While working with a Maui Photo Workshop participant recently, I was asked a good question: how do you find your compositions? It hasn’t been a common question among my students, even while discussing the many facets to composing mindful and compelling images, but I think it is a good question. Of course, there is no one way I find my compositions, but there are a number of ways that seem recurrent. Here are 5 ways I find my compositions.
The Jungle. Maui, Hawaii
1. I go where I feel compelled. I explore.
Oftentimes when I go out shooting, I head out with no particular destination in mind, and with no image in my mind’s eye. In these cases, I go where I feel compelled. I often say that landscape photography is all about putting yourself in the right place, at the right time, with the right frame of mind. So, where is the “right place”? Anywhere you feel compelled to photograph, and where you can visually arrange the elements into a compelling image. It’s enjoyable to work this way – to go out without expectations or pre-visualizations, guided by your feelings and intuitions, and see what happens.
Pier. La Jolla, California
2. I go to the same spots over and over. I study the scene.
This is another common approach that I take with many of my compositions, and has led to many of my most successful photographs. Once you find a composition that has promise, resonates with you, and is a place that you enjoy spending time, go back time and time again. I have spoke about the importance to studying the subject HERE. Whether working near home or while traveling, this is a strong approach toward making successful and compelling images. Not only does your chances for dynamic light, exciting tidal conditions, or some other interesting element increase, but your relationship with the subject deepens and often comes through the final image, making it more expressive.
Surrendering. Maui, Hawaii
3. I allow the elements within the frame to dictate. I am present and aware.
With landscape photography, it’s best to be present and aware to the conditions around you. When you bring your awareness to the movement of the oceans water, the breeze passing through the trees overhead, the clouds moving through the sky, or the rain in the distance, you will often find that a composition becomes clear. You can work backwards from there. For example, with Surrendering, I noticed how the waves would come ashore, reverse back and collide with the next breaking wave, causing a unique vertical splash in one area. After noticing this within the scene before me, I worked through composing the scene, making an optimal and creative exposure, and then waited for that one extra element that would set the entire scene off – in this case it was the color in the clouds from sunset.
Hoodoo Storm. Near Bryce Canyon, Utah
4. I allow the weather to dictate where I go. I remain flexible while exploring.
Sometimes when you are out exploring to see where you may feel compelled to shoot or heading to a scene that you have shot many times before, the weather is playing a factor and you can’t ignore it. Perhaps you have one thing in mind but it’s down-pouring there, so you have to adjust. Such was the case when I made Hoodoo Storm. I was at Bryce Canyon and was planning on shooting through the sunset light, when a thunderstorm moved in and unleashed a lot of rain. I jumped in the car and headed west, hoping to get to the edge of the storm. 30 minutes later, I made my way out of the rain, found a promising hill to hike up from the road, and discovered a compelling composition directly before me as the sun-setting light lit the underbelly of the clouds, resulting in a dynamic and compelling image.
Moonset. Bandon, Oregon
5. I research and study the landscape before visiting. I use technology to assist.
Although the 4 methods above are my primary approaches to finding my compositions, I do tend to add an element of research online, especially before traveling to a new locale. Google Maps might be one of the most exciting online tools for photographers in researching a shoot to a new locale. Before my last trip to Oregon and Washington, for example, I studied the entire coastline of the two states to determine the sea-stacks I might be most drawn to. Then, I used Google Images to get a visual feel of the surroundings. From there, I was able to pinpoint one particular sea-stack along Oregon’s central coast that I was very drawn to, and a couple months later I was able to commit several days to photographing it, resulting in a series of images titled Rock Study.