Creative Field Techniques - Composing Chaotic Nature Scenes

Clyde Butcher once said about photographing the Everglades, “Chaos is what I look for, because in chaos you find biological order.” This is an interesting way to think about a Florida swamp or any forest scene filled with trees. When photographing such a place, it comes down to this - if there is too much in the scene, it confuses the viewer with visual overload; but if we leave out too much, we lose visual interest. To find that balance, here is my approach to creating order among the chaos, as seen in a Florida cypress dome.

Before I start shooting, I spend several minutes examining the surroundings from all directions. Sunlight and its direction will determine where my attention goes. With cloud cover, the light is dispersed more evenly, so I can walk in any direction to find a good composition. Early morning or evening light can be nice as it comes through the trees in front of the camera. The most difficult time is when the sun is high and uncovered and presents a harsh light on the scene. Dark shadows will compete with very bright light coming through the tree canopy, making the scene more confusing and chaotic.

As I explore, I look for two things, an interesting subject that stands out and an opening through the trees. An interesting subject could be flowers, bromeliads or alligator flag (large leaves that grow out of the water). An opening will add depth to the scene, providing the viewer a visual route through the chaos that leads them to a background. In the image above, my interesting subject (yellow flowers) lead through an opening in the trees.

Once I’ve narrowed it down and find a scene that looks promising, I look through the camera’s viewfinder and do the following:

  • View the scene with the camera oriented horizontally or vertically.
  • Zoom in and out (I use either a 11-16mm or 16-55mm lens).
  • Move around. Step left, step right, crouch down, stand tall.
  • Point the lens down, point the lens up, or keep it level

Looking through the viewfinder helps me to see the composition as it will be framed by the camera. While viewing the scene from various points of view, I pay close attention to seven important compositional elements:

Visual weight and balance. In the image below, the bromeliad plant on the right has a strong presence so I tried to balance it with the cypress knees standing in the water, off to the left side. The open water area in the middle helps balance the very busy background.

Rule of thirds. Notice how the bromeliads are placed in the right third of the frame.

Separation. By this I mean avoiding too much overlap between prominent objects, which can appear confusing or less interesting. In the image below notice the space between the bright alligator flag in the foreground and the trees behind them. I raised the tripod high enough to bring that space into view and avoid overlapping the trees with the leaves. In the bromeliad image above, I did the same thing to separate the cypress knees from the background trees.

Foreground interest. As you can see in the image below, the little white flowers serve as a prominent foreground interest and balance out the darker background. Also note in the image above, the alligator flag serves as foreground interest and creates a leading line into the background.

Framing. In the image below, the bright background area is framed by the left and right trees as well as the foreground. Note how the brighter area at the bottom of the frame helps to balance out the scene and add visual interest. Also note how the cypress knee has a dark area around it, keeping it separated from the other elements in the scene.

Depth. Notice in the image below there is an opening between the trees that lead all the way to the background. This creates depth and leads the eyes into the scene. Here, you can really see the wide-angle effect of the lens that exaggerates distance between the trees, providing enough separation to give the scene a nice balance. And also note the bromeliads following the rule of thirds.

Distractions. In each of the images above, the camera is oriented is such a way as to frame only those elements I want to include in the scene. To do this, I pay attention to the edges of the frame where distractions can show up. If there is something in the frame I don’t like, I can remove it by moving the camera’s angle slightly, zooming in, positioning the camera vertically or changing my position. Sometimes, I will pick up a dead branch or something easy to remove before taking the shot. Another option is to crop out parts of the scene during editing.

Photographing a dense swamp or forest scene can lead to strong and compelling images. Quality of light is key, but how the photographer chooses to frame the scene is equally important. It’s about creating a composition that invites the viewer to enter the scene, examine its intricacies, stand back and take it all in at once and then go back to the details. You want people to look at your image for more than a fraction of a second! At the very least, you’ll have fun wandering around the swamp looking for beautiful scenes to capture.

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