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Photographing More than Rocks

Post Series: Essentials of Composition

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As I looked out past the rocky coastline, I could see it wouldn’t be long before the light would become softer and warmer, the kind of light I had advised the students to look for. It was just a guideline of course, since the important idea I really want students to learn is not really an idea, but a mindset.

Awareness is what matters, not waiting or expecting.

The coastline looked beautiful with rugged pink and orange granite rocks of all sizes bathed in golden light, and an endless row of evergreen trees providing the perfect backdrop.

As the students were exploring and finding their way visually, one of them asked, “Can you please help me with composition here, I don’t want to make yet another picture of water and rocks.”

At first I was taken aback by the question, because I didn’t really have an answer. You see I immediately thought about the question in a literal sense, which is what we normally do in photography. We photograph subjects; we visit specific locations looking for certain physical elements we find appealing; we seek out things we can easily identify.

Yet there lies a trap that we often can’t avoid. We equate the photo with the subject, when in fact a captivating photo can be and should be much more.

Have you ever received these comments about your images? “Where was that photo taken?” or “I know that spot!” or worse, “I have the same picture,” (whatever that means.) If these are the only comments you receive, that’s a good sign the photograph does’t go beyond the literal, the things photographed. 

Back on the coastline, I struggled to provide an adequate answer, and thought something unhelpful like, I suppose you’d have to go somewhere else if you don’t want to photograph rocks and water,…that’s all there is here!

Then luckily, this quote came to mind:

”A photograph should be more interesting than the thing photographed.” – Gary Winogrand

The more we look at things and give them labels, the more difficulty we have seeing past those labels, and the objects they represent. What we should strive for is what else they can represent, either visually, emotionally, or both.

When we can convey something more than what the subject is, we invite the viewer into the story, we allow them to bring their own imagination to bear on the image.

Gently I said, “Perhaps you can think less about what you’re photographing, and more about what you’re reacting to…how the composition will direct the viewer though the image in a way that creates tension, or shows beauty…a sense of what you see and feel.”

“If you can show how the parts of the image are greater then the whole, then you’ve moved past the actual objects themselves, and have a chance to make an image that is more than simply about rocks or water. You’re using your vision creatively, instead of literally.”

I demonstrated some possible compositions that I thought could be used as a starting points, then stepped away to get out of the way. 

If you start with that as an approach, it becomes much easier to see past the labels and judgments we assign to things. You become more aware of light, colors, lines, and how they be used to let others see your way of seeing.

In fact, when you can do this consistently, the subject and location become much less important. The story, feel, or mood of the image becomes the central focus, and it removes the reliance on “location.”

A fundamental understanding of visual design in composition is essential here, since without it you will be hard pressed to translate what you see and feel into the visual medium. If you struggle with deciding where to start, or how to frame a scene, improving your knowledge and use of “visual grammar” is a powerful skill to have.

I’ll be discussing that and more in upcoming posts. Thanks for reading!

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