'Picking the Pounds from the Pennies' - Finding order in grandeur...

From trigger happy to artists block - The Photographer can experience the exuberance of image making or the doldrums of compositional 'blindness' at any given time. Upon arriving at a location so many factors can influence the end result; the weather, the light, your own mindset/mood, the creative vitality of your mind on that day and more. Indeed for many the resulting images are just a byproduct of a wider joy taken from being out in nature and witnessing many amazing acts of light and form. For this blog post I'm interested in 'picking the pounds from the pennies' i.e. exploring why we find certain images and compositions more aesthetically satisfying than others from one particular location and some of the mind set whilst composing and later reviewing these images to make sure we capture the feel and essence of a location when presented with a wide vista.

I'm going to use some recent examples from an image making session in Italy that lasted less than one hour. I'd been keeping an eye on the weather throughout the day knowing that around sunset I would be able to make a quick trip to a viewing point near the top of the mountain we were staying on. Many other photographers know the mindset now, you start to run through scenarios of composition, what the challenges will be, how to try and overcome them and yet of course you don't want to burden  your creativity with pre-supposed ideas. Indeed I tend to work much better 'off the cuff' when I arrive in an area with a loose objective and be more reactive to what I see and feel at the time.


So, what I knew for certain was that there was a wide vista from this viewpoint, I also knew roughly where the sun would be due to the time of year and obviously time of day (there are also useful apps to help with this, for example The Photographers Ephemeris). However, I also knew for certain that just to point the camera at this 180 degree huge view across valley and mountains wouldn't result in a very interesting shot. Why? Well, sometimes too much is too much, for a grand vista to work it usually needs some form of physical journey for the eye to lead the viewer through the image, for example a foreground, mid and far distance that differ and 'flow', sometimes by the use of natural lines in the image for example, or by differing textures or colours and areas of contrasting light etc. I knew here that basically I was perched on the side of a mountain looking straight out over a valley with peaks far off to my left and right. 


Often when I am greeted by a wide view that looks impressive to the eye of the beholder I know this won't translate into the camera, after all it sees in 2D not 3D. So, often my thought process is to simplify. How can I condense the view into a more manageable series of shapes and forms that provide some sort of flow or visual structure. Obviously the challenge here is to try and maintain some of the grandeur of the view and with this first image the fact you can see civilisation/the valley floor down in the far left gives a good idea of scale.

image 1 : selecting a portion of my view to try and condense the scene whilst retaining the sense of scale and grandeur

The clouds here help give a little interest by catching the last light from the sun and the repeating patterns of the mountains on the right side of the image is something I develop on over the next two examples. Could the image be a little too weighted to the right though? What is that left side offering other than scale? Is scale enough to warrant it's inclusion? What about that section of sky above the cloud line on the right, is it a bringing anything?

Simplify Further:

Yes, as with many things in life if you think you've simplified it enough you're wrong, you can always simplify it further! You can see below I also have changed the orientation and switched from Landscape to Portrait. I find myself often shooting in Portrait and maybe it's because I find it easier to balance elements when composing up and down rather than left to right...don't let a psychologist get their teeth into me! So here, we have reduced the scene to help show the relationships between the overlapping 'triangles' of the mountains which recede nicely but I've also introduced the cloud above to help balance the image (actually nature introduced it, I just reacted to it!):

Image 2 : Here i've reduced the elements in the scene and used the cloud at the top of the image to balance and add another texture

So, a few questions come into my mind now...How important is the cloud? Can you imagine the image without it? For me the image wouldn't be as satisfying without the cloud as it would feel a little bottom heavy. Due to the time of day there wasn't much light illuminating the dark green of the tree covered mountain side and this may 'drag' the picture down visually. I also think the slight V in the cloud mirrors the V seen as the mountains recede off into the distance. But, what's happening in that middle area, there are some wisps of cloud but is that area something of a void? Does the eye rest on that blank area in the middle? Not sure...


We've simplified the elements far enough now in my view, too much and we'd be in danger of losing the scale. It's just a case of refining the composition to try and maximise those elements. The repeating pattern of the slopes is what is drawing me to the scene and of course the warm hues of an Italian sunset. So, how best to capture those feelings and commit them to pixels? Well, and this is all done in a matter of moments and often quite sub-consciously, I decide to switch back to Landscape orientation and compose the image with less sky and just let the form, shape and colours do the talking:

image 3 : with a strong focus on the shapes and form this final view is more abstract yet still provides scale and the warm hues of a mountain sunset.

The final image above is probably for me the most satisfying of the three. But, the glory of any art form is that some people will have other feelings, they may prefer the wider view, or the portrait orientation of a similar scene.

What's interesting is to really analyse how much of this is conscious thinking at the time vs how much of this reasoning the photographer retrospectively applies when editing and selecting images upon arriving home. For me the ongoing battle is to try and bring as much of this rationale into the field without letting it strangle my feelings and emotion for the scene as it happens. Often I'll sit and try and imbibe the atmosphere whilst scanning the whole area to find shapes, forms, colours or texture that help me transmit the essence of the scene back into my images. But, as always it comes down to what you are trying to portray in the image, the mood, the feeling, the spirit etc.

So, perhaps the next time you scale a hill, mountain or even have a large urban vista in front of you and take a quick pic only to look back at it later and wonder why it doesn't live up to your memories one technique could be to apply some of the thoughts above and simplify, simplify further and refine.