On composition

If there’s one thing that I emphasize above all else in photography, it’s composition. Don’t just take a photo, but put the elements together within it to your satisfaction. This, to me, holds up far more than what kind of equipment you’re using and how technically proficient you are with it. And it’s not an easy thing to teach – I’m still at the point where, even though I can name umpteen different compositional tricks, rules, and recommendations, I also shrug and say, “You have to develop an eye.” What an “eye” is is debatable – much of our appreciation of photography takes place subconsciously and is very hard to pin down, but I encourage students to examine their favorite images and try to determine what it is that strikes them the right way.

The image here is kind of a lucky accident. Only a couple of weeks ago I took advantage of scattered clouds blown by a stiff wind in front of the full moon and shot a large number of sky and moon shots. This one is a long exposure (45 seconds) as the clouds blew by – the moon is high to the right, out of the frame. What worked with this is, the clouds were blowing in the same direction as the road, so they streak in harmony with the lines and unseen traffic. As I said, this was accidental – it was right out in front of my place and I didn’t plan it that way, but it would have had far less impact, I think, had the clouds been moving in any other direction. The clouds, the treelines, and the road all bring focus to a single vanishing point in the distance, and the clouds seem to race past in contrast to the stillness of the rest of the image. The few stars that I captured, while moving against all of this, hadn’t moved enough to show distinct streaks and thus don’t counteract the clouds and lines. There’s even a curve in the clouds that mimics the “influence” of the trees. If I actually tried to achieve all this, it might have taken me a hell of a long time to find a road facing the way I wanted with the wind, the right clouds and moonlight conditions, and no traffic. But I’ll still take credit for it anyway ;-)

And of course, there are times when it doesn’t work. I don’t particularly like this image, for a number of reasons. After shooting it, I realized I would have liked it better if I’d set the camera slightly offset from the line of footprints, so they angled across the frame a little rather than directly into it. Those tracks are mine, purposefully made for the image, but I should have remembered that I really do walk that splayfooted and made some effort to walk a little more normally. And the strobe that I used to give illumination and definition to the tracks is a little too bright and blue, and seems to indicate that there’s something bright just out of the frame to the left, counteracting the idea of a lonely, empty road. Even a single, dim light in the distance (or perhaps none at all) would have worked better than the multiple sources flooding in from the sides. So I consider this one a miss, and a learning exercise. I’d actually envisioned what I wanted, but failed to execute it to my satisfaction.

Does this mean I should stick to winging it, like the top image, rather than planning like the bottom? I hope not, because that’s not a good way for a photographer to operate, but in this case, at least, it would have been better with more foresight. Long exposures at night are tricky things to get proper light levels within, so be ready to experiment a lot when you try them. And always think about the elements in your image and what they seem to say or imply – these can be subtle. How you use them is up to you – that’s your own style. But the powerful images are ones that seem to contain more ideas than simply the subjects within the frame.

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