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Composition by Heart – Part I

By Bors Vesterby

The center of Garfield Mountain is hollow, a steep sided bowl with a rim like jagged dragon's teeth. North, a narrow cleft drains the bowl. That is where you enter.  From below, wade the snowmelt river, then climb through the forest to the boulder talus. Walk the rocks up, all the way to the ancient hemlock guardian, eight feet in diameter, then thread the needle past the waterfall above the gorge, and you are there, the Heart of Garfield.

It was here, in the fall of 1999 that a single event, and my emotional response to that event, would change the course of my life. That trip was my sixth into the place my friends had begun to call Bors' Bowl. I set my tarp shelter nestled low against a massive hemlock tree at the top of a cliff.  A small fire, and the tree, were my companions for the evening. After dinner, I sat sipping hot black tea. The darkness beyond the fire was physical in its utter lack of light. After tea I was looking forward to that depth of sleep you get after mountain travel.

When the sound began, I thought it was a jet, and yet something wasn't right in that roar. I sat up. It had a depth to it, a bass note I'd never encountered, and it was growing. I leaned out from under my shelter.  The sound was traveling up the river valley below. When it turned up the cleft toward the bowl, I knew. It was wind.  When it struck, it ripped the brass grommets right out of the tarp, and my shelter started flapping like a wild thing. Rain rushed in on the wind. I threw on coat and boots and stepped into the stinging rain.  With a flashlight in my teeth, and a knife and a ball of twine in hand, I set about repairing my shelter. The wind was bitter cold, and whenever my fingers began to go clumsy I returned to the fire to warm them. After battening down, I fell asleep with the wind pressing the tarp down on me like a giant hand.

First light showed a world gone white. A blizzard of snow was streaming uphill in the wind. It was time to get off the mountain. Not bothering with breakfast, I packed up and slid down the icy rocks through the snow to the forest that fills the narrow canyon leading out.

As I stepped into the trees, the wind died. In the sudden quiet, I stopped, watching as the last snowflakes fell. A glow began behind me, lighting the forest.  Turning, I saw the clouds parting. A shaft of golden sunlight beamed through, lighting the interior of the bowl. Every inch of every rock, tree, and vertical tooth of the dragon was coated with fresh snow, lit with golden light.
Right there I decided to invest in a camera. It felt imperative that I share such visions with others. The question then became how do you do that? How do you photograph awe?


Why Photograph?

Landscape photography, as I practice it, has one core purpose: to communicate emotion. Using this idea as a central theme in the pursuit of making great pictures has a number of benefits. Try this: For the moment, set aside most of the things you have read or been told about getting good at photography. Drop the overbearing concepts of rules, of developing personal vision, whether to specialize or not, what to photograph, how to photograph, whether you can sell it, whether it will help this cause or that, whether it will get good votes online, which 'rule' to apply to capture it best, or what lens or camera to buy. Forget all of it.

Start with Emotion

What moves you? There are moments when the world aligns—a peak of light, an arrangement of elements—that create in us an experience which stops us in our tracks, and holds in its grip all of our perceptions. In order to photograph such moments, it is not just the light and landscape you are imaging. In such photography, the true subject is your emotion. This is why it is helpful to forget the rules, equipment debates, and expectations. They too easily get in the way of just feeling, or are simply irrelevant. Start with pure experience.

 Then, knowing what moves you, make communicating that emotion your goal. Note that this is distinct from taking 'great' pictures of your favorite subjects. Taking a great picture is subject dependent.  It's easy to get focused on tools when the goal is a 'great capture.' Instead, make it your goal to communicate how you feel about that subject. Suddenly, the rules of composition become tools in service to a specific goal, and not the goal itself. The use of any particular rule can be tested and judged against the goal. This avoids the artistic pit-traps where the learning of rules, and the use of rules, and the breaking of rules, and a host of other artistic expectations become goals themselves. When communicating emotion is the goal, everything you do can be judged against that target. Artistically, everything else will follow. Your personal vision of the world will emerge, and your technical abilities will develop in the right direction.

Investigate Emotion

One of the most thrilling things about learning to communicate emotion visually is that doing so is a learnable skill, and can be constantly improved. Once you have a good sense of what moves you, the next step is to reflect on why it moves you. What is the essence of the scene?  What elements touch you most deeply? Such questions will help you identify the core of your photography. It is from that core that visual power, interest, and the ability to communicate emotion, will grow.


Here is an example, my piece Storm Break, created on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. On location, my goal was to communicate my emotional response to the depth, breadth, and adventure of the desert canyon in winter. Knowing what I wanted to communicate, I did not have to search for a composition. The elements of the piece appeared before me the moment I arrived in the predawn gloom, before the good light appeared.  As soon as the sun began painting the inner canyon I ran back to this spot to create the piece.

Part II of Composition by Heart will discuss techniques for visual story telling as a method for evoking emotion in landscape photography.


About Bors Vesterby

Bors' connection to the land is visceral, to walk it, and sense its textures, listen and watch its moods. In his landscape prints he strives to give the viewer the same sense of existing in a state of attentive wonder.

This August, 2013, join Bors on an extraordinary workshop in beautiful Mt. Rainier National Park. Explore verdant valley forests with thousand year old trees to alpine meadows edged in rock and ice. Learn his techniques 1:1, and develop the core of your own photography.  Learn more about this unique opportunity at: www.landstrider-photography.com/workshops.

Subscribe to Bors' free monthly newsletter on his website, www.landstrider-photography.com. Subscribe today and receive your own free copy of this article in e-book format along with two bonus essays.

May, 2013

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Concepts: Grand Canyon, Emotion, Colorado Plateau, Wind, Colorado River

Entities: Rainier National Park, Garfield Mountain, desert canyon, Grand Canyon, the river valley, Bors Vesterby

Tags: emotion, goal, photography, wind, rules, bowl, light, emotional response, personal vision, landscape photography, Bors, steep sided bowl, shelter, ancient hemlock guardian, massive hemlock tree, hot black tea, core, Rainier National Park, canyon, verdant valley forests, free monthly newsletter, piece Storm Break, mountain, tarp shelter, world, boulder talus, jagged dragon, Garfield Mountain, snowmelt river, single event, needle past, narrow cleft, utter lack, mountain travel, specific goal, golden light, overbearing concepts, river valley, great picture, wild thing