Today we’re going to dive into some of the thought processes I use when composing my photographs, with some real-world examples to help illustrate my ideas.
This post is a continuation of last week’s post in which I relayed many of the shooting methods that I use to ensure that I get great quality images without having to spend lots of time finessing my photos on the computer. It was already a long post, so I decided to talk about composition as a separate subject this week.
Having said that, although I’ll provide some explanations regarding compositional formulae, I am not going to provide an A-Z guide, preferring instead to give you advice on the questions I ask myself in the field and my methodology, so that you can implement this in your own unique photography.
The first and foremost advice that I can give on composition, is to be deliberate in your work. Although I’ve met some very talented exceptions, the majority of the time, if you shoot without giving much thought to what you are doing, your images will be weak and unrefined.
Of course, it’s easy to just tell you to think about what you are doing, but it takes time to develop what I call a Mental Checklist which you run through as you shoot, to help with the considerations that you need to think through in order to decide on a pleasing composition. The good news is that the more you shoot, the more automatic many of these decisions become, and that leaves us free to ask the questions that lead us to our most compelling compositions.
Some of the main questions I ask myself as I approach any scene start, for me, with my exposure settings, which I mostly decide in this order. Keep in mind that I work in Manual mode most of the time, so I’m changing my settings while looking through the viewfinder and checking where the caret on the meter falls based on the meter reading, and adjust from there with my own interpretation of what’s really happening with the light.
The majority of the time, I start by setting my Aperture, as this to me has the greatest effect on the visual appearance of my resulting photograph. You may have noticed that I use f/14 a lot for my landscapes, and that is because I like to get a lot of the scene in focus, and f/14 enables me to get deep depth of field, with most if not all of the scene in focus, from the foreground to infinity.
When using long telephoto lenses, the depth of field becomes shallower and shallower still as you focus closer to the camera, but you learn how much depth of field you get through experience, and also I spent a lot of time, especially in my early days, using Depth of Field calculators, such as the one I now have in our Photographer’s Friend app for iOS.
The reason I try to avoid using an aperture much smaller than f/14 is diffraction, that can start to creep in. Diffraction is caused by light spreading out as it passes through a very small hole, and I built in diffraction warnings to the Depth of Field calculator in Photographer’s Friend, to help show when this might start to affect your images as you stop down the aperture.
In my tests last year I actually found that most of my lenses don’t really start to suffer from Diffraction until I stop down to f/22, so now continuing to use f/14 is more of a habit than a requirement, but it’s enough to get the depth of field that I want with wider lenses. I explained all about Diffraction and shared how you can test your own lenses in Episode 594 if you’d like to check that out.
I will, of course, use a wider aperture when I want a shallow depth of field, and also, sometimes it’s simply too dark to stop down the aperture for more depth of field. For example, when I photographed this gentleman (left) inside an irrigation channel in Morocco last year, there was so little light that I opened up my aperture to f/4, the widest the lens I was using would go before I even raised the camera to my eye.
The next setting I decide on usually is Shutter Speed. I’ve already decided what depth of field I want, and now I have to decide if I want to freeze the motion of anything that might be moving or allow it to move over time with a longer exposure.
In Morocco, I actually try really hard to use Aperture Priority, as the street photography style environment makes manual a little bit difficult to keep up with sometimes. For this photograph, I ended up with a shutter speed of 1/40 of a second, and that really is as slow as I’d risk shooting something like this at.
To get to 1/40 of a second, I actually had to dial in minus two stops of exposure compensation, because the dark environment was fooling the camera into thinking that it had to increase the exposure too much, which would have resulted in the man being over-exposed, and the dark background too bright.
Even then though, the risk of using a 1/40 of a second shutter speed is that the man might move during the exposure, and also at 105 mm focal length, even with Image Stabilization turned on, I’m risking introducing camera movement as well. The rule of thumb is that you use the focal length as your minimum hand-held shutter speed, so at 105 mm I really want at least 1/100 of a second, but in such low light conditions we have to take some calculated risks.
After setting my aperture and shutter speed based on what I need for the aesthetic values of the photograph, or based on restrictions placed on me by the environment, I generally adjust the exposure with the ISO. As I mentioned last week, it’s important to not be afraid to crank the ISO up a little when necessary, as shooting with too low an ISO will introduce noise because the image gets too dark. You are actually less likely to see grain by increasing the ISO.
Again, because I was using an automated exposure mode for this example photograph from Morocco, I had also turned on Auto-ISO and set a maximum ISO for the camera to use at 6400, and that is what I shot this image with. What this means though is that I was at f/4, my widest aperture, with a 1/40 of a second shutter speed, the slowest I wanted to risk shooting at, and the highest ISO. The resulting image was actually a little bit darker than I’d have liked, but with my hands tied, I rolled with it, and the grain was there, but acceptable.
I knew it would be because I have worked in these conditions often enough that I know what my camera will give me under these conditions. The important thing is that you think through each setting and understand why you select them, and what you can expect to gain from each setting.
Use a Tripod When Possible
For the previous example, it wasn’t possible to use a tripod, as I was in a narrow passageway with my workshop group, and also even if I had used a tripod, using an even longer exposure would have just introduced more risk of subject movement, but when it’s an option, using a tripod will generally help with your composition. Some people dislike using a tripod because they slow you down, but guess what? That’s one of the main advantages of using a tripod.
I use a tripod for 99% of my landscape work, because it gives me the time and stability to really refine my composition. I am very careful about how I frame my images, and hand-holding your camera, regardless of how steady you hold it, will always result in the camera moving around as you compose your photos. It’s impossible to really look at where each of the four edges of the frame fall, and align them all perfectly at the same time. The only way to do that, is to have the camera on a tripod, and fix it in place.
Use LiveView When Possible
Another thing that I recommend is to flip your camera into Live View at least as a part of your process to check your composition. When we look through the viewfinder, although the scene is framed, it’s still a three-dimensional scene, and our brains find it much easier to ignore distractions if it can move back and forth between the layers of the scene. Live View, on the other hand, shows us the image in two dimensions, flattening it, so that all of the elements in your frame are on the same plane, and this really helps us to identify problems and fix them before we make the exposure.
Of course, Live View doesn’t work well if you are hand-holding with a DSLR, but the electronic viewfinder on mirrorless cameras probably does bring some of these benefits to hand-held shooting, because you are looking at a flat image, as opposed to the actual scene through your lens.
Give Your Subjects Space
Shortly I’ll talk about using a tight crop to add drama, but as you saw in the previous example, I did two other things that I’d like to mention, the first of which is that you might notice that I left a lot of negative space to the right of the subject and above him. The space to his right is to add some balance. I’m not afraid to place a subject in the middle of the frame when it suits, although that’s generally considered to be a no-no. We’ll get to that too shortly as well though.
I’ve actually used the rule of thirds here, by placing the subject along the left third of the image. Although you’ll probably hear people telling you to avoid the rule of thirds because it’s overused, I really also want you to keep it in mind, because we as an art-loving biological being find it pleasing to look at. Artists have been placing their subjects on the third intersections of works of art for centuries.
Of course, just plonking your subject on a third line won’t help it if it’s badly lit and not well thought out, but in some circumstances, it’s definitely a compositional technique to consider as an option, and definitely, don’t try to avoid it just because someone told you its cliche. Make up your own mind!
The reason that I added some space above this gentleman, is to give him some space to look into. The light in the scene is coming from directly above, and I had asked him to look up into the light like this. If I’d cropped the image off directly above his head, it would look unnecessarily cramped. The other thing that I did consciously that I wanted to mention, is that I decided to crop of this gentleman’s feet, simply because he was wearing white sneakers that really didn’t match the rest of his traditional clothing.
The Not-So Dreaded Bullseye Composition
Just as I don’t want you to rule out the rule of thirds, I also want to dispel the common advice to not put your subject in the middle of the frame. Even though we call it the rule of thirds, it’s not a rule at all. It’s a guideline. Just one option from a plethora of compositional techniques to draw from as we see fit.
As you can see in this photograph of a snow monkey, I chose to put the monkeys face smack in the middle of the frame, and I think it works this way. I was careful to get equal amounts of space all around the face, but notice too that the face isn’t even sharp.
I broke another so-called rule here, by focusing on the monkey’s wet fur, rather than the face. To me this adds a little bit of mystique, forcing the viewer to fill in the gaps for themselves. I’ve even partly obscured the monkey’s eyes with its fur, again, something that you might try to avoid, but I think this all helps to add a certain amount of emotion to this image.
At least for me, I feel as though this monkey is deep in thought, because of the position of the face and the downward looking pose, but most of that is simply created by the composition. The reality is that the monkey was simply snoozing at the side of the hot-spring bath, probably not thinking about anything more than its next meal, but we can read so much more into this because of the composition.
The Tight Crop
Another reason the snow monkey photo works is because of the drama caused by the tight crop. This is the same for the image we’ll look at later of the sand dune, where the tight crop works best, in my opinion.
Quite often, getting in closer and focusing on the most interesting visual elements will result in a stronger image. The problem is that when we are actually in the field, somewhat overwhelmed by the beauty of our location, our brains tend to ignore the boring parts of a scene, and trick us into thinking it’s more beautiful than it is by focussing only on the elements interests us.
It’s important to evaluate what it is exactly that is attracting you, and think through your options to maximize the impact of those elements of interest. For example, here is a photograph of the mountains and glacial lagoon at Jökulsárlón in Iceland. I’ve never shared this photograph because it’s absolutely boring! It’s boring because going wide like this has left all of the individual elements of the scene so small that they lose their impact and drama.
This is a somewhat extreme example, but to me, grabbing a long lens and finding details like the water flowing around the base of an iceberg can often be a much more compelling image than a wider scene trying to include too many elements.
The Human Element
Talking of elements, I also sometimes find that adding a human element to a scene can help the viewer to put themselves in the environment. As beautiful as the valley can be, one of the most popular photos from my first visit to Iceland turned out to be this one, where I used jumped into the frame myself and looked out across the land.
Despite us patiently waiting for the crowds to disappear to get a clean shot of the Skogafoss waterfall also in Iceland, this shot became an instant hit thanks to the guy that walked barefoot out in front of the falls with an umbrella! Even for what is essentially a landscape photograph, the human element can add so much, even without being very large in the frame.
Also, note that as deliberate as I like to be, this photo was very spontaneous. I was walking away from the falls with my group when the man started to walk out like this, so I had literally just a few seconds to drop my camera back down again and frame this up for just one shot.
Zoom However You Like!
There is one popular mantra blindly regurgitated by photographers around the world that rubs me up the wrong way, and that is “Zoom with your Feet”. This is one of those phrases that is used in my opinion for one of three reasons, all of which I take exception too, which are…
Assuming you change your focal length as you move, this changes the relationship between the foreground and background elements in your frame, so there is always going to be an optimal distance for your composition. If you need to walk towards your subject to get to that distance, you’d essentially be zooming with your feet, but we should never do that blindly without considering perspective.
To protect the ego of the 50mm lens shooter
Some people latch on to mantras like zoom with your feet to help them to live with their decision not to buy a longer lens. There is a certain snobbery I sometimes come across with regards to using short focal length lenses and I sometimes meet people that have decided to only use prime lenses, and again, that’s your decision, but that doesn’t mean that you have to attack others for their decision to use a longer focal length to get their shots.
It’s just another decision, like whether to use a Mac or a Windows computer, or whether to by a Canon or Nikon camera, or any of the other amazing cameras on the market. We make our own decisions, and it is completely unnecessary to tell other people why they are wrong about their own choices.
Inability to think objectively
The third reason I believe some people spout the zoom with your feet mantra is more understandable, as a general flaw in our human nature, but some people really just lack the ability to think objectively about the possible reasoning of others to do what they do.
For example, a street photographer may well be able to shoot 90% of their images with a 35mm lens, and get stunning results, but if I were to take a 35mm lens to Namibia and try to photograph this lion doing what is actually just a fierce looking yawn, I would obviously have to get a little bit too close to avoid being eaten.
The same goes for walking off the edge of a cliff or into a body of water. There are a plethora of reasons why zooming with your feet may not be the best option, but I’ve talked enough about this for now, so I’ll jump off my soap-box and move on.
Effects of Subject Distance and Focal Length on Perspective
In fact, before we move on, let’s look at an example of the effects of subject distance and focal length on the perspective that we achieve in our photographs, using some images from last year’s Complete Namibia Tour. First of all, here is a photo from a distance as we approached a sand dune. In this first image I included the entire dune and some of the sky.
This shows the dune in its entirety, with the trees at its base, but it’s not a very impactful image. The trees seem a little insignificant, and the dune itself doesn’t look all that impressive. My focal length for this image was 200mm.
As we move closer, here is another photo, shot with a focal length of 148mm, which shows the trees much better, because I’m closer to them now, but including the top of the sand dune makes it look much smaller than the previous shot. This is because of the relationship between the larger trees, and because I’m now forming a more acute angle on the first peak of the dune, almost obscuring the more distant peak, making it look much smaller.
I think this is a nicer photo than the first, but it doesn’t do the sand dune any justice. This third image though, shot with a focal length of 312mm, enables me to completely fill the frame with the sand dune, which in my opinion does both the trees and the dune justice, by balancing their visual weight in a much more appealing way.
You could also argue that the dune appears larger in this final image than the first two, simply because we cannot actually see it’s edges. We have no clue as to how large the sand dune is, but we do know that it’s at least four times or so larger than the trees. The other point that I wanted to make about this composition is that it also becomes harder to understand what you are looking at, with the darker shadow side and the texture in the sand apparently confusing some people, and I like that. I find that images can be more visually rewarding if you have to work a little to understand them.
And to circle back to the zoom with your feet topic, I did indeed walk a fair distance to get close enough to this dune to make these photos, but I also zoomed with my zoom lens to 312mm to make what I consider to be the optimal image that this dune has to offer. It’s more about using your brain and your own sense of the aesthetic than rotely following a mantra that is used for the wrong reasons far too often.
Tell A Story When Possible
Another mantra that I am kind of sick of hearing, is that every photo should tell a story. I don’t believe that every photograph can tell a story, opting myself to at least try to evoke some kind of an emotion in the viewer, as I described in my post about What Makes a Photograph Fine Art back in Episode 589.
But, when we can tell a story with a photograph, it can be a powerful thing. For this next image (below) I had arranged for a couple of camel handlers to walk through the dunes in Morroco, so that my group and I could photograph them, and we were lucky to have a beautiful sunset while we were out there as well.
Again the human element helps here, but we can build our own story based on the visual clues in this photograph, perhaps thinking of a romantic distant land, with the camel handler hear making his way to meet his future wife with his camel dowry, or something like that. I don’t even know if they have a dowry system in Morocco, but you get the picture.
Decluttering and Minimalism
I love minimalist photography. A tree on a snow-covered hill to me is one of the most satisfying types of photography I do. I mentioned giving the subject some space earlier but wanted to follow up here and say that in this kind of minimalist work, I really feel that in many ways, space is the subject. The tree and its shadow, and the grasses poking through the snow in this photograph (below) are nothing without the snow itself that is taking up most of the space in this image.
Because of the need for this space, I find that when composing this kind of image, the opposite approach to the tight crop is called for. I tend to go wider and include more space around what you might consider to be the main subject because the subject, in this case, is nothing without its space to live in.
The reason this space works though, is because its uncluttered. Some of my images like this don’t even have the additional grasses, so there is nothing but snow, a tree, and a white or grey sky. Just as the snow absorbs sound, making it a surreal and relaxing environment to work in, it cleans everything up visually too, and this is incredibly appealing to me, and probably why my Hokkaido Landscape Tours are so popular.
The other takeaway from this though is the importance of decluttering your images, even when there is no snow to help with this. We are responsible for everything in the frame, and it’s our job to select a camera position and focal length that enables us to best isolate our subjects in an environment that contains the least distractions, and this comes back to my point about being deliberate. Look and really see what is in the frame, and ensuring that the edges of your frame are clean, and cut off in a pleasing way is of paramount importance.
Cropping in Post
One subject that came up in the comments for last week’s post, that I want to mention for thoroughness, is that although I prefer to get my images as close as possible in the field, there are times when I’m happy to crop my images, so let’s explore when I might do this.
The main reason that I consider cropping my work, is when it feels to me as though it will simply work better in a format other than the 3:2 aspect ratio that my camera records images in. For example, in the below image, I wanted to include a lot of zebras in the main group to show the one of the left as standing outside of the main group. I also wanted to cut off the group to the right in open space, rather than splice through a zebra, so this naturally led to an image with a lot of detailless sky.
Cropping this down to a 16:9 ratio helped me to reduce the amount of sky in the shot, and I also like the 16:9 crop, because it looks great on a widescreen computer or TV. I’m finding myself viewing images on the TV more and more now that we have such large 4K screens to really do our work justice.
I will also try to decide on the crop when I’m shooting, but unlike my policy to not clone anything out that I didn’t see in the field, that I mentioned last week, for cropping, I’m fine with cropping it and just seeing what it feels like after the event. My camera does have a feature where I can crop the images in the camera, and I can also tell it to not actually crop the image, just add the cropping information, so that I can edit it later, but I personally don’t do this. I can imagine what the various crops will look like easily enough without emulating it in the camera.
I Rarely Crop Arbitrarily
I also wanted to mention that I rarely simply use the crop tool without locking it to a specific crop ratio, simply because I like to ensure that I can print images with at least a certain amount of conformity. Of course, the 16:9 crop that I just mentioned is more for screen viewing, but for prints, I like to use either the native 3:2 aspect ratio, and I also like 2:1, where the image is twice as wide as it is high.
I don’t only create canvas gallery wraps, but using specific ratios also make it easier to get the right sized stretcher bars for my prints. For example, for the regular 3:2 aspect ratio we have 20 and 30 inch stretcher bars, and for a 2:1 aspect ratio I could use 20-inch bars and 10-inch bars, or 40-inch and 20-inch bars. Now that I have a 44 inch wide large format printer, I could even use 60-inch and 30-inch bars, although I haven’t stocked this size yet.
For fine art prints, it’s not really a problem to have arbitrary crop sizes, because I always print with a border, and the image would just fit inside the borders, but having my images all cropped to specific aspect ratios does still enable me to select images of the same crop ratio just for conformity. When possible I like to present work that adheres to a specific set of attributes.
Again though, like many of the decisions I make, these are all just personal preference, and if you are happy to crop your images freely, rather than sticking to specific ratios, that’s completely fine. I’m just relaying what I do in case it can inform your own decisions in any way.
The 4:5 Crop
Another crop ratio that I like to use is 4:5, based purely on the aesthetic quality I associate with the popular medium format ratio.
This ratio really suits portraits and was a popular film size with portrait photographers. In my own work, the image that sprang to mind as I tried to locate an example image was this one of a Northern Red Fox yawning, as we photographed him from the bus during one of my Japan Winter Wildlife Tours a few years ago.
Again, here I was using the crop to reduce the blue above the foxes head, but I do think it enhances the image by making it feel more like a portrait, as I think we’ve been conditioned to associate the 4:5 with portrait work.
I also use the 1:1 square crop too occasionally, but by that point I generally start to feel as though I’m throwing away too many pixels, so I’m more likely to shoot two or three frames and stitch them together for a square image rather than cropping down from a single frame.
Having said that, now that I’m shooting with 50-megapixel cameras, I’m more likely that I was before to crop in a little more heavily, as I can still leave myself more pixels than I used to get with an uncropped image just a few years ago.
I could go on, and keep looking for examples and my thinking behind each photograph, but again, this has turned into a bit of a mega-post, so we’ll wrap it up there for now. As I mentioned at the start, a lot of what I’ve covered today aren’t solid guidelines, but I hope that what we have touched on will help you to make the optimal decisions regarding compositions as you create your own photographs.
I’m a firm believer in not necessarily learning rules but learning how to think for ourselves, and then thinking our way through situations to reach our own often new and refreshing conclusions. I’m being contradictory here in that I hope you read or listen to what I have to say on this stuff, but at the same time, don’t want you to think too much about what people say, especially when there are a lot of “shoulds” in the post.
I prefer myself to avoid using the word “should” because I don’t think we can really tell people what to do or how to do it. As we gain more and more experience in our wonderful pursuit of photography, we gradually fill a mental toolbox with tools which we can draw from as we work. The more tools you have in your toolbox the more likely you will be to pick the best tool based on your own interpretation of any given situation, rather than have someone hand you a tool and tell you exactly how you should use it.
Just back from the 2018 Hokkaido Winter Landscape Adventure tour and workshop, today I’m going to start a travelogue series to walk you through our antics as we pretty much circumnavigated the beautiful northern island of Japan.
Having met the group over dinner on the Sunday night of January 7, we gathered bright and early the following morning to board our flight to Hokkaido, where we’d spend our first three days in the Biei area. This is a part of Hokkaido that I’ve been traveling to for 15 years now, and I absolutely love this area for minimalist Winter photography.
Our first stop was to photograph a tree that I quite conceitedly called Martin’s tree. Many of the trees in the Biei area have names, often because of a commercial in which they featured, or just based on their appearance, like the Parent and Child trees not far from my tree, but my tree doesn’t have a name, so I gave it mine.
As you can see in the first photograph of this travelogue series (below) it’s a birch tree, situated on top of a hill, surrounded by small trees and bushes that are gradually overtaking the line of the hill.
Martin’s Tree in Biei
It was nice and cloudy for much of this first day, although it didn’t snow. My tree generally looks fine without falling snow, but many of the other locations we visit in Biei depend on falling snow, so I always get a bit nervous on the first few days hoping to get the right weather.
I shot this first image at 85mm with my 24-105mm f/4 lens, with the aperture set to f/14, and ISO at 100, for a 1/50 of a second shutter speed. Back in my favorite snowy environment, I shot in Manual mode as usual, and just adjusted my exposure until the white’s were all the way over to the right side of the histogram, to ensure that the white snow was white and not too gray, as the camera would have it if left to its own devices.
As the day progressed, the sky cleared and was almost completely blue at some points, which made me even more nervous. We continued shooting and got some shots that I am happy with, although I knew it would be much more special with falling snow, so I kept my fingers crossed. Here’s another shot from the first day, when we stopped at a place I like, where the plow lines in the soil often show through the snow. This is one spot that works when there is some sunlight, as it helps to accentuate the troughs made by the plow lines.
Tree on Ploughed Hill
Some members of this year’s group asked me why I often place the tree in the top of the frame, with lots of snow instead of more sky, and the answer is really quite simple. If I’m looking up at a tree on a hill, I want it to look like it’s on a hill in my photograph. If you place the horizon closer to the bottom of the frame, it’s harder to tell that the tree is on a hill. Of course, if there is a great sky, I’ll consider including more of it, but as you’ll see, a snow-covered hill is generally more important to me than a relatively uninteresting sky. I shot this image at f/14 for a 1/30 of a second at ISO 100, with a focal length of 56mm.
The last image from the first day that I want to share is this very simple photograph of a line of deer footprints in the snow (below). I find the simplicity of this shot quite appealing, although I’m sure it’s not for everyone. I also like the fact that you can’t easily see that the prints actually make their way into the frame from the right edge until you study the image a little more closely.
Again, there’s lots of hill here, but this time because the snow contains the main subject, and we do need to see that these prints are going uphill as well, so this composition makes sense to me. I shot this at f/16 for a 1/4 of a second at ISO 100 and a focal length of 100mm. This was actually the wide end of my 100-400mm lens, which I use for landscape quite a lot on this tour.
The following morning, on day two of the tour, I got my wish as we started the day with a beautiful shoot in the snow around the Takushinkan Gallery. This is pretty much my standard photo (below) of the line of trees behind the gallery, which I can’t resist shooting each year.
Three Birch Trees in Snow
The snow completely cleans this scene up. The top of the hill behind the trees disappears, as do the distant mountains and trees, which you can just about see to the right of the right-most tree in this image. I shot this at f/14 at 22mm with my 11-24mm lens for a 1/13 of a second at ISO 100.
Right next to the line of trees are three silver birch trees that stand proud looking somewhat austere in their wintery surroundings, as we can see in this next image (right).
Here the line of the top of the hill behind the trees is still visible, with the somewhat brighter sky above it to add a bit of contrast. There were some human footprints in the snow in front of these trees that I cloned out in Capture One Pro, but I left the animal footprints behind the trees, as I often don’t mind seeing these if they are non-human.
You can probably make out the streaks of snow above the trees in this shot as well, showing that the snow was actually still falling quite heavily.
I think the reason that the top of the hill is more visible in this shot is because I’m closer to the trees. The more distance I put between me and the trees, as with the previous image, the more the snow is able to white-out the background.
This image was shot at f/14 for 1/15 of a second at ISO 100, and a focal length of 31mm.
The next image has become a standard that I simply have to shoot when the snow starts to fall in Biei, but again, I can’t resist this shot (below).
Pencil Drawing Trees
This image works for me because it looks like a pencil drawing, with the streaks of snow caused by the 1/15 of a second shutter speed at f/16. I was at ISO 100, but as the snow gets heavy, the light is this low without using an ND filter or anything else to reduce the light. I also really like the way the brow of the hill to the left of the trees is only visible for a little way, then completely merges into the sky from around the middle of the photograph.
This is actually the same hill that had the deer footprints in that we looked in an earlier photograph, but the snow had completely covered them by the time we got back there on our second day.
In this next image too, I really like the beautiful subtle line in the snow and a slightly brighter patch of snow behind the tree adding an accent (below). I zoomed in on the tree a little more for this shot, and that also helps us to see the snow streaking across the black bark of the tree trunks.
Tree on Snow Covered Hill
I also like the bamboo grass and few additional stick poking out of the snow to the right of the tree in this shot. These things just add a touch more interest to otherwise very minimalist work. I shot this at f/14 for a 1/25 of a second at ISO 100, and a focal length of 371mm.
The next photo is slightly different to my other work from this area, in that it’s not quite a beautiful tree, rather a scrappy mess of twigs, but I was really attracted to this form (below). Initially, it kind of looked like a cartoon character, with that top right twig almost like the head of a raggedy bird.
Jiminy Cricket Climbing a Twig
Then, after getting home and looking at this photo on a larger screen, initially my 56-inch 4K television, my wife and I noticed what looks like a little man, perhaps even a Jiminy Cricket type of character climbing the top right twig that I was originally seeing as a bird’s head and beak. You might not be able to see this in the web version, but I thought it was a fun little “Easter egg” to find in the details of the photo. This was shot at f/16 for a 1/25 of a second at ISO 100, and a focal length of 158mm.
Trying unsuccessfully to keep the number of shots from Biei to a minimum, this next image (below) is the same tree from the second shot we looked at today, but again, the troughs from the plow lines were pretty much hidden on this second day. Another reason that I love it when it snows is because the sky is generally either the same tone or darker than the snow, so the snow is allowed to stay white, as it feels most natural. When the sky is brighter the snow gets greyer, which I don’t really like.
Tree with Grasses
Other things that I love about this scene are the subtle shadow under the tree, and the grasses poking their way out of the deep snow. These add a lovely accent and really help to complete the photograph, in my opinion. I shot this at f/14, for a 1/50 of a second at ISO 100, and a focal length of 76mm.
I couldn’t resist the light hitting the four trees in this next image (below) as we drove through Biei, so we stopped at a place that we don’t normally stop at, and I’m pleased we did. It’s nice to add new location possibilities to a trip, and I’m sure we’ll stop here again.
Some of the scenes we shoot are somewhat deceiving as you can’t see what’s outside the frame. Here, to the left of this scene, there is actually a thicker line of trees and a fence, and if I recall a bit of a ditch running down towards the foreground. Although that will work for some people, personally I prefer the simplicity of this composition, shot at 214mm with an aperture of f/11 a 1/320 of a second exposure. I had increased the ISO to 400 for that faster shutter speed, as it was blowing a gale and there actually a bit of rain in the wind that hit the front element of my lens very very quickly if my exposures were too long.
Just as we’d all gotten back on the bus after shooting the previous scene, the cloud started to break, revealing an amazing stormy cloud sky, so we filed back off the bus and spent another fifteen minutes or so photograph the new scene, as you can see here (below).
Five Trees Five Shadows
With the sky being so bright in places, the trees were forced into almost silhouette for this shot, but I love the strongly defined shadows that they cast. I’m a huge fan of the previous type of image with much more subtle tones, but this is a nice addition to my Hokkaido Winter Landscape portfolio in my opinion. Because I had exposed for the sky, I actually had to brighten up the foreground snow quite a bit with an Adjustment layer in Capture One Pro.
Because the scene was so much brighter, I dropped my ISO back down to 100 for this shot, as that still gave me a shutter speed of 1/400 at f/14, and my focal length was slightly wider at 170mm.
OK, so that was actually eleven images for this episode, one more than usual, but I wanted to show the comparison between the last two images. We’ll pick up the trail in part two with a visit to the blue falls near our hotel on the morning of day three, before we head around to Mount Asahi for some beautiful scenes from the ski slopes, and then we’ll head over to the coast to continue our journey around the island of Hokkaido.
If you think you might like to join this tour in the future, either let us know that you’d like to be added to the 2019 cancellation list, or secure a spot on the 2020 tour with special guests Nicole S. Young and Brian Matiash, who will be around to offer advice in addition to me, and will be doing a number of workshop sessions during the course of the tour. For details see our tour page at https://mbp.ac/hlpa
My Hokkaido Winter Photography Adventure tour for 2017 was a huge success and incredibly productive. This is part three of a travelogue series to share with you the locations we visited including a selection of photographs to illustrate our progress.
At the start of day eight, we got up early and headed back to one of my favorite spots on this winter landscape tour, the boat graveyard. This is where nine boats have been abandoned on the ground beside a fishing port, and in the winter, the snow enshrouds them, forming what I consider to be one of the most beautiful subjects I’ve photographed.
I mentioned last week that we seemed to be constantly on the edge of a weather system that brought us sunshine one moment, then heavy snow the next, and this pretty much always presents us with awesome skies as backdrops for our photos, or in the case of this image, the sky can become a major part of the photograph (below).
Boat Graveyard with Big Sky
As detailed and complicated as the sky can get here, I love the simplicity also provided by the fact that there is nothing behind the boats but a narrow strip of beach, and the sea. I shot this at 16mm with my 11-24mm f/4 lens, but if you go much wider that this, or go further along and turn your camera back to the right, you actually start to get the edge of the fishing port in the right side of the frame, and I generally like to avoid that. My shutter speed for this image was 1/30 of a second, at f/14, ISO 100.
Not Seeing Issues with the 24-105mm Mark II
In addition to these wide shots, which I do enjoy shooting at this location, I also like to go long, as I did in this next image (below) which I shot with my new 24-105mm Mark II lens, at 93mm. A number of people have emailed me asking about the 24-105mm lens, as there have been some not-so-favorable reviews published. All I can say is that I am not seeing any of the issues described in these reviews with my copy of this lens. It’s as sharp as it was in my initial tests at all focal lengths and in all shooting conditions, and I’m still very happy with it.
Most of all, I am really enjoying photographing without a gap in my focal lengths. For a tour like this, and even now for most international tours when I don’t want to take my 200-400mm lens along, I’m shooting with the 11-24mm, the 24-105mm, and my 100-400mm lenses. This along with two Canon EOS 5Ds R bodies is like the holy grail of camera gear for me, and I’ve never been happier with my kit.
Seen Better Days
Anyway, back to this photograph, as you can see, the 93mm focal length from a bit of a distance enables me to zoom in on a smaller portion of the boats, also making the waves in the distance a little larger, adding to the story of the harsh conditions in which these subjects sit. This focal length also enables us to enjoy more subtle details, like the texture of the snow and the fishing net draped over the bow of the boat. I shot this at 1/20 of a second, at f/14, with ISO 100.
Just ten minutes after the previous image, the snow was back with a vengeance and I made this photograph (below). You can see that I was still at pretty much the same angle as the previous image, but I pulled back to 32mm so that I could capture the snow driving through the air. The snow cloud had made the sky very dark, although I have enhanced the sky in these images with my black and white conversion in Capture One Pro. I’ve also added an Adjustment layer over the sky to make it darker still and bring out the detail in the snow.
Boat Graveyard in Driving Snow
There is more to the port at this location, but I rarely shoot it, because every time I start to walk away, the weather changes, presenting yet another opportunity, so I just keep going back and shooting some more. On this occasion, I did go through to the port and shoot a few images, but my boat graveyard remains a firm favorite, so we’ll skip those photos and move on to the later shoot.
Before going to lunch, we visited the fish drying frames in Wakkanai, and with permission of the owners, had a good walk around them and made photographs like this (below). I used a ten stop neutral density filter to give me a 40 second exposure here, which makes the sea in the distance smooth over, and the clouds which were moving from right to left also smoothed over.
Fish Drying Frames
I was actually happy that the nettings used to keep the birds off the fish that’s drying in the frames has also blurred on the top, making it less obvious. The netting on the sides is still visible, but the top has smoothed over considerably as it was catching the wind and moving more. The wind was a challenge with the long exposure, but I found that if I placed myself between the wind and the camera, and pushed down on the top of the tripod legs, I was able to get a nice sharp image. I’m sure by now you can guess my other settings, but for good measure, this was shot at f/14, ISO 100.
After lunch, we spent the rest of the afternoon in one of the fishing ports in Wakkanai. This is a nice spot, with lots of boats in various locations and formations. The boats are brought up on land like this over the winter to stop them getting crushed, as the sea ice works its way down from Siberia and often fills these fishing ports. In this shot (below) I was attracted by the foreground boat on the ground, but with five bigger boats lined up behind it, almost like a kid playing on the ground with his big brothers looking over him.
Noshappu Fishing Boats
As you can see the sky was a very uniform gray, and therefore in some respects not as interesting as I’d have liked, but in black and white I like how this makes both the boats and the sky look almost the same tone, and this also in my mind helps us to concentrate more on the form of the boats and the Japanese writing on them. As there wasn’t much to smooth over, I shot this without a neutral density filter for 1/6 of a second exposure at f/14, ISO 100.
Noshappu Fishing Boat
Running with the gray sky, I found this boat without any distracting elements in the background, and photographed it in portrait orientation (right).
The almost milky feel of the bow of the boat with that uniform gray sky for some reason really appeals to me, and this has turned out to be one of my favorite images from the trip.
I was initially a little distracted by that large chunk of wood dangling from the boat on the left side of the photograph, but for some reason, even that now appeals to me.
Maybe it’s because it makes the image just a little asymmetrical, despite my tendency to line up a shot like this so that the center of the boat runs perfectly down the middle of the frame.
I shot this also at f/14 for a 1/6 of a second at ISO 100.
As the day drew to an end, with the heavy overcast sky blocking out most of the light from the sun, I found myself with a small problem to overcome as I shot the next photograph (below).
Because there were a lot of grasses that had not been buried by the snow, I decided to pull back a little for this next image and include them, but the wind was blowing them around quite a lot, and I was down to more than a second exposure at ISO 100, so I decided to increase the ISO to 400, for a shutter speed of 0.3 seconds. I then used my cable release so that I could start my exposure when I saw the wind die down, so that it wouldn’t blow the grasses around too much.
Noshappu Fishing Boats
There is still a little bit of movement in some of the heads of the grass, but that amount I’m happy to leave in, as it shows the dynamic nature of the foreground, but much more than this, and I feel it can come across more as a distraction. I actually went on to shoot some more images at ISO 800 and 1600 to get the grass perfectly still, but I preferred this version with that touch of movement.
The following morning, we left Wakkanai, and started our drive to Soya, the northern-most tip of Japan, where we’d stop at a couple more fishing ports before heading down the coast to our new home for the next two nights. We stopped first at a smaller port with a single line of boats, and I made this photograph (below).
Fishing Boats in Snow
Here I was working mostly with the snow drift and texture in the snow. I also used a ten stop neutral density filter for a 25 second exposure, this time at f/16. I probably should have gone back to my favorite f/14 for a 30 second exposure, but I honestly can’t remember why I didn’t do that. At this point I’d managed to catch a cold that was going around the group, and was running on auto-pilot for most of the day. I was actually relieved that it was a drive day, so that I could get a bit of a rest of the bus. I think the group generally enjoys the drive days too, as we are full on for the rest of the time, when we don’t have to drive far to our locations.
A little further along the road, we stopped again at Soya Fishing Port, and I was a little disappointed to see that there wasn’t good snow cover in front of my favorite line of boats, that I usually shoot there, and there was something piled up near the end of the line too, so that shot wasn’t to be this year. I do quite like this photo though, from the other end of the port, with a line of smaller boats that were up on the land, and I included just the back of a larger fishing boat to add scale (below).
Soya Port Fishing Boats and Ship
I also did a few long exposures of this scene, but I ended up preferring this image at 1/40 of a second instead. I just like the detail in the clouds for this one, so my long exposures didn’t make the cut. Another element that I like, but you probably won’t be able to really see in the web version, is some fox footprints that run up the snow a little way in from the right side of the photo. I was back to f/14 for this image, at ISO 100.
We took our group photo after this, at the monument marking the actual northern-most tip of Japan, and beneath the clouds we could actually see the Russian island of Sakhalin in the distance, which was a nice bonus for the group. We continued on for an hour before lunch, then had another couple of hours drive down towards Monbetsu where we’d spend the next two nights.
We did have just 20 minutes of light left though, as we passed the port at Sawaki, so we finished the day with a short but very exciting shoot of the waves at high tide that were washing right the way up to the harbor wall next to the road, as you can see in this image (below).
Sawaki Fishing Port at High Tide
Even as we started shooting the light was so low that without neutral density filters we were getting shutter speeds of more than a second at f/14. My favorite photo from this session was a two-second exposure at ISO 200. You actually get a different effect in the waves depending on wether the waves are rolling in or drawing out. Most of the time for this look, I prefer to capture the waves when they are drawing out, leaving these beautiful streaks around the rocks and tetrapods in the sea.
We’ll wrap it up there for this third travelogue, and conclude this series next week, picking up the trail at the start of day nine. I have now updated the tour page and started taking bookings for the 2018 Hokkaido Winter Landscape Photography Adventure tour and workshop, so if you think you might be interested, please do take a look. You can find the page at https://mbp.ac/hlpa, and if you have any questions at all, please drop me a line via our contact page.
Having just completed my Hokkaido Winter Photography Adventure tour for 2017, and having whittled down my final selection of images, today we start a four part travelogue series to walk you through the locations we visited, illustrated with twelve photographs.
Having met and had dinner with the group on the Sunday night, we got up bright and early on the first Monday morning to fly from Tokyo to Hokkaido. We spend the first three days of this tour in Biei, a beautiful inland area of Hokkaido, that I’ve been visiting for more than ten years now.
All About the Weather
This tour is all about minimalist winter landscapes, and therefore depends on not only a good covering of snow, but often falling snow to complete the scenes for us. There has been no shortage of snow in Hokkaido this year, although high winds have caused it to blow off the hills making the vegetation show through in some areas. The hills in Biei were mostly covered with snow though, which is a great start.
To kick off the tour we initially headed over to a tree that officially has no name, unlike many of trees in Biei, but I affectionately and selfishly call this Martin’s Tree (below). The small bushes and vegetation around my tree are getting a little tall, and don’t make for as beautiful a photo as it has in the past, but I still love to visit this tree first, almost like paying respect at the start of our tour each year.
Biei Tree 2017
The snow wasn’t falling as we photographed this tree on the first visit, but the following day, when we returned, the snow fell quite heavily for a few spells, as we’ll see, but to keep the number of images that we look at down, I’ll only share this one of my tree. I shot this at f/14 for a 1/60 of a second, ISO 100. Just in case you didn’t know, you can click on the images to view them larger, and if you want to stop them from auto-progressing, just place your mouse over the image.
After lunch, we drove over to Hanazono where I’d hope we could photograph the lone tree on the hill with a fence that I used in as the main marketing image for this year’s tour, but unfortunately it wasn’t there. There was a very strong typhoon in Hokkaido last year, and we saw a number of trees that had been blown down, so I imagine that was the fate of the Hanazono tree as well.
As we drove down the hill to that tree though, we saw the tree in the next photograph through an opening, so we drove back to this. It’s sad that the original tree is no more, but nice to have found another tree close by. As you can see in this photo (below) the snow was being whipped up a little, forming a small snow devil to the right of the tree, and I feel that adds to the sense of harshness while maintaining the minimalist appeal of this image, for me at least.
Tree with Little Snow Devil
I’m really attracted to this kind of scene, with the highly graphic elements of the tree with just its white hill of snow and a simple gray sky. I have converted this to black and white in Capture One Pro, but the scene without this is already close to a black and white. I shot this at f/14, with a shutter speed of 1/20 of a second at ISO 100, so you can tell that there wasn’t really a lot of available light for a shot in the middle of the afternoon.
Hoping for some snow fall, we headed over to Takushinkan, the gallery and museum of Shinzo Maeda, the gentleman that put Biei on the map photographically, and as with last year, we had our bus driver drop us off a few kilometers away and walked back photographing the beautiful hills and trees. Towards the end of the walk there are a few copses on the slopes that I also love to shoot.
Although it wasn’t snowing, it was totally cloudy and gray, which is necessary to block the view of the distant mountains behind this copse (below). I know this might sound strange, but if you share my appreciation for minimalist work, you’ll hopefully understand that when you can see all the scenery behind this copse, there simply isn’t a photo here.
Copse on Hill
In this form, we are able to appreciate the line of trees, dissected by the foreground hill close to their base. The slightly darker gray sky makes a beautiful background in my opinion. I shot this at f/14 with a 0.2 second exposure, at ISO 100, so again, you can appreciate how little light there was under that heavy sky. It must have been full of snow, just waiting to fall, but it was also at this point close to sundown, so shortly after this we made our way back to the hotel for our first night in Hokkaido.
Making the Most of Weather Opportunities
The following morning, still hoping for some heavy snow, we headed back to the road that we’d walked down the previous afternoon, and had our driver drop us by the huts and tree that you can see in this next image (below) because the sky had opened up just enough to form these beautiful crepuscular rays or god rays, as they are sometimes called.
Huts and Tree in Crepuscular Rays
Unlike the first two images, this is quite heavily processed in Capture One, making the sky much darker to accentuate the sunbeams, and because I was exposing quite dark to stop the highlights in the clouds from blowing out, I also brightened up the foreground snow quite a lot.
We rushed to set up, as these conditions rarely last long, but on this occasion it actually seemed to last a very long time, so we continued to shoot to bag lots of options for our processing and final selection. I have a number of images of these scene left in my final selection. This was shot at f/14, my go-to landscape aperture, and a shutter speed of 1/125 of a second at ISO 100.
As we continued down the hill, there is a lone tree just above the copse that we looked at a few moments ago, which I usually shoot from a different angle, but this year there was a beautiful pattern caused by the drifting snow a little bit further up the hill, as we see in this photo (below).
Tree with Snow Drift
Although I am happy with this composition, I kind of had my hands tied by another tree and some scrappy vegetation just to the left of this scene. Ideally I’d have liked more compositional freedom, but it doesn’t always work that way in nature. When we are presented with something like this snow drift though, it’s nice to have something like the tree in the shot to give us something to work with. I shot this at f/14, for a 1/40 of a second, at ISO 100.
As I photographed the tree and snow drift, it started to snow a little, so I moved around to get a few shots of the same tree from a different angle, and then moved on to the copse in the photo I shared earlier from the previous day. Then, just across the road from that was another copse that I absolutely love to shoot in heavy snow, as we see in this photo (below).
Trees Pencil Sketch
This is pretty much a repeat of a photo I made in 2015, but I couldn’t resist this. It feels just like a pencil sketch with the horizontal lines of the snow brushing across the front of the trees, and I adore that beautiful faint line made by the hill and shadows of the trees against the very slightly brighter sky. Shot at f/14, the shutter speed here was 1/25 of a second at ISO 100. To leave the streaks of snow like this I generally shoot between 1/15 and a 1/40 of a second.
The other subject that really relies on falling snow is the line of trees behind the Takushinkan gallery that I mentioned earlier, so we rushed back there, but in the three minutes it takes to walk down the street, as heavy at it had been, the snow stopped. Partly because it’s not a bad photo, but mainly to show you the difference, here is a photo of the trees with the big sky as the snow eased (below).
Takushinkan Trees with Big Sky
When it’s clear, with a mainly blue sky, I don’t even shoot this scene, mostly because it’s boring, but also because you can see distant trees and mountains behind the right-most trees, and I don’t like that. Here the sky had a bit of interest and was still blocking out the distant mountains.
Snow on Demand
Pretty sure that the snow wasn’t far away, we took this opportunity to go inside the gallery and admire the work of it’s founder, the late Shinzo Maeda. The group was very excited to see Biei in other seasons, and just enjoyed looking at the beautiful work. As I’d hoped though, as we drew to a natural end of our viewing session, the snow started to fall again.
We went back to the bus, grabbed our camera and tripods, and went back to the line of trees to make this photo (below). Less than an hour after the previous image, I think this will help you to appreciate just how important the falling snow is to our images here in Biei. You can see that the snow has not only completely whited out the sky, but there is now no sign of the top of hill that runs directly behind the trees.
Takushinkan Trees in Snow
I also simply love it when you can view the image large and see countless snowflakes in the image. I’ve just started using BenQ’s new 32 inch 4K display and viewing all of the detail in these images full screen is an incredible experience, almost like being there again, but without needing to wrap up warm. This was a 1/50 of a second exposure at f/14, ISO 100.
I was using my Canon 11-24mm f/4 lens for this shot, as my 24-105mm isn’t quite wide enough, and this means that I had that big bulbous front element of the 11-24mm pointing directly into the snow for this shot. In relatively light snow, I generally just use my rocket blower to keep the front element clean while shooting, but when the snow gets this heavy, I use a lens cloth to wipe it off between shots, but then I keep the cloth over the front of the lens as I move around to the back of the camera, and then only take it away as my two second timer ends and the exposure is made.
Man Made Patterns in Nature
After this we headed for lunch, and passed a spot with another tree on a hill with a nice line of vegetation to its right. I have some shots of that which I like, but to the right of the tree, a spell of sunlight caught the ridges in the snow caused by the plough lines on the hill, as you can see in this photo (below).
Plough Lines Under Snow
Just a day and a half into this year’s tour, I was starting to feel as though we were in control of the weather. It was almost snowing on demand, but when the sun would help us to define patterns like this, or simply provide more texture in the fallen snow, it would pop out for us from behind the clouds. As the tour progressed this continued to an almost uncanny degree.
On the morning of day three, we drove around to Mount Asahi, and walked up the ski slopes there a little way, to photograph the beautiful mix of evergreen and deciduous trees in their winter coats. One of my favorite images from 2016 was shot here, but I found that a crucial foreground tree had been removed, so last year’s image of that particular scene remains my favorite.
There was some beautiful snow to the left of the trees in that earlier shot, but without a discernible main subject when zooming in close to the scene, I decided to go a little wider, and include the cable car, the cables of which I had painstakingly removed from my shot from last year. As you can see in this photo (below) I had also hidden the tower to the right, behind the right of the two foreground trees in last year’s image.
Mount Asahi Cable Car
I kind of like this shot still. It helped me to show the patterns in the snow to the left, and I think the cable car gives us a little bit of perspective, after all, this is a ski ground. I didn’t increase my shutter speed, because the cable car itself doesn’t move fast, so I shot this again at f/14, for a 1/40 of a second at ISO 100.
Back down the hill, near the end of the ski slopes, a stream cuts it’s way through the snow, making some beautiful leading lines. The stream itself is actually quite ugly, so I didn’t want to include it, but as I looked at the scene, it was the trough in the snow that appealed to me, not the stream, so I searched for a composition that would work, and this is what I came up with (below).
If i recall there was a tree in the foreground just to the right of this scene that I was trying to keep out too, and this feels perhaps a little cramped without a little more space below those two branches sticking out of the snow in the foreground, but I’m still pretty happy with the results. I shot this at f/14 for 1/50 of a second at ISO 100.
On the morning of day four, we would leave Biei, and drive most of the morning over to the west coast of Hokkaido from where we’d start to circumnavigate the northern tip of the island. Because we’d be on the bus all morning, before breakfast on this last day we go for one last Biei shoot behind the hotel, where the beautiful Shirahige Falls flows in her beautiful blue tones (below).
Shirahige Falls 2017
This and one other shot of these falls would end up being the only two images from the 120 final selects from this trip that I would leave in color. I actually have a third black and white image from the falls, but I wanted to share this color version today. We visit before the sun comes up, because the light is naturally bluer at this time, but there is a lot of blue already in the water, from the mineral content, and I only increased the saturation a little to bring it out a little bit more for this image. This was shot at ISO 400 for a 3.2 second exposure at f/14. I didn’t need to use a neutral density filter, as it was still a while before sunrise so the light was naturally low.
We’ll wrap it up there for this first travelogue, and pick up the trail again next week. I have just updated the tour page to start taking bookings for the 2018 Hokkaido Winter Landscape Photography Adventure tour and workshop, so if you think you might be interested, please do take a look. You can find the page at https://mbp.ac/hlpa, and if you have any questions at all, please drop me a line via our contact page.
Minimalism—I almost made the title of this post just “Minimalism” but that’s a little bit open to interpretation, as it has a place in all visual arts, design, architecture and music, as well as a way of life in some cases. So, I added “in Photography” and this is still probably the shortest episode title I’ve given a podcast so far, so we’re off to a good start.
One of my popular mantras as I teach and do my own photography, is that a photograph is often more about what you take out, than what you leave in the frame. I’m not necessarily talking about physically adding or removing elements, although that might be the case in studio and still life work. I’m talking more about what we choose to photograph, the conditions in which we photograph, and how we choose to frame our subject.
Less is More
The phrase “Less is More” is used a lot here in Japan, where minimalism can be found in many of the arts, but also interwoven into every day life. Unchecked, I often used to try to include as much as I can into a photo or design, and even today I find myself whispering “less is more” as I frame up a scene.
I’ve mentioned before that quite often, as we approach a scene, there is usually just one or two elements that really excite us, attracting our attention. Finding ways to exclude or minimalize other distractions is often a challenge, although generally results in more pleasing photographs.
Today, I’m going to walk you through a series of example images, and discuss my thoughts on minimalism in photography as we view each image.
My Minimalist Awakening
I had a look through my image library, and although I can see traces of minimalism starting many years ago, as I recall my reactions to my work, I think I’d have to say that I first started to become aware of the beauty of minimalism as I made this photograph (below) of the tree that we visit in my Hokkaido Landscape tour. This was from 2009, when the landscape tour was just a part of my Hokkaido tours, not a dedicated tour as it is now.
Lone Tree on a Hill
I remember standing out in a driving snow storm as I shot this, but I fell instantly in love with the effect that the snow had on the scene. The background was gone, the foreground reduced to a series of lines and texture, and the tree itself seems barely visible through my viewfinder. I put the tree on the far right of the frame, to emphasize the emptiness to the left, and also show the curves in the hill as it raises slightly, then drops off again towards the left edge of the frame.
All I did to this image in post was reduce the Blacks slider in Lightroom to -5, and I removed a red and white pole that was stuck in the snow to the right of the tree, to mark the edge of the road that runs in front of the tree, although you can’t see it from this angle, thankfully. I reduced the blacks slightly to bring out the form of the tree just a little, but I didn’t want to be able to see it any more than this, or the feeling would have been loss.
The Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi, has in my opinion, strong connections to minimalism. Wabi-sabi in art essentially means “flawed beauty”. Japanese art is often based on the idea that nothing is permanent, perfect or complete, so if we flip that, wabi-sabi is about impermanence, imperfection and incompleteness.
To me, snow scenes are very much a part of my minimalist work, and as I think about this, it’s possible partly due to the impermanence, imperfection and incompleteness of the scene. The snow falls as the wind dictates, changes every time fresh snow falls, and then it’s gone come spring, giving way to a very different scene.
Tanchou Study #7
Since I first started to travel to Hokkaido in the winter in 2004, I found attempts at minimizing the beautiful form of the red-crowned cranes against their white background, but probably the first time I pulled this off the way I wanted to, was with this photo (right), that you might recognize the cover of my Making the Print ebook.
In this photograph, the head is totally pronounced, with that splash of red, but that and the brownish beak is really the only color in the photograph. The line along the back of the crane is much more defined than the front, which almost merges into the background, and this is another element that appeals to the minimalist in me.
The important thing in making this photograph of course, was ensuring that there was nothing else in the frame. I used a long 600mm lens, and luckily as the crane cranked its neck around like this, there were no other cranes in the frame.
Also, the decision to rotate the lens around in the lens collar for a vertical orientation helped, as the main lines of the subject are vertical too.
Of course, keeping the exposure nice and bright was also essential, and part of what makes all of the white tones very similar, and allows us to only see a certain amount of texture in the bird’s feathers.
Long Exposures in Minimalism
Although we’ll come back to some snow scenes, let’s look at a few examples from other seasons as well, like this one from Okinawa in the summer time. This little island made for a great minimalist subject when placed on the left side of the frame, because there’s nothing to its right, except the outcrop of land that you can see faintly in the distance coming into the frame from the right edge (below).
Tree, Rock, Sea
I actually find that little bit of land quite appealing, again, because it’s so faint it’s almost not there. I like it when you have to work to see some of the elements of a scene. The main reason that I consider this to be a minimalist photograph though, is the smooth water caused by using neutral density filters. I used an ND 400 and an ND8 neutral density filter to get a 64 second exposure, making the water smooth over in this way.
This is something that I find I do a lot when I’m in minimalist mode, especially in seasons other than winter. It just helps to reduce the scene down to its barest elements, in this case, the tiny island, its tree, and the distant promontory. I also recall just after this realizing that my wallet was still in my pocket as I waded out into the ocean for this shot, so at the next stop we had to spend some time drying my bank notes.
Minimalism in Color
My minimalist is excited by any scene that can be reduced down to not only the minimal amount of elements, but to a low number of colors, either just black and white, or like the crane shot that we looked at earlier, where we had mainly black and white, with a splash of red.
In Namibia last year, I noticed a sun bleached skull of an animal out on the edge of a sand dune, so I used my 100-400mm lens and zoomed right in to 400mm for this photograph (below). I was interested in the large expanse of deep orange sand, with these two white specks at first glance. Despite the size of the skull and the bit of bone above it, our eyes go instantly to these, because of their difference in color and lightness.
Skull on Dune
We then of course notice the comet trails that the wind has made in the sand, and then start to explore the texture in the surface of the dune, with the wind ripples, and for me at least, after that, my brain starts to recognize that the left third of the frame is in shadow, and I can jump in and notice some different texture over there.
In a photograph like this, our eyes and brains seem to zoom right in on the small detail first, then gradually work back out to the larger scene. This might not be the case if you are viewing the small web sized image, but try clicking on it and viewing the larger image. Also, with a large print, you can bet that people would walk up close and try to see what the white object is, before trying to appreciate the image as a whole.
In fact, you could say that there really is no image as a whole if it was just the ripples in the sand and the line of shadow. It might work, but I think the skull is the added element that we need to hold attention and give the image a reason to delve into the details. This to me is what minimalism is all about.
Himba People Fetching Water
Another example from Namibia is this photo of a group of Himba people walking across the desert to fetch water (right).
Of course, this has a minimalist aspect because the people are so small in the frame, yet recognizable. Again, in a large print, I can image people walking right up to this and noticing how the boy and girl at the front of the group are looking up at us as we photograph them from the top of a nearby hill.
It also though symbolizes minimalism for me, as these people have to walk a few miles each day to fetch their water. This is something that we take so much for granted in many countries and yet water is life-threatening scarce for these people.
I purposefully placed the group towards the end of the vehicle trails that they were walking along, hoping to put them symbolically closer to their water supply. If I’d framed this with the group towards the top of the frame, it could have told a different story, making them seem much further away from their water.
By the way, if you’d like to join me in Namibia in June 2017, check out our Namibia tour page.
Darken to Simplify
Another technique that I like to use to reduce the detail and minimalize my images is to darken down shadows and certain colors during the black and white conversion. Here you can see two photos of the Seljalandsfoss waterfall in Iceland. It is of course the same photo, but the one on the right is the original image, before I converted to black a white (below).
Seljalandsfoss Waterfall – Both Versions
Notice how I’ve used the green and yellow color channel information to darken just the greens in Silver Efex Pro, which makes the cliff side very dark. It also makes the two patches of grass at the bottom of the frame less noticeable as I they’re the same dark gray as the water in my final image.
The resulting photograph stops being about the greens that we see across most of Iceland, but simply about the tender shape that the streams of water make as they fall into the basin, some of them caught and blown off course by the wind. I’ve left some textures in the cliff side, but I’m sure you’ll agree it’s much more about the shape and form of the waterfall in my black and white version. Removing or making elements look less obvious can often be all that’s required to minimalize a scene.
Mist as an Aid to Minimalism
You might recall from my Winter Wonderland Tour travelogues a few months ago, that I’m particularly partial to a bit of mist, because it allows us to reduce the scene down to literally just the bare essentials. In this shot of three whooper swans flying towards us, we were out at dawn and treated with some beautiful early morning mist over the frozen Lake Kussharo in Hokkaido (below).
Three Swans in Mist
Without this mist, it’s still a beautiful scene, with the frozen lake and mountains in the distance, but it’s not minimalist. The mist takes away everything but the birds, and I love this. It’s like having wild swans with 2.5 meter wingspan flying for us in a studio space, in front of a giant roll of seamless with huge soft boxes providing the most beautiful soft light imaginable.
Background is King
To keep a scene to its most minimal, with only the necessary elements, I am forever conscious of the background. For this next photograph, I recall struggling to exclude some distracting elements in the distant background, that would have been a bit of an eyesore had I left them in. Of course, we can consider removing them in post, and with a white scene like this, that’s easy to do, even for an impatience post-processor like me, but when I can get a clean background in the field, I much prefer to do it in camera.
Had I simply zoomed in more, there would have been less white space around dried plant, but I think that space is necessary to maintain the solitude and loneliness that I feel from this image. Without at least a certain amount of space around the subject, I feel as though it’s more just a still life photograph. Especially when it’s a dark subject against a light background, or visa versa. The crane photo that we looked at earlier works OK I think, because the majority of the crane is white, against the white background, maintaining the minimalism.
The point is though, that you can make or break a minimalist photo by not paying attention to the background. For any kind of photography, it is necessary to scene the edges of the frame, and ensure that nothing distracting is creeping in. If you have a textured or multicolored but out of focus background, experiment with the balls of bokeh and how you place them in relation to your main subject.
Open Your Mind to Nothingness
I saw the tree in this next photograph (below) as we drove through the hills in Hokkaido on my Landscape Tour there this year. We were already running late for our lunch, and the group was getting hungry, so we stopped on the way back, and I’m glad that we did. I ended up shooting this scene at 400mm, but even then it was a little too small in the frame for many of the group members to appreciate. I recall getting really excited about this tree as most of the group walked off down the road to shoot the closer trees.
Tree in Hollow
The thing is that I believe we have to let go of the idea of the subject needing to take up so much of the frame sometimes. For me, this image works because of the large expanse of nothingness. The lines along the horizon and the gray sky above it break up the scene nicely. Also, because we can see the line of snow in front of the tree, defined by the shadow of the tree itself, we mentally extend that line out much further.
There is really nothing in the bottom two thirds of the frame, except snow, but we know that it’s snow and that it’s there as an extension of what we can see in the top third. It’s like we mentally fill in the gaps that are suggested by the detail that is included in the image, and this to me is one of the reasons that I love shooting winter snow scenes like this.
Again, the weather is crucial for this. Not only do we obviously need a good covering of snow, but without low cloud or mist in the background, there are hills, farmhouses, other trees and mountains in the background, all of which would make this scene not worth photographing in my opinion.
Three Million Dollar Minimalism
I was in two minds as to whether or not to include this last example photo, but let’s go ahead and look at it anyway. Shortly after photographing the tree that we just looked at, we were walking through the hills, back towards where I’d asked our bus driver to park the bus, and I couldn’t resist this photograph. I recall joking with some of the members of the group that this was my three million dollar photo (below).
Brow of Snow Covered Hill
I was referring to the photo Rhein II which sold for 4.3 million dollars a few years back, causing quite a stir. I said that I was going to print it at three meters wide and put it up for auction, all tongue in cheek of course. Deep down though, I’m actually really attracted to this photo. I thought it would remain a joke piece, but I’ve continued to like it, and come back to it every now and again, wondering what I should eventually do with it.
If we think about the actual elements of the frame, it’s one curved line, slightly above center. I was actually careful to get that line sharply focussed, so if you zoom in on this, there is a tiny line of texture across the crest of the hill. There are few other things that this could be though, so with one simple line, we can understand that we are looking at the crest of a snow covered hill, and the gray sky above it. Call me what you will, but I actually think that’s quite profound.
If there’s anyone out there with $3m to spare that feels the same way, drop me a line. I’m sure I could figure out some fancy printing process for you to brag about, and I’ll even through in free shipping! 🙂
Minimalist Ideals Improve Our Photography
As you’ve seen, much of my minimalist work seems to be centered around snow scenes, although I find it creeping into much of my work. I’ve selected these example images because they can mostly be considered minimalist photographs, but I think the idea behind minimalism can help us to improve all of our photography, not just minimalist work.
Although this might not be the case if your image might be about mayhem and confusion, generally, photographs benefit from only including the elements that are contributing to the image, or supporting the elements of interest by providing contrast or context. If something isn’t contributing to the photograph, the chances are it’s detracting from it. The fewer distractions you include, the more the viewer will be able to enjoy the beauty of the elements that you do include.
See our Tours & Workshops section for details of the tours on which I made all of these photographs.