Photography is an art of subtraction. While many photographers seem driven to collect as many objects of visual interest as possible, my favorite pictures usually work as much for what’s not in them than for what is.
Unfortunately, it’s usually easier to see things to put in an image than it is to know what to leave out—and how to do it. One of the reasons I’m such a fan of the tripod is that it allows me to scrutinize filter distractions my frame at my own pace.
Subtracting distractions can be as simple as tightening the composition, or repositioning the camera. For example, admiring a dramatic waterfall in the distance, you might walk around until you find a colorful bouquet of wildflowers for your foreground—so far so good. With your camera at eye level, you frame the scene with the flowers at the bottom and the waterfall at the top. But then you notice a vast empty region in the middle of the frame that does nothing more for your image than occupy space. The solution is as simple as dropping your camera to ground level, allowing you to subtract the empty space and replace it with larger flowers and waterfall (because with the flowers and waterfall more aligned, you can increase the focal length).
But compositional subtactions are only the beginning. Many photographers don’t stumble until they encounter an opportunity to simplify an image using aspects of their camera’s vision that differ from their own vision: light, focus depth, and motion.
Photographers frequently lament their camera’s limited dynamic range. And while extra dynamic range in a camera is great, limited dynamic range creates great opportunities to subtract distractions and emphasize shape over detail.
Underexposing the highlights in a backlit scene can saturate color and hide distracting details in blackness. I try to find striking subjects that stand out against the sky. Hilltop trees work well for this, but I can think of no subject in nature more suitable to silhouette photography than El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite. And since a crescent moon is always in the brightest part of the sky just before sunrise or after sunset, I always look for an opportunity to pair a waning crescent against Yosemite’s striking skyline.
But this approach isn’t limited to silhouettes. I love finding a flower in full sunlight, then under- or over-expose the background to make my subject stand out against a black or white canvas.
One of my favorite techniques for photographing colorful wildflowers and fall foliage is to narrow the range of focus until just a select part of my subject is sharp, softening the rest of the scene to an appealing blur of color and shape. This blur effect improves as depth of focus shrinks, and depth of focus shrinks with:
- Subject distance—the closer the better
- Focal length—the longer the better
- F-stop—small f-stop means large aperture
While I’ve used pretty much every lens in my bag to blur my backgrounds (and foregrounds), I most frequently use telephoto and macro lenses, often with extension tubes.
Not only does this approach help the primary subject—or specific aspects of the primary subject—stand out, when executed properly it can eliminate virtually any background distraction. The most important thing to remember is that even when it will be blurred beyond recognition, the background matters.
Blurred water often gets labeled as “unnatural” or “cliché.” The unnatural part I’ll dismiss as misinformed—it’s no less natural than water droplets suspended in midair. While I’ll acknowledge that reflexively reaching for a neutral density filter at the slightest hint of whitewater might be overdoing it a bit, the cliché label ignores the fact that blurred is often the only way to render moving water (ever try freezing a waterfall or churning cascade in shade or overcast?).
Regardless of your position on blurred water, detail in moving water can create a distraction that competes with your primary subject for attention. Smoothing moving water to one degree or another subtracts this distracting busyness.
Motion blur isn’t just about water—pretty much anything that moves can be softened, smoothed, or eliminated with motion: clouds, blowing leaves and flowers, stars, and so on. While it’s not landscape photography, a device employed by architectural (and other) photographers is adding many stops of neutral density to slow the shutter speed so much that people and vehicles moving in the scene completely disappear.
Regardless of the object that’s moving, as with narrow focus depth, softening the secondary areas of a scene also helps the primary subject stand out by allowing your viewers to focus all their attention where it belongs.
It’s all about control
Because of the zero-sum relationship between exposure variables that control light, depth, and motion—changing one variable requires a complementary change in another—managing them is next to impossible without getting out of full auto exposure and start making your own exposure decisions. While control is possible in Aperture or Shutter Priority modes, I don’t want my camera making any decisions for me and therefore prefer Manual metering. In fact, I’ll go as far as insisting that you can’t really call yourself a photographer unless you can shoot in Manual mode (even if you opt not to). The good news is, it’s not hard.
Rather go into all the detail in this post, here are some links from my Photo Tips tab that will help:
About this image
I’d love to say that Don Smith and I scheduled this year’s Oregon Coast workshop to coincide with the new moon, but that’s just the way it worked out. I will take some credit for knowing that, once the workshop was scheduled, the best night to capture the crescent moon was our first night, and that the Bandon sea stacks would be the best place to be.
Before setting our group free on the beach, Don and I made sure they knew a 3% crescent moon would appear low in the west shortly after sunset. Because the beach at Bandon is so expansive, with dozens of sea stacks spread over nearly 1-mile stretch of sand and surf, it wasn’t long before the group was so spread out that I spent most of my time wandering around, trying to catch up with everyone. Each person I got to, I updated them on where the moon would be once the sky darkened, encouraged them to plan a moon composition before the moon appeared. I also strongly suggested that they give themselves time to check out the south end of the beach, where the most (and best) sea stacks are.
I made it all the way down past Wizard’s Hat before was satisfied that there were no more workshop participants to check on. By that time the sun was about ready to disappear—it was time to decide on my own crescent moon subject. I ended up heading back up the beach, to the view of (aptly named) Face Rock.
The moon appeared shortly after sunset, faint at first but quickly brightening against the darkening sky. With the moon visible, it became easy to refine my position relative to Face Rock. Aware of other sea stacks trying to photo-bomb my frame on the left and right, I chose a relatively tight vertical composition that made the scene entirely about the moon and Face Rock.
As with many crescent moon images, this scene was mostly about subtraction. Not just the neighboring seas stacks, but also the texture caused by Face Rock’s many nooks and crannies, and the ever-changing surf. Sea stacks, texture, and waves are nice, but this scene was all about the moon above Face Rock’s distinctive profile.
It helped that Face Rock stood out nicely against the brightest part of the sky. Slightly underexposing to turn the rock black had the added benefit of enhancing the sunset’s natural orange hues. To smooth the waves, I waited for the sky to darken enough to allow a multi-second exposure. I clicked a dozen or more frames, timed with the waves, to give myself a variety of motion effects. I chose this one because I like the way the sunset color reflects in the wet sand.
A Gallery of Subtraction
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.
Lunar Kiss, Half Dome and Sentinel Dome, Yosemite
Cradled Crescent, Sierra Foothills
Meadow Dewdrop, Yosemite Valley
Champagne Glass Poppies, Merced River Canyon, California
Sunrise, Drake’s Bay, Point Reyes
Howling Dog at Sunset, Bandon Beach, Oregon
Dawn Moonrise, El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite
Raindrops, Orchid in Lava Tree State Park, Hawaii
Here Comes the Sun, Idaho, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way
Poppy Lanterns, Merced River Canyon
Dogwood Trio, Merced River, Yosemite
Poppy Pastel, Sierra Foothills, California
Crescent Moon and Oaks at Dusk, Sierra Foothills, California
Moonrise, Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe
Floating, Merced River, Yosemite
Tree and Crescent, Sierra Foothills, California
Color and Shape, Grand Canyon Sunset, Desert View
Dancing Poppy, Sierra Foothills, California
Autumn Leaf, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite
Moongazing, Face Rock, Bandon, Oregon
Hilltop Oaks, Sierra Foothills, California
Golden Elegance, California Poppy, Sierra Foothills
Sunrise Trio, Crescent Moon Above El Capitan and Half Dome, Yosemite
Poppy With a View, Point Reyes National Seashore
Big Sun, Bright Angel Point, Grand Canyon
Sky on Fire, Sierra Foothills, California
Captive Crescent, Yosemite
Tropical Sunrise, Hawaii Big Island
Intimate Poppy, Point Reyes National Seashore
Leaf, Bridalveil Creek, Yosemite
Moon and Morning Star, Yosemite
California Sunset, El Dorado Hills, Sierra Foothills
Brilliant Poppy, American River Parkway, Sacramento
Oak and Crescent, Sierra Foothills, California