The Space Between

March 31st, 2010 by William Neill

Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III – EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM – 4.0 sec at f/32

What makes one subject better than another? Does one rock have more character than another? I’m not sure that anyone has a definitive answer to these questions, but I know that I’ve always enjoyed the process of selection. This is an under-emphasized skill in landscape photography: do I photograph these leaves or those; that group of mountains and clouds or the ones behind me? I look for the tree that says, “here is an amazing tree,” and I search especially for one that says, “here is a tree that symbolizes all trees.” Ultimately, as the late great photographer Minor White defines it, the most penetrating photographs reveal the essence of the subject “for what it is… and for what else it is.”

I think that the skill of sensing this special spirit is indefinable. At the very least, it depends on trusting one’s intuition and strongly connecting with the subject, empathizing with it if you will. But after identifying that singular subject, which is certainly the most difficult aspect, next comes the photographic phase of the process. Is the light right? What lens do I use? How do I arrange the elements of my image within the camera’s framing? A vital part of this selection process is deciding on your camera’s position. Exactly where do I stand? I have often seen photographers set up their cameras in one spot, make one photograph, and move on. Sometimes this approach works, but most often it indicates a lack of attention to the subject and results in poor composition.

Designing photographs is a thrill and challenge for me. I ask myself: how can I arrange the objects in the frame to the best effect? This involves much time and shuffling to find the right spot to make the exposure. Footwork is fundamental! Should I move a little to the left, or does the design work better with the camera lowered a few inches? For example, you are standing in front of a grove of trees, and what attracts you to the scene is the density of the trees. If you move to the right or left, the spaces between the trees change. You might stand in one spot and the composition looks fine, then you move to the left ten inches and from there you can see more trees. Given your desire to convey “density,” the change in position has improved the design of the image.

My photograph Forest in Fog was made at a favorite location in the Monterey, California area where I had photographed many times before. When there is morning coastal fog, the forest is transformed with a poetic, graphic design etched against the mist! This image shows the need to pay attention to the spaces in between the main subject. There were so many options, in terms of spacing of the trees that I became immersed in the dance of design. I worked on a variety of framings for about half an hour. I made mostly single-framed images but toward the end of my session here, it dawned on me that a panoramic view would convey a stronger sense of this place. Each small move of my camera position made a big difference. This camera position, plus the wide view, gave the strongest design and density for the forest.

Instead of over-analyzing each adjustment in composition I made while in the field, I simply tried as many options as I could imagine. And I enjoyed the dance! After seeing the processed results, I could sort through my efforts with a more critical eye. Happily, many of the variations worked well. In the end, the panoramic versions were the strongest because of the rhythmic staccato effect of the lines across the long rectangle. Your own time spent experimenting with image design will make your photographs stronger. Look for those spaces between compositionally, and the spaces between that define the essence of the subject – for what else it is!

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