Elements of Design

Trails Tryptch

A colleague of mine in England recently set out to do some street photography and posted some results on her blog.  As most of her photographic emphasis has been on portraiture this was a challenge she forced on herself to try, to see the world in a different way through her lens.  It’s so easy to find yourself seeing the same things through your camera and then wonder why your images are not different.  Composing in a completely new environment is one way to reset how you see interesting aspects of the world around you and I applaud her determination.

I was fortunate lately to be in a workshop with two long-time practitioners of street photography – William Albert Allard and Jay Maisel.  I think they would both say their ventures out with camera in hand are less about seeking a specific image and more about being ready to capture a distinctive moment.  For them keeping an eye out for what goes on before the shutter is released is equally important to the moment captured and they both talked of developing an almost sixth sense, anticipating where the flow of action was going and what might happen when it converges with a story.

Street photography is not something I particularly pursue, mostly because of my reluctance to photograph people (Bill Allard told me to get over it!  Maybe later.).  So instead, I pursue a similar approach in the woods – sort of a trail photography.  What I mean by this is instead of heading out to find a particular composition I tend to wander through the woods or fields or parks just being aware of what’s going on and what might happen.  Now that I’m more sensitive to light I find myself watching the sky as well as the ground (“will that cloud pass between the sun and that grove of trees?”, “will this look better at a different time of day?”) to forecast what image might develop within my area of interest.  And, because I’m improving my appreciation for B&W, I’m also trying to “see” grades of tones and textures that could be interesting either supporting an image or as the main element.

Following this approach I’m becoming more sensitive to those design elements you read about in many photography books – the elements I should have been paying attention to all those years I was frustrated with my pictures.  Today I found this bike trail in the woods and it, along with the shadows being cast by the low winter sun, made compositions jump out at me.  I particularly like the far right image – the tree stands firmly rooted between its shadow and the trail curving around it, connecting the sky to the ground via its upstretched limbs.  There’s a nice gradation of light wrapping around the left side of the trunk, giving the tree a little dimensionality and helping it stand out against the background.  The tree in the left picture doesn’t show this gradation because the angle I chose to compose in order to get the shadow stretching along the trail meant the trunk was in straight sunlight, making it look flatter.  It stands out against its background only because it is a darker tone but it doesn’t offer a sense of roundness like the image on the right.  Another element to be aware of in the future.

The picture in the middle is all about the broken line of trail that implies a connection for the eye to travel from foreground to background, jumping across the prairie grass to follow the trail into the woods.  The shadows of the grass laying across the trail in the foreground help give it some depth, showing how it is cut into the earth and not just lying on top of it.

Perhaps one day all this education out in nature will benefit my attempts at street photography but for now I’ll keep wandering around the woods to see what stories I can find.

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