Working the Composition

Rafters navigate along a waterfall from the Northland Glacier along Blackstone Bay

In 1984, the biographical film, Amadeus, depicted a fictionalized rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Italian composer Antonio Salieri in the mid-1700s of Vienna, Austria. Narrated by Salieri, the plot line follows him as he reluctantly comes to grips with the genius of Mozart whom he sees as childish, vulgar and boorish. In a pivotal scene, Mozart’s wife, Constanze, shows Salieri Mozart’s music scores in a effort to gain employment for Mozart in the Austrian emperor’s court. As Salieri peruses the drafts of operas, symphonies, and concertos he is astonished to see originals with no corrections. As he says, Mozart wrote down his masterpieces “already finished in his head.” Only then does he come to realize the full genius of Mozart.

Contrary to a common misconception, unless one is a photographic prodigy, producing a finished photo requires more than just pressing the shutter button once. Sure, there are times when a grab shot during a moment of serendipity rewards the prepared photographer (see my November 2018 blog post). More often than not, however, having a preconceived idea in your mind’s eye and executing a plan produces the desired outcome. Sometimes though, landscape photographers are presented with a photogenic scenic, and intuitively feel they can tease out a good composition by taking several draft photos. This is referred to as working the scene. In what follows, I show you how I arrived at the lead photo above.

Northland Glacier and waterfall in Blackstone Bay at 70 mm

Several years ago we took a cruise out of Whittier to visit Blackstone Bay and the various glaciers found there. The trip culminates with a close approach to Blackstone and Beloit Glaciers. Along the way we passed Northland Glacier with an impressive waterfall. I was amazed with the scale of the waterfall and the volume of water created by the melting glacier. Using a 70-200 lens at 70 mm I captured the photo shown above. The composition is pleasing and captures the expansiveness of the glacier and waterfall but lacks a sense of scale. However, on my first pass I felt all I had accomplished was taking a tourist shot.

Kayakers in Blackstone Bay near Northland Glacier

On our way back to Whittier I got another chance to photograph the waterfalls. I saw a group of kayakers in the bay in front of the waterfall. Instinctively I knew that was the foreground element I needed to convey scale. On a small chartered boat I could have instructed the boat captain to maneuver the boat into position to “work” the scene. On a public cruise, however, I could only wait and hope that the right juxtaposition of people and waterfall would come into my viewfinder. I took what photos I could but they all seemed too cluttered and lacked impact. I despaired that I wouldn’t get another opportunity. However, we continued closer to the waterfall.

Northland Glacier and waterfall in Blackstone Bay at 150 mm

For the next photo I zoomed in to 150 mm. I eliminated the sky which was extraneous and did not contribute to my photographic goal of emphasizing scale. This composition was better in that if you look closely some birds can be seen at the base of the waterfall to the left. However, you have to see the photo on a large monitor or in a large print to discern the birds. It was a good idea and closer to what I envisioned but still not good enough.

Finally, as the tour boat passed by the rock outcropping we got a more open view of the waterfall with a raft to its left. Another chance was presenting itself! An added bonus was the red color of the raft which would give it some contrast to stand out against the water. By zooming out to 200 mm I could compress the background and make the rafters appear closer to the waterfalls. A couple of photos later I had “perfected” my composition. With the small raft at the bottom of the frame, the size and power of the waterfall is more apparent. To me, this photo epitomizes the wildness and grandeur of Alaska and works well as a stock photo. Is it “perfect?” Not really. One way to improve the photo would have been to photograph the waterfall in a vertical orientation to emphasize its height. But I ran out of time to try other variations on the theme.

Unlike Mozart’s undeniable music genius, finished photos rarely come from my camera with just one frame. When presented with a photographic opportunity, I often work the scene to come up with a pleasing composition. I encourage you to do so as well. Start by taking the camera off the tripod. Walk around to include/exclude things which do/do not contribute to your vision. Move closer or further away from your subject to change perspective (i.e., zooming with your feet). Change focal lengths to expand or compress the apparent distance from foreground to background. Shoot from ground level instead of head height for a different viewpoint. Evaluate how the foreground interacts with the background and how it changes with angle. This and many other techniques are the art of photography. Using them will keep your work fresh and uniquely yours.

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