The Tuesday Composition: Just Move!

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Keep moving!

Skägafoss Detail
Skägafoss Detail

One of the best things about giving “shoot and critique” workshops is that I get the opportunity to see what participants can make out of a given situation. It’s great to see how different and interesting their visions are-I constantly learn things from my students by observing their photographic vision. But it’s also a great environment for me to be able to give knowledgeable feedback. Over the years, one of the most common themes I’ve seen in my feedback, particularly to beginning photographers, is suggesting that the image might have improved if the photographer had moved a little-whether left, right, forward, back, up or down.

Every movement of the camera and photographer changes the “choreography” of the images, some subjects get bigger, some smaller, and the position of the elements involved changes as well. Perhaps some appear – or disappear – around other objects. The positioning of the objects in the frame changes as well, movement is a powerful photographic tool.

Skägafoss Detail II
Skägafoss Detail II. Moving a couple paces to the left (and adjusting the composition with a little zoom as well), let me abstract this image even more. That doesn't make this one better or worse, but it is pretty significantly different in a way that just zooming wouldn't have accomplished.

Even small changes in position can make a big difference in an image. Hiking to the top of Skägafoss the day before yesterday, I had some soft light that I thought would work well for long time exposures, creating detail shots at the top of the waterfall that juxtaposed the soft blurred water with textured, solid rock. I’ve included two relatively similar images from that hike here, which were taken only a couple paces from each other, but the change in perspective is significant. In one image the rock at the far side of the waterfall is visible and an important element. In the second, a a few seconds and a few paces later, that rock wall is shifted off the left side of the frame, resulting in a significantly more abstract image.

Sunset over Vestmannaeyjar
Sunset over Vestmannaeyjar. What a difference twenty kilometers makes!

At the other end of the scale, sometimes it’s possible to make use of much larger movements. Later that same evening, I noticed some interesting rays coming through the clouds in the distance, and several degrees to the side, the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar)  at a similar scale.

I honestly wasn’t sure if this would work, that is, if the two were at different enough differences that I could change their relative perspective easily, but over the next few minutes it became clear that by driving (at about 90 kilometers per hour) back west that I could bring the two together. (The clouds were moving as well, but my own movement seemed to be a greater effect.) I was as surprised as anyone when the rays stuck around for the 15 minutes or so that I continued driving. The last few minutes I started looking for a workable foreground element. I eventually got several shots of the elements together, realizing an image that I had started composing perhaps 15 or 20 miles away.

And that’s the heart of the matter. Learning to see that “this is nice, but there’s probably even a better location over there” before you get there an essential photographic skill.

Watch out for “zooming when you should have moved.” I’m as guilty of this as anyone. All too often, with a tripod set up and the camera in position, it seems a little easier to zoom in on a subject rather than to take a step forward or backward. Sometimes that’s the right choice (of course), and sometimes moving isn’t possible (perhaps there’s a wall in the way, or perhaps the best arrangement could only be captured from a position several feet on the wrong side of a cliff. But sometimes it’s helpful to move in or move out (and perhaps zoom) to, in part, compensate-particularly when this lets you eliminate distracting elements, or to get a better proportion of the size of the elements in the image.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Excellent article! The times I’ve walked with the camera still on its tripod or run back to the car and driven like maniac to get to that view and perspective, have always paid of. Even if it felt I was moving more then shooting. And also added to my personal location map for returns to site. It is so easy to forget to Back Up or Move Forward a few feet for in camera crops. Just as gulity myself relying on Zoom.

  2. Susan: I agree with you. I think the most classic story I’ve heard of moving was Galen Rowell’s story of making “Rainbow over the Potala Palace”, probably his single most famous, he ran the better part of a mile, unacclimated, just off the bus at high elevation, to move the rainbow to point toward the palace, and the spotlighting he got in the image showed up just as he reached the right point.

    Galen was definitely a photographer in constant motion, and I think that’s probably one of the lessons I learned best from him those years back.

  3. I loved to read this article. I agree with all of your words. I’m training myself not to be lazy to move a few steps and get better shooting position. 🙂

  4. Super article.
    Super blog. Great for photography students.

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