One of the primary things that elevates a photograph from snapshot to art, whether it be a portrait, a candid street photograph, or a landscape or cityscape, is the composition. Composition, or the arrangement of elements within an image, can often look random, when in fact, the photographer has considered the placement of even the most minute object. Recently, I had the honor of assisting National Geographic photographer Sam Abell as he taught a workshop here on the coast of Maine. Sam is well known as a master of composition, and while I have long practiced many of the points of composition he teaches, there were others he pointed out that opened my eyes, causing me to feel as if I’d suddenly added a new tool to my kit.
During the workshop, Sam deconstructed the compositions of many of his most famous photographs, which I found to be incredibly enlightening and great fun. I thought it would be an interesting ongoing to series, as well as a useful exercise for me, to look deeper at some of my own photographs, and I thought others might enjoy it as well. So here is my first attempt, breaking down the composition of Maroon Bells II.
One of the things I often do is compose from the background forward. This means I find a background I like, and then seek something to place as my foreground. In this case, my background was an easy choice- Maroon Bells, two peaks in the Elk Mountains of Colorado near Aspen. I began the day at Maroon Lake, which is immediately beyond the area where the buses in drop you off. The lake is one of the most photographed views in Colorado, and deservedly so. And I did photograph it. But I wanted to see what else was there. So my photo partner, Kristen Wilkinson and I began the hike to a second lake- Crater Lake, about two and a half miles beyond Maroon Lake. And a bit of a climb, as well. Maroon Bells II was captured just before we would have reached Crater Lake, as we crested a ridge overlooking the lake.
We arrived at this spot and I knew there was a photo to be made. Just off the trail, I found a rocky foreground that was perfect. I felt the rocks would echo the larger mountains in the background, creating a conversation between them that would allow the viewer to follow the back and forth. I then experimented with the placement of the rocks in the foreground, moving to situate them in both the lower left and lower right. Ultimately, I found that placing them in the center third of the bottom of the frame created the most dynamic of the compositions. I wanted to be sure to give those rocks enough room at the bottom so the viewer felt like they could step up to them, but also, to leave the flatter ground as a foundation for my scene.
Once I found my foreground to place against the background, I needed to consider the middle ground. Coming from my right was an unbelievably vibrant yellow aspen grove. Just beyond that was a line of pines that created a beautiful contrast with the deep green color. On my left was mostly pines, with a few aspens scattered about. I liked the solid blocks of color, forming triangles both left and right. The question was, how much of each to include. Ultimately, that was determined by my wanting to include an equal amount of space on either side of the peaks. Even though the ends of each side of the peaks is at different heights, the space from the intersection of the peaks with other elements is equal on both the left and right. I believe this is important in creating a sense of balance within the scene. Finally, I needed to allow the peaks breathing room at the top of the frame, allowing the sky to be the roof of my photograph, lying comfortably beneath the clouds overhead.
The final piece to the image was the path in the middle distance, leading down to Crater Lake. It’s such a small element of the scene, but without it, the image would be incomplete. The trail beckons the viewer to follow it, to find out what lies beyond those trees. But also, the trail is an image all by itself, and would hold up on its own, framed by pine trees on all four sides. This form of micro composition, ensuring that these smaller elements hold greater importance, is paramount in creating an interesting image. The other elements of my middle ground, the aspen grove and line of pines, act as arrows, pointing right to the trail, leading the viewer to the smallest, yet most important element in the scene.
If you’re aware of some of the basics of composition like the Rule of Thirds and leading lines, you’ll recognize their use in this scene. But going beyond that, balancing elements within the scene, and managing spatial relationships between elements, help elevate the composition to something more special. Writing this up makes it sound like these decisions took hours of contemplation to decide how to frame my shot. The reality is, these decisions are made in nanoseconds as I look at the scene before me. It feels nearly subconscious. Some decisions take a little experimentation, such as my placement of the foreground rocks, while others are almost immediate in my head. It's always fun to see what works and what doesn't.