Get Closer

Good practical advice for improving your images is to move closer to your subject – and when you think that you are close enough:

move closer still!

One reason for this advice is that the biggest composition challenge is to simplify the contents of the captured picture space. Moving closer helps with this by forcing you to eliminate extraneous material at the image’s perimeters.
When making an image, ask yourself – What attracted my eye to this scene? When you answer that question, strive to fill as much of the frame as possible with your answer and eliminate everything else.

  • Your eye and mind work together to filter the unwanted material from your vision – but your camera sees and captures it all. This is why so many beginning photographers are disappointed with their images, saying things like – “I didn’t notice that ‘whatever’.” They just saw “what they wanted to see” – it’s the way our vision system works so be aware of it.
  • Moving closer (and possibly using selective focus to create a shallow depth of field) is a key step in simplifying your composition. Fill the picture space with the key elements of what attracted your eye – and eliminate the surrounding “stuff”.
  • Keep in mind that moving closer can be done by
    • Moving your feet and not changing the focal length of your lens
    • Staying put and zooming
    • The results of these two techniques are not the same. Try it.

Here’s an example (click any image to enlarge). All three images were shot at the same focal length (25mm); all that changed was my position. My usual approach for a scene of this type is to “sneak up on it” by starting at a distance and moving closer and closer. This works best for me. (The best vantage point for this scene was from across the stream (based on photos of the scene I had seen) but it was inaccessible (posted no trespassing, private property) so I worked with what I had.)

What attracted my eye?

  1. The mill obviously.
  2. And the falls for sure.
  3. Lastly, the trees with their autumn color that brought me to the area (Weston, Vermont) in the first place.

All those elements are present in this first (furthest) image — but is so much additional landscape needed? The three elements comprising my vision are captured by the upper right portion of this image and the rest is probably not needed.

  • If an element of the picture space doesn’t add to the image then it detracts. (read this again – and again)
  • Your composition will be at its best when you’ve reached the point where removing any element in the picture space will detract from the image. Let’s see if we can remove some “stuff” without detracting from the result
    • Be aware of the temptation to keep “everything” or too much – like I was with the yellow tree on the far bank and the foreground granite slabs giving me a leading line to the mill.
    • Remember your vision, i.e., what attracted your eye, and remove all else such as more trees than necessary and extraneous elements like the slabs.
    • NOTE – remove things in-camera by moving your feet and NOT BY CROPPING IN POST-PROCESS!!! How about cloning you ask – I’ll pretend that I didn’t hear that 😉

Next, moving closer, we have this second version taken from the vicinity of the farthest stone slab in the 1st image.

  • Observe the change in the composition achieved by moving closer –
    • Removal of unnecessary elements like the yellow tree and the slabs
      • How many trees are needed to say autumn? not as many as in the first version.
      • and were the slabs necessary?
  • Note the difference in perspective by moving closer with my feet as shown here as opposed to if I had stayed in the further location and zoomed in (or even worse, cropped the first image in post-process to achieve the zoomed portion thus getting both a poor perspective plus loss of 50% of the pixels that you paid all of that money for).
    • An obvious perspective change, if you hadn’t noticed, is the separation in space between the near center tree and the mill. If you want this separation, it can only be achieved by changing your position – and not your focal length.

While this version is better in terms of simplifying and thus focusing on the elements that attracted me, follow the advice – move closer.

Here’s the final version (but I took many more from many distances, angles and elevations). I’m standing next to the near center tree of the 2nd version and have turned slightly to my right to include both this tree and another to its right (not visible in the first two images).
This one reduces the contents of the picture space to the key ingredients of my vision and little else.

  • The mill, the main attraction to my eye, is prominent (but I don’t need to show the viewer the entire mill for them to know what it is and what it looks like – leave something to the imagination). Further, the mill’s water wheel – almost unseen in the two further versions – is visible and completes the “this is an old mill” story.
  • The fall trees are evident. In fact two of them are used to frame the image.
  • And, of course, the falls are also prominent – and improved since the tree trunk no longer overlaps as it & its foliage is now used as a framing device (you don’t need the entire tree to tell the story that it’s a tree in autumn – simplify)

Can anything be removed without detracting from my vision? I don’t think so.
Again – compare this image with the first and ask yourself –

  • Was this perspective possible by zooming instead of walking?
  • Zoom lenses are useful (this was done with an Tokina 2.8 16-50 zoom set to 25mm) but not especially for following the advice of “move closer”

For ease of comparison, here are all three images together. Getting lower in the final version, thus not covering as much of the mill with the framing foliage at the upper right, might be better – or not?
As an aside, this was done during a day when over 6 inches of rain fell in VT compliments of tropical storm Nicole. If you are well prepared (protective gear for yourself personally & your camera) there’s little excuse to miss a photo-op. Have you ever noticed that outdoor photographers are almost the only tourists who cheer when cloudy, rainy weather is forecast?

For a follow on to this post see Get Closer, 2 – Walking vs. Zooming
For a related post – getting closer with macros & closeups to simplify and make abstract images. – matching floral image examples with Georgia O’Keeffe quotes.

2 thoughts on “Get Closer”

  1. This was very interesting, and quite informative. It’s interesting to see how just simply moving in a few steps completely changes the outcome. It also helps that VT is such a lovely location.

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