The Photographer Excludes
By Peter Cox
Melting Ice, Blackwell, Illinois
Canon EOS 20D, EF 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 70mm
Exposure: 1/200 @ f/14
This is an older image of mine, but it's one of my all-time favourites. It poses a visual puzzle and invites the viewer to try and make sense of it. The most common guess is that the view is out to sea, with the top quarter of the image being sky and clouds. Another is that the image is a composite of some sort.
In fact, neither is the case. It's a single shot of a tree growing on the near shore of a small lake. The view is across the lake, which alternates between thawed leads of water and ice, all the way to the top of the composition.
It was made while walking on a cold January afternoon at the Blackwell Forest Preserve near Chicago, Illinois. After wandering around and making some images of frozen air bubbles and cracks in the lake ice, I came across this view.
Making the Image
I was immediately taken with the stark contrast of the tree against the lake in the background. I loved the shape of the tree and the patterns in the ice beyond. However, the composition proved to be problematic, as the top of the tree protruded above the far shore of the lake. Including this would ruin the simplicity of the image.
In an attempt to correct this problem, I started up the hill behind me. This would give me a higher perspective, moving the top of the tree down in relation to the far shore. My goal was to gain enough height so that I could compose the shot with only the lake in the background, showing none of the far shore.
As it happened, when I was as high up the hill as possible while still having a clear view of my composition, I still couldn't frame the shot exactly as I wanted. In some frustration, I made a photograph anyway, figuring it was better come away with something rather than nothing.
I came home from this outing feeling disappointed - I didn't feel like I'd captured anything useful, and this photograph felt like ‚"the one that got away".
To Delete, or Not to Delete
On workshops, I often have students who want to delete pictures in the field, or upon the initial edit on the computer back in the studio. I strongly discourage this, and this image is a great example of why.
My habit is not to delete anything in-camera, unless I need to make space (which is very rare, as memory cards are now both relatively cheap and have very high capacities - just make sure you carry enough so that you can comfortably fit in a day's busy shooting). I also don't delete upon the initial edit, unless it's to discard a picture with clear technical problems, or the inevitable accidental shot of my feet.
The reason for this is that very often you will make an excellent photograph, which appears to be terrible at first blush. This could be because you went out with certain expectations, and didn't come away with what you wanted. Or perhaps it's a good photograph that needs cropping to simplify it.
In the case of this image, it's the latter case. Below is the original, uncropped image:
As you can see, it's not nearly as effective as the final version. By my climb up the hill I was almost able to achieve my goal, but the very topmost branches are still sticking up into the far shore.
As a result, this image lay unused in my library for a few months. I was going back over old images to see if anything stood out (a good habit to get into, as it lets you see the images with fresh eyes). I saw this one and it occurred to me that everything the composition needed was there. There was just too much clutter at the top and bottom of the frame.
So, into Photoshop and out with the cropping tool. A few experiments later and the final version emerged. Notice that the only content in the final image is the tree and the lake - the grass on the near shore has been cropped out as has the small brown spot on the right of the original frame, near the far shore.
To include those details would draw the eye away from the primary focus. Even the smallest distraction can ruin the impact of a simple image like this.
Less is More
There's a saying: "The painter includes; the photographer excludes". A painter will include only those elements in a composition which they expressly want. A photographer, on the other hand, must work out how to exclude distracting elements. This is a large part of the challenge in making great images.
Very often, the composition that works best for a scene will require you to crop the image, either to exclude some undesirable objects or to change the shape of the frame so that it better represents your subject.
In this case, the primary reason for cropping was to get rid of the shoreline, and the shape was largely dictated by that requirement. However, I feel that this slightly fattened panorama works very well for the image, emphasizing the horizontal nature of the patterns on the lake.
The Best Laid Plans
Sometimes, not getting what you want means you get what you need, to paraphrase the song. I put some effort into trying to get the top of the tree into the picture. The requirements of eliminating distraction meant that I had to lose both its top and bottom. The tree now grows up from the bottom of the frame, and continues past the top, forming an unbroken line down the left-hand third. This results in a much stronger image, and perhaps not one I would have achieved had I managed to get 20 feet higher.
Alert readers will have noticed that the colours and contrast of the original image are somewhat more muted than the final version. This is because the photograph was shot in RAW.
Under normal circumstances, when you take a photograph your camera automatically performs quite a bit of post-processing. Colours get more saturated, contrast is boosted and sharpening is applied, among other things. Often this can be done to excess, or at least not to your taste.
Shooting RAW means that all the data the camera captured are retained, and no post-processing is applied. In the RAW converter (Adobe Camera Raw in this case) you then apply your own post-processing to taste.
In this image, I have applied a small saturation boost to intensify the blues in the water, and I have 'burned-in' the trunk and major branches of the tree to render them slightly darker. I also deepened the overall contrast to make the snow drifts on the distant ice stand out more clearly.
Don't be afraid to experiment with your images. Crop creatively – more than almost anything else, sensitive cropping can improve your images dramatically.
Play with the removal of context: this image works because of just that. With the shoreline included, the image has almost no impact. Take that away, and it sings.
But above all, be creative. When your mind's eye makes you go ‚'Ooh!', pay attention. Try to discover what it is about the scene that is appealing, and distill it down to that in your composition, bearing in mind that it might require some cropping when you get home!
Peter Cox is a landscape photographer and educator living in the beautiful south-west of Ireland.
To see more of his work and learn about his workshops, you can visit his website at: http://www.petercox.ie