If you want to do jus­tice to a spec­tac­u­lar view, it pays to keep things sim­ple when fram­ing up your shot

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For many pho­tog­ra­phers, no as­pect of pho­tog­ra­phy is more dif­fi­cult than com­po­si­tion. Per­haps for that rea­son, peo­ple have tried to cre­ate rules for com­pos­ing pho­to­graphs. But the land­scape masters of the past were unan­i­mous in their dis­dain for such for­mu­las: “To con­sult the rules of com­po­si­tion be­fore mak­ing a pic­ture is a lit­tle like con­sult­ing the law of grav­i­ta­tion be­fore go­ing for a walk,” said Ed­ward We­ston. While rules (maybe guide­lines would be a bet­ter word) can be help­ful in some sit­u­a­tions, the world is too com­plex for any rule to ap­ply in all sit­u­a­tions, but there is one prin­ci­ple that al­ways ap­plies: sim­plic­ity. The best com­po­si­tions con­tain only the essen­tials of the scene or sub­ject, and noth­ing ex­tra. Or, to quote We­ston again, “To com­pose a sub­ject well means no more than to see and present it in the strong­est man­ner pos­si­ble.”

Good com­po­si­tions almost al­ways have some­thing else in com­mon: a strong, ab­stract de­sign. Too of­ten pho­tog­ra­phers be­come trapped into think­ing in terms of sub­jects rather than de­signs. When pho­tograph­ing a tree, for ex­am­ple, many pho­tog­ra­phers ap­proach the scene with a pre-formed men­tal im­age of what a tree is sup­posed to look like, in­stead of see­ing the unique qual­i­ties of the par­tic­u­lar tree they’re pho­tograph­ing. As Ansel Adams said, “The pho­tog­ra­pher should not al­low him­self to be trapped by some­thing that ex­cites him only as sub­ject; if he does not see the im­age de­ci­sively in his mind’s eye, the re­sult is likely to be dis­ap­point­ing.”

To com­pose a sub­ject well means no more than to see and present it in the strong­est pos­si­ble man­ner. Ed­ward We­ston

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