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When it comes to providing material for photographs, nature is generous to a fault.
There is so much of everything – trees, leaves, blades of grass, drops of water, grains of sand, flakes of snow. It's difficult to cram all that detail into the viewfinder of a camera. And if you do, the results may not always be pleasing.
Suppose you're wandering down a logging road on an October day. The maple leaves are fluorescent orange and red, the aspens have turned to gold. Even the undergrowth is colorful. You can't resist, and snap away until you're out of film or memory. What a thrill!
But when the slides or prints come back, you could be disappointed. You may find that instead of the art you thought you were creating, you have little more than gaudy snapshots, colorful but trite.
What went wrong? The problem probably was that in your enthusiasm, you recorded everything you saw – and there was so much of it that the pictures became cluttered and pointless.
The way to avoid this disappointment is to impose discipline and economy in your photographs of nature and landscape. If you deliberately pare natural subjects down to a few important elements, you can express more with them, creating memorable and distinctive images that put your stamp on what you saw. And if you mentally design each photograph before you take it, following some basic artistic principles, you'll use less film and produce more pictures that are deliberately good.
"Birches 1970" (right) is an example of discipline and economy. The glory of a fall day is there, but it is condensed into a few birches and a manageable spray of red leaves. In this case, I found that moving in to capture a simple scene was more expressive than stepping back to photograph the forest.
"Sumac 1986" (below) is another example of example of economy and design. The picture was taken at close range with a wide aperture, to throw the background out of focus. The light from an overcast sky muted the colors and there are only 13 leaves in the picture, rather than the usual thousands. As a result, viewers may be induced to look at each leaf. Maybe they will also notice the gentle curve of the stem, the subtle differences between the leaves, and the simple rhythm of the way they grew. This display of leaves forms a repetitive pattern, which is one of the ways to deal with nature in photographs.
Another time-honored technique is to reduce the scene before you to large planes or surfaces – as few as possible – and make them balance each other to form a composition.
"Point Beach 1977" (below) demonstrates this idea. A wide-angle lens at the smallest possible aperture was used to assure that the entire scene would be in sharp focus. The photo is divided into two large planes: the sky and the beach. In this case, the smaller plane of light color balances the larger plane of darker color, and the horizon line is deliberately placed two-thirds of the way up from the bottom of the frame, to draw attention to the foreground. A horizontal balance is created by the dark triangular bluff on the right opposed to the larger triangle of ice and surf on the left, one above the horizon, the other below. Finally, the driftwood in the foreground creates a sense of depth. But what is the subject of this photograph? The cold wind! The visible effects of the wind – surf, scudding clouds and the blowing sand – made it possible to take a picture of something invisible.
Yet another way to simplify nature photographs is to think of their subjects as large masses of color or light. The photographs titled "January PM 76" (below left) and "November PM 75" (below right) are examples. Both are based on the idea of inserting a wedge of brighter light or light color between masses of darker colors. These photographs are so simple as to be little more than posters, but notice how important the fence and the oak tree become. Nothing is wasted in these two photographs; there is no clutter and the smallest details become valuable.
You can also deliberately create images that could be called "random patterns." These are collections of lines, small masses, or both, of varying surface texture and color. The photos called "Weed 1975" (below left) and "Aspen Leaves 96" (below right) are "found" compositions of natural objects photographed as they were arranged by nature. In the case of the aspen leaves, all I had to do was frame the scene so that the brightest leaf was placed off-center, and take advantage of the radiating cracks in the stone. The "Weed" photograph simply required the ability to look down, and then to wait for the sun to cast the angling shadows.
Nature provides endless opportunities to photograph simple compositions that border on the abstract. The difficult part is deciding what to leave out of the picture. You can try walking around, peering through the viewfinder and repeating Thoreau's words: "Simplify, simplify." Examples of this approach are "Dandelion 1985" (below left) and "Granite 1997" (below right). In the dandelion photo, the fissure in the rock was used to create "informal balance" between the left and right sides of the image, and the dandelion was placed off-center to even up the content between the sides. In the "Granite" image, formal balance was created by dividing the image into two equal portions, with the tiny plant placed well off-center to draw the eye up the fissure.
Of course, it's also possible to shoot landscape and nature photographs from a distance. The photograph called "Portage County 1970" (below) is a classic, calendar-art farm landscape, shot with a moderate wide-angle lens to include the foreground stone fence. Notice how the image really consists of angling lines radiating from left to right, and that the foreground objects create a sense of three dimensions.
Finally, water. It's easy to use water in a photograph when it's calm and huge clouds or a sunset are reflected in a rustic pool. Instant French Impressionism! But when the sun is low in the sky, or the water is literally drenching you, waterscapes can require a little imagination. In "Big Chip Canoe 1995" (below), exposing for the brilliant reflections on the water caused the canoe and the background forest to be rendered black, or silhouetted. Deliberately painting areas of a photo black with this technique can help simplify complex images. To silhouette, you underexpose dark areas of the scene by two f-stops. Intentional silhouetting may not be possible with point-and-shoot or digital cameras that do not permit manual exposure control.
In "Cave Point 1986" (below right), a big surf was pounding into the Door County shore, shooting spouts of water above the slippery promontory I was using to get a look to the south, into the sun. Since there was no way to stay dry, I put a clear filter on the lens to protect it, slipped the camera body into a plastic bag, and turned on the motor drive. Many frames later I got the image I wanted: a photograph of a windy day on Lake Michigan that should make the viewer feel as cold and wet as I was. The soft focus is the result of water on the filter, and the five-sided highlights around the sun are internal reflections of the lens' diaphragm at f16.
Discipline, design, economy and simplicity will make your nature pictures less crowded and more satisfying. Simplification tends to create pictures that look something like abstract paintings, and you may come to enjoy making abstractions out of familiar natural objects and scenes. As you take photos, use a tripod, remember to slow down and learn to see what the camera sees.
The important thing is not to follow this or any other approach slavishly. Instead, experiment with it and use it to structure your picture-taking for a while. The long-term result could be a photographic style of your own, and many happy hours outdoors with your camera.
Notes on these pictures
These pictures were taken in the course of 27 years. Gossen or Sekonic incident light meters were used as a supplement to the built-in meters in the Nikkormat, F2, F3 and F4; the Nikon F had no onboard meter. The films were Kodachrome II, Kodachrome 25, Fujichrome 50 and 100, Ektachrome 64 and Kodachrome 64. Most of the images on Kodachrome and Ektachrome were deliberately underexposed to bring out the color; ASA 25 film was shot at 32, and ASA 64 films were shot at 80. All the pictures were taken with 35 mm SLR cameras; lenses ranged from 28 mm to 105 mm. No macro, zoom or long telephoto lenses were used. Various Bogen and Gitzo tripods were used for most of these images; the tripods allowed me to work in low light and still use very small apertures.
Photographer, writer and retired DNR Public Affairs Officer Dave Crehore writes from Green Bay.