Balancing Act
Rod Planck Works Both Sides Of The Creative Fence

"I made this photograph in the late 1970s," Rod says, "and it illustrates the problem many entry-level photographers have with composition. It's too busy, and there's no dynamic main element. I hadn't learned the importance of simplification." Photos © 2003, Rod Planck, All Rights Reserved

Less is more. But too much less is boring. What you're looking for, Rod Planck says, is the kind of balance you find when you "work both sides of the creative fence."

Rod is not only an outstanding nature and outdoor photographer, he's also a gifted teacher who conducts workshops and seminars for photographers at all levels of expertise. "Beginning photographers tend to take very busy and really complicated photographs," Rod says. "At entry level, they start out with chaos. I've seen images in which there literally was no subject." Rod concedes that something must have inspired the person to take the picture, but whatever it was got lost in translation from idea to image. "When you look at the photograph, what you see is a random arrangement of things," he says.

Most beginning photographers quickly get the message, and the message is: simplify. "Perhaps through courses or workshops, or just studying other photographs, they figure out what works," Rod says. "They learn to find a single dynamic element that inspires them, and using camera placement, focal length, and aperture, they figure out ways to isolate that subject." That's the first step in clearing out the chaos: learning how to isolate a subject.

"Also from the late '70s, but after I'd learned to isolate a single element. It's not that bad an image--in fact, it was published in a Sierra Club calendar--but by my current standards, it's a little too simplified. It's also weighted a little too much toward the center. I should have placed more emphasis on the curve of the stem, allowing it to lead your eye to the bottom portion of the photograph."

What often happens next is that those photographers go to the other extreme. If less is more, they reason that a lot less will be a whole lot more. "So," Rod says, "people above entry level who've been doing this a while and have figured out technique and what works in terms of composition tend to oversimplify."

Rod's insight comes not only from years of observation, but also from his own experiences. "I went through these transitions myself," he says. "I've found old photographs from my teen-age years, and I actually use those images in my programs to show that there are no compositional prodigies. Then I present images that show how I started figuring things out, and what happened when I realized how important simplicity was. And then I get to the next tendency: people who can take a properly exposed, sharp image, and know how to isolate one element, now oversimplify to the point that the work has ceased to be creative." And no matter how technically excellent their photographs are, most of them are...well, boring.

"They've figured out the one aspect of composition that works, so they keep doing it. What they've learned and mastered has become the only game in town for them. So you see a single flower, a single deer, but not a lot of interaction with other elements."

Rod suggests that what makes photography a truly creative outlet is the photographer's willingness to change, to expand on the things he's already learned and mastered.

"This one's more recent, and it illustrates simplicity with a touch of complexity. I'd found a nice blossom growing amidst the vegetation of another plant. The overlapping leaves, some in sharp focus and some not, lend a feeling of depth. The textured background also helps render a three-dimensional appearance."

So what is the change these photographers should make? What's the antidote to oversimplification? "I try to teach people to keep an open mind," Rod says, "and try to work both sides of the creative fence; to use simplification sparingly and to work for a photograph that shows complexity, but not one that's complicated--and there is a difference."

Don't quickly accept what's offered, Rod suggests. Rather, look for situations and scenes in which there is a dynamic subject and other interesting elements surrounding that subject that can be worked into the composition. "You do it through camera placement and focal length selection," Rod says. "Adding a bit of complexity to a photograph can simply mean finding a more textured background and not settling for the single-toned background that's become so popular in nature photography. We learn to eliminate cluttered backgrounds, but that doesn't mean eliminate interesting backgrounds. I look for backgrounds where maybe I stop the lens down a little bit more to pick up a little bit more detail." Or he'll look for a color in the background that's a repetition of the color of his main subject, and by using a fairly shallow depth of field blur that bit of background color. "I look for anything, any other element that will balance the subject, not distract from it or compete with it."

"A complex, simply-composed image of a dynamic subject in its environment. The picture says, `These are beautiful yellow lady's-slippers, and this is where they grow.'"

The Elements Of Style
When he talks about composing an image, Rod speaks in terms of using elements rather than, say, a tree, a rock, or a blade of grass. "Compositionally, they are all elements. Once you get to the stage of looking for other elements to balance a composition, you're working both sides of the creative fence. Now, sometimes you're going to find subjects that are just pristine, and there's nothing you can do except isolate them. But when you get to your next subject, look for another element besides the one that's inspiring you, and work that element into the composition--for example, by loosening up the framing a little bit. You'll get more interesting photographs that way."

These are some of the ideas that Rod discusses in the two types of workshops he offers. There's a one-day classroom seminar with no field work involved, and there's a seven-day field workshop. The former features Rod projecting his images and sharing information and ideas with up to 300 people; the latter is limited to a
dozen participants, and it offers classroom work and lots of time spent outdoors photographing. "I tend to do all the lecturing midday when the light isn't normally good for photography,"

Pack ice on Lake Superior. A teaching slide that shows the entire scene as Rod saw it.

Rod says of the field workshops. "We cover everything from useful equipment to exposure to the creative side of photography."

His workshops attract both film and digital shooters, but he's noticed a shift to digital. "We didn't have a serious digital camera--an SLR--in our workshop until about a year-and-a-half ago; now we average three to four every workshop." Rod shoots some digital, but is still primarily a film photographer. "But I imagine that in two years I'll be using film only 10 percent of the time."

By isolating and simplifying, Rod defined what was of interest to him.

AdRod believes that the type of camera he, or anyone else, uses makes very little difference. "The techniques aren't that different between film and digital cameras. A macro lens works the same; composition is the same. The way I'm approaching digital is that it doesn't matter that it's a different imaging method or format. I'm still going to go out and make the very best pictures I can. Most people I know in nature photography who are using digital exclusively, their technique hasn't suffered a bit. They're just as good technicians as they were when they used film because they realize that the better the in camera image you make, the easier it is to deal with the computer side of it. It's a fallacy to think that the computer can be used to fix everything. So for all my workshop students, whether film or digital users, what I really stress is technique."

Working both sides of the creative fence, these images at dawn in Seney National Wildlife Refuge, Michigan, and a trumpeter swan at dawn are complex images with strong central subjects. Neither is oversimplified nor complicated.

And the technique he's talking about is specifically the technique of the nature photographer. "I'm not a photojournalist," Rod says. "I'm a nature photographer, and as a nature photographer a lot of the work I do is slow and methodical." In fact, he says that he uses his 35mm and digital SLR about the same way a landscape photographer would use a large format camera--with care, patience, and deliberation. "I teach people the importance of a sturdy tripod, of really slowing down and working the subject matter."

Rod perceives uniqueness in the way a nature photographer works. He believes that photography, as a term, is too all-encompassing. "Too often people define photography as just one thing, and it's not. There are very different kinds of photography. If I were a sports or a newspaper or a wedding photographer, I'd have a different way of approaching the subject matter and how I use a camera. As a nature photographer, my way of working is different from other photographers. The similarities are only that we use cameras and lenses and we point those lenses at a subject and push the button."

He says that the standards of judging photography are different for the nature photographer. "A newspaper photographer captures moments in time for the front pages. People don't look at his images in terms of lighting or composition. They look at the impact, the immediacy of the picture. But people don't look at nature photographs for that kind of impact." Rather, the nature photographer delivers a subtler, deeper resonance.

Best To Show
Field workshop participants are encouraged to bring 20-30 of their images to the workshop. "We don't necessarily get to review all of those pictures," Rod says, "but one day during the week I'll do an image critique of some of the pictures people brought. I'll also evaluate images they make during the workshop."

What Rod is looking for in the images are tendencies. "I learn a lot from peoples' work. When you tell somebody to bring a selection of images, they'll often say, `Well, I know this photograph isn't any good, but I just wanted to hear what you had to say about it.' I've never believed that. People will say that because they're a little insecure, but I believe they always bring what they think is their best stuff. And from those pictures, I can get a very good idea of what their tendencies are."

One common tendency is not dealing well with the precious real estate of the frame. "Whatever the image size is," Rod says, "you want to take advantage of every bit of it. I teach people to compose the finished image in the field, not to rely on cropping. But looking at their images, I'll see that some people have a tendency to not finish the picture. They'll compose it until it's almost the way it should be, and then they'll get a little sloppy at the end. They won't take the one step further that they should take." Often the finishing touch is just the cropping of the image "by moving the camera a bit to the left or the right or lowering or raising the perspective. Just basic things like that."

In the field, Rod will watch--and shoot. "It's not a priority for me to photograph," he says, "but in many situations it's good for me to get out the gear. When the territory is unfamiliar, people may think, if this place is so good, why isn't he photographing? So I'll set up and let them look through my viewfinder to see what I've done as far as subject selection and composition. And I'll help them find subjects and may suggest a lens."

Ultimately, Rod wants the people in his workshops to not only recognize their own tendencies, but also evaluate the images of others. "I've been looking at pictures for as long as I've been making them," he says, "and I know that in order to be a good photographer, you're going to have to know what good photography looks like."

From both sides of the fence.

Note: To view more of Rod's photography, and for complete information about his workshops, with locations and schedules, visit his website at: