The important point you want to get across may be at a smaller scale than you think
Michael Freeman explains how showing a fraction of a subject can tell more of a story
Changing the scale of what we pay attention to reveals another world with different visual possibilities. Why do we love details? Among photographers it’s almost a universal love, and even landscape specialists find themselves drawn every so often into the closely focused worlds that sit within their expansive subjects. Ansel Adams was as happy with a bark detail or rock surface as he was with El Capitan or Half Dome. In his seminal book Yosemite and the Range of
Light, more than a fifth of the photographs are actually of details. One reason, as any picture editor knows, is that variety is the key to a series of images, and variety of scale is one way to achieve this. Details of things can stand in for a bigger subject. Diane Arbus said: “The more specific you are, the more general it’ll be,” and by that she meant that a well-chosen and wellcaptured detail can expand in the viewer’s mind to be more universal. Detail always hints at something larger.
Another obvious attraction is that the world of detail offers many more opportunities for fresh images than the bigger scenes that everyone can see. One of the less satisfying aspects of photographing dramatic landscapes is that the ‘perfect’ viewpoints are well known, and at any good shooting time, the main viewpoints for Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temples, Utah’s Delicate Arch, China’s Yuanyang Rice Terraces or you-name-it are crowded, and everyone gets the same image. Digging around for detail, however, is always rewarding. Exploring detail can throw up some unexpectedly beautiful and/or graphic images, almost regardless of the ugliness, messiness, or even obviousness of their surroundings.
The Cambodian temples at Angkor, just mentioned, are hugely popular and these days besieged by tourists. I’ve been photographing them since before there was any tourism, so I probably have a skewed and idealized attitude, but one of the basic appeals of this place is that they were, for centuries, abandoned, and were the perfect example of ancient and mysterious temples lost in the forest. Clearly that’s no longer the case overall, but there’s still that lingering aspect of adventure and romance. So, now that the long shot that takes in an entire temple is very difficult to shoot,
Even landscape specialists find themselves drawn into the closely focused worlds that sit within their expansive subjects
how else to get across the idea of a tropical forest taking over the ancient works of man? The answer for me was to show the forest taking over at the scale of plant growth, and after quite some time looking, I found this broken but recognizable detail of a small carving of an apsara (celestial dancer in Hindu mythology), completely overgrown, and with a bud just emerging from the crook of her arm.
Detail shots, by the way, tend to work best when they are a part of a sequence of other images that complete the story. As here, reversing the size and importance of detail versus long shot is usually enough to make the image work.
If you enjoy this article and want to learn more, there are 50 more paths to be discovered in Michael’s new book Fifty Paths to Creative Photography (NB: all 50 are different from those that will be featured here in the magazine).
Three small visual elements actually enhance the sense of emptiness, and provide structure to the image In this image, which is just 20cm across, the plant life takes over the image, as it does the temple carvings