Seeing the forest for the trees

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Last month we discussed the emotional depth the eyes can reveal in photographs.  This month we’ll talk about the small matter of everything else in the frame.

Every element in your photograph says something — whether intended or not. There are days I envy painters. If they don’t want a giant red garbage can in their peaceful image of a cat relaxing, they just don’t paint a giant red garbage can. For us photographers the cat may be off doing something else by the time we move the garbage can. Or we may not have even noticed the garbage can when shooting the photo. 

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Our brains do a fantastic job at letting us focus in on one thing while ignoring everything else. It’s a great skill to have when you’re trying to decide if the thing in the distance is a tree or a hungry tiger. It’s also good for helping us find great moments we want to photograph — like the peaceful expression on a relaxing cat’s face. But it’s also why most of us have probably pondered questions like, “How did I not see the giant red garbage can?”

Us humans are so good at focusing in that as photographers we have to work to register everything in the frame. One thing that can help is working on the process when you make photographs. My first recommendation is that when you see a moment you want to capture, shoot it right then. Follow your instincts, catch the moment before it passes, and don’t let any self doubt get in the way. Listen to your internal critic when editing your photos, but not when you’re making them. Otherwise you’ll let great moments pass while debating with your internal critic. Then think of the photo as a first draft.

Once you’ve got your first draft get in the habit of refining. Widen your vision back out and see EVERYTHING. Think about how all the elements work or don’t work together. And like we’ve talked about, experiment with different positions and angles. And just keep shooting. Once you’ve got your first draft done you can play and experiment with ideas. You might discover that a slight change of position shifts your background from the garbage can to your dog who is also relaxing. Or maybe you’ll find a streak of light that wonderfully conveys “afternoon nap on a sunny day” to your viewers. 

I think of this process a bit like moving from learning to play single-note melodies to playing chords — it opens up whole new layers of depth and of possibility. At first you may have to remind yourself to occasionally widen your vision back out to the whole frame. But with practice it’ll eventually become second nature.

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Class Recap

  • Try the exercise
  • Send your photos from the assignment to: David@DavidChildsPhotography.com. Please put “Spot Photo Class” in the subject line
  • Got to Photography 101 on Spot's website to see your photos and those of your fellow students
  • Share your great work with your friends!
  • Check out David’s tips and comments
  • Meet David here in November for your next session!

David Childs is a professional photographer, photo journalist, instructor, and animal advocate. You can see his work or contact him at www.DavidChildsPhotography.com

Study with David live! His pet photography classes are offered at Oregon Humane Society. See his website for details.