Too Much of a Good Thing

I really enjoy image critiques – no seriously, I do. I always appreciate an independent point of view, even if it is wrong. Ok, ok, but seriously again, I’m not talking about the criticism of a judge in a competition. I’m talking about the guidance from someone with experience in the same genre, who has discovered their own voice, and has the ability to see basic flaws in the work of someone who has not yet made that discovery.

I had that experience recently, attending yet another photography conference, where participants were asked to submit images for comment. The person who offered the critiques is someone I know and admire and who, in my view, has the infinite right to offer “coaching” to those less fortunate.

Although we all submitted images, only a few were selected for review and sadly, mine was not one of them. I had to live vicariously through others. But even that can be a good thing. Here’s why.

The topic was landscape photography. The particular workshop was around making images with meaning and impact, which in this case involved conscious, selective decisions about composition, relationships between elements, colour, mood and message. Conscious decisions.

The submitted images were, for the most part, anything but conscious decisions. There seems to be one pervasive theme in the learning curve of those starting out in landscape photography: it’s all about big, wide vistas, with as much complexity as possible. They should intentionally overwhelm the senses, confusing you as to which way to look and where to linger. I’ve lived that dream, and fallen fully into that abyss.

I was surprised at the number of times that the wise advice was to significantly crop the image to remove the complexity, to focus the gaze and direct attention and flow. Traditionally, that is accomplished through a prominent foreground, linked midground and destination background. After all, that’s how our eyes see.

But generally speaking, nature isn’t organized that way. Natural landscapes are chaotic and messy and overlapping and often directionless. It’s we humans that decided they needed to be nice neat packages of organized elements to be meaningful and impactful.  But that’s the nature of art:  it’s about the interpretation, not about the documentation.

Photography has that challenge – by design, it is a documentary activity, only in the act of which and after which the photographer applies an interpretation.  Unlike painting or sculpture or ironworking, which start with nothing and build to perfection, photography starts with a documented scene and really is the process of removing and readjusting elements to produce a final result.  It really is a unique art.

For landscapes, though, it is a tough lesson to learn.  The visual field of our two eyes is over 120 degrees.  We arrive on a magnificent scene and use that field of view to take it all in, astounded by the beauty.  We also see in three dimensions, with our two eyes combining their respective images to convey depth and stature.  And our first instinct is to recreate this with our cameras.  But our cameras have neither the field of view (except for super-wide-angle lenses) nor the ability to capture three dimensions.  But we try anyway.  So the advice is simple:  don’t.

Think like a painter – find your smaller piece of perfection, consciously consider the relationship between the elements and how the viewer’s eye should move through the scene.  Make sure the route is obvious.  Highlight the waypoints along the way.  Consider where the light falls, where the shadows linger and how these interact.  In fact, study painters who paint landscapes and see how they simplify and emphasize the elements in a scene.  Some of the best were the Group of Seven, and I’m not saying that just because they were Canadian.  But they were masters at capturing meaning and impact.

It’s amazing to arrive on a new scene and take it all in.  Do that, enjoy it, take your time, forget your camera.  But when you finally lift your camera to photograph it, help others experience the grandeur of what you’ve seen by cropping in, simplifying and emphasizing.  You’ll be surprised at how big an impact you can have with a smaller piece of heaven.

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