Work the Scene

(© Ian Plant) It is a myth that a photography master can simply walk up to a given scene and instantly recognize the single best shot available, and achieve perfection with only one try. As the legendary George Stocking once told me, "one shot leads to the next." Photography is an iterative process, and if you don't take the time to work a scene and try different angles, chances are you'll miss the best it has to offer.

Trying different angles will help you find the best a scene has to offer.
Trying different angles will help you find the best a scene has to offer.

Whenever I approach a given scene, I like to look around as much as possible before settling on a location to set up my tripod, just to get a feel for the possibilities. Then I get to work. Sometimes, the first spot I have chosen happens to be the one that works best, but more often than not I find that I need to engage in the creative process, starting with a few test shots that I critically review, then making adjustments to my camera angle and position as necessary. Sometimes I'll even completely abandon my initial spot for another if I don't think it is living up to the potential I hoped it had. If time and light permits, I leave no stone unturned in my quest to find the best angle or position; there's nothing worse than leaving a location, only to realize as you study your images carefully later on your computer, that you missed a critical angle and that you have to return to start over again.

For the scene above from Zion National Park, I tried several different angles until I got what I wanted. Each time I took a shot, I realized I needed to get lower. Eventually, I got low enough so that the foreground leaves were inches away from my wide-angle lens. It was then that I knew I had the perspective I was after, but I wouldn't have gotten there if I had stopped with the first shot. Each iteration led me to the next. Although sometimes the process can lead you astray, I believe that more often than not, your work will improve if you take the time to explore the possibilities.

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    I like the photo, even if it is a bit contrived. Looks like many of the leaves are facing up and there seems to be an unnatural spacing between them (i.e., not a lot of overlaps). But the colors and line are tremendous.

    That’s the advantage (and disadvantage) of placing leaves – you can achieve spacing that keeps the scene from looking too chaotic or cluttered, but at the expense of having it look like the leaves have been placed! Oh well . . .

    I agree that photography is an interative process. Add to the myriad angles and perspectives that one must consider/contemplate the fact that the image changes moment to moment with the changing of the light (i.e. passage of clouds, position of the sun.) Any perfect image that might be achieved is thus supplanted with others merely by the passage of time.

    I’ve never heard that that was even a myth, I would have called BS right off. I’ve never heard any photographers or landscape artists mention that in my realm. Ian master the leaves…you got the camera down.

    That was bold of Yardstick Says to say the photo was “contrived”…however that was the first thing that lept into my mind when I saw the image, too!

    It is pretty easy to spot artfully arranged leaf litter, and I haven’t seen many photographers from beginner to pro do it convincingly. I am forced to downgrade a bit photos that have that level of “active participation” in the creation of the photo since they look artifical.

    However, that being said, the colors are very pleasing and the composition is nice, so for the most part it is a pleasing image.

    Leaf arrangement seems to be one of those things that for some reason divides people into two opposing camps, those who hate it and those who don’t. Kinda like PC vs. Mac, Coke vs. Pepsi, Canon vs. Nikon, etc.! Of course, I can’t help but ask: what’s wrong with taking an “active participation” role in the creation of a photo? Who says that we need to merely document a scene as it is handed to us by the forces of nature? As nature photographers, we don’t often get a chance to control the scene, so I for one actually like to take a more active role in the artistic process when the opportunity arises. Then again, I’m also a Canon/PC/Coke guy, so you can’t trust anything I have to say . . .

    Good points.

    For me personally, I wouldn’t do it, but then that’s just me. I am not a professional photographer so I do not have to constantly find ways to make my work stand out from the competition. In general, probably this level of “active participation” is fine…as long as no one suspects it artifically placed.

    It is simple: if no one suspects anything, then the question of “active participation” never comes up in the first place. Leaf litter placement is just another part of the photographic craft that must be worked on just like understanding f-stops and shutter speeds 😉

    As an “older” amateur photographer who has been pursuing my passion for landscape photography since 1973, I am not offended by “staging” a few leaves. I am more fascinated in achieving the proper angle and, as in your image a low one, as well as the proper DOF. My biggest problem is standing back up after crouching for the time it takes to compose the picture at those low angles! (My Sony A-700 is devoid of Live View!)

    There are those who treat leaf placement as some how “cheating” but don’t think twice at manipulating pixels with their software of choice.

    It is art they cry as they work away cloning, dodging, burning, cropping, color balancing etc.

    How is leaf placing any different? Photography is an art as is painting which is manipulation and placement at the utmost.

    So one must ask……do I just take a picture or do I create a picture. Personally, to me creation is an art and taking the picture is hoping for the best luck as possible. Sometimes you succeed and many times you will not.

    Does one stand back and look at that 20 x 24 print of those wildflowers taken up close so all can see the fine detail that only be seen by using that macro lens. Then say that stray weed running directly across the center of delicate flower look great because that is the way nature intended it to be.

    For me…….I’ll remove that weed temporarily or permanently after all I am here to photograph the flower NOT the weed.

    Have I placed leaves……..YES…….I have even picked up a few and dropped them letting “nature” place them and if didn’t like how nature placed them…….I scooped them all up and dropped again so nature could place them a little better this time.

    If you like photos with out of placed weeds, branches, beer cans etc. by all means leave it and include it in your photo……not me… get to decide…..after all you are the artist nature just makes it all possible.


    aka….leaf dropper, leaf placer, weed remover. beer can picker upper and photographer artist.


    It’s not a problem to place leaves or flowers etc.. as long as it doesn’t appear unnatural. Nature needs to look natural. What “I” am more interested in before this topic took a turn is….debunking the statement: “It is a myth that a Master Photographer can simply walk up to a given scene and instantly recognize the single best shot available”, and achieve perfection with only one try. I am no master by any means….and thus I haven’t read all the books…but have any of you heard this statement? I do know when I come upon a scene it’s usually when the light is fleeting fast and I need to scope the scene quickly….and it’s more often than not the same compositional scene that drew me in in the first place that I end up shooting. Perhaps that’s the way the brain works…a picture is engrained and your mind keeps slipping back to what drew you in in the first place. That being said I “revisit” scenes often and seek out the best compositions at different times of the year, better color, better light, less wind etc. Often times shooting conditions make it maybe impossible to get the best picture the first time around. A GOOD photographer IS able to tell the best way to shot a scene at the time their there…but a MASTER photographer revisits to the scene if need be and has an inner drive to get the best photo of the place, it could mean sitting on your butt for a few hours waiting for the snow or rain or fog to lift.

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