Finding “The Essence” of a Photographic Subject

Copyright © Noella Ballenger

This gorilla at the Los Angeles Zoo was incredibly gentle and caring with her baby. She watched the baby carefully, keeping her close and out of mischief. The baby in turn, imitated the mother by grooming her, feeding her and cuddling. There was a wonderful bond between them.<style=”font-size: 10.0pt; font-family: Georgia”>

Last month we did a story called “Seeing the Essence…”and I wanted to follow up on the theme of that article.

When we try to find “the essence” of a subject, we might be asking, “How does the subject fit into its environment and what is its general ranking within that scope?” Another question we might ask is, “What are its characteristics?”

With animals, a good way to understand “the essence” is to become a good observer of animal behavior. So let me share one of my special interests with you.

I find it a fascinating to watch critters as they go about their daily business of survival. I want to see and understand the special way they provide food and shelter for themselves, how they interact with other critters and with man, and when the pressure is on for survival, what they do. I want to learn as much from them as I can.

This fascination really took shape when a friend and I were having a picnic lunch on our way to a wilderness experience in Canyonlands National Park. I remember that it was a lovely warm day, but big puffy clouds with dark bottoms spoke of a coming storm. We parked and walked out to a bluff overlooking the Colorado River.

Our lunch included a sandwich with alfalfa sprouts and we were busy enjoying our meal and the scenery when we noticed a little ant coming near us. Being curious about what he would do with a single alfalfa sprout, we took one from our sandwich and put it right in his path. We then had the most delightful hour of observation. This lone little ant stopped and walked around the alfalfa sprout several times. He touched it and pulled on it and when it moved, he pulled some more. We watched this little creature pulling something many times his own weight for maybe 20 feet across the surface of the bluff. He had many obstacles to overcome: small bits of gravel or rocks in his way, dried brush and sticks, and for him, dipping valleys and hills to climb. And, all of this time, he pulled and tugged and moved his gigantic alfalfa sprout treasure along as he journeyed to his home. This is not only a wonderful lesson in patience and perseverance for all of us, but an outstanding reason to study your subject’s behavior. We were both so captivated by this little ant that the one thing we forgot to do was pick up our cameras and photograph his journey.

So when I am photographing animals, birds or other critters, no matter what the setting may be, I think it is really important to discover “the essence” of the subject by studying their characteristics and behavior. And you don’t need to go far from home or photograph the “wildest” of animals—just look for critters in your backyard, observe your own pets (cats are wonderful examples of pets that display wild instincts) or visit a local farm or zoo. Try sitting quietly and just watch, take notes or use your camera to study your chosen critter. Try to observe behavior as the animal moves about. Is it a repetitive motion (this can occur at zoos)? Is there playfulness or aggression? If there are two critters in the same area, do they ignore each other or is there interactive behavior? Some may not have to find their food to survive, but when that food is provided in the presence of other critters, how do they react? Use your local library as your resource for information and learn all you can about a particular animal.

Copyright © Noella Ballenger

Cats love to climb and this behavior is one of their natural instincts. They climb for observation, to catch birds, to escape danger and, I believe, just for the fun of it. Make a study of the behavior of your pet or a neighbor’s pet. When you think about their actions and the possible reasons behind those specific actions, you take a major step closer to capturing “the essence” of that animal.

Copyright © Noella Ballenger

I have two wonderful cats and watching them play together is not only a treat but allows me frequent opportunities to observe feline behavior. I have provided them a large scratching post that they love to climb. Cricket is on the top and about to attack. Shadow was tugging on an old shoe lace (a favorite toy) and managed to get it away from her. He knows he better make a run for it because she is bigger. They fight, they play, they ignore each other and they interact with me and my visitors. Watching animals in your home and neighborhood gives you a wonderful opportunity to study basic animal behavior.

Copyright © Noella Ballenger

These African Bongos are sparring. This behavior is playful when they are young, but good training for when they become old enough to mate. In the wild, many animals only mate with the alpha male to insure the strongest possible breeding line. The bongo is from the densely forested areas of East Africa and is primarily nocturnal. This pair was found at the Los Angeles Zoo.

Copyright © Noella Ballenger

In Iceland I was walking along a high bluff overlooking the ocean. It was a nesting ground for a sea bird called a Skua. These two took great exception to my being there.

Tip: If you’re going to the zoo, try going on an overcast day or even one with light mist or fog. First of all, you won’t have bright sun glare and shadows with which to fight, and I have found the animals tend to be more active and more interested in their surroundings and visitors.

But what happens when the subject isn’t alive and has no behavior to study? We found the subject we want to photograph, but it is static. So how do I possibly discover “the essence” of a rock or a tree?

There is a wonderful image that I use in my slide presentation called Nature by Design. This is a presentation that I use for most of my field workshops to give my participants an idea of the many ways to use composition tools. This image falls under the compositional subject area of weight and volume. The question I always ask is, “How can you tell the difference between the weight of the rock and the weight of the tree, since they are the same shape in this image.” So let me go through and analyze this image for you.

Copyright © Noella Ballenger

In looking at this image, you first discover that the shapes are the basically the same. So how do we tell the difference? Well, there is a small area under the tree shape that shows the sky. Ok, that’s good, but there is a lot more going on here as well and I want you to look closely at the additive effect that I used to emphasize the weight of the rock. There is no air space under the rock, but it is also sitting on another huge rock. This adds to the feeling that the rock is much heavier than the tree. So what does this tell us about “the essence” and how we can manipulate our images to emphasize or diminish that “essence”?

Copyright © Noella Ballenger

In this image, I am showing you the main shapes that we are working within the image. The rock (1) and the tree (2) are about the same shape. There is another important shape there and that is the massive boulder (3) that these sit on. While we only see a small portion of the monolith, the rest of the shape is implied. There is an additive effect between the rock and the boulder that implies additional weight.

This image illustrates the critical and most decisive portion in showing that the rock is heavier than the tree–the small area of sky that you see under the tree. That separation is critical in providing the viewer the information that allows them to come to the conclusion that the rock is heavier than the tree.

In this illustration I have shown you how and why I carefully divided the image space into a 1/3-2/3 proportion. By only having sky behind the tree and rock and in taking the low angle of view I again am emphasizing what allows the rock to definitely appear heavier than the tree.

Now I want you to look at a couple more rock and tree shots and you draw your own conclusions about the subjects, “their essence” and the emphasis in the images.

Copyright © Noella Ballenger

For example:
What does the towering
rock wall “say” to you? And with the tree at the base of the photo and at the base of the rock wall, does it give a feeling that it has soaring heights yet to grow or…?

Copyright © Noella Ballenger

By placing the plant near the top of the image, do you get the feeling that this small plant is dominating the rock? Will this little plant split that huge rock right in half one day or be swallowed up in the large crack of the rock? 

Copyright © Noella Ballenger

Small clumps of plants can be very powerful focal points in images. Is the plant shaking in fear of the massive boulder crushing down on it or is the boulder carefully sheltering and protecting that lovely little plant?

Composition isn’t always the study of the way you arrange the elements in an image, but it is also about a feeling that you want to present to the viewer. It is presenting “the essence” of the subject in a way that tells a story about what the subject represents, what is important to you as the photographer, and what you want the viewer to see.

You are the sole “Captain” of your photography ship and it is your responsibility to take charge of every square millimeter in that image. You can do this by careful observation and clarity of thought. Finding “the essence” of your subject and expressing it clearly is what this is all about.

by Noella Ballenger

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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