Although several factors contribute to the success of
our best travel pictures, effective visual design may
be the most significant. For photographs with high viewer
appeal, it's worth taking the time to make a pleasing
composition. (Hearst Castle, California; Maxxum AF 24-85mm
zoom at 24mm; f/16; Tiffen polarizer; Fujichrome Sensia
Photos © 1998, Peter K. Burian, All Rights Reserved
Whenever I judge photo contests
including a travel category, one fact quickly becomes apparent: picture-taking
during vacation and other trips is not always taken seriously. The photographer
who might spend hours making an exceptional landscape or portrait or
architectural image tends to shoot quickly while traveling. Frankly,
most of us are guilty of snapshooting at times, especially in locations
that are entirely new to us. We become so overwhelmed by exotic surroundings
that we shoot first and think about it later.
With today's sophisticated
cameras, lenses, and color print films, almost anyone can produce sharp
travel photos with correct exposures. On the other hand, very few of
these technically-acceptable photos should satisfy the creative standards
of the serious photographer. Granted, photographic excellence, like
beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Still, most of us would agree
on certain criteria. Cluttered backgrounds, partially-blurred foreground
objects, tiny subjects dead center in the frame and overpowered by irrelevant
space do not make for an appealing picture.
Primary factors in successful
travel photography are thoughtful composition using visual harmony,
dynamic tension, and effective image design. Consideration of these
elements definitely improves our images. A badly composed photograph
will lessen appreciation of any picture, even if the viewer does not
recognize the reason. Today's "intelligent" SLR cameras can almost take
the picture for you, but they have yet to be programmed to seek out
and arrange the visual elements for well-balanced images. Although most
photographers already know many of the principles of composition, it's
worth refreshing your memory, especially with techniques you have not
Many photographers find that effective composition can become
intuitive with experience. This is certainly true with straightforward
subject matter such as this, but more complex situations
do benefit from thoughtful planning of image design. (Maxxum
AF 24-105mm D zoom; Tiffen 812 and B+W polarizer; Fujichrome
The Intersection Of Thirds
The traditional way of creating a well-balanced picture, the "Rule of
Thirds" is a useful guideline that has been used by painters for centuries.
That's because the center of any picture is not a usual resting place
for the eye and a central composition is static, not dynamic. Imagine
that your camera's viewing screen is etched with grid lines, resembling
a tick tack toe game. As you view the subject--whether a blossoming cherry
tree in Washington, DC, a distant pyramid, or a deserted house in a ghost
town--place the subject at one of the intersecting points. This technique
works equally well with a horizontal and a vertical framing and is far
more effective than a dead center, bull's eye composition.
Emphasize dramatic skies by
placing the horizon low in the frame, along the lowest line in your imaginary
grid. If the sky is dull, but important to the story, place it at the
highest line. When the subject is quite large in the frame, as in a close-up
portrait, place the most important subject element--the closest eye, perhaps--at
an intersecting point. This will be one of the two top points to avoid
excessive empty space above the subject.
Hint: In many off-center compositions
with a small center of interest, there will be some "empty" space in the
frame. Try to include a secondary, smaller or more distant object, too.
This will offer a resting place for the viewer's eye as it explores the
rest of the picture area.
While off-center framing is often very effective, some architectural
subjects do benefit from an emphasis on symmetry. This works
best when there is no single, obvious center of interest.
(San Antonio, Texas; Leica M6 TTL with 28mm Leica lens;
Manfrotto tripod; Kodak Elite Chrome 100.
In most cultures we read from
left to right, and tend to scan a picture in this manner as well. Hence,
placing the primary subject closer to the left side of the frame is usually
appropriate. If it is in the dead center we are less likely to explore
the other areas. With a moving subject leave plenty of space for it to
"travel into." With a static subject--whether a person or animal--leave
space for the subject to look into if it is gazing to the side.
Basic Compositional Techniques
Fill the frame. "If your
pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." Wise words from
World War II photojournalist Robert Capa and probably the most useful
photographic advice. If you cannot walk up to the subject, switch to a
longer lens to shoot portraits instead of snapshots. When the situation
presents vertical lines, use a matching camera orientation to avoid wasted
space at the edges of a frame. Otherwise, crop the print or trim the picture
with image-editing software.
Unlike painters who start with a blank canvas and add only pertinent subject
matter, photographers must usually work to exclude many extraneous elements.
Hence, simplification is generally the principle compositional goal in
photography. Start by deciding the specific purpose of the picture and
then rely on the following techniques.
Camera orientation is the most basic compositional decision
that we make. With this tall clown, vertical framing seemed
most logical, but the horizontal image proved to be more
successful because I wanted to include his arm and hand.
(Maxxum AF 24-120mm D; Fujichrome Provia 100F.)
Find a clear center of interest.
Instead of forcing the viewer's eye to roam around the picture, searching
for something to observe, include some specific object that will achieve
this goal. Whether that's a Beefeater in London or a small boat on the
Ganges River, make it the focal point of the image to achieve your intended
Strive to present a clear
message. In wide angle compositions, exclude superfluous elements such
as very bright areas that will pull the viewer's eye from the primary
subject. Crop competing subject matter by changing your shooting position,
perhaps working from a low level to frame the subject against the sky.
Defocus background clutter by using a longer lens with a wide aperture,
such as f/4.
Frame The Subject
Especially in land or cityscape and architectural photography, a large
part of the image area will be sky. While a deep azure blue expanse can
add to the appeal of an image, a pale sky can be distracting. You can
eliminate much of the sky in some cases by moving closer, switching to
a longer lens, or cropping the image later. If neither approach seems
just right, try to find some object in the foreground to use as a frame
above the primary subject. Some commonly found framing devices include
an archway, gate, door, or window and a branch covered with foliage.
Especially in compositions with an excessive amount of sky,
a framing device can be quite effective. While archways
can be ideal, they are rare, making trees and foliage a
more commonly used subject. (Salt Lake City, Utah; Nikon
AF-S 28-70mm f/2.8; B+W polarizer; Fujichrome Velvia.)
Unless you notice an obvious
framing object, you may need to explore the area to find one; this may
call for changing your intended vantage point before taking the picture.
Look for a framing object that has some aesthetic value on its own. Pleasing
shapes such as archways, interesting brick work, colorful doorways, overhanging
branches with brilliant fall colors, or spring blossoms are all effective.
The frame should complement the subject. A centuries old mosque for example,
is unlikely to benefit from a frame provided by a new concrete structure
covered with graffiti, unless you're trying to make a specific point (architectural
contrast) in the image.
Try to avoid framing devices
that are excessively large, stunning, or colorful. After all, you don't
want to draw the viewer's eye from the center of interest. If it is much
darker than the subject, or in deep shade, it may be rendered as a silhouette;
simply take the meter reading from the brighter background. If it is fairly
close, fill flash can provide a brighter effect; try shooting the situation
with and without flash.
A framing subject near the
bottom of a picture can be equally useful, filling in empty expanses of
grass or clutter. A colorful flower garden, the rocks of an ancient farm
fence, a small hill, shrubs, farm implements, etc. are but a few possibilities.
Again, make sure they are complementary to the subject. Use care with
depth of field to avoid a partially-blurred foreground, which can be extremely
If you include an overhead
framing object, plan to render it sharply or completely blurred (defocused).
With architecture, it's best to keep the frame sharp. Use a small aperture
such as f/22 and a wide angle lens; focus at a point about 1/3 of the
way into the image area, to keep both the foreground and more distant
background within the depth of field.
With natural objects such as
foliage, you may wish to completely blur away the frame into a soft wash
of color; use a wide aperture, such as f/4 and a telephoto lens. Focus
at or near infinity. Decisive tactics of this type make for stronger pictures
than the wishy-washy f/8 often selected by a camera's Program mode.
Effective visual design may seem nebulous because there
are no clear-cut guidelines. However, certain factors are
worth considering: unity of design, complementary or contrasting
color, repetitive shapes, and a consistent theme reinforced
by each element. (Caribbana Parade, Toronto; Nikon AF 80-200mm
f/2.8; SB24 flash; Fujichrome Sensia II 100.)
Effective Visual Design
Compose boldly. Consider
other elements of art when looking for a picture in any vast scene. Look
for the rhythm of repetitive elements, a dynamic diagonal, contrasting
color, texture, or shape, and a unity of design.
If you take a college course in fine arts, you'll find entire semesters
devoted to the many principles of effective composition. At the risk of
oversimplifying the issue, here is a brief summary of a few concepts that
I often find useful in travel photography.
Create a sense of depth.
For a three-dimensional "feel" in a two-dimensional picture, use a wide
angle lens and include subjects in the foreground, mid-ground, and background.
A leading line plus some overlap of the elements can help here, whether
the subject consists of a street scene or a pristine beach with colorful
Find leading lines. Particularly
with landscapes and panoramic city scenes, it's worth trying to find some
subject element that will lead the viewer's eye into the image: from left
to right or the bottom to the top. Such objects include a road receding
toward a distant town, ice floes in water leading to a glacier, the graceful
"S" curve of a river flowing from a mountain, or a series of fishing boats
at various distances from a village. Consider some of the suggestions
in the section on framing, as these apply to leading lines as well: complementary
subject matter, depth of field, color, aesthetics, etc.
Try diagonal compositions.
Diagonals can be effective, especially when the line runs from one corner
of the image to the other. Such framing may produce an image composed
of two triangular sections; in that case, include important subject matter
in both triangles to maintain balance. At a local market in some exotic
location, for example, place the lines of a stall on a diagonal, including
colorful vegetables in one image area and the vendor in the other. With
moving subjects, a diagonal composition has another advantage: it can
help to convey an impression of movement or steepness. For example, for
a photo of a Jeep climbing a moderate Utah hill, tilt the camera to make
the incline appear much steeper to make a more effective image.
Experienced photographers will
often break the "rules" of composition--to make a point or create a mood.
Before doing so, it is worth knowing and practicing proven concepts and
guidelines. After they become second nature, begin to experiment. For
example, you might try placing a circular subject in the center for formal
symmetry, include urban clutter around an ancient monument, or place a
medieval character so he is looking out of the frame for a sense of tension.
But do so knowingly and intentionally. Finally, edit carefully and show
only your most successful travel images to others. That way, your reputation
as an accomplished photographer will grow.