I am often asked by photographers starting out in landscape photography what's my primary concern in composing an image. The answer is SIMPLICITY.
Michelangelo, when asked how he carved David, is famously reported to have replied: "I simply cut away everything that was not David." Easy enough if you're Michelangelo, you might say. I'm right there with you!
But what's the point that Michelangelo was making? All art starts with the desire to communicate something. What is it about what's in front of you that makes you want to put the camera up to your eye and create an image. What is it about the scene that you want to communicate to the viewer? The answer to this question will dictate how you go about photographing the scene. The story you want to tell will guide your lens choice, your shutter speed, your aperture, your ISO, whether you use natural light or artificial, where you stand or position a tripod, and every other technical decision you need to make in the process of making an image . If you don't have a story to tell you won't make a great photograph because you haven't given the viewer a reason to care about why you pressed the shutter.
So you've made technical decisions that help tell your two dimensional moment in time story. Now... how are you going to frame the scene in those two dimensions? I suggest you make simplicity be your primary goal. As Michelangelo would say, if it's not David then cut it away. If something is in the frame which doesn't help tell your story, either get rid of it or work to minimize the distraction it will have on the viewer. Sometimes that means changing your perspective. Sometimes that means working the zoom ability of your lens. It can mean simply moving your feet and either getting closer to the subject or approaching it from a different angle. One of the most common helpful suggestions to new photographers is make the subject fill the frame. The idea behind that suggestion is that there's less chance of non-essential elements distracting the viewer. It's not a bad suggestion but I prefer to tell new photographers to aim for simplicity. Before you press the shutter ask yourself -- "Am I telling my story clearly? Simply? Are there any distractions?" If the answer is no then don't press the shutter. Figure out what the problem is and fix it. The funny thing about composition is when you start out in photography you have to think about it so much. After years of experience, if you are asked a moment before you press the shutter why you framed a scene in such a way your answer more than likely is -- "It just looks right."
Peter Carroll is a professional photographer living just outside of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada.
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