The Tuesday Composition: Case Study: Petroglyphs

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Over the past few months I’ve noted a couple dozen compositional “ideas”, not so much rules as tools that you can use to make more effective photographs. But this leaves a question hanging: How do I actually use all these ideas in practice?

Petroglyphs. © Joe Decker

I wish I had a pithy answer for that, but I don’t think there is one. In practice, the right way to approach a new situation comes from intuition and experience, learned by example after example after example. Some of the next few posts in this series, including this one, will take a single image and try and dissect my process, my thinking, when I was creating the image.

I’ll start with a petroglyph image I made in the Eastern Sierra during a visit last month for workshop scouting.

First, let me set the scene: The petroglyph panel in the foreground of this image is nearly horizontal and quite large, with well over one hundred glyphs. It is not well-protected. As such, the ways in which I’m willing to work this panel are strongly constrained by the desire to protect the panel-from vandalism, from damage that might occur if someone were to walk on the panel (scuffing, etc.), and from the damage that even skin oils can do to the “varnish” the glyphs are carved into. This limited my vantage points to places I could get to without damaging the panel, and views that don’t “give away” precisely where the panel is located.

While this is an extreme example, as photographers we are often constrained (by fences, physics, law or ethics) in what compositions we can make. Those constraints are often part of the dance of composition.

Trying to not show a lot of detail (save for distant mountains) beyond the panel meant shooting low, close to the panel. I did want to include the snow-covered mountains, which forced the choice of a particular side of the panel to work from. “Shooting low” suggested a near-far composition, which meant selecting a couple of particularly interesting glyphs (concentric circles, and the square grid) to serve as foreground anchors.

In short, the constraints on taking the photograph suggested a style of composition, and that style led me by the hand to keep in mind a particular guideline (interesting foregrounds are a must for near-far compositions.)

The two diagonal lines that run through the composition were obvious ready-made leading lines, and I first tried working the image so that they’d run from lower-left to upper-right. At the time, I was thinking that I wanted a left-to-right reading direction and felt that viewers would start at the bottom of the composition, so that was a natural thing to try first, but distractions (off-frame on the left) left me not liking that choice. So, I moved so that the diagonal lines would show lower-right to upper-left. The rock at the far end of the panel ended up making a nice echo of one of the mountains from that position; the combination of that and the leading lines clicked into place as “the right point of view.”

The sky was grey and overcast with little detail; I knew that there was a danger that it would form a bright white area in the image that would grab the viewers’ eyes and then proceed to bore people to death. The best solution to this problem would have been to come back in different light, but I wasn’t able to do that on this trip. ¬†Instead, I darkened the sky in post with the digital equivalent of an ND grad, and used a vertical composition with only a small slice of sky to minimize the amount of image given over to the sky. It helped, the sky doesn’t pull the eye from the glyphs too badly.

As you can see, external constraints, various compositional theories, and even a little trial and error all came into play as I composed this image, in no predictable order. This wasn’t a purely analytical process, it was an intuitive, “trying to find a good fit” process. Such is the nature of composition.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Thank you for very interesting and helpful break down of a process of intuitive composition. I wonder whether you have darkened the lower part of the image as well?

  2. @Zilvinas: Sort of: I did burn in all the edges, to pull the eye towards the center of the image. You can probably pick that out at the left and right edges as well.

    (I suspect I overdid it a tiny bit, this isn’t a “final image”, and isn’t perfectly dialed in.)

  3. Thanks for the thought processes that can go into making a good photograph rather than a snapshot; or even worse something we have to throw away. We all need reminded that being purposeful is not just useful but required for good photography. That and the occasional luck.

    I have shared this blog with others: this write up is a good example of why.

  4. Chip: I couldn’t agree more. Purposefulness, awareness, and luck are all key parts of the recipe.

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