Outside is incredible! Whether one is walking through their neighborhood enjoying flowers in front of houses, witnessing the coyote that lives in the empty lot, hearing a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) sing its funny squeaky-toy-like tones; or if you are able to explore State Parks, National Parks, or somewhere farther afield, seeing plants and trees and animals and landscapes is always incredible. Natural things are everywhere and they are beautiful.
Being a photographer, like all of you are, one may have noticed that somedays you return home from a hike or exploration with only a few images on your memory cards. This was in spite of where you were having been a beautiful place. You have observed a reality that all artists of nature-scapes, photographers included, have stumbled into many times, and will again and again forever - sometimes a scene is beautiful and NOT photogenic.
There are three general components to a photograph’s compositional success which I constantly have rattling around in my head…
On a recent hike in snowy mountains, I walked into a beautiful forest, home to great trees with nice reddish bark. I hoped to contrast the red warmth of the trees with the cool blueish shadows of the shade on snow. It was late morning, after the sun had risen with a warm glow of low-angled winter light.
Subject: trees/snow - check
Light: Late morning with long shadows - check
The background, foreground, mid-ground, all the ground was not going to work. Heavy snow-load followed by high wind had sent nearly every branch, cone and needle down from the canopy onto the once clean and clear snow. There was no way a scene like this was going to meet the three considerations listed above. It would have been a challenge for any photographer to make this scene into landscape art. This was not going to become a large gallery hung image.
Take this image of a spider on its web. The background is out of focus, good for this image. The light is bright overcast which helps with color saturation and tonal balance, good. But the subject is not “perfect”. How many legs should a spider typically have? Even though I like every spider, this one is missing one leg so it cannot truly be called a “perfect” example of a Golden Silk Spider. Sorry bud.
Some photographers will tell you there is no good light at midday, so therefore that is when they hike and scout. I don’t fully agree with this. If you are open and receptive to compositions and subjects that might benefit from midday light, you can create images anytime of the day. While there is merit in the overall point, I don’t think we should limit ourselves to only the ‘best’ times to photograph.
These images of Trillium were created on the same day. The difference is one was in the shade and the other in full sun. When it comes to bright whites and inky black, and perhaps trying to balance the two extreme tones, then yes, midday is a challenge. There are always ways around these challenges, and finding a Trillium in shade was a way to improve the light.
Trillium in full sun
Trillium in shade
Background/foreground/middle ground/all the ground -
Think of this compositional element as anything in the scene that is not the subject, does not support the subject or does not have anything to do with the subject. If there is some element in your frame that distracts in any way, or does not add power to your subject, then it could possible have a negative effect on the image.
Take for example the images of an owl butterfly. In one image the sunlight can be seen in the upper right corner. This, whether you know it or not, attracted your eye first and distracted you from the subject. Our eyes find bright areas first, FYI. With a simple reposition of the camera I was able to eliminate this distracting bright spot and held drive your attention to the butterfly, the subject. Distracting elements can come in the form of bright spots, cigarette butts, soda cans, another animal, plant, stick, etc. Anything and everything can find its way into your frame and ruin your composition.
I hope the consideration of Subject, Light and Background helps you think about the scene that is in front of you. Take a moment to scan every corner of your frame and ask yourself, is the subject a good one? Is the light right for the subject? Is there anything else in the scene that takes away from the subject? Approaching your photography with these questions in mind will go a long way to improving the message, power and beauty of an image.
If you would like to dive deeper into understanding and practice selecting scenes that satisfy these three components, we talk about this a lot during my in-person photography classes. Check out the class list for upcoming dates.