Etosha National Park, Namibia
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Tamron SP 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 Di VC USD, ƒ/3.2, 1/320 sec., ISO 100
You can make sharp, properly exposed photos—so what? A technically flawless image lacking a compelling theme won’t do much for viewers. Ansel Adams once said, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” If you can’t make photos that excite people, then your work will never get noticed.
Making the leap past “fuzzy concept” photos won’t just happen overnight, and instead takes time and lots of practice. I’ve been making photos for 20 years, and I’m still constantly learning how to strengthen my artistic vision. Although I can’t offer any shortcuts, I can share five of my favorite techniques for making bold photographs to help you sharpen your personal creative vision and to inject energy, life and meaning into your images.
1 Don’t Be So Literal
Minor White once said, “One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are.” Artistic abstraction, learning to see visual elements “for what else they are,” is the key to sharpening your creative vision. Try to think of elements in your scene not as waterfalls, mountains and trees—the literal interpretation of these objects—but rather in terms of perspective (depth and scale), space (the placement and arrangement of visual elements) and shapes (triangles, curves, lines, circles and other shapes). Composition is nothing more than figuring out a way to make all of these abstract components relate to one another. Learning to think abstractly is the single most important thing you can do to improve your artistic skills.
Abstract thinking will allow you to see creative possibilities that you would miss otherwise. For example, when three elephants crossed by a water hole at sunset, abstract thinking allowed me to see the artistic potential offered by this reflection scene combined with some creative exposure. The result is an abstract photograph that moves beyond a mere documentary shot and instead sparks curiosity on the part of the viewer.
Puna de Atacama, Argentina
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 11-24mm ƒ/4L USM, ƒ/13, 1/25 sec., ISO 100
2 Get Closer!
Photojournalist Robert Capa once said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Too often, when I see a photographer who’s struggling to come up with a coherent concept for their photo, the reason is simple: They’re simply not close enough to their subject.
For landscape images, what “getting close” really means is “getting close to an interesting foreground.” Having a compelling foreground is really important, as it helps establish a relationship between the bottom of the photograph and the top, which enhances visual interest and leads the viewer’s eye deep into the scene. Since the foreground element is the first that the eye encounters, you better be sure it’s interesting and relevant to the rest of the composition; in other words, it must assist in the creation of depth and visual progression into the scene.
Not any old foreground will do! Resist the temptation to find something—anything—to put in the foreground just so you have something there. Take the time to find a foreground that actually works toward your goal of captivating viewers and visually trapping them in your composition.
Wide-angle lenses are especially helpful when creating compositions that juxtapose foreground and background, as you can get really close to a foreground element and exaggerate its importance relative to the background. I often tell my workshop clients that, in a sense, the foreground becomes the subject, or at least it should be as important to the composition as the background subject.
When exaggerating the foreground’s size relative to the background by getting close with a wide-angle lens, you can easily fill the bottom part of the frame with your foreground subject, immediately enhancing its importance in the overall composition. I used this technique when photographing this scene in the high-altitude desert of northern Argentina; by getting very close with a wide-angle lens to some interesting salt formations, I was able to exaggerate and emphasize their shape, and create a bold visual relationship between the foreground and the background storm clouds.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 200-400mm ƒ/4L IS USM, built-in 1.4x converter, ƒ/4, 1/500 sec., ISO 500
3 Master The Art Of Exclusion
Too often, beginning photographers see something that catches their eye and instinctively point the camera in that direction, without giving too much thought as to how to refine and hone the scene. The result is simply too much within the picture frame, leading to a cluttered and chaotic composition. In many ways, photography is all about what to exclude from the image frame. Sometimes less is more! I call this the art of exclusion, which is learning to simplify and boil a scene or subject down to its essence. For example, with this shot of a polar bear cub, I opted for a simple, clean and graphic presentation, zooming in tight on the bear, but still waiting for an expressive moment to create a story for the viewer.
Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 11-24mm ƒ/4L USM, ƒ/6.3, 0.8 sec., ISO 100
Of course, sometimes there’s the risk of getting too simple. Although it’s important to master the art of exclusion, it’s equally important to master the art of inclusion, which is learning how to successfully work with complex and even chaotic scenes. The lessons of simplicity will serve you well in such instances. I’m always looking for a bold and graphic shape to tie the overall composition together and to help tame the chaos. The marriage of simplicity with complexity will allow you to create sophisticated compositions that have both a strong initial impact and hold the viewer’s interest over time. For example, with this sweeping wide-angle scene, I made a simple curving shape—created by the confluence of the incoming wave with the dramatic storm cloud above—the centerpiece of my composition.
Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, California
Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/4L IS USM, polarizing filter, ƒ/11, 1/25 sec., ISO 100
4 Avoid Tame Light
I often see photographers playing it safe when it comes to light, shooting only when their subjects are evenly illuminated (such as when frontlit or in overcast light). Safe light will more easily yield technically competent images, but often nothing that excites, inspires or engages the viewer’s curiosity. So forget tame light. Instead, aim for light that’s like an uncaged beast! Spectacular lighting conditions may be challenging to work with, but when you get it right, the rewards are well worth the difficulties.
My favorite style of shooting is against the light (known as “contre-jour”). Contre-jour lighting occurs when you point your camera toward a source of light such as the sun. This causes the subject to be backlit, increasing contrast and often obscuring subject detail. I also enjoy shooting in bad weather and on the edge of light for unique and compelling results. I often say that when moisture and light collide, photo magic is usually the result. A bit of fog transformed this scene into something evoking a magical forest glen; the mist allowed me to get creative with the light and composition, and it transformed otherwise tame midday light into something bold and compelling.
Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
Canon EOS 70D, Tamron SP 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 Di VC USD, ƒ/2.8, 1/500 sec., ISO 200
5 Tell A Story
Make every picture worth a thousand words! The very best photographs tell a story rather than just merely creating a record of a place or a moment. When there’s a story behind the image, especially a mysterious one, viewers engage on an emotional level, encouraging them to linger and study the photo. Everyone—and everything—has a story to tell, and it’s the photographer’s job to figure out what that story is and to present it to others in a compelling way. So strive to go beyond making pretty snapshots and seek to capture expressive moments instead.
Exposure, composition, moment and light can all be used to creatively tell your subject’s story. Also, try to make your photos interactive—anything that invites the viewer into the scene is important when trying to elicit an emotional reaction (a simple, yet powerful example of this is eye contact with the subject). I used several of these techniques while photographing this mountain gorilla in Rwanda. I was looking for a way to tell the story of these enigmatic and reclusive animals, so I photographed the gorilla through a gap in a screen of leaves in order to create a mysterious presentation. By shooting wide open with a telephoto lens, the leaves were rendered as abstract, out-of-focus blurs of color. I triggered the shutter when the gorilla made eye contact with me (and, by extension, the viewer).
People and wildlife don’t have a monopoly on stories; places and objects have a story to tell, as well. When working with landscapes, one way to tell a story is to establish a “sense of place”—to find something that’s unique to the landscape you’re photographing. I think the best approach is to simply ask yourself the following: What is it about the scene that I find inspiring or appealing? What seems unique to me? What can be found here that can’t be found anywhere else? Which features of the scene tell its story best? Answering these questions will help dictate which elements to include in the composition, and ensure that your artistic vision is refined and shows through clearly to the viewer.
World-renowned professional photographer and Tamron Image Master Ian Plant is a frequent contributor to Outdoor Photographer magazine, as well as a number of other leading photo magazines. See more of his work and download his free photography how-to ebook, Essential, at his website, ianplant.com.