Getting Down to the Essentials

Wildflower island and cascade, eastern Sierra; 100mm, 1/2 sec. at f/16, 100 ISO

Wildflower island and cascade, eastern Sierra; 100mm, 1/2 sec. at f/16, 100 ISO

It’s been an interesting summer in the Sierra. Last winter was one of the driest on record, but over the last month or so we’ve seen a steady flow of monsoonal moisture flowing up from the southeast, leading to frequent afternoon showers and thunderstorms over the higher elevations. We even heard about an epic deluge two or three weeks ago that flooded the parking lot and some of the tent cabins at the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge.

That extra moisture has kept the streams flowing and flowers blooming in the high country longer than I would have expected. On Saturday, my wife Claudia and I hiked up one of the eastern Sierra canyons and found a pretty series of cascades, with an island of late-summer flowers in the middle.

Although I make my share of black-and-white photographs, I’ve always been attracted to color. I often look for color, then try to build a composition around it. As I tell my workshop students, color isn’t enough – you need to find a design to go with that color.

In this case, that design proved to be elusive. The most obvious composition was a wide-angle view with a patch of flowers at the bottom, and the upper cascade above. But there was a distracting pile of logs at the base of the cascade that cluttered the image, with no obvious way to eliminate or minimize the logs. I have nothing against logs, but in this case, I was interested in the flowers and water, and the logs broke up the visual flow between the flowers and water, diluting the photograph’s message:

Wildflowers and cascade, eastern Sierra Nevada, Inyo NF, CA, USA

Wildflowers and cascade, eastern Sierra; 24mm, 1/2 sec. at f/16, 50 ISO


So I kept looking. When trying to juxtapose two different elements proves difficult, you can sometimes solve the problem by just focusing on one of those elements. I thought the cascade itself was interesting, especially since it flowed over some beautiful gold-colored rock (there I go again, looking for color). I made several compositions of one section of the upper cascade, including the one below. This has patterns created by the zigzagging strands of water and the ledges, plus some color, and light-and-dark contrast:

Cascade with gold-colored rock, eastern Sierra, Inyo NF, CA, USA

Cascade with gold-colored rock, eastern Sierra; 70mm, 1/4 sec. at f/16, ISO 160

But while I liked that image, I have many similar photographs of cascades and waterfalls. It was that rare juxtaposition of flowers and water that really interested me, and I was determined to find a clean, strong composition with those two elements – or at least to explore every possible angle until I was satisfied that no such composition existed.

I looked at some nearby possibilities, but none seemed to work. Then I hopped across the creek and worked my way down below the next tier of the waterfall. There I noticed that it might be possible to position the island of flowers between the upper and lower tiers of the cascade, filling the frame with just the two essentials – water and flowers – while hiding the distracting log pile. Working along both sides of the creek below the second tier, I tried at least half a dozen different variations on this idea, of which the photograph at the top of this post is, I think, the most successful. The zigzags and diagonal lines of the water create a pattern, while the patch of flowers provides a focal point.

Next, I moved to the base of the second tier, where I saw a possible juxtaposition of that lower cascade with a patch of flowers at its base. Again, some distracting logs limited the possibilities, but stepping back with a longer lens narrowed the angle of view and allowed me to keep the logs out of the frame. Here, the lines created by the top edge of the flowers and the V-shape of the water form patterns of diagonals and triangles, and the whole frame is filled with only the two essential elements: water and flowers:

Wildflowers and waterfall, eastern Sierra, CA, USA

Wildflowers and waterfall, eastern Sierra. 70mm, 100 ISO; since the depth of field was too great to get everything in focus in one image, I took four frames at 1/2 sec. and f/16, each focused at a different distance, and blended them together with Helicon Focus.


Sometimes a scene just composes itself. You walk up, immediately see the composition, know where to stand and even know approximately what focal length to use.

But other situations are more challenging. Something catches your eye, but the composition is not immediately obvious, perhaps because there’s some distracting element in front of, next to, or behind the subject (like those logs). You may look and look and never find a composition that works, but sometimes, if you look deeply enough, there is a solution.

First, ask yourself what caught your eye in the first place. The more specific your answer, the better. In other words, don’t just say, “I like that tree.” What about the tree? Is it the shape? The color? The texture? The light? Is it a relationship between the tree and something else?

Then, once you’ve narrowed your focus, and identified the essential elements, try every possible angle, and look for ways to showcase those essentials while keeping the composition simple and eliminating distractions.

In this example, the essential elements were, to me, obvious: the flowers and water. What wasn’t so obvious was how to simplify the scene and distill the composition down to those essentials. But I just kept looking, which is all you can do. Even if you never find a solution, the process will teach you a lot about composition and increase your chances of finding a solution the next time.

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: What’s the Least Interesting Part of This Photograph?; When Separation is a Good Thing

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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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