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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Find Your Focus

Use the essentials of strong design for better landscape compositions

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Half Dome and the Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California

El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California. Simplicity is the key to this image.
Have you ever stood on a high point, soaking in the view, exhilarated by the vast space in front of you? You took out your camera, hoping to preserve the moment—and that’s where the trouble started. The resulting photograph, rather than conveying the majesty of the scene, looks flat and lifeless. There’s a big difference in the way we experience the world and the way a camera records it. Looking out over a vista, you sense the expanse, feel the wind and hear the silence. But the camera only preserves a flat, two-dimensional visual representation of the scene, with no sound or wind effects. A photograph can’t record feelings—only lines, shapes, tones and colors.

So how do you give your photographs impact? How do you convey the grandeur of the landscape in a small, two-dimensional image? You have to find your focus. I’m not talking about turning the ring on your lens—I’m talking about focusing your composition on the essentials and finding a strong design.

Don’t try to show it all. The single most common mistake in photography is including too much in the frame. It’s easy to start adding unnecessary elements: “I like the way the light is hitting that peak, and that tree is interesting, and there’s this log I could put in the foreground, and...” Whoa! Stop! What was that original thought? Oh, yeah, it was the light hitting the peak. Stick with that. Keep it simple.

If you could show only one thing, just one part of the scene in front of you, what would that be? Include only those one or two items in your composition. The rest is just clutter.

Learn From Your Metadata

When film ruled, photography instructors and magazines like OP would routinely remind their students and readers to make notes when they were shooting. How many people do you know who actually did it? When you shoot digital, on the other hand, the notes are made for you in the form of metadata. There’s a lot of useful information that’s recorded every time you take a photo, and it’s all easily accessed in programs like Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture. Take a look at the metadata of a group of your best photographs, and you may find a particular lens or focal length in common. From that, you can decide which is the most important lens to have with you the next time you want to pare down your gear for a hike. Examine images that are destined for the trash, and you may find that they’re all at ISOs pushed too high. These are just a few examples. You can learn quite a bit from the built-in notes on all of your photographs. The data is there. Use it.


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