WAIT! Before you click on that unfollow, unsubscribe, unlike button, please hear me out…
I’m not talking about the environment environment (this is not an anti-climate change rant), I’m talking about pixels, the digital blueprint of most modern day photography. When it comes to creating an image that crosses the threshold from ‘just a picture’ to a ‘work or art,’ the key in terms of pixels is ‘knowing what to throw away, knowing what to keep’ – as the wise Kenny Rogers once sang.
To me, art is something that speaks directly to my soul, tapping into my inner creatively and evoking a sense of wonder . Like a song where the voice, instruments – every single note – complement each other perfectly, each element (or pixel) of a photograph needs to be arranged in a way that enhances the main subject or adds to the overall story. I believe creating this harmony is the key to great photography.
As a wildlife photographer, I am prone to letting the amazingness of the animal over-power every other aspect of a photograph. My tendency is to zoom in as much as possible in an effort to capture a detailed close-up. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but the more experience I get, the more I understand how everything works together, how the background/environment can either add to or distract from the story.
Awareness of the environment needs to be front and centre while photographing, but cropping in post gives photographers the opportunity to further refine their work of art.
I’ve allowed the analytical side of my brain to deconstruct some of my own images in effort to figure out – how much of the environment do we really need?
Sometimes the decision is obvious and intuitive, like with this grizzly bear on the railway tracks in Banff.
The lines of the tracks draw the eye to the grizzly bear, then the deer, then the back-lit trees – the story in this image just jumped out at me, both while I was taking the photo and later when I cropped. I knew a close-up of the bear in this case would not make a compelling image.
Sometimes, however, I feel compelled to leave more of the environment than I should in an effort to adhere to the rules of composition.
This lynx photo was taken four years ago, at a time when I was still relatively new to the game of wildlife photography. This is my initial crop:
It wasn’t until I took the image to my friend Bob Cook (Branded Visuals) to print that I realized the extra environment distracted from the beauty of the lynx.
While the top image may adhere more to the rule of thirds, the extra environment is just more of what is already in the close-up – leaves – some blurry, some in focus. Seeing more blurry/focused leaves does not add to the story.
Context, context, context…
I posted a question to my photography friends on Facebook a while ago to get some feedback and inspiration for this blog:
Even though the bears are absolutely adorable on their own, most of the feedback from my friends spoke to the need to keep the shoreline in order to provide context. Without it, viewers could question whether the bears were in a zoo, or in trouble, too far from the shore, etc. Interestingly, I realized that I have several hundred images of these swimming bears and 90% of them include the shoreline. I seemed to intuitively know the shoreline was needed even before I questioned it.
Context is important, and losing the environment (or cropping too close) often means losing context. However, the background is not the only way to provide context. I have two versions of this six-month-old lion cub, but I’m only going to display my favorite – the extreme close-up:
Despite the fact that there is no background, there is an important element of this photo that speaks to the fact that it was taken in Africa, in the wild, not in a zoo. I’m curious if anyone else sees it and agrees or disagrees? If so, please post a comment below.
Addition: I’m not sure this element is as obvious as I think, so wanted to clarify – it’s the flies near the eyes that I think really speak to Africa, wild vs. zoo, etc 🙂
I love this gray jay image, but why did I not crop out that little stick on the left? Looking at it now, it drives me crazy – I feel like it obviously distracts from the beautiful bird reflection. I suspect I was looking at the overall composition, like I did with lynx above, and missing a seemingly minor but very distracting element.
Here’s where it gets tricky…
A lot of times, I struggle with whether background elements add to or distract from the story of the photo. Take these white-tailed ptarmigan photos:
I feel like the top one adds more context because it shows more of the environment – ptarmigan are often found at the base of pine trees when they are at rest. But does it distract from that ridiculously beautiful bird? I have no idea – I honestly can’t say which of these photos I prefer.
This uncertainty is part of the art of photography – despite the fact that I don’t know all the answers, I love being able to flex my creative muscles in trying to figure it out.
I’m curious about the thoughts of fellow photographers, artists, wildlife-lovers – anyone actually – on this matter. Please feel free to comment below if you have anything to add.
Until next time, continue loving life and everything wild 🙂