are of that sort.
Before committing to any one of these patterns in the field, it may be helpful to remember some tips for maximizing their effectiveness. Above all, for any of these patterns to read well, they should probably be dominant structures in a scene, clearly expressed and not competing with any other strong forms. Secondly, for them to help to establish a sense of visual hierarchy, they will have to contribute to the overall order of the image, ensuring that the viewer’s attention gets directed towards whatever part of a scene constitutes its primary point of interest. In other words, forms that lead to or emphasize a feature will tend to strengthen that feature visually, playing a supporting role and helping the eye to identify where it should rest between explorations of the frame. Lastly, it is important to keep in mind that lines in nature may correspond with these forms and still not read well if the light in a scene is working against them, so it is never enough simply to find lines—those lines will require light that helps to define them. Indeed, light may be the very quality that creates forms that would not exist otherwise.
With those caveats in mind, we can now have a look at each of these five patterns separately. The icons below summarize each pattern graphically for the sake of clarity and recall, but they are not intended to represent complete compositions or to depict the exact forms that a pattern must take. These patterns are simple components that may appear in combination with other elements, and the icons are merely suggestive of a range of possibilities that exists for each pattern.
Compositions featuring this pattern will contain a prominent mass or collection of elements that attract the eye to the foreground and then plunge it into the background of a scene. The form that directs the eye may originate from any area near the bottom of the frame. If the shape of the pattern leads to a clear visual payoff in the background, then it will help to establish that background feature as the primary point of visual interest.
When one prominent element in a scene repeats the forms of another, it creates a visual ‘echo’, as it were. The related elements strengthen each other by association, and if one of them is the primary feature of the scene or else leads to it, then the entire image is likely to have a strong sense of hierarchy and intention. Finding an ‘echo’ in a scene will usually give the viewer that ‘aha moment’ that can make viewing an image particularly exciting.
THE LAYER CAKE
When overlapping layers have adequate separation, they can create an exciting sense of depth in a scene. Layers that share visual qualities will also provide an image with a certain rhythm that helps to hold it all together. Hierarchy in this case will be established by one layer being picked out in some way, perhaps by light or by it containing a strong element that anchors the entire scene.
Similar to The Plunge, this pattern leads the eye into the background, but in this case using diagonal lines that may leave room for negative space or for an area of texture in the foreground. The lines may be literal (that is, solid lines) or suggestive (that is, made up of repeating elements that cohere into lines), and they will typically emanate out of the lower corners or else near to them. Whatever area the diagonal lines point towards will become the focus of attention, so it is usually best if the viewer can find something interesting there.
This pattern is characterized by a multitude of strong lines or forms all converging on a single element. The directional forces may originate in any area of the frame, and there may be any number of them, but a strong element will pull them all together.
As I mentioned above, these five patterns are just a selection that have certain aesthetic principles in common, such as their ability to create directional force or to help establish a visual hierarchy. Are there any patterns that you tend to find often in nature that are not represented here? If so, please feel free to describe them in the comments below.
Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Slovenia, traveling and photographing extensively from home bases in both locations. Make sure to bookmark Erin’s site at www.erinbabnik.com. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.