The Space Between

Learn to watch all the elements in your frame, not just the main subject
Pecan Grove, California, 2015. Sony a7R II, Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 G SSM. Exposure: 1/2 sec., ƒ/22, ISO 100.

The natural world is visual chaos. Plants grow, rivers flow, rocks roll and clouds float along with no regard to where landscape photographers place their cameras. While light is a critical element for a great photograph, so is its design. How lines, shapes and forms relate to each other and where graphic elements fit in your frame are equally important. Camera position matters.

I love the process of designing photographs. Once I discover an inspirational subject or light, the graphic designer in me kicks in. I ask myself what I am trying to say with the image and how the image design can bring out the mood or emotion I wish to convey. Are there key elements that merge or clash, causing confusion? Are there unimportant objects that I could crop out? Can I move my camera position to create spacing between objects that makes the image more balanced or cleaner with less distraction?

Students who work with me in the field soon find out what difference a few inches left or right, up or down, can make in their compositions. It is not so much that there is one perfect spot for any image but more about how closely you pay attention. It is all in the footwork, like a dancer or athlete. Look around the edges of the frame and the spaces between and behind your subject.

In my photograph of a pecan grove, the graphic design is obvious when you look at the finished photograph. What you don't see is the process of getting there. A slight move left or right changed the relationship of every tree. I slowly moved the camera until each tree separated from each other and showed as many trees as possible. That many relationships usually can't be perfectly aligned, nor would you want to, but in this case, the effect conveys more density and a certain symmetry. The dense fog simplifies the tree trunk graphics.

Bridalveil Fall and Maple Leaves, Yosemite National Park, California, 2016. Sony a7R II, Sony E PZ 18-105mm f/4 G OSS. Exposure: 1/640 sec., ƒ/16, ISO 400.

My photograph of Bridal Veil Fall in Yosemite is another example of how spacing and camera position make a big difference. I was walking up to the base of the fall with family visiting from Canada. I wasn’t planning on photographing seriously but had brought my camera along. However, I did time this short walk for my favored lighting conditions. The fresh green of the maple leaves glowed against the dark granite wall, and the waterfall itself danced wildly in the wind.

I spent just a few minutes with this composition, at first focusing on the leaves and branches. After taking a few frames, I started “the dance.” I maneuvered around on the crowded trail, watching for a balance of key elements. Just before racing off to catch up with my guests, I found one spot where the top of the falls was visible and the spray blew to the left, framing itself perfectly between maple branches. This photo was a "grab" shot in terms of time, but my experience and training helped me to quickly find and refine the image in a rushed and crowded situation.

The lesson of the day: Learn to watch all the elements in your frame, not just the main subject. See how they relate to each other, look for "mergers" where key objects such the trees merge, distract or minimize other graphic elements. Develop the habit of not accepting the first option when you set up your compositions. Always push for better ones. When you take the time to edit the results carefully, you will get critical feedback on your successes and failures. The more you repeat this feedback loop of capturing images then learning what works or not, the more this process will help you learn to trust your own design instincts. Your photographs will be stronger in finding some order to the chaos. Enjoy the dance!

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.

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