I thought it’d be worth trying to take a look at framing subjects in landscape photography. Last time I threw a load of numbers at you, but I’m deliberately abstaining from that here. Hopefully it goes without saying that this is a massive subject area and impossible to discuss objectively, but I’ll say it anyway. Subjectivity is kind of the point in my view, and something to be celebrated, especially since it can’t be avoided – we might see the same landscape, but we see it slightly differently.
First, what’s ‘composition’? Apparently, wiki thinks ‘it’s the placement or arrangement of visual elements or ingredients in a work of art, as distinct from the subject of a work.’ Pheugh, it already feels really dry, doesn’t it? Anyway, I disagree and don’t think the two are distinct in practise at all… we’re aiming to make both the choice of subject and how it’s described knit together seamlessly. I’d prefer to ditch the fancy terms and just think about how the photo is put together.
The shot above was a work-in-progress on the way to taking the one I’m going to talk about below. Actually it’s 1 of 4 shots that are almost identical. I realised after the first couple that I needed to get the horizon – in this case the waterline, nearer to the horizontal half way mark. Why? Frank Zappa once said the most important thing about art is the frame, and whilst this is obviously provocative, he may have a point. Photos have edges, and since the edges are straight lines, we get to play with inferred lines inside the box. Ignoring some of the more commonly discussed ‘rules’ of painting and photography at least for now, we can make symmetry work for us – especially when there’s water in the picture! I’ll return to symmetry another time. Much harder for myself and maybe others is working out what we want to photograph in the first place – what I leave outside those edges as well as what I include – the subject. It’s only then I get to arrange it artfully, or not, inside the box!
This is something I wanted to photograph, and this is the first shot I took of it. I was walking in to the Ling Mountain Hut, right under Liathach, and this caught my eye. Why was I interested in this? Well, there’s a focal point, and that works in a frame. It also told an environmental story, and telling stories with pictures is exciting stuff, at least for me! The story here is a lone tree seeking refuge from hungry deer in an overgrazed highlands. The only place a tree can grow in this part of the glen is on that island, because Bambi is eating the young shoots. The wider context is that those monarchs’ of the glen are kept at artificially high numbers by a relatively small elite of landowners and bred for sport hunting. It may look natural, but it’s far from it. All that, from this? It doesn’t have to say it explicitly, these were just my own reasons for paying closer attention – they don’t have to be yours. Anyway, the above shot isn’t working well, even though the tree is fairly central in the frame. Why not? Firstly, the light is pretty meh… and more importantly, if the tree is the subject, it isn’t isolated enough. It needs to stand out, but be part of, the wider landscape.
In order to try and tell that story better I went back the following morning. Going back and ‘stalking’ the subject is a luxury, but can it mean the difference between getting the shot or not. The weather had been miserable in the night but was shifting, and unsettled weather is just great for photography – dawn, dusk, just before or after a storm…when things are on the move. Again, we’re back to performance, the buzz of photographing an environment we can’t control and working within it as it shifts. Don’t just use your zoom – walk up and make your acquaintance, move around the subject, explore. As you can see above, because I’ve dropped down off the hill I’ve got an OK shot of the lochan but the light is still neither here nor there and tree branches have disappeared against the background. All in all I took about 30 shots, including the one at the start, and lots low down to isolate the branches against the sky. As I did so I became aware I’d gone in too close and I’d lost the context. So the time spent ‘getting it wrong’ was important (not least because it allowed the weather to clear a bit more). And the tree was important because it stood alone in a large expanse… so I needed to show both.
In the end, what I needed to do was to walk back up the hill, get above the path, gain more height and wait for the weather window. Show the tree accurately in its context – situate it literally in the lochan and pull back to show the wider surrounds. If I was a better photographer, perhaps I’d have ‘visualised’ that need at the start… but then I’d have missed the shot at the start of this piece. I might also have missed the weather window I needed. I could have done with a little more height to be honest, and a wider lens, but didn’t have the wide angle or a stepladder in the car. There are only a few small changes from the earlier shot on the path, and I still don’t think I got it quite right, but we’re getting there.
At this point it’s worth saying out loud that lone trees are something of a cliché in landscape photography – there’s a lot of them about, and that may not be just to do with the fact that we live on an overgrazed island. They are also symbols of hope, of standing resolute against the odds. A solitary point of focus draws the eye and can work symmetrically in our frame, but might we also anthropomorphise landscape and identify with that struggle to stay upright against the elements!? A friend later commented ‘The image clicks because you can see a wasteland that could so easily become wild land given the chance. Traditional folk music tends to go from a sad air/lament to a wild jig/reel, it is not bleak. The composition gives that sense of a huge space to explore and dance through but most importantly it points the finger, we have created this’. I was happy he’d picked up on the ecological story, but also that he saw some hope.
Hold on a minute – not every photo has to be ‘about’ something, but it helps to know what I want from it: a keepsake, a document, capturing the moment, something pretty?
Here’s another quick example: two shots of the same subject but two different takes on it. This is the old swimming pool at St. Monans on the Fife coast. I spent two nights photographing here, and it had a lovely ambivalent atmosphere – a place (to my mind) filled with mostly happy memories of local east coast holidaymakers, mixed with the sadness of its present day dereliction. The shot above is technically fairly well exposed (for both sky and pool floor), but for me it didn’t tell the story of a strange space where natural and human made architecture met. I ended up going after more abstract shots that kept the location context in mind, but got a bit closer to how it felt to be there.
Most of us take photos both consciously and unconsciously. Things often catch my eye before I know why, and I use the camera to try and understand more. You might not like my subject matter or my choices, but I’d still maintain that considering what it is about a subject that grabs us, is a good way to move beyond snapping and hoping. You’ll have your own take on things, and that’s the beauty of it! There’ll be some who say this is intellectualising or politicising things too much, and that landscape is ‘just there’, but that’s a simplification of both the history of Scottish landscape, and how it’s been portrayed. Of course, seeing something and taking the photo I want of it is not a linear thing, and it’s possible to get lucky, but I improve my chances if I think about the frame, take my time and work towards some choices.
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