I am thinking about some words by William Neill in his book Light on the Landscape, combined with an old country song by Diamond Rio named Beautiful Mess. I’m referring to the visual chaos of the normal world around us. Managing this chaos is one of the great challenges and rewards of outdoor photography.
Alas, the world outside is a chaotic place visually. Things just aren’t naturally arranged to make it convenient for us poor outdoor photographers. Plants are in the way. Trees aren’t in the right place for the best design. Rivers bend the wrong way. Clouds are too much or not enough or arranged wrong. Weather doesn’t cooperate. Sigh.
I say that facetiously, of course. That chaos and the difficulty of making something pleasing out of a cluttered scene is one of the unique and challenging parts of photography. If it was too easy it would be difficult to create outstanding images.
I love this challenge. The inner designer in me rises to it. It is a very satisfying mental exercise to try to mold a chaotic scene into a clean and appealing image. This is one of the defining characteristics of photography. Painters start with a blank canvas and selectively add only the elements they want for their scene. But photographers must start with an existing, disordered scene and simplify it.
We have many techniques to apply to do this. Lens selection will widen or narrow our field of view. We can change our point of view to include significant parts or exclude distracting elements. Selective focus can emphasize the areas of attention. Exposure can be used to darken or blow out parts of the frame where you don’t want any detail. Long exposure can change moving elements into a different graphical design. These and other techniques give us great control over the arrangements of the parts.
But above all, it is a design challenge. We have to decide what is key to the scene and how to emphasize that and minimize distractions. Is it the S curve of a river or the graphical arrangement of branches? Is it the forms or the leading lines that draw the eye a certain way? Most scenes can be arranged to bring an interesting view. Some more than others, but most can be improved.
Following on from a previous post, we need to very consciously work to refine our design after we set it up. This is a weakness of mine that I plan to improve. I have long training in composition. When I walk up to a scene I tend to do a tremendous amount of subconscious evaluation to select a composition. My natural tendency is to set up and shoot what I visualized as I came on the scene and stop without taking it further.
But I know that many designs can be enhanced by exploring variations. I will try to discipline myself to do this more diligently. Move – left, right, up, down – look for improvements in the composition with slight shifts. Look closely at the entire frame to make sure there are no distracting elements that could be eliminated by in-camera techniques. Walk more to see if a more dramatic change of viewpoint could help.
Most of all, I need to make sure I look and think. What I have is good, but can I make it better?
Don’t over analyze
A caution, though. Don’t over analyze the situation. Design and creation should be an act of joy. When you are learning new techniques it is normal to have to concentrate a lot on what you are doing. But try to get to the point where it flows naturally. To where you move with it and follow your instincts. Trust your instincts.
Shooting in the outdoors should be energizing. We should feel excited about what we are seeing and capturing. Don’t let the joy get sucked out for you. Creativity is exciting and invigorating. Most of us aren’t going to get rich at this. We should at least have fun and feel satisfied.
This is a journey of discovery. Enjoy the journey and have fun!
Note on the image
The image in this article is personally satisfying to me. It is a location that brings me joy and that i return to as often as possible. Despite wading through mud, swatting mosquitoes and trying not to slip in and get swept downstream, I loved the scene. I did follow my advice in 2 significant ways: I worked it until I got to a composition I loved, and I had a great time.
I hope you will find scenes that bring you such joy.