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150mm, 1/250 sec @f/ 3.5, ISO 200

I’m in the small town of Townsend, Tennessee just outside the Great Smoky Mountains teaching a 4 day workshop next week. It’s a long 12 hr drive from my home, but thankfully I made it safe and sound. It’s always hard to leave the family for two weeks, but the internet makes the distance seem much less than it is, and I’m able to respond to “crisis” issues between my kids much faster.

The tress are just starting to bloom. Redbuds are vivid and the dogwoods are at their peak. I always arrive at a workshop location a week before it starts so I can do more scouting and make my own photographs—on my own time. Once the students arrive, I’m working for them and making sure they get everything they can out of the experience.

Out on my own yesterday morning at sunrise I decided to head to Cades Cove, a beautiful valley with infinite photo opportunities. It was a crystal clear day, not a cloud in the sky, which to me means I’ll have to work hard to find the softer diffused light I prefer. Usually that makes me head into the forest instead of open areas, but that also poses its own problems due to high contrast.

I came across these trees next to a stream that were back lit creating a nice glowing effect on the leaves. I was also drawn to the mostly dark trunks of the tress with just enough light to wrap around them creating a sense of dimension and depth. But, so much going on—very cluttered and busy with tress everywhere. And for an image that means potential chaos.

So I start by separating things out visually, breaking down the basic elements of what I think might be a workable composition. I look for strong graphic elements, relative to the surroundings. Strong lines, repeating patterns, interesting color. And eventually I found something, the tree in the foreground which I placed slightly left of center became the “anchor” for the image. Everything else has to complement that anchor for the image to work. If not, I need to choose a different anchor or subject.

Why did I choose that particular tree? The shape of the leaves together with the light made it interesting to me – it captured my eye, and my imagination if you will. It captured a small sense of what I felt when in this darker part of the forest. Even in this secluded area, the light could still be dramatic without being overwhelming, which is typical of open landscapes with clear bright light. I had to work this particular scene for a while, not taking many photos, but rather moving and looking—deeply— to see what composition would work best. And most of all, how to eliminate distraction yet keep the essence of this location intact. I made 5 exposures, then the light became too strong.

I was there for about 15 minutes, but most of my time was spent trying to see something more than the obvious.

I made 5 images over the course of about 15min. The one in the top right is the final keeper – for now.

Managing chaos is very much about directing the eye to what is most important, and making sure the subject is not diluted in any way by distractions. The more I look at this image, the more I realize I made light the subject—I used the tree to complement the light. One anchor becomes another. Questions or feedback, please leave your comments below – I will try and post more of these posts over the coming days. Thanks for reading!

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This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Great composition, very good, Robert. You have in it exactly what you have described – chaos held together by subtle and intentional push and pulls . . . another artist that was able to do this: Paul Cezanne – look at his work, if you haven’t recently . . . !! Lovely.

  2. Hi Robert,
    Your photograph is beautiful. Thanks for sharing it and most of all, thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience. Next time I find myself trying to photograph a cluttered scene, I will think of this post and remember to take time and work the scene like you did. By the way I am really enjoying your book “Digital Fine Art Printing” and learning a lot from it.

    Best wishes

    1. Awesome Regina – glad you enjoyed it and found it useful and beneficial. Experimentation and having an open mind are key to these types of images. Failure is very much a possibility, but also an opportunity to learn and expand your way of seeing. Always consider how you learn from trying…success is good for confidence, but you learn more from almost succeeding.


  3. Robert, This one just doesn’t work for me. This isn’t up to your usual level of work. The light is only mildly interesting, and compositionally it is amorphous. I don’t know what it is that this photograph is trying to show me.

    I actually prefer the two on the bottom row, primarily because of the greater diversity of colors. Even then I think I would’ve brought out the reds and blues a little more (just a touch…!) with HSL…

    I know, I know… Everybody’s a critic…!

    1. Thanks for the feedback Jerry – always valuable to hear someone else’s perspective, even if it doesn’t match your own. What works for one person may not work for another, something I’m very familiar with when teaching workshops and giving critiques. What matters most for me personally is that I’m pushing myself and getting uncomfortable – I’m going outside what the obvious or natural would be. Is this particular image going into my portfolio? I don’t know, but I’m not too worried about that. Perhaps it will, and perhaps on retrospect and some distance it won’t. I will say that I hope my “level” of work is always changing – and not necessarily upwards but in other directions.


  4. Hi Robert,

    I actually like this image a lot. You have, in fact, brought order out of chaos. The sky in the other images might have been a distraction. I guess this proves that with the right lighting and some patience, you can find an image almost anywhere. Most of all, I appreciate you sharing your thought process. It’s the most challenging part of photography for me which makes it the most gratifying when it works. So looking forward to our trip to Moab next month. Enjoy your week.

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