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Paying Attention To Relationships

Relationships are important, whether you’re talking about life or landscape composition! As soon as you start thinking about things like the rule of thirds, you’re thinking about visual relationships within the image frame. But visual relationships go beyond simply getting things out of the middle of your picture. How picture elements within your composition relate to each other affects how clear your composition is and how well it will communicate to your viewer.

Painters learn all sorts of ways that these relationships can help structure and define the composition, and these techniques apply to photography as well. For example, leading lines are strong visual lines that lead the eye through the photograph. Diagonals and S-curves are other ways of defining a composition with lines that help the viewer understand the relationships in a picture.

Balance is something that you hear a lot about with composition. Balance is about the relationships of visual elements within your landscape photograph. The rule of thirds uses a very simple sort of balance, where two-thirds of the image visually balance one-third of the image or a subject at an intersection of the thirds balances the space around it.

Balance is much more than simply the rule of thirds. Images will look in balance or out of balance based on how the objects within your composition relate to each other. This concept can be hard to explain because it’s so visual. One thing that can really help you with balance is to look at your image on your LCD as a photograph. Do strong visual elements of your image overpower the rest of the picture? That can put the composition out of balance. Do strong visual elements seem to have something balancing them in another part of the picture? That can help put the composition into balance.

All this comes down to how you structure and define a composition to control the viewer’s eye (Figure 4.11). In Figure 4.11, there is a strong relationship between the simple bottom of the photo and the highly detailed top part of trees. Then, as you look closer, notice the relationship of the background trees to the larger, more defined leaves, which also create a visual relationship to the falls. In addition, there is a strong relationship to the rocks on the right, both to the falls and to the trees.

Figure 4.11

Figure 4.11. The falls in Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park have a strong relationship with their surroundings in this image.

Remember: As soon as you get key parts of your picture out of the center, you’re encouraging your viewer to look over the entire photograph. How you create visual relationships within that photograph affects the way that people look at your image.

Consider The Foreground, Middle Ground, And Background

Foreground, middle ground, and background are three very important parts of any landscape composition and are critical to the visual relationships of any photograph. Not all landscape photographs will have all three—for example, a mountain against the sky doesn’t have any foreground—but how you work with these areas has a big effect on what your picture looks like.

Foreground is the area immediately in front of you that sets the stage for the main part of the landscape. Background is that part of the landscape that is the most distant from you. Middle ground is everything in between.

Relationships between these three areas are largely affected by how much space you devote to each area within your photograph (Figure 4.12). This space is strongly affected by your height and angle of view toward the landscape. I think it’s fun to see some of the old photographs of Ansel Adams standing on top of his car. He actually had a platform there where he could set up a tripod and get some height to the landscape. He did this deliberately to spread out the relationships of foreground to middle ground to background.

Figure 4.12

Figure 4.12. This image is totally about the relationship of foreground to background with a strong middle ground in between.

Landscapes don’t always look their best at our eye level. Changing your height to the landscape changes relationships in the composition. Sometimes even a slight change in height, whether that’s lower or higher, will make a huge difference in how much shows up in the foreground, middle ground, and background of the picture.

Getting a higher view like Ansel Adams did might help you get better foreground-to-background relationship (Figure 4.13). Sometimes that, indeed, does give you the most interesting view of your landscape. Look around—you don’t need a platform on top of your car. Sometimes a rise of only a couple feet can change what appears in your foreground. That can help you get rid of something that’s distracting in the foreground or create more of a visual distance between foreground, middle ground, and background.

Figure 4.13

Figure 4.13. Climbing to the top of some rock-covered hills gave a great perspective on the Buttermilk Area near Bishop, California.

If conditions are right, you can even do a neat little trick with your camera and tripod to get a higher angle. Turn your self-timer on, and then hold your camera and tripod over your head to gain some height. This works pretty well with digital because you can quickly look at what you shot and decide if you need to change the positioning of the camera and tripod head to get a better photograph. It does require shooting with a fast enough shutter speed that you don’t have problems with camera movement during exposure, though.

Getting a higher view is not necessarily the only way to change these relationships. Sometimes it’s more interesting to get a lower view, especially if you want to emphasize something unique in the foreground (Figure 4.14). So often, you’ll see groups of photographers at a scenic location with their cameras all set up on tripods at eye level. That’s convenient, but it isn’t necessarily the best way to compose the scene. Sometimes the camera needs to be as low to the ground as possible.

Figure 4.14

Figure 4.14. A low angle emphasizes the penstemon flowers in the foreground of this stark Yosemite National Park granite dome.

You also can do another neat little trick with your camera in some locations where you think a low angle might be really great, but you can’t actually get there. Instead of raising the camera and tripod up high, try it down low. I’ve put my camera on self-timer and then held my tripod over the edge of a bridge to get a lower angle.

The point is that you need to look for angles as a way of affecting your foreground, middle ground, and background relationships. And go beyond height. Often it helps to move left or right, either avoiding certain things in the foreground or adding other interesting foreground elements to your composition.

Use Your Edges Effectively

The edges of your composition are critical because they provide a window for how the viewer sees the landscape. Often photographers think of the rule of thirds as simply the thirds lines and their intersections, but those thirds don’t exist without the edges of your picture.

The edges of a composition are easily neglected. Because we have a tendency to focus strongly on the most important parts of the scene, we don’t always look at the edges. Yet what happens at the edge is visually quite important because the edge of your picture is such a dominant part of it—after all, it defines where the picture begins and where it ends.

Frequently what happens is that things just end up somewhere near the edge without your making a conscious decision as to how to place visual elements relative to that edge. That can be a mistake because visual elements can be weaker or stronger depending on their relationship to the edge.

Use edges deliberately. Check the edges of your photograph and see what’s happening there. If you have an important visual element in your composition, watch what happens to it as it gets close to the edge. Usually you want to give a little bit of space so that the object floats free of the edge (Figure 4.15), or you want to use the edge to deliberately and definitively cut through the object at the edge (Figure 4.16). These two different ways of relating an object to the edge of the image give very different results.

Figure 4.15

Figure 4.15. In this desert scene in the Lake Mead National recreation Area outside of Las Vegas, the cacti are separated from the edge of the frame to create a distinct visual group that then relates to the background.

Figure 4.16

Figure 4.16. For this image, the cacti are deliberately cut by the edge of the composition, creating a dramatic and bold look at this stark landscape.

A very awkward way of using an edge in a composition is to have a visual element just touching or being close to touching it (Figure 4.17). That uncomfortably ties the visual element down to the edge because the viewer isn’t sure how to look at it. It also can tie part of the picture to the edge of the picture where it shouldn’t be attached. Viewers want you, as the photographer, to help them understand your landscape, and you’ll communicate most clearly if you use the edges very deliberately.

Figure 4.17

Figure 4.17. This is the same photo as Figure 4.15, but now it’s cropped to show an awkward relationship of the cacti to the edge.

One way of seeing this is to look at a patch of flowers in the foreground of a landscape. If you make sure to show the entire patch of flowers (using a distinct space around the flower patch between it and the edges of the composition), you’ll be telling your viewer to look at these flowers as a distinct patch. The viewer will see the flowers as a contained area of flowers. But if you get in closer to these flowers and cut off the bottom left and right sides of the flower patch with the edges of your composition (Figure 4.18), the flowers will fill the foreground of your image. The viewer won’t know that this is a small patch of flowers and you’re giving an impression of lots of flowers. These two very different ways of handling the same patch of flowers change the way that the viewer perceives this landscape.

Figure 4.18

Figure 4.18. Is this landscape filled with California poppies? By using the edges to cut into the patch of poppies, the photo gives that impression.

Watch For Distractions

Sometimes when we concentrate on a beautiful scene, we see the impression of the scene but we don’t see small distracting details (Figure 4.19). This can be a problem especially around the edges of the photograph, yet distractions along the edges can be extremely challenging for a composition. Things end up there and start pulling our eyes toward them instead of toward what is really important in the picture. All of a sudden, the composition has changed because the viewer is seeing relationships very differently. Unfortunately, the viewer starts to see relationships of those distractions to the rest of the picture.

Figure 4.19

Figure 4.19. A bit of out-of-focus branch along the edge of the photo is a big distraction for this scene.

When I see distractions coming in around the edges of the picture in my LCD review, I’ll usually retake the picture by reframing the composition to get rid of them. Yes, I could crop out those distractions later when the picture is in the computer. But my feeling is that if I miss the distraction, what else might I have missed when I was taking the picture? Therefore, I want to reframe and more carefully look at the picture to be sure that I really do have the composition I want.

Two things to be especially careful of when you’re looking for distractions are bright areas away from important parts of your composition and high-contrast areas along the edges of the picture. Bright areas and contrasty areas will always attract the viewer’s eye away from anything else in the picture.

Long ago, I had an instructor who was very tough about looking at edges. I had to learn to always scan the edges of my image as I took the picture or I would definitely hear about it. Edges are frequently where those distractions come in, but as you read earlier, edges also are important for the way they interact with the overall composition. You can teach yourself to quickly scan the edges of your photograph and make this a habit.

Distractions for your composition don’t just come from the edges. Any really bright or contrasty area, for example, is going to attract attention from your viewer. If you don’t want the viewer’s attention in that part of the picture, that’s a problem.

Another distraction for composition is a sign. Sometimes photographers will deliberately include signs from a location in the picture to identify the location, or a sign creeps into the composition because the photographer wanted to show a big area. Signs are a problem because they’re designed to attract attention. And anytime you have a sign in a photograph, viewers will try to read it. If you need a sign for a location, focus on the sign and don’t try to include it with the landscape.

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