The Power of the Intimate Composition

The Power of the Intimate Composition
0
(Alex Noriega) #1

Originally published at: https://naturephotographers.network/articles/power-of-intimate-compositions/

“Agon Wastes”, Death Valley National Park, 2017

In today’s race for “epic” landscape imagery, the grand scenic dominates. Sweeping, wide-angle, near-far compositions built on aggressive leading lines and capped by colorful skies are almost certain to attract attention and take social media by storm. The “world’s widest rectilinear lens” is a technological feat bested time and time again, as photographers increasingly strive to “get it all in” the frame.

Antithetical to these grand scenes are the intimates that have seen a recent resurgence. Exclusion is a principle central to these intimate compositions. I’d like to make the case for why these photographs work, and why you might consider shooting this way. The answer is not “because it’s the latest craze”. In this article I’ll explain how intimate compositions are the tinder with which the fire of imagination can be sparked.

“Ariandel”, Colorado, 2018

What is your image really about?

Composing a photograph, at its core, involves determining the subject and its placement in the frame. By deciding what to include in the composition, the photographer also indirectly decides what to exclude. The process can be taken further by excluding consciously and with purpose, subtracting unnecessary or distracting elements from the frame. This may improve the composition by helping direct the viewer’s focus to the subject. Of course, this is a well-tread idea that you’re likely to encounter right away in any photography course, and it’s applicable to both grand and intimate scenes. But this is not merely a technique for removing distractions. Applying this tenet of exclusion on a larger scale can make for more interesting, thought-provoking photographs.

Knowing exactly what to include and exclude requires conscious determination of what the subject of your image really is. For example: take a typical near-far, wide angle composition of a mountain scene. Perhaps there’s a field of wildflowers in the foreground, a lake in the midground, and a towering peak in the background–all capped off by a colorful sunset sky full of puffy clouds. I won’t argue that the scene isn’t beautiful. But what is the subject of such a photograph? What is the image about?

In this example, one might argue that it’s simply about the beauty of that mountain scene as a whole. But then what decisions has the photographer made to put themselves into the image? What makes this photograph different than a cell phone snapshot of the same scene, taken by a hiker in passing? Is it the particular placement of the different elements within the composition? The fact that the horizon is leveled? The superior color, tonality, and resolution that are a result of expensive camera equipment? The careful focus stacking of the flowers in the foreground? The post-processing techniques that will be used in Photoshop?

While all of these factors will certainly improve the resulting image, they will not substantially change its content. When including the entire scene in the composition, the image becomes simultaneously about everything, and about nothing. By simply showing up and capturing the whole scene, the photographer has not put themselves into the image, and instead has merely acted as a passive conduit for nature. Perhaps this is their intention, and that may be laudable in its own right. But the resulting image is not likely to engage a viewer’s imagination.

“Impressions”, Colorado, 2018

Focusing Your Composition

So how does one make an image about something? It doesn’t need to tell a story (though that’s often an attribute of great photographs)–it just needs a solid subject. Taking this same mountain scene as an example, ask yourself what specifically moved you to make a photograph in the first place. Was it the way light played off the craggy layers of the mountain in the distance? The way the reflections were distorted on the surface of the lake in the midground? The density and color of the wildflowers in the foreground? The way ridges of trees disappeared into the clouds? A pattern on the rocks?

Rather than expecting the viewer of your image to notice these details among many others within the entire scene, try focusing the composition on whatever it was that caught your eye or moved you. Don’t let the finite attention of a viewer be spent on extraneous elements within the frame. Show them what you found interesting or important about the scene. It is likely different than what another person standing next to you would have noticed. The way an image becomes truly unique–a reflection of the artist creating it–is via this process of conscious subject selection and composition by exclusion.

“Rainbow Rider”, Utah, 2017

Context

All of the photographs shown in this article could easily have been included as parts of larger, wider compositions–be it as foreground elements, or as mere details in the midground or background. But since these were, to my mind, the most interesting parts of the larger scenes, what purpose would it have served to include the more ordinary elements that surrounded them?

The answer to this question might be “in order to provide context.” Context is important if your goal is to convey a sense of what these places are really like. Doing so may spur this common sentiment in a viewer: “I want to be there”.

However, that is not my goal. I want to spark the imagination. I want my images to seem mysterious. I want the viewer to be entranced by what I’m showing them, and to feel a sense of wonder when contemplating what might lie beyond the boundaries of the frame. I do not want them to imagine me standing in a specific spot, at a specific height off the ground, using a specific type of lens, at a specific time of day. For me, all this information “breaks the fourth wall” and makes the subject seem ordinary, much in the same way a scene in a film loses its magic when getting a behind-the-scenes look at the set. I want to make myself, my equipment, and even the wider context of the scene invisible. This allows me to direct attention to the actual subject of the photograph, and to emphasize what I find extraordinary about it.

Another form of context is scale. Conveying scale is often difficult in grand, wide-angle compositions, as foreground elements tend to appear much larger due to the close perspective of the photographer, and distant elements shrink to an insignificant size due to the large field of view. In our example, the flowers become giant, and the majestic, towering mountain peaks become tiny. With tighter compositions, scale can often be more effectively conveyed by allowing the juxtaposition of very differently-sized elements from a perspective farther away. Hints at scale can also be purposely excluded in order to force the viewer to think about what they’re seeing.

“Pure Magic”, Death Valley National Park, 2019

The Sky

If there’s one element of nature that most often betrays the context of a given scene, it’s the sky. It may be sacrilege to say so, but I find skies are often unremarkable as a compositional element. I’m not traveling to a remote location in nature to photograph something that can be found over any metropolis. If I wanted to photograph the sky, why wouldn’t I do it from my backyard? I want my images to be about the landscape.

Don’t get me wrong, there are exceptions. It’s rare that a mountain peak can be effectively photographed without including the sky. A dark, cloudy sky is the perfect backdrop for golden storm light. And of course, I appreciate what the sky does to create moods in nature. It reflects light and color onto the landscape, clouds cast shadows and allow sunlight through to create spotlighting, thin clouds diffuse sunlight, and the atmosphere filters and redshifts low-angle light.

However, none of this means that I want to include the sky by default in my compositions. “The sky was colorful one evening” is not all I want to say with a photograph. And since the sky can be seen anywhere on Earth, it is a familiar anchor for any viewer of a photograph which includes it. I often seek to exclude such anchors from my compositions, in order to force the viewer to think more about what they’re seeing.

“Hibernation”, Mount Rainier National Park, 2016

Imagination, Mystery, and the Infinite

Let’s say you’ve done away with the typical wide-angle composition of our example mountain scene, and focused on some element that you found interesting. You’ve let go of the idea that every composition requires a foreground with leading lines, and you’ve also excluded the sky. Maybe you’ve now got a telephoto composition of interesting light on the craggy layers of the mountain peak, or maybe you’ve filled the frame with the dense field of wildflowers. This composition could likely be classified as intimate. But does that mean it’s limited to being small? No!

Thanks to imagination, this intimate scene may actually seem larger than if it were included as part of a grand view. The imagination is sparked when the mind has incomplete information. When the surrounding context is removed from your composition, the mind creates its own. You may view a photograph of mountain layers and imagine that they continue beyond the boundary of the frame. You may view a photograph of a field of wildflowers and imagine that they go on forever. This is only possible if you can’t see the end of the subject, and this is where intimate compositions gain their power. The second you show the viewer where the subject ends, you remove any question of how vast or extensive it is. By going smaller with your composition and not showing the terminus of the subject, you may make it appear larger–even infinite. This is why I exclude the sky from most of my photographs: it is a clear endpoint, and often a mundane one at that.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, by making the subject of your composition more obvious via exclusion, you may cause the viewer to ask more questions. When context is removed, they are left to wonder: how did this arrangement of elements come to be? How much more lies beyond the edges of the frame? What caused this light to occur? What is the scale of this scene? These uncertainties lend the subject an air of mystery. These questions would likely already be answered if the same subject was simply included as part of a grand composition, and the mystery would be gone.

Mysteriousness is one of the most common factors in my own favorite photographs. Even knowing exactly how and where each one was made, I sometimes like them for what context they allow me to imagine. In my opinion, the intimate composition is not limited to small and quiet scenes. My favorite type of image is what I refer to as the “epic intimate”. It may lack overall context, feature no sky, and be taken with a telephoto lens–but it also may feature incredible light and imply the infinite.

“Urbosa”, Death Valley National Park, 2018

Lasting Intrigue

Aggressively composed, sweeping grand scenes undoubtedly have initial impact. Such an image may convey the landscape’s majesty, and instill a desire to “be there”. But since the viewer is shown everything up-front and little is left to the imagination, what is the motivation to come back and view the image again? They already know everything about the image after one viewing.

If clues as to the positioning and photographic techniques of the artist are hidden, and if the subject’s greater context and scale are obscured, the imagination is forced to work. And when this happens, the viewer becomes an active participant in your art, rather than a simple observer. This gives the image staying power, keeping it interesting and beckoning viewers to explore it time and again.

“Sanctuary”, Olympic National Park, 2016

A Slice of Nature All Your Own

So far I’ve made arguments for how the intimate composition benefits the viewer. But what about you, as the maker of such an image? Because wide angle scenes by their nature betray exactly how they were made, they’re easier to replicate. On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that your intimate composition will be found and copied by anyone else. It’s a result of what you were personally drawn to, rather than a mere recording of the whole scene as it would appear to anyone at a glance. Composing intimately is also more likely to produce a completely unique image in the first place. Even if the idea or motif has been seen before, that particular subject or occurrence of light can be your very own, and will likely never be seen by another. There’s something satisfying in that.

Conclusion

All of this is by no means a sweeping indictment of wide angle compositions, nor of conveying context, nor of the sky itself. This is not the “correct” way, nor the only way, to photograph. It is merely how I most often go about making those images that I love–and that is the one metric that I judge my photos on above all others. This approach may not work for you, but if you haven’t yet given it a shot, I urge you to try. In doing so, you may just spark your own imagination.

13 Likes

No title
Spotlit sand dune - "Epic intimate"? +repost
(Igor Doncov) #2

My favorite quotes from this article. So true.

2 Likes

(Matt Payne) #3

Alex, beautiful writing and so powerful. Spending that day with you did teach me to think differently about how we compose and why. I am finding myself more and more drawn to these sorts of images and this kind of image making. I feel like it is the best way to challenge yourself and to find your voice. Bravo sir.

2 Likes

(Martin Gonzalez) #4

Beautifully written @Alex_Noriega. I totally agree. What resonates with me the most, like Igor mentions above, is what is left to the imagination. I feel like it is almost the natural progression of a landscape photographer to first be drawn to the more grandiose shots and include all of the foreground and majestic background and then begin stripping back elements and focusing on a tighter composition with more experience.

I feel like this article really embodies what I’ve been feeling with my work and how i’ve begun to shift away towards more intimate compositions. Thanks for writing this up!

2 Likes

(Stan Rose) #5

Interesting article, Alex, and the accompanying photos are both incredibly beautiful and powerful. I would argue that they work so well not because they are “intimate” (the way I understand intimate, it would exclude all but maybe two or three of the examples) but because they are very strong examples of fractals in nature. Classic examples of repetitive patterns that occur in a similar way at all scales. The night sky without a foreground is fractal, but I would not call it intimate. A sky alone could be fractal (with clouds) and I would argue it is one of the most powerful examples, because it relies not on location (as you point out) but on time, and no scene can be exactly repeated.

So what about (what I would call) the ‘true’ intimate scene?? For example, take “Hibernation” Remove all the other small trees, and focus just on a crop of the tree in the lower left corner. I would argue it then loses most of its fractal quality because its similar neighbors are gone, and the patterns in the snow are lost. Would the resulting image be as powerful?? To me, it would be, because that is where my eye is most drawn to, the beautiful curves and the statement of the lone tree persisting in the onslaught of winter. The anthropomorphic qualities. But I’m guessing the resulting image would be no where near as popular to the public or on social media, because the strong fractal nature is not there. So the (rhetorical) question I have is–how do I translate what attracts me to that ‘truly’ intimate scene–so that others can enjoy the same insight?? If I could figure that out, maybe I’ll be able to retire :wink:

2 Likes

(Keith Bauer) #6

Wonderful, well written article. The images shared to help with the written word are superb photographs, and excellent examples to help drive home the points. I’m drawn more and more to this style of photography and appreciate the time you took to create this article. Kudos!

2 Likes

(Alex Noriega) #7

@Igor_Doncov - Glad those parts resonated with you - the second one sums up my overall point completely!

@Matt_Payne - I’m happy you enjoyed the writing! It was fun hanging out that day - I’m glad something I said or did inadvertently taught you something. I certainly wasn’t trying to do so! Thank you for the new profile picture too :grin:

@Martin_Gonzalez - I had a similar progression, so it’s cool to hear that others have too. I find it very convenient to only need to own a midrange and a telephoto lens, so maybe that’s my true motivation. Just kidding, but I’m glad the bit about imagination resonated because that’s probably the most important point here for me.

@Keith_Bauer - Thank you for reading, Keith! I’m glad the photographs rung true for you as examples of my points. I actually had some new images with accompanying behind-the-scenes wide cell phone shots that I thought would illustrate the idea well, but wasn’t able to get them processed in time. Perhaps it’s better that the mystery is left intact for those anyway.

1 Like

(Alex Noriega) #8

Thanks for your interesting comments, Stan! I suppose “intimate” as it applies to composition in nature photography isn’t necessarily clearly defined, or maybe I’m off the mark with my interpretation of the term. I just see it as referring to a tighter composition focused on individual elements or details, or lacking greater context. I’d have a hard time calling most images with a sky intimate, but then I think of Fatali’s “Back of Beyond” and that falls apart. Maybe some of my examples should be called “epic intimates” or “grand intimates” in that they aren’t necessarily small or quiet.

I find it interesting (and awesome!) that you see some of these images so differently than I do. The engagement of my own imagination about the greater context of these scenes is what works for me with these photos, and I hardly even think about their fractal nature (though I am clearly naturally drawn to patterns and symmetry and repetition). But it’s neat that you see them that way.

With “Hibernation” in particular, I guess I would probably see a composition focusing on one tree as too obvious or basic, but that may be because I see these trees as fairly uninteresting conifers. I’d much prefer to focus on a single tree with more character, like a gnarly cottonwood as in “Rainbow Rider” - or have something in the way of atmosphere to make the tree stand out, as in “Ariandel”. For me, focusing on the leftmost tree wouldn’t be as powerful, because I see the image as being about the deep (and seemingly endless, given the background) snow - the trees are just the supporting cast to drive home the idea of being buried. I should also mention that while the image has been quite popular, I certainly didn’t take social media (or anyone but myself) into consideration when shooting it. I just thought this was the most interesting composition available in the much wider context of the scene, which also included Mount Rainier herself and some nice atmospherics.

As far as translating your own ideas into usable insight, I’m afraid I can’t help you! I’m not a great writer by nature; I was only able to do okay with this article because I’ve had these ideas coming together in my head for a few years now. That said, I’d always be interested to read more on the subject if you are able to figure it out. :grin:

1 Like

(Doug Koepsel) #9

Alex, one of the reasons I am increasingly being drawn to the intimate compositions like your Ariandel and Rainbow Rider images is that they tend to have a calm and sedate feel to them, as opposed to the grand landscape with a blazing sunset. Now, if I can get my vision seeing past my dominant right brain :wink:

1 Like

(Alex Noriega) #10

Thanks for reading @Doug_Koepsel! I, too, enjoy quieter scenes a lot of the time. One benefit of having a strong preference for such images is that I’m once again able to enjoy blazing sunsets without feeling the need to photograph them (unless they’re casting wonderful red light onto a small composition, of course…)

1 Like

(Igor Doncov) #11

Alex, I’m going to go on a limb here and suggest something. Even though your images are intimate they are still epic. The images seem to be epic intimate images. By that I mean that even though they have features of intimate images they still have those striking, attention getting features that are the hallmark of epic images. The dramatic lighting, The contrast and saturation. Does that make sense? I often think of intimate compositions as low keyed subjects that are subtle in how they deliver their message. Images that convey their message without shouting at you.

0 Likes

(Alex Noriega) #12

I can respect that point of view, @Igor_Doncov!

Maybe intimate wasn’t the right word. Maybe “focused?” I’m not sure the subject or light’s boldness necessarily changes what type the composition would be classed as, though.

Still, I tried to avoid using the terms “quiet” or “small”, and that’s also why I included that little bit about the “epic intimate”. The overall point was mainly what you quoted in your first comment–that focused compositions with contextual clues purposely excluded can spark the imagination and make the viewer think.

But indeed, since “intimate” is a term often conflated with small and quiet, maybe I should call a lot of these photos “grand intimates” (since @Eric_Bennett thought “epic” might imply praise–I had meant it in a purely descriptive manner! :rofl:) That said, I also don’t think any of them are quite shouting… but that’s pretty subjective!

0 Likes

(Igor Doncov) #13

I have to disagree with that. “Agon Wastes”, “Pure Magic”, “Urbosa”, “Sanctuary” all have a scream factor. But, I really don’t want to critique your images. My interest is in the characteristics of an intimate landscape.

To my knowledge, this term was first coined to describe Eliot Porters images. Perhaps it was used to describe an imagery that was so different from Ansel Adams’. But what strikes a viewer about Porter’s images in addition to their context is how personal they are. An image of a blackberry bush is not interesting for it’s lighting, or contrast. It’s value is in the recognition of how much Porter enjoyed moments of stopping at a bush and eating wild blackberries, and by inference how much I’d like to do the same. Perhaps it’s an old memory of free childhood summers in Maine. But whatever it is, it’s the subject with respect to the author. And in fact all of his New England images depict favorite experiences in nature. Essentially, it’s like taking a picture of your favorite couch which you like to curl up in. It’s a personal statement outside of the artistic qualities of the image. That, to me, has been the characteristics of a good ‘intimate composition’. It’s not about art and it’s not about imagination. It’s about communicating on a personal level with a viewer.

That’s how I view as the best intimate landscapes.

0 Likes

(Alex Noriega) #14

@Igor_Doncov that’s a very interesting point, no doubt based on more education than I have on the subject. The word “intimate” does have an emotional implication that I didn’t really consider in this context–I saw it more as shorthand to describe a certain objectively-defined style of composition, especially as compared to a wide-angle grand landscape. I believe that this style of composition could be classified the same way regardless of the visual characteristics of the subject.

Any connection to the artist’s intent/story and to the artist him/herself is very subjective, in my opinion. This gets into the question of whether art should be judged separately from its creator, as well as authorial intent and whether a piece should stand on its own without supplementary information. Certainly this information can enrich the experience of viewing a given work, and that work can also be interpreted differently depending on who the creator is known to be.

My approach is to create images that are self-contained, so to speak. My favorite photos feel personal to me, but I don’t expect others to connect in the same way and I don’t usually attempt to explain the story or how I feel about them - I leave that up to the viewer to decide for themselves. (The title is usually my only hint at how I feel or what the story might be.) Maybe the viewer sees a given photograph as small or quiet, maybe they see it as yelling or screaming. Maybe they have a personal connection to the subject, or maybe they’ve never even seen it before. Everyone interprets differently, I can only be sure of my own point of view.

I might be getting a little off the rails here, so I’ll just close in saying that I’m open to suggestions for how else to describe this type of composition without making the implication that the subject itself is small, personal, or quiet. @David_Kingham tells me the article is already set in stone, so it’ll have to stay as is with flawed terminology!

0 Likes

(Igor Doncov) #15

It’s an excellent article Alex and I love your work. Unbeknownst to you, I have been following you on Facebook for years. I’m just being myself by putting forth an alternative opinion, my opinion. Your observations about the importance of imagination are excellent.

0 Likes

(Alex Noriega) #16

I appreciate hearing your opinion Igor, and I’m happy you enjoy my work! I hope I didn’t come off as argumentative–I’m being myself too, by discussing the topic in a verbose manner. I’m a fast typist (probably my best quality, actually) and so if I have some idea of what I want to say, the words just pour out.

0 Likes

(Duane Klipping) #17

Enjoyed your article Alex and a lot of food for thought. I do believe skies can make or break an image though. It also depends on the area or region you are shooting.

When you get to the vast open spaces such as the plains the sky becomes very important, for without it the landscape can become dull in a flatter terrain. When the sky opens up in places such as this it almost has to be included and the cloud patterns can be spectacular.

I would say not all skies can be captured in your back yard and one could have to travel for miles. Nothing quite like seeing super cell thunderstorms as big as mountains moving in. I know that it more about the sky in this example than the land but the two can work together good.

0 Likes

(Brent Clark) #18

I really enjoyed this article @Alex_Noriega , well done. I couldn’t agree with it more and it does a good job of articulating a lot of vague thoughts and feelings I’ve had about this type of photographic composition (not sure what to call it after your discussion with Igor :laughing: ) for a while. In my last batch of 30 images, 6 have the sky. In my next batch of 30 images, only 1 has the sky as a prominent element. I didn’t even set out to not take photos of the sky - just following my inspiration seems to have led me there.

Some rambling musings - in my earlier days, I think one of the main things I wanted to convey was “I want to show people I made it here.” I don’t think there was anything wrong with that, but now I’ve changed. I still want to go to really cool natural places, but the difference is that I’ve sorta lost the drive to show people just the fact that I was in a neat place.

I would go out and have a great experience but then found it more or less impossible to show people my photographs and have them connect to them the way I do. Retrospectively, it seems obvious, but at the time I found it frustrating. There’s just no way a photo of a single moment in time can give the viewer as rich a sensory experience as traveling to and being in an amazing place. Now, I am more than content to keep my experience of a place very personal.

This article made me realize something: the fact that a viewer can’t connect to a photograph the same way as the photographer in and of itself has a little seed of mystery and intrigue. So, instead of revealing too much context and quashing that seed, why not make photographs that actually cultivate that sense of mystery and make it flourish? The photographer still gets the connection to their experience, and the viewer gets the thrill of mystery.

P.S. I’m going to get the entire thing tattooed to my face

2 Likes

(Alex Noriega) #19

@Duane_Klipping - I agree! I tried to qualify my thoughts with some exceptions. For my own work, I just very commonly exclude the sky. I feel that’s often not even considered, since for many landscape photography seems to revolve around what the sky is doing–so I wanted to present that idea specifically. I can see how the sky is important in a place like the plains (and understandably the focus if we’re talking about super cells!) And of course nobody wants a photo of the sky above their neighbor’s house, my point was more that I want to focus on what’s unique about the scene in front of me.

1 Like

(Alex Noriega) #20

@Brent_Clark - In my next batch of 18, I have 4 with sky, but only one where the sky really registers. I counted back through the last 3-4 years, when I really started getting away from doing many grand landscapes, and out of 130 or so images I’ve got about 20 with sky. So it’s excluded from about 85% of my compositions.

I think I was in a similar place for a long time - wanting to show how cool the place I visited was. @TJ_Thorne can attest that I still have this desire to capture awesome things that are happening in front of me, and I’ll pull out my phone to take snapshots/video of it all. But even with my experience, I’ll do it at really dumb times when there’s just no way a 28mm-equivalent snapshot is going to convey the majesty of what I’m looking at. I often laugh at how terrible the phone photo is compared to what I’m seeing.

I think that a more focused composition like the dune image you just posted for critique is a good way to convey specific parts of those rich sensory experiences. It may not give the viewer the whole picture of what it was like to be there, but they can enjoy something really cool that you saw because you’re showing them the details large enough to appreciate.

That is a good point about intrigue - if the viewer likely isn’t going to connect the same way you are, then why not let them tell their own story about the image? Instead of telling them what they’re supposed feel, let them feel what they’re going to feel.

I believe the article clocked in at 2200 words, so you’ll have to find a tattoo artist that can do really small print. Or get a face enlargement.

1 Like

Back
Forward