The more I photograph, the more I realize that the greatest difference between a successful image and all the others is the elimination of everything that isn’t necessary. It’s more than just simplifying the composition, it’s a sense that every element in the frame is contributing to a unified statement; visually and emotionally.
And as much as I’ve tried and failed to accomplish this over the years, what keeps me inspired is the creative challenge of expressing what I feel when I’m in nature. That has to be the reason, otherwise, I would have given up long ago. It’s important to clarify that I didn’t choose that reason, it simply is, and always has been. It’s at the core of who I am.
This image expresses that perfectly for me. I was on one of my favorite local trails in the Hudson Valley enjoying the final stages of autumn’s magic. Of course I had brought my camera gear, but a “walk in the woods” was all I needed to feel immense gratitude for that simple opportunity. The colors were rich and vibrant, shrouded by a veil of mist and light rain—the kind that transforms even the most familiar location into something novel and exciting. The air was still, and the sound of the rain was echoed by the leaves covering the forest floor.
I quickly realized this was no ordinary day, and I stopped here and there to make a few images, using a wide angle lens to try and capture the feel of being inside the forest. This is difficult because inevitably there will be some of the overcast sky in the picture, something I often find distracting. But solving any problem starts with curiosity and an openness to any potential solution.
For me this happens when I become totally present, observing my surroundings as carefully as possible, trying to notice anything that sparks my interest. This is not as easy as it sounds since your judgmental thoughts are constantly interfering. The key is to adopt a presence of mind that allows your curiosity to engulf you in a way that removes any unrelated thoughts—otherwise known as the flow state. It’s not magic or even unique—it’s something we all experience when we’re totally “in the moment.”
Walking further along the trail, I noticed a group of trees up and off the trail that seemed distinct from the rest. They were lighter in tone than those around them, with similar trees behind them in the distance fading into the fog. In between the trees were branches sprinkled with yellow leaves. I switched to my zoom lens for a narrower field of view, set up my tripod, and tried to position myself with a clear unobstructed view of this narrow section of the scene in front of me.
In my viewfinder, I saw a pattern of rectangular vertical shapes varying in size and tone, with yellow dotted circular shapes interspersed between them. I also loved the way the background shapes softened into the fog, creating a sense of depth and atmosphere. Arranging these elements so as to create balance and unity is the best way to approach composition from a strictly visual perspective. As soon as you start to think about trees and leaves, you move away from the pure language of composition.
In my experience, this often leads to cluttered images that try to say too much. How far can I zoom in before strength of the shapes and patterns is diminished? How wide can I go to show depth and scale, yet not add more than what is needed? That’s a fine balance for sure, but simpler is almost always better.
After several captures, I spent another 45 min exploring and photographing other areas, then bid farewell to another autumn season.
The original unedited raw file in Adobe Lightroom Mobile.The actual scene wasn’t this bright, but I exposed to the right which always makes the preview look somewhat washed out. A simple Exposure adjustment fixes that easily.
Upon reviewing the image in Lightroom, I realized it was only the central portion of the composition that had appealed to me in the field. The top and bottom of the image didn’t really add anything, and removing them would simplify the image down to the essential elements I found exciting. I cropped using a 1:3 panoramic format, and once I did that, I could easily see how much better the composition worked.
By making the image simpler, I also noticed a motif—the rhythmic variation of the trees—in tone and spacing. This prompted me to consider removing the color altogether, and once I did, it was clear to me that the black and white version was closest to my initial response in the field. I’m often asked when and why to convert to b&w, and this is when and why. When the image improves, nothing more than that.
Sure, it was supposed to be a foliage image, but again, what matters most is that the image represents what I saw and felt. Color is great, but only when it actually adds something meaningful.
Careful setting of the white and black points in LR was also important since the image doesn’t really have a true white or black area. I want it to remain moody and grey, with just enough contrast to delineate the forms, but not so much that it becomes heavy or bright. That means ignoring the actual black and white posts and “seasoning to taste.” I also avoided adding any clarity, since that took away from the atmosphere and depth of the distant trees and fog.
Finally, I added a bit of split toning to cool the highlights. It seems to capture the overall sense of space and depth in the image. In the end, what makes this image work for me is the variation and rhythm of the shapes, combined with the atmosphere that simplifies the image overall.
After basic adjustments, I considered various panoramic crops until I decided this was the optimal one based on how the yellow leaves move through the image, creating a sense of direction for the viewer.
Converting to black & white simplifies the message, emphasizing the motif—variation and rhythm, creating depth and atmosphere.
A bit of split toning to cool the highlights, which I think better captures the mood of the scene.
Compositionally, the image is based on the primary tress ( a grouping of three’s), in yellow, that establish the motif and the darkest tones, placing them in the foreground. The red lines show the pattern repeating yet fading into the distance—depth and space, The green circles show the bright leaves leading the eye up and through the frame—a counterpoint to the verticals.
Being able to exclude what isn’t needed depends on your ability to recognize good design, and that takes dedicated practice. It’s why I’m adamant that improving your visual literacy is the single best thing you can do for your photography. It means that when you’re in the field, instead of being distracted by everything you see, you can focus your concentration on what’s actually happening and be much more confident about pressing the shutter button.
In part II of this post, I’ll discuss and share the final stage, the finished print.
Watch an in-depth video of my Lightroom workflow.