Once we become serious about photography we need to learn a few rules of composition. First of all, the “Rule of Thirds” helps in placing the main subject in the frame, and rules about horizons help in deciding where to place an horizon. We learn also about using portrait and landscape orientation; again more rules and guidelines. They are a good place to start and can lead both to early successes and very pleasing results.
But then, after a time, something happens: composition becomes more natural; you stop thinking consciously about thirds or whether or not a subject should be central in the frame and start doing what feels right for you. For instance, you might place your subject on the edge of the frame or centre it, or you might gravitate towards certain shapes or colors just because you like the effects.
Suddenly you are developing your own style. This style may not win you any camera club awards but it will make your photography more personal and more satisfying. In reality, composition is arranging things about in the frame in a pleasing manner, and usually you know it is right when you see it or feel it.
Photography is all about arranging light and shape within a frame while including only what you, the artist, want to share. Sometimes arranging that light and those shapes can be difficult because it's easy to get distracted by the subject and its surroundings, rather than simply dealing with it as a graphic element (shape and light).
There is also the "shiny object syndrome" to battle with, which is my terminology for that compulsive, overwhelming temptation to include more; such as the pretty red flower at the edge of the field or the interesting cloud that is just off to the side. And fairly soon, the compelling landscape you envisaged is lost amid all that extra "shiny" stuff you just had to include. The temptation is there, but all these distractions should be ignored while you hone in on what drew you to a scene or subject in the first place. The best way to do this is to use the depth of field (DOF) preview button at an f-stop of around f/16 or f/22 (which may or may not be the aperture chosen for the actual image).
Many people dismiss the DOF preview button because it makes everything darker. It does a whole lot more than that, but, in this case, making everything darker is a distinct advantage. Using the DOF preview button at f/22, for example, eliminates details and renders the scene into its component elements of shape and light. Gone is all the distracting detail of what the subject actually is, as well as the temptation to add more to the frame. In short, using the DOF preview helps me to simplify and, once those distractions have disappeared, I am left with graphics: shape, lines, curves, shadows and light. Then it becomes much easier to arrange a pleasing composition with shapes only and not the pretty red flower you felt should be included because it's red.
So, once I've come up with the basic idea of my composition, I hold down the DOF preview button (at f/16 or f/22) and move the camera around until I find something that "feels" right. By doing this, the graphics can be arranged in whichever way I like to create a sense of balance to the image without succumbing to “shiny object syndrome”. This balance aspect is important; by eliminating details it's a lot easier to judge the relative visual weight of graphic objects in the frame. Getting rid of detail and working strictly with graphics is akin to what view camera users have to deal with in seeing their images upside down and backwards on the ground glass, which also reduces objects to graphic elements.
Using the DOF preview button also makes it easier to manage and balance shadow areas. It's so easy to see all the detail in shadows with the naked eye that we forget that shadows can become big boring blobs of black in the final image, making things feel unbalanced.
Pushing the preview button with an f-stop of f/22 (or simply squinting) quickly reveals those areas that will become dark, while leaving the lighter areas relatively light, which is what defines shape and reveals graphics.
Working with silhouettes really benefits from this technique. The naked eye copes with a wide range of light and can see into shadow areas that will be rendered very dark or black by the camera. By pushing the preview button at f/22 you will be seeing what the camera sees.
Looking at the picture of a Cottonwood tree in silhouette in Zion National Park (above), Utah, I liked the shape of the tree overhanging Mt. Moroni in the background. The first image represents approximately what I could see in the viewfinder (it has been given treatment in Lightroom so we can see into the shadows). Since it's easy to see the trunk of the tree in the viewfinder, it's easy to include it as part of the composition, but the trunk blends in with the shaded background, creating one big, boring, black blob that takes up half of the frame and wastes space (picture 2). In picture 3 the shapes of the shadow area, the sky, the mountain and the tree are all in balance because I used the preview button to move the composition around until the arching shape of the tree over the mountain was achieved without including the black trunk.
The DOF preview button is useful also in visualising how flowing water will look in the final image, though admittedly this was more useful in film days before those handy LCDs appeared on the back of cameras. Nevertheless, by pushing the preview button, the white, flowing part of the water stays light and the dark part of the water and surrounding rocks get darker, making it much easier to see just how the water moves through the frame.
This technique also works well with scenes of light and shadow, such as slot canyons or scenes where compelling light and deep shadow can compete with one another. You need those shadow areas to help define the areas that are lit. I'm always tempted to show more of the great light, but that usually comes at the expense of the balance of the image as a whole.
As much as the DOF preview helps me with silhouettes and scenes of light and shadow, it helps even more with scenes that decidedly are not in that category. This picture of grasses and reflected sky (above), made at Schwabacher's Landing in Grand Teton National Park, WY, is a great example of how I use DOF preview for composition. I liked particularly the color contrast between the warm toned grasses and the blue in the sky, as well as the curving shapes in the grasses and the complimentary curve of the reflected clouds, but I needed to find the one area that best expressed this idea, resisting the temptation to include more of the grasses curving away or more clouds in the reflected sky. So, by using the preview button and reducing what I could see to simple shape, curve, and negative space, I was able to zoom quickly into the simplest expression possible.
The picture of the rowing boats on Lake Crescent in Olympic National Park, WA, is really a picture of lines; horizontal lines. What I noticed in the rowing boats was a stack of horizontal lines, but, once set up, I was hit by the temptation to zoom back to include more. Reminding myself that it was the lines which caught my imagination in the first place, I used the preview button to make it easier to arrange the lines to their best advantage.
All the pictures you see here were composed by using the DOF preview button. It's the most effective way I've found of simplifying my compositions, and rarely do I find the need to crop after the event unless it's to conform to publishing specifications for a book, a calendar, or similar. This technique is shared during every workshop I teach and, by far, is the one that yields positive results most immediately and is received with the most appreciation by my students.
For me, the excitement of photography comes from that moment of recognition when I see in my viewfinder exactly what I want to convey. It's something that is difficult to articulate but there is a visceral feeling when I find it. Using my DOF preview button to simplify my compositions helps get me to that place, to get to the essence of what I've found. It helps me to achieve, in camera, exactly what I've discovered and wish to share.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 16 of Landscape Photography Magazine.