Seeing what you feel

The great photographers who discuss their work and methods consistently agree on how to help the viewer see the image’s emphasis – move closer to compose.  Robert Capa is quoted, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” strong words from a photographer whose images show him in the midst of flying bullets and exploding shells.  As a landscape photographer I rarely suffer the impediments to moving close that Capa did, but sometimes have to remind myself of his dictum.

One challenge is continuing to see like the camera.  Although our eyes may see similar to the camera our brain does a great job of picking out a point of emphasis and paying attention to it while excluding other elements of the image.  To overcome this we have to essentially take seeing back from our brain and return it to our eyes.  People try closing one eye to compose (thus eliminating the distraction of three dimensions), using a composing card (just a piece of matte board with a cutout the proportion of the film or sensor size being used to help eliminate image elements), or walking around while watching a scene from different angles.  One technique I use is to create that first image, stop, look at it on the back of the camera and ask, “am I close enough?”  It helps.

What appears to get in my way is trying to convey the intimacy of a scene while capturing the broad elements that make it up.  Landscape photography isn’t macro – we need the larger elements to put the emphasis in context or provide contrast that directs the viewer to the desired element.  Getting really close loses that while standing farther back muddles the composition.  Here’s an example:

I saw this scene while wandering around looking for B&W images.  Because there are deer all over the park what initially struck me was how nice a spot this would be to lie down out of the wind and rain if I were a deer.  My initial impression was of the overhanging limb still tightly packed with leaves to provide cover, the dry grass underneath for insulation from the ground, and the open scene under the other trees to allow warning of approaching predators.  You know, thinking like a deer.  Still, looking at this first image I wasn’t happy it conveyed that cozy, intimate impression I was getting.  The area under the tree was too small in the overall image and all the other elements around it just cluttered up the scene.

This next composition satisfied me more.  I got closer to the area under the tree, bent over a little to put the camera at a “deer-eye” level and composed out some of the distracting elements in the first image by changing position.  I feel this one retains the sense of openness in the woods while also conveying the intimacy of the spot under the tree.  It was a small change – just stepped forward 3-4 feet, moved to a different side and bent over a little – but to the camera it made considerable difference.

The great landscape photographers amaze me at their skills to see and capture these intimate scenes.  For them it was truly the ability to see like the camera – film doesn’t give you a preview as feedback for the next composition.  One goal I have is to develop this degree of “sightedness” to not only capture the scene as I experience it but to identify the scene that caused the emotional reaction even before bringing my camera to my eye.


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