Beautiful Chaos

Mountain stream, s-curve, texture

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.

Visual chaos

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.

Bringing order

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.

Refine

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.

Move

Carefully composed plains shot

No, I am not suggesting you should uproot and relocate. Or join the great resignation and quit your job. These can be beneficial at times, but it’s not what I am talking about. I’m simply saying that art is a physical process. We need to move freely when we are are exploring for images.

Taking root

Certain of the images I shoot require a tripod for rock solid sharpness. I actually like this, because it brings a discipline to the process. There is a trap many of us fall into, though.

When we set the tripod down it’s like it takes root. We’ve gone to the trouble of setting it up, leveling it, composing a shot, and we tend to not move it. It creates inertia. But perhaps that first place we put it was not the optimum location. We need to tell ourselves there is a better placement and we need to find it.

Use your feet

When finding the right angle for a shot…’Move your ass’.” – Jay Maisel

Photography is a physical activity. At least for the type of outdoor photography I do. I walk. I stop and frame up a scene and take a picture. At this point, though, do I go on or explore options? Either answer is right depending on the situation. But are you confident enough in your compositional prowess that you know you got the best shot of the scene?

I have learned the hard way that many scenes can be improved by “working” them some. Take some more time. Move. Try another angle. Get higher or lower. Take a few steps to the side to eliminate a distracting background. Wait a minute for the light to improve.

In other words, once I have the shot, I need to look for ways to improve it. Most often, this involves moving, walking, squatting, thinking. One of the great technical advancements of digital photography is that we can see our image immediately. We can examine it and critique it to see how it could be improved. Do it if you have the time and opportunity.

I tend to quote the great Jay Maisel a lot. He is very quotable. Here is one that elaborates some on this idea:

“You find that you have to do many things, more than just lift up the camera and shoot, and so you get involved in it in a very physical way. You may find that the picture you want to do can only be made from a certain place, and you’re not there, so you have to physically go there. And that participation may spur you on to work harder on the thing, . . . because in the physical change of position you start seeing a whole different relationship.” – Jay Maisel

Try variations

A great scene often has the opportunity to explore variations. Change the crop. Go in for closer detail. Vary the exposure. Look for an angle that shows better shape or lighting or gets rid of distractions. Moving even a step or 2 can make a large change. Out constant attitude should be, “yes, that’s good; how can I make it better?”.

Again, an advantage we have with digital imaging is that shooting these variations costs us almost nothing. Yes, we have to edit them, but the reality is, that is an embarrassment of riches. We might end up with 10 great images of the scene to choose from. It can be hard to pick the best.

Moving is an attitude

This sounds weird. Moving is an attitude? What I mean is that we should always be ready to explore chances of improvement of a shot. Don’t let our tripod get rooted. Have the flexibility to let ourselves try a different angle. That often involves physical movement.

I believe I have missed many great opportunities by shooting the first composition I saw. I now try to make myself explore variations and be willing to move. One of the great influences in framing a scene is the position you shoot from. And as Jay said, moving and trying new ideas gives us a new perspective on the scene.

Is It Interesting?

Layers and layers

I find myself pondering this question a lot these days. More and more I believe the answer to “is it interesting?” overrides many considerations of composition and technique. This is a personal judgment, of course. as is the question of what is interesting.

Learning

Art is almost as much about our training as it is about our natural creativity. We all start somewhere, whether we have formal training or we are self taught. When we are learning a skill or an art we concentrate on the mechanics first.

The tendency is to focus our attention on what we are trying to master. This is natural. What we should recognize, though, is that we may not really be making art in the process. Yes, it is art in the sense that we create it as art, but it is not a mature and well rounded style yet.

Technique

Photography is possibly the most technical of the normal arts. We have to master many layers of technology to get skilled at the craft. There is the camera with its hundreds of settings and controls, each of which may help us make a great image or a terrible one. Then there is the computer system required to store and process the image. And the software we choose to use for managing and editing the image. If you are taking it all the way to the end of the chain, there is the whole printing process to learn.

Each of these areas is a huge field that could require years of study to master.

If this is where you are, plow into it. Work through the learning process. Get to the point where the camera is a comfortable tool that you can use with little thought. Ideally you should be able to adjust all the major setting in the dark, just by feel.

The image processing software is probably an even bigger challenge. Photoshop is one of the deepest tools I have ever used, and that is from the point of view of a long career in very complex software development. There are only a few people in the world I know of who totally “know” Photoshop. Julianne Kost comes to mind, but then she is the chief Photoshop evangelist for Adobe. It is her full time job to be able to train people on any aspect of it. Others at about that level are Ben Willmore and Dave Cross. I study and use Photoshop hours a week but I will never get to their level.

But the good thing is, I don’t have to be a Ben Willmore. As long as I know enough to realize my artistic vision, I’m OK. I know of excellent and successful photographers who I consider to have only a rudimentary knowledge of the tools. They know enough to do what they want to do. I personally can’t be happy unless I feel I have mastered my tools enough to comfortably use them as an extension of my creativity. So I study a lot. But that is just my own burden.

It should be about creating interesting art, not our ability to use the tools.

Composition

The next major pillar of image making is composition. It is another thing that can become a lifelong study in itself. We can burrow into art history, visual theory, Gestalt psychology, and all manner of ideas and opinions.

We start with only an intuitive feel for good composition, based on art we have seen and our inherent notions of what we like. Probably we cannot express in words what good composition is. As we study and practice we get to where we have a more formal view of it. We can critique our own or other images in terms of their design. Eventually, we can compose our images intuitively, without much conscious thought. We can repeatedly produce compositions that please us.

Keep in mind that most of this time, we are producing images that are now technically “correct” and have “good” composition. But maybe nobody wants to look at them yet.

Is it interesting?

This idea was clarified for me in a book about poetry. (Writing Poems, Robert Wallace. The link is for a later edition of the book) Weird, huh? It is a book about writing poetry rather than a regular book of poems. I find hints and ideas to improve and better understand my art from all sorts of diverse sources.

The author made the statement that if the poem is not interesting, what good is it? It can have wonderful form, metaphor, irony, symbolism, etc., but if it is not interesting, no one will read it.

I believe there is something here to apply to our art.

I have seen, and made, too many technically perfect, classically composed images of … nothing memorable. While I value sharp, well executed images, and pleasing compositions with flow and leading lines and great light, I have come to realize that is not enough by itself to really be art. This is, of course, just my personal opinion. But then all art is a personal opinion. 🙂

When you have mastered the basics I suggest you first visualize something that will make a memorable image. Then use your acquired skill to capture it perfectly. Don’t just work on technique. You’re better than that.

Take It Out

Near minimalist image. All distracting elements removed.

A lot of times, our image can be improved by taking out some of what’s there. This point of view tends to come with experience. When we start photographing the tendency is to go wide and try to get “everything” in the frame. It is a learned discipline to restrict our view and take out distracting elements.

A subtractive art

One way that photography is fundamentally different from most other arts is that the sensor in our camera automatically records everything it sees. Other arts construct an image by consciously selecting and adding elements to the frame. If you don’t like something in the scene you are painting, don’t include it.

This creates a very different workflow and thought process for photographers. I have to be aware of everything in the frame in real time. That is, I don’t have the luxury of easily picking and choosing what I will include. Unless I am very careful everything the camera is pointed at will be recorded. Yes, I could spend many hours in Photoshop removing the things that distract, but I don’t like doing it like that. Besides taking a lot of time, I believe it is better to be careful when composing the image capture. I feel better as an artist to get the captured image as close to the desired result as I can get it.

It takes lot of discipline to make myself aware of every bit of the frame. Even those far away corners where distractions seem to lurk. And those mysterious things poking in from the edges must be seen and dealt with. And that trash in view. Being aware is crucial. I must move or reframe to eliminate distractions.

You are responsible for every part of your image, even the parts you’re not interested in. – Jay Maisel

Elimination

Photography is much more about elimination than inclusion – John Paul Caponigro

Mr. Caponigro is on to a great truth here. I find when I am composing a shot that I’m caught in a strong tension. “What should I include?” fighting with “what should I exclude?”. Usually this battle plays out quickly in my subconscious. I have a lot of experience. But even so, I sometimes find myself blindsided. I look at an image and think “what is that doing here?” when I was blind to a distracting element.

I find that the decisions to eliminate things often are more taxing that the ones to go ahead and include them. When you are unsure it seems safer to include it, just in case. This is usually the wrong attitude. If you are not sure it should be there eliminate it. Taking things out, to some limit, usually makes for more clear images. Anything that competes with the main subject and composition should be very suspect.

Minimalism

Does the desire to take out distracting elements lead to minimalist images? Maybe. Not necessarily.

Minimalism tends to be an extreme. To me it can be a bleak and harsh discipline. My work is not minimalist. I love the richness of excellent textures and compositions that may include a lot of elements. Simplicity and reduction of distraction are different from minimalism.

I would characterize minimalism as a mind set. The process is to take out absolutely everything that is not completely required for the image. My attitude is to strongly consider eliminating everything that seems to be distracting. I allow for occasional riots of seemingly useless complexity when I thing it adds to the image.

The image with this post is borderline minimalist. If I had removed the grass and the hints of field it probably would qualify for minimalist in my mind. I don’t care. I don’t like labels.

Ambiguity

Less information often leads to more interpretation. – John Paul Caponigro

Have you noticed in some paintings or songs or stories that less is actually more? Less complete information leads to some ambiguity. It allows space for the viewer to fill in what’s missing. Viewers like to be challenged a little, to have to work some to figure out an image. It is engaging and stimulating. It also allows for their private interpretation to be applied. They may well create a story that is different from what the artist envisioned. That is wonderful. It means the image is big enough to encompass multiple points of view.

Enjoy the creative stimulation of the frame. Deciding what’s in the frame is composition. Where you put the frame is cropping. Keeping things out of the frame is selection, selectivity, defining the subject. Less is often more. Use your judgment and don’t be afraid to take it out.

Rule of Thirds

Faithful Rule of Thirds crop. Works for this image.

The famous Rule of Thirds. I use that name here, even though I don’t like it. It has become almost a deep seated religious belief to some. Let’s examine it. It is a good idea, not a rule that can’t be broken.

What is it?

Briefly, the Rule of Thirds says to divide the frame into a 3×3 grid of 9 equal squares, like a tic-tac-toe grid. Important features, like horizons, should be placed on one of the grid lines rather than centered. Also, the grid intersections are “special” and powerful. Place major subjects on one of the intersections.

Theory says that aligning subjects with this grid creates more interest and tension than most other arrangements. This are not really wrong. The Rule of Thirds is generally good advice. The fault is in the application as a prescription rather than just good advice.

The image with this article is faithfully cropped to the Rule of Thirds. The horizon is on the upper line and the gravestone is aligned along the right one. It works for this.

Origin

The rule of thirds was first written down by John Thomas Smith in 1797. And he was quoting remarks by the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds from 1783. It goes way back.

Reynolds says:

Analogous to this “Rule of thirds”, (if I may be allowed so to call it) I have presumed to think that, in connecting or in breaking the various lines of a picture, it would likewise be a good rule to do it, in general, by a similar scheme of proportion; for example, in a design of landscape, to determine the sky at about two-thirds ; or else at about one-third, so that the material objects might occupy the other two : Again, two thirds of one element, (as of water) to one third of another element (as of land); and then both together to make but one third of the picture, of which the two other thirds should go for the sky and aerial perspectives. This rule would likewise apply in breaking a length of wall, or any other too great continuation of line that it may be found necessary to break by crossing or hiding it with some other object : In short, in applying this invention, generally speaking, or to any other case, whether of light, shade, form, or color, I have found the ratio of about two thirds to one third, or of one to two, a much better and more harmonizing proportion, than the precise formal half, the too-far-extending four-fifths—and, in short, than any other proportion whatever.

They were very wordy back then. But basically, he is describing what we still call the Rule of Thirds.

Even further back

But the basis of what we term the Rule of Thirds goes much further back, probably to around 450 BC. It was known as the Golden Ratio in ancient Greece.

The artists back then worked out a mathematical description of their concept of beauty. The ratio was key to the design their temples, such as the Parthenon. It is surprisingly similar to the ratios of the Rule of Thirds.

I won’t go into depth on it, but the Golden Ratio is about 1.618. It is actually an irrational number, which means it never repeats. Like pi. Sounds weird, but if you use the ratio to divide a frame they way they suggest you get something like

Golden Ratio
https://www.pixpa.com/blog/golden-ratio

As you see, the proportions are roughly 2/3 to 1/3. Like the Rule of Thirds.

To a large degree, beauty is universal.

Why does it work for photography?

It works for photography for the same reason it works for painting or architecture or other media. It creates compositions that are both balanced and dynamic. They are balanced because the 2/3 to 1/3 split creates arrangements that for some reason are pleasing to most people. Having the horizon or major features offset from the center creates more interest and avoids boring, static compositions. Following the grid also helps to introduce a certain dynamic layout that gives interest to an image.

It touches us on a deep psychological level by keeping our images less centered and boring. Having things off center helps emphasize what is important to us, e.g. more sky or more foreground, and it gives our minds some work to do to balance the elements. Viewers like to have to figure things out a little bit.

The Rule of Thirds is very pragmatic. It has proven itself for a long time. All photographers should learn it when they are learning composition.

Learn it, use it, learn to see by it’s pattern. When you are starting you need to learn the normal conventions. This is one of the oldest and most fundamental. Internalize it. Unlike most artistic opinions it is backed by centuries of use.

Is it a rule?

No, at best it is a guideline, a “rule of thumb”. It contains good advice for most compositions. But composing is an art, not a science. Don’t take it too literally. Do what feels right to you as an artist. But know why you are doing it. If you don’t understand the Rule of Thirds then you will not know when it should be broken.

You enter an image in your local camera club competition. It gets down-voted because it was not composed according to the Rule of Thirds. Talk to them. Find out if they have a valid artistic opinion about this or if they are just being legalistic. If they are legalistic, sorry, it is time to leave this group. You have outgrown them.

If you post an image on social media and it gets negative comments because it is not “Rule of Thirds’ compliant, then just ignore the comments. You are the artist and the only one who can decide how to compose your image. If you intentionally broke the rule for a good reason, then good to you.

Break the law

As a guideline, it should be followed when it makes sense and abandoned when it doesn’t. Yes, the Rule of Thirds can make your compositions generally pleasing to most people. That is why you should pay attention to it most of the time. It is time honored and proven.

Maturity and experience will help understand that there are times when the rule should be abandoned. For instance, for a very symmetrical composition, off-centering it to follow the Rule of Thirds would probably look weird and damage the impact of the symmetry.

Or in the case where you have a subject you want to fill the frame with. Do it. That supersedes the rigid rule.

Or let’s say you are a photojournalist who has just captured a unique event that the world needs to see. Didn’t have time to compose according to the Rule of Thirds? No problem. Most people would agree that a strong or important subject overrides the rule.

Basically, if you understand the “rule” but feel you have a good artistic reason to break it, do it. You are the artist.

Create

Ultimately, that is what it comes down to: you are the artist. If you understand composition and believe you have a better idea than the Rule of Thirds feel free. You may be right or you may be wrong. Either way, you made an artistic choice. That is what you need to do.

Composition rules are based on principles of perception and gestalt psychology. They usually make sense and any artist should learn them and internalize their application. But creation sometimes involves taking a new direction, abandoning norms, breaking rules. Do not insult your viewers by being ignorant of the norms. Rather, delight them by occasional creative rule breaking. Be an artist.

Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist. —  Pablo Picasso

There are rules about perception, but not about photography. – Jay Maisel