Spring – A Great Time to Learn Composition

I’ve been enjoying the warmer weather lately and, despite the lack of ice to photograph, I’ve enjoyed coming up with compositions of what is available. Being able to go out in a t-shirt is just a bonus.

On June 25th from 6:30 – 8:30pm in St. Albert, I’ll be teaching a composition class. This is open to anyone — whether you only use your cell phone or you regularly haul around multiple SLRs. The class will cover a wide variety of techniques for composition and should be enlightening and fun. Although I mostly show nature photography professionally, I’ll have examples of everything from studio sessions and weddings to wildlife and of course lots of nature as well. So if you want a painless way to drastically improve your photos, come join me! You can sign up at St. Albert Photo Classes. You’ll notice I’m also teaching a “Mastering Your SLR” course, which is very helpful for the technical side of photography, but composition is my favorite subject—learning to compose thoughtfully is an easy way for anyone to set their photos apart.

The photo is a grass curl over a burnt log near Landslide Lake in a forest fire affected area.
90mm, f2.5, 1/1000 of a second

Drawing in Space

In my design studies at university, we had a fascinating sculpture assignment called “Drawing in Space”. We used strips and small blocks of wood to create a sculpture with interesting lines when viewed from any angle. Both the lines and the negative space they defined were equally important. I really enjoyed framing spaces and cutting into volumes of space, and that is something that I don’t get to do quite as much with photography. But when opportunities present themselves, as they did this last week, I get lost in the creating. I’m not sure how long I spent in this particular treasure trove of grass curls. The shallow depth of field I’ve used here really adds to both the ethereal-ness and the depth of the photo, letting you almost feel the space around the grass.




All taken with my 5d, 150mm macro, f6.3, 1/200 – 1/640 of a second.
Taken on the Beaver Pond Trail in Elk Island National Park.

If you’re still reading and interested, I’ll just write a quick note about composition. In the last two photos I’ve done something that is generally disapproved of in standard compositions – there is a strong line running vertically through the frame (even directly in the middle of the frame! the horror). In these cases I think it works as an unusual visual device to emphasize the depth of the photo. If the grass curls did not wrap around the vertical line it would not work.

Visual Design in Abstract Nature Photography

In some ways this is very similar to my previous post. (You may need to click on the photo to see the entire photo more easily) This photo was taken very close to where the last one was on Abraham Lake. They are both abstract photos of nature using very strong design principles. They both play with positive and negative space, but instead of being very organic, this is very angular. The composition is almost entirely based on the rule of thirds — the dark line in the ice is about 1/3rd of the way down and protrudes about 2/3rds of the way into the photo. The ice in the photo covers about 1/3rd of the area, and the snow covers the other 2/3rds. This visual weighting based on the rule of thirds generally works very well, even if the dark and light areas of a photo are not seperated by a straight line (although here they are clearly seperated by a horizontal line). So, while the rule of thirds is almost over-popularized, it is still effective for creating interesting and new compositions.

Abstract Geometric Nature Photography

Finally starting to make my way through photos from the last few trips. This is from Abraham Lake, which has been extensively photographed by many Alberta landscape photographers. It’s easy to come up with the standard compositions here, but it’s also easy to come up with new stuff. There’s just so much variety in the ice, water and rocks. These are methane bubbles from decomposing organic matter. The bubbles form in the ice as the water freezes layer by layer.

In a shot like this, composition is everything. It has to balance the visual weight of light and dark. The three smaller bubbles on the left have to balance with the two larger bubbles on the right. The negative space and positive space both have to be interesting — here the textures in the ice and bubbles add visual interest. And because it’s nature and you can never control it completely, there will always be random elements to deal with. In this picture, the shadow of something deeper lies near the top of the frame. I like the visual reminder that in photography, art is created between the artist and the subject: you never have complete control.

Abstract Water Photography Explorations

These photos were taken at the same place, facing the same direction, within 1 minute of each other. The difference is part of what fascinates me about water. Small changes in the viewing angle completely change the photo. The top photo is almost purely reflected light, while the bottom is a mix of reflected (which bounces off the water) and refracted (which goes through the water) light. Add to that the constant variability of the wind creating different wave patterns, flowing water creating more stable ripples or even falls, and you have a subject that never gets old. I find flat water like this a little bit harder to find compositions in. Waves from wind are transient enough that you don’t know exactly what you’re going to capture — you have a general idea, but the specifics are up to chance. Flowing water is much easier to compose, and you often get more interesting lines. Often these lines and ripples are stable enough that you can see exactly what you’re going to get. But to get refraction in flowing water, it has to be flowing pretty gently — this works best with quite small amounts of water. Otherwise you get whitewater (full of air bubbles), which is great in a completely different way.


These photos don’t have leading lines to add depth or direct they eye (which generally I prefer), but they do illustrate some of the possibilities.

More Highlight Experimentation

Which do YOU like better? I’ve been going back to some of my older photos and trying this blowing-out-the-highlights thing. It’s a little different, and I’m still not completely sure what I think about it. So today I’m going to post two photos—from the same place, same time, and slightly different compositions.

Here’s the new one that I’m still getting used to:


Here’s the old one—this is the way things are usually done for landscape photography. I actually put my camera on my tripod, fully extended the tripod, and held it up as high as I could to get some perspective in this shot.

What do you think?

Messy Photos

With a design background, I tend to be very line conscious in my compositions. Visual weight, positive and negative space, leading lines, rhythm – these are my photographic language. I like clear focus and simplicity. But sometimes it’s interesting to try another language. Every once in a while I’ve taken photos that come from a different place. They bypass my need for clear focus and, while still often being recognizable, are a mess of line and color almost in the vein of abstract impressionism. Here are a few that I think have worked over the last couple of years.



Landscape Light

People often say that direct sunlight in the middle of the day is not acceptable light for landscapes. There’s a small bit of truth to that, but don’t let that stop you from taking awesome pictures. When the light is contrasty, look for things to shoot that look good with that amount of contrast, or things that create interesting shadows. When there are clouds, look at the shapes of the clouds and look at the subtle details brought out by the soft light. All light (and lack of light) is good to shoot in, you just have to look at things differently and be aware of the light.

I’m not the guy who waits for 8 hours for the right light for a scene picked out days in advance. I’m too impatient and there’s too much to see. In that 8 hours I would have missed twenty different compositions that were perfect for the light at the time. Don’t get me wrong, being at the right place at the right time is a beautiful thing. I’m just not often willing to sacrifice a day of exploring for one good photo. Maybe someday I’ll grow up and calm down.

Shot in Whiteshell Provincial Park, Manitoba at 1:45 in the afternoon.

Getting Lucky

“You got lucky and have a couple good photos. I imagine everyone has a few great pictures on their computer.” These were the words spoken to me today by a “photographer” who saw me selling prints at Folk Fest. It was interesting to hear, and I agreed with him. After all, it is true that many people have a few great photos; it is also true that I occasionally get lucky while taking photos. But I think he was implying that photographers (maybe nature photographers specifically) don’t have control over the quality of their photos. And that is completely false.

I don’t control the weather, the sun, the way the trees grow, or the layout of the mountains. This is the challenge of nature photography – adapting to the environment, finding strong compositions, waiting for or creating the right light. It’s about working with what is there to create a mood, a story, a little world within a frame. This takes a great deal of practice and skill, along with some experimenting. But there’s always a little luck involved.

These are from the Moss Lake trail in Elk Island National Park last night between 10 and midnight. It was overcast and a new moon so – pretty dark. (For what it’s worth, I was trying to create my own luck and time my visit right to catch the perseid meteor shower. As it turns out I had to work with an overcast sky, so I got these instead)