The Power of the Intimate Composition

Agon Wastes
“Agon Wastes”, Death Valley National Park, 2017

In today’s race for “epic” landscape imagery, the grand scenic dominates. Sweeping, wide-angle, near-far compositions built on aggressive leading lines and capped by colorful skies are almost certain to attract attention and take social media by storm. The “world’s widest rectilinear lens” is a technological feat bested time and time again, as photographers increasingly strive to “get it all in” the frame.

Antithetical to these grand scenes are the intimates that have seen a recent resurgence. Exclusion is a principle central to these intimate compositions. I’d like to make the case for why these photographs work, and why you might consider shooting this way. The answer is not “because it’s the latest craze”. In this article I’ll explain how intimate compositions are the tinder with which the fire of imagination can be sparked.

Ariandel
“Ariandel”, Colorado, 2018

What is your image really about?

Composing a photograph, at its core, involves determining the subject and its placement in the frame. By deciding what to include in the composition, the photographer also indirectly decides what to exclude. The process can be taken further by excluding consciously and with purpose, subtracting unnecessary or distracting elements from the frame. This may improve the composition by helping direct the viewer’s focus to the subject. Of course, this is a well-tread idea that you’re likely to encounter right away in any photography course, and it’s applicable to both grand and intimate scenes. But this is not merely a technique for removing distractions. Applying this tenet of exclusion on a larger scale can make for more interesting, thought-provoking photographs.

Knowing exactly what to include and exclude requires conscious determination of what the subject of your image really is. For example: take a typical near-far, wide angle composition of a mountain scene. Perhaps there’s a field of wildflowers in the foreground, a lake in the midground, and a towering peak in the background–all capped off by a colorful sunset sky full of puffy clouds. I won’t argue that the scene isn’t beautiful. But what is the subject of such a photograph? What is the image about?

In this example, one might argue that it’s simply about the beauty of that mountain scene as a whole. But then what decisions has the photographer made to put themselves into the image? What makes this photograph different than a cell phone snapshot of the same scene, taken by a hiker in passing? Is it the particular placement of the different elements within the composition? The fact that the horizon is leveled? The superior color, tonality, and resolution that are a result of expensive camera equipment? The careful focus stacking of the flowers in the foreground? The post-processing techniques that will be used in Photoshop?

While all of these factors will certainly improve the resulting image, they will not substantially change its content. When including the entire scene in the composition, the image becomes simultaneously about everything, and about nothing. By simply showing up and capturing the whole scene, the photographer has not put themselves into the image, and instead has merely acted as a passive conduit for nature. Perhaps this is their intention, and that may be laudable in its own right. But the resulting image is not likely to engage a viewer’s imagination.

Impressions
“Impressions”, Colorado, 2018

Focusing Your Composition

So how does one make an image about something? It doesn’t need to tell a story (though that’s often an attribute of great photographs)–it just needs a solid subject. Taking this same mountain scene as an example, ask yourself what specifically moved you to make a photograph in the first place. Was it the way light played off the craggy layers of the mountain in the distance? The way the reflections were distorted on the surface of the lake in the midground? The density and color of the wildflowers in the foreground? The way ridges of trees disappeared into the clouds? A pattern on the rocks?

Rather than expecting the viewer of your image to notice these details among many others within the entire scene, try focusing the composition on whatever it was that caught your eye or moved you. Don’t let the finite attention of a viewer be spent on extraneous elements within the frame. Show them what you found interesting or important about the scene. It is likely different than what another person standing next to you would have noticed. The way an image becomes truly unique–a reflection of the artist creating it–is via this process of conscious subject selection and composition by exclusion.

Rainbow Rider
“Rainbow Rider”, Utah, 2017

Context

All of the photographs shown in this article could easily have been included as parts of larger, wider compositions–be it as foreground elements, or as mere details in the midground or background. But since these were, to my mind, the most interesting parts of the larger scenes, what purpose would it have served to include the more ordinary elements that surrounded them?

The answer to this question might be “in order to provide context.” Context is important if your goal is to convey a sense of what these places are really like. Doing so may spur this common sentiment in a viewer: “I want to be there”.

However, that is not my goal. I want to spark the imagination. I want my images to seem mysterious. I want the viewer to be entranced by what I’m showing them, and to feel a sense of wonder when contemplating what might lie beyond the boundaries of the frame. I do not want them to imagine me standing in a specific spot, at a specific height off the ground, using a specific type of lens, at a specific time of day. For me, all this information “breaks the fourth wall” and makes the subject seem ordinary, much in the same way a scene in a film loses its magic when getting a behind-the-scenes look at the set. I want to make myself, my equipment, and even the wider context of the scene invisible. This allows me to direct attention to the actual subject of the photograph, and to emphasize what I find extraordinary about it.

Another form of context is scale. Conveying scale is often difficult in grand, wide-angle compositions, as foreground elements tend to appear much larger due to the close perspective of the photographer, and distant elements shrink to an insignificant size due to the large field of view. In our example, the flowers become giant, and the majestic, towering mountain peaks become tiny. With tighter compositions, scale can often be more effectively conveyed by allowing the juxtaposition of very differently-sized elements from a perspective farther away. Hints at scale can also be purposely excluded in order to force the viewer to think about what they’re seeing.

Pure Magic
“Pure Magic”, Death Valley National Park, 2019

The Sky

If there’s one element of nature that most often betrays the context of a given scene, it’s the sky. It may be sacrilege to say so, but I find skies are often unremarkable as a compositional element. I’m not traveling to a remote location in nature to photograph something that can be found over any metropolis. If I wanted to photograph the sky, why wouldn’t I do it from my backyard? I want my images to be about the landscape.

Don’t get me wrong, there are exceptions. It’s rare that a mountain peak can be effectively photographed without including the sky. A dark, cloudy sky is the perfect backdrop for golden storm light. And of course, I appreciate what the sky does to create moods in nature. It reflects light and color onto the landscape, clouds cast shadows and allow sunlight through to create spotlighting, thin clouds diffuse sunlight, and the atmosphere filters and redshifts low-angle light.

However, none of this means that I want to include the sky by default in my compositions. “The sky was colorful one evening” is not all I want to say with a photograph. And since the sky can be seen anywhere on Earth, it is a familiar anchor for any viewer of a photograph which includes it. I often seek to exclude such anchors from my compositions, in order to force the viewer to think more about what they’re seeing.

Hibernation Ii
“Hibernation”, Mount Rainier National Park, 2016

Imagination, Mystery, and the Infinite

Let’s say you’ve done away with the typical wide-angle composition of our example mountain scene, and focused on some element that you found interesting. You’ve let go of the idea that every composition requires a foreground with leading lines, and you’ve also excluded the sky. Maybe you’ve now got a telephoto composition of interesting light on the craggy layers of the mountain peak, or maybe you’ve filled the frame with the dense field of wildflowers. This composition could likely be classified as intimate. But does that mean it’s limited to being small? No!

Thanks to imagination, this intimate scene may actually seem larger than if it were included as part of a grand view. The imagination is sparked when the mind has incomplete information. When the surrounding context is removed from your composition, the mind creates its own. You may view a photograph of mountain layers and imagine that they continue beyond the boundary of the frame. You may view a photograph of a field of wildflowers and imagine that they go on forever. This is only possible if you can’t see the end of the subject, and this is where intimate compositions gain their power. The second you show the viewer where the subject ends, you remove any question of how vast or extensive it is. By going smaller with your composition and not showing the terminus of the subject, you may make it appear larger–even infinite. This is why I exclude the sky from most of my photographs: it is a clear endpoint, and often a mundane one at that.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, by making the subject of your composition more obvious via exclusion, you may cause the viewer to ask more questions. When context is removed, they are left to wonder: how did this arrangement of elements come to be? How much more lies beyond the edges of the frame? What caused this light to occur? What is the scale of this scene? These uncertainties lend the subject an air of mystery. These questions would likely already be answered if the same subject was simply included as part of a grand composition, and the mystery would be gone.

Mysteriousness is one of the most common factors in my own favorite photographs. Even knowing exactly how and where each one was made, I sometimes like them for what context they allow me to imagine. In my opinion, the intimate composition is not limited to small and quiet scenes. My favorite type of image is what I refer to as the “epic intimate”. It may lack overall context, feature no sky, and be taken with a telephoto lens–but it also may feature incredible light and imply the infinite.

Urbosa
“Urbosa”, Death Valley National Park, 2018

Lasting Intrigue

Aggressively composed, sweeping grand scenes undoubtedly have initial impact. Such an image may convey the landscape’s majesty, and instill a desire to “be there”. But since the viewer is shown everything up-front and little is left to the imagination, what is the motivation to come back and view the image again? They already know everything about the image after one viewing.

If clues as to the positioning and photographic techniques of the artist are hidden, and if the subject’s greater context and scale are obscured, the imagination is forced to work. And when this happens, the viewer becomes an active participant in your art, rather than a simple observer. This gives the image staying power, keeping it interesting and beckoning viewers to explore it time and again.

Sanctuary
“Sanctuary”, Olympic National Park, 2016

A Slice of Nature All Your Own

So far I’ve made arguments for how the intimate composition benefits the viewer. But what about you, as the maker of such an image? Because wide angle scenes by their nature betray exactly how they were made, they’re easier to replicate. On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that your intimate composition will be found and copied by anyone else. It’s a result of what you were personally drawn to, rather than a mere recording of the whole scene as it would appear to anyone at a glance. Composing intimately is also more likely to produce a completely unique image in the first place. Even if the idea or motif has been seen before, that particular subject or occurrence of light can be your very own, and will likely never be seen by another. There’s something satisfying in that.

Conclusion

All of this is by no means a sweeping indictment of wide angle compositions, nor of conveying context, nor of the sky itself. This is not the “correct” way, nor the only way, to photograph. It is merely how I most often go about making those images that I love–and that is the one metric that I judge my photos on above all others. This approach may not work for you, but if you haven’t yet given it a shot, I urge you to try. In doing so, you may just spark your own imagination.

About the Author
Hi there! I’m a full-time nature photographer currently based in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Though I enjoy living in the Northwest, my artistic passion lies in the deserts of the American Southwest, particularly the Colorado Plateau. My continuing fascination with this region stems from its geologic diversity, its raw display of the processes of time, and the seemingly endless mystery around every corner. One could spend a lifetime exploring and only uncover a fraction of its secrets! I have an appreciation for dramatic imagery as well as smaller, quieter scenes. I often seek to blend those attributes in my art, hopefully sparking the viewer’s imagination. However, my primary goal is simply to create images that I love.
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