“Oh, your pictures are so beautiful. Mine never look like that,” exclaim many people when they see our images. “What kind of camera do you use?” Time and again we explain that it isn’t the dummy camera that creates the beautiful pictures. It’s the dummy behind the camera. Honestly, it isn’t the film, it isn’t the camera, it isn’t the lens, and it isn’t the location. It is the person with the finger on the trigger who captures the beautiful pictures.
Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art.
Tom Stoppard, Artist Descending A Staircase
It is all about the photographic approach. When we approach a potential photograph, we come to the scene with years of experience that has been flavored by numerous photography classes and training programs. Teaching nature photography, we notice that beginning students are so taxed with all the information they have to consider before they press the shutter, just taking the picture overwhelms them. In time, they, too, come to understand that they have to approach photography in a step-by-step process, initiated at each location, and reinitiated upon each repositioning within the location. To help you understand the process, here are some examples of how we approach our photographic subjects.
Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds is a modern simplification of the artistic rule developed by the ancient Greeks called the Golden Mean. The Greeks discovered that the most pleasing placement of a point of interest is about 38 percent of the way in from the edge – noticeably off-center. We approximate this by dividing our pictures into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, like a tic-tac-toe pattern. Then, by placing our subject at one of these power points, we increase the tension, and therefore the interest, in our pictures. The eye moves around the picture, resting upon the main subject, and then continues on, returning back to rest. It is usually the first concept taught in basic photographic composition and art school. For photographers in general, it is also a good place to start.
When we enter a location and work with a subject, our tendency is to put the main subject in the center, but this is the most statically boring composition. Instead, we must take care to look around the viewfinder to move the subject into a more “interesting” compositional location, and the rule of thirds helps with positioning options. With our subject in an interesting placement, we can then search the viewfinder to see what else catches our eye, and decide what else should or should not be included.
Simplify, simplify, simplify
We just can’t say it enough. The simpler your picture is, the more powerful it tends to be. A friend of ours who travels and photographs with us frequently exclaims that he just doesn’t have a lens wide enough to include the entire beautiful scene before us. Brent and I look at the same scene and say, “There, that area right there. That is the picture.” While he prays for a 14mm wide angle lens, we pull out our 300mm to capture the most important element we’ve found, eliminating all the other distracting elements. Certainly there are excellent wide angle scenic perspectives worth photographing, but study them carefully. You will find that the best wide-angle scenics include only a few subjects of interest within them.
Carefully study what is within the boundaries of your viewfinder. Consider it a box in which you have many toys, but where you can only play with one or two and not all of them at the same time. Count all the things that hold your attention. Does that number exceed 3? Can you recompose so the number comes closer to 3? What about bright lights in a dark background? Are those distracting? Blur the image by manually unfocusing the lens and watch for dark or light highlights to become distractions. Can any of those be eliminated? What about the litter in the foreground? How about the garbage can or the edge of the parking lot in your nature scenic? Can that be eliminated by repositioning yourself? Check the foreground and background. What holds your attention? Is it what you want people to look at?
By changing positions, lenses, or your composition, you can change the perspective and eliminate the distractions that can’t physically be removed. Get low, lie on the ground, stand tall, stand on a ladder or vehicle for a higher perspective. By moving around and checking out the different perspectives through your viewfinder, you may find a view you like better than your first choice. Don’t be limited by where you plant your body and/or camera and tripod. They are all fairly mobile. Take the camera off the tripod and walk around to find the best angle. When you have found the spot, then position your tripod accordingly. Take your time to consider the many ways and choices you have to photograph a subject.
Consider the Background
We are often so entranced by the subject, thinking about the exposure needed in concert with the available light to make the subject look its best and stand out, thinking about the position in the frame and of the subject so it will look good and natural, about the depth of field to get all of it or some of it in focus, depending upon the desired end result – but how much time do you spend considering the background and foreground of the subject.
Backgrounds can make or break photographs, adding distractions or inappropriate habitat conditions to the subject making the viewer feel uncomfortable, disappointed, or even confused. The position of the subject within the frame is critical but its relationship to everything else in the photograph is just as important. We explore the magic of the background in another article series which we recommend to expand your knowledge of approaching a subject.
Why are you pressing the shutter? Do you ever stop and ask yourself “why?” You might be surprised at the answer. It could be because it feels right and all the elements are perfectly arranged and lined up for a beautiful composition, or it could be because this is where you stopped the car and got out. If it is the latter, consider changing positions and looking at the scene from another perspective. Or is the reason because you felt you “had” to take a picture? These impulses come from different sources. Some are creatively driven (“It called to me.”), while others are politically driven (“I have to show the people back home how much fun I had.”), and others are story-telling impulses (“I have to show them everything I did.”). All are worthwhile to consider, but really examine your motive.
Look deeper. What called out to you and demanded “photograph me”? Was it the color of the sky at sunrise or sunset? Was it the interesting pattern of the clouds in the sky? Was it the bright colors of the wildflowers in the field? Was it the dramatic scale of the snow-covered mountains? Whatever it was, photograph that. If it is the wildflowers, don’t take a picture that includes the sky, hills, the cars, the trash can next to the road, or the houses in the background. Take a picture of the flowers. If it is the sky, find something interesting to put into the foreground to make the sky’s colors more dramatic: Silhouettes of mountains, trees, buildings, and people are all easily identifiable shapes and they can add drama.
Sometimes finding what is really the element that called out to you is part of the photographic challenge. This is why we recommend starting with the simple task of just finding something interesting to put into the rule of thirds point. Then eliminate the distracting elements in your composition. This gives you time to settle into the place and to absorb it before hurrying on to the next subject. As you settle in, contemplate the reasons behind your motivation and photograph each candidate as you consider it.
In working with a small field of frost-covered grasses and trees in the foothills of the Olympic Mountains of Washington State, Brent was enthralled. He wasn’t sure what his subject was, but he felt like a kid in a candy factory. He first started, as usual, with an overall area shot, putting something interesting into a rule of thirds position and considering his subject matter. The frost-covered tangle of branches in a tree seemed to call to him. He put on a longer lens, unwilling yet to enter the ice-coated field, filling the viewfinder with the tree. Moving to an even longer zoom lens, he filled the frame with the textured patterns of lines between the busy branches, the dark shadowed trunk, and the curving lines of the laden grasses. Then he realized that the tree wasn’t as fascinating as he originally thought. Slowly he moved into the field, looking around at all the subject matter he was just beginning to notice. The curves in the grasses attracted his eye downward, so he photographed them. He noticed all the interesting leaves coated with long fingers of frost on the ground. As he changed lenses, he kneeled down on the ground, and looked up through the tall curved grasses to find patterns in the lines against the sky. After working both of those subjects, he then realized that what had drawn him in the first place was not just the patterns and textures of the frost but the frost itself, so he added more closeup equipment and photographed the frost which had built up into what is known as “hoar frost”, an unusual frost effect that occurs when an area is in the shade all day. Instead of melting and then reforming during the cold night, the frost continues to “grow” atop itself, branching out in lace-like lines from its captive subject.
None of these photographs are “the” picture Brent was after. They are all parts of the story about the place and each one says something different. Each image is lovely with its own value. The longer he spent exploring the frost-bound area, the more images were revealed to him as his perspective changed. It isn’t about finding the perfect photograph, it is all about lifting the leaf to explore the new world underneath.
Finding the reason behind your photographic motivation takes time. The more time you spend with a subject, the more likely you are to capture the pictures which represent the magic that compelled you to pause. Take your time. Slow down. Consider each element as you work. Patience is a job requirement in nature photography.
Plan your trips to spend the most time in the area you want to photograph. Many of us plan our travels to see as much as possible. Instead, learn to plan to be in a place as much as possible to absorb the nuances. If you find a place that gets your creative juices flowing, go back over and over again. Visit during different seasons, in various weather, and at various times of the day to see it in all its incarnations. We’ve spent months in one particular area, photographing all the different birds passing through as well as working on just one particular group. We’ve spent years photographing the Olympic marmots, following the family tree as it branched and spread out over the hillsides. We’ve returned to favorite places like Jasper, Alberta, over and over again, each time coming home with different images based on the different weather conditions and seasons we found, giving us new perspectives on a favorite location. This familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, it breeds variety and diversity in your images. It cultivates your understanding of an area and its inhabitants, and that gives you a higher return on your creative endeavors.
Approaching Tips and Tricks
Here are a few more tips and tricks to cultivate your approach to a photographic subject.
- Patterns and Textures
- Look for basic patterns in lines and curves. The S-curve is easily found in streams, hills, paths, roads, and plowed fields. Horizontal lines are peaceful while vertical lines are more daring, since we know that what goes up must come down. Diagonal lines are dramatic since they are already falling and give a sense of motion. Look for other patterns in shapes and outlines of subjects. And look for textures, subjects that add depth and dimension to your images.
- Leading Lines
- Watch how the eyes move around and through the subject matter in your viewfinder. You are already starting to see what the viewer will see in the end result. Look for lines and flows of subjects that lead your eye into the picture. Is the subject matter strong enough to keep the eye inside the picture frame, or do the leading lines take your eye right out of the picture? Watch how your own eye moves through the image and take another look for distracting elements.
- Fill the Frame
- Come in closer. Whether you physically get closer or you change to a longer lens, fill the frame with the subject. This not only eliminates distractions but it gives the viewer a closer perspective of the subject.
- Catch the action
- If there is something special, some action, motion, or drama in the image, make sure you capture the peak action. If the bird is landing on the water, capture the dramatic action of the water splashing out as it touches down. If photographing a waterfall, choose a slower shutter speed to catch the silky blur of the water’s movement. The creative drama in your images is enhanced when some form of motion is captured.
- What is really special about the place?
- Every subject has some special quality to it. Maybe that’s what motivated you to stop, but it could also be whatever is unique and distinct to that subject. A ponderosa pine is an interesting tree, but what is really distinctive about it is its deeply-textured bark. Lichen-covered rock is fascinating, but is it the rock or the lichen that is really attracting your attention? Photographing the Painted Hills in the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon, most people are enchanted by the unusual colorations in the hillsides. We found ourselves interested in the lines and textures of the hillsides and not just the colorations, looking deeper at what makes the place special. Discovering an engaging spring wildflower bloom along the crevices of the unique hills enhanced the patterns. Again, the more time you spend in a place, the more special qualities you uncover. Photograph them all.