The Art of Nature, Part Two: Putting it all together

In my last article, I discussed the elements of visual design and how they apply to nature photography. Once you begin to see those element clearly, you’ll want to create compositions that emphasize the element(s). Here are ideas to help you bring it all together into an outstanding photograph. (The following images are thumbnails to larger representations. Click on the the thumbnail to see the bigger picture.)


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Visual rhythm develops when there is sufficient repetition of lines, shapes, or colors to produce movement. Rhythm is one of my favorite design elements, because it produces a visual energy in the photograph. The fundamental difference between pattern and rhythm is that, in rhythm, there exists some directional movement in the repetition. Undulating sand dunes, rolling hills, winding pathways, and rushing water are a few examples of rhythm in a photograph. A row of trees also represents rhythm from a structural point of view. As with pattern, you need to include enough repetitions within the frame to establish the rhythm. Figure # 1 represents obvious rhythm, moving water photographed with a slow shutter speed.

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Figure #2 also has rhythm–in the waving lines of the dunes and in the repeated pattern of the footprints–implying movement. You can enhance the rhythmic effect of many subjects by compressing perspective with a telephoto lens. You can do the same job with a wide angle, depending upon your subject and your choice of perspective.


BT_4thumb.jpg (7512 bytes)Usually, our concern with contrast has to do with maintaining detail in the highlights or shadows of our images. With visual design in mind, however, think of contrast as the combining of opposites, such as large/small, hard/soft, rough/smooth, round/square, dark/light, and opposing or complimentary colors. These contrasts, when incorporated into our photographs, can create visual tension and a stimulating effect. I was drawn to this photograph of California poppies in a field of tidytips (Figure #3) because of the visual contrast presented by solid orange blossoms against a patterned background. The shape of the poppies also provided a contrast with the shapes of the background blossoms.

BT_3thumb.jpg (8046 bytes)Contrast also works on the grand scale. Relationships between mountains and lakes or rivers (i.e. rough and smooth) produce contrast. Hillsides of colorful trees with one or two standing out in a different color can be a study in contrast. A late autumn snowstorm at Bryce Canyon (Figure #4) dusted the hoodoos and landscape with pure white snow, creating a contrast of color and brightness with the rich orange hues of the sandstone.



Good composition is essential to the overall success of any image, and a photograph that includes design elements can be made stronger by how we compose our image. Remember the Rule of Thirds when composing, but don’t get trapped by rules! Position your objects and elements in the frame where you intuitively feel they’re right. No doubt, they’ll probably land near one or more of the intersecting points on the grid (imagine a tic-tac-toe grid). Sometimes, placing objects beyond those intersecting points, away from the center, can create more visual tension.

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Watch the amount of negative space that results in your composition. Negative space is an area within the frame where nothing is happening–thus, it’s empty. Examples include blue, cloudless sky; white sections of a scene; and those dark areas with little or no detail. Too much emphasis given to empty space will draw the viewer away from the main focal points of the image. Too little can crowd the composition and diffuse the impact of the design. For the image of the beach at sunset (Figure #5), I watched for the right amount of water reflection combined with the dark parts of the sand to create a more effective image. The dark wave creates a certain tension intruding into the colored waves. Effective use of negative and positive space can create a balanced image while still creating visual tension.

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In Figure #6, I counterbalanced the bright, sunlit tree with the darker form of the bison. The result is a visual tension between the two forms that keeps the viewer in the frame (instead of leaving it with the bison). Yes, it would have been great if the bison were walking toward the tree, but Nature doesn’t always coordinate with our plans!

Proportion in photography is the concept of selecting how large or small your subject needs to be in the image for maximum impact. Bryan Peterson, in his bookLearning to See Creatively, states a law of visual perception that says, “The smaller a subject is in relation to surrounding contrasts or shapes, the more unusual it appears. The more unusual or isolated a subject is, the more it stands out.” This concept creates images that make strong visual statements. You can speak about the smallness of a house on the plains by keeping it small with a huge sky overhead; or the solitary life of an oak tree in a meadow by photographing it all alone.

BT_7thumb.jpg (5722 bytes)For my image of a tiny plant in the Mojave Desert (Figure #7), I cropped out other plants growing near it in order to communicate the message of survival in what appears to be improbable conditions. With the others included, that message was there, but not as strongly and clearly. This image graphically represents the hardships of life–or the insistence of life–in the desert.

Remember to compose carefully when incorporating lines in your photographs. Diagonal lines close to the corners can “slice” the corner of the image off from the rest, breaking up your image and amusing the visual strength of it. Diagonal lines coming in from exactly the corners divide the image in two, also not a visually strong result. Vertical lines too close to the edge can do the same. Lines which are too close can visually “attach” themselves to the frame edge, which, in turn, can draw the viewer’s attention away from the core of the image.

BT_8thumb.jpg (9473 bytes)The choice between vertical or horizontal framing is very important to consider. Often, one direction or the other will visually strengthen your composition and can accentuate the design of the image. If there are a lot of vertical lines in your image, probably vertical framing will work best. Check out both ways as part of the ritual of selecting the best composition for that particular situation. For the image of Mesquite Flat Dunes in Death Valley (Figures #8), the vertical more strongly portrays the energy of the sculpted lines in the dunes. It accentuates the graphic element of line.

With all of the above ideas–combined with your recognition of lines, patterns, etc., in nature–you’ll be able to create images with more impact. Study Freeman Patterson’s book Photographing the World Around You (ISBN #1-550-13590-2), and join me for a week long study in visual design!

by Brenda Tharp, Wilderness Photographic Workshops

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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