“It’s very important to know what to leave out, thereby emphasizing what remains” – Tony Bennett
I came across this quote by the great singer recently, and it stuck with me as I hiked along Negro Bill Canyon in Moab, Utah a few weeks ago. It’s an amazingly beautiful canyon with a flowing creek, lush vegetation, and varnished stained rock walls rising a hundred or more feet on either side of the trail. During early morning and evening hours, the walls reflect the sunlight down into the opposite side of the canyon creating beautiful soft warm light. Knowing where the light will be, and when, is key to finding great photo opportunities, which is why I visit as much as I can.
As I walked along the trail, I thought about the challenge of keeping it simple. With such a variety of subject matter to photograph—rocks, water, flowers, reflections, wildlife—and equally many distractions, how could I capture what I was seeing and feeling as simply as possible?
For me it starts with breaking things down visually into simple shapes, colors, lines, highlights and shadows. When you look carefully enough, they’re all there waiting to be discovered, and most importantly, either included or excluded from the composition. But it takes patience, and slowing down without having any place to get to, either physically or mentally. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is, just being in a place and taking it all in, with all active senses. Our eyes are our strongest reference of course, but there are other cues; sounds, smells, touch. These can all be factors in how you react to and interpret nature, and you can use them to help you make compositional choices.
Learning From Babies
I see and appreciate this every single day with my 5 month old infant daughter. Whether seeing, touching, tasting, or hearing, it’s all interesting to her. She constantly scans her environment, observing with a focused curiosity, as her brain tries to make sense of everything she’s seeing and experiencing for the first time. It truly is an amazing thing to watch, and I find myself trying to see the way she sees, with that same intense curiosity and an eagerness to discover. We can all learn from this simple practice, vital to her development, but so useful to us as photographers. Try and see things as if for the first time. Look beyond the labels, and instead focus on how it’s different from what you’ve seen before.
As I walked along the canyon, and thought about her, I was overwhelmed with the amount of visual information, and how much there was to photograph. And so many ways to fail, as well as learn from those failures.
“The key to success is for you to make a habit throughout your life of doing the things you fear.” — Vincent Van Gogh
Limiting Your Field of View
Ok, so I’ve talked about the concepts, the ideas, and the approach. But how do you actually put this into practice? One approach is to limit your field of view.
A long zoom lens, like the 70–200mm, is so useful in these types of exercises because we can isolate and “extract” small parts of the landscape. That’s a great term that I first heard Ansel Adams use because he preferred it to “abstract.” In his view. we can only create “abstracts” from our imagination, and since we’re really just isolating part of what already exists, then it is really just extracted from reality. Whether you agree or not, I think it helps to think of it this way when your’re actually out in the field looking for compelling compositions.
Looking at nature through a limited frame allows you to see more, not less. Colors become more intense because they are allowed to “breath” and complement or contrast neighboring colors. Lines and shapes take on a greater importance because they interact with the edges of the frame more directly. And certainly, we can create mystery and interest, and raise questions about what each of us thinks is important and how we wish to express that to others. For me, it’s all in the details, and that’s where nature shows us her true brilliance. Photographing that is pure joy for me, and that’s what I try to bring across in the images.
- Look for how shapes relate to other shapes. Do they create depth when one is in front of the other? Do they create lines that lead the viewer to what you found most interesting?
- Lines are strong visual elements, but they don’t always have to be obvious. Can you find implied lines that create strong diagonals?
- Maybe a simple pattern can be interesting enough on it’s own to make a statement about the subject, instead of just being an image of the subject.
Learning From Printing
Making large prints of these photographs is both fun and illuminating for me. The prints really make the images come to life in a way that only a print can. And I also learn more about how these types of images, and my technique capturing them, translates to paper. As I’ve said before, printing your own work is one of the best ways to improve both your photography and your technical skills. If there are any flaws, you’ll see them. Whether or not they detract from the overall success of the image is up to you, but that’s much better than not knowing they exist. Looking at your work outside the confines of a computer monitor or other electronic display is richly rewarding and humbling at the same time.
I truly hope this was helpful in expanding your opportunities out in the field when photographing nature. These ideas can be applied anywhere, not just in canyons or other pristine locations. I’ve used them in my own backyard. Have any questions, feedback, or comments? I’d love to hear from you. Thanks for reading.