Let Go Of The Literal

One of the best pieces of advice I can give a beginning photographer to help he or she create better compositions – an aspect of photography with which they all say they struggle – is to let go of the literal and embrace the abstract. That doesn’t mean you should start making abstract images, although that’s not necessarily a bad idea either, but instead see the scene abstractly.

So instead of seeing mountains, trees, rocks, and a river, for example, you would look for shapes and lines and how they relate to each other and the surrounding image frame.

For the image above, the corresponding abstract diagram could look like the one that follows:

Notice it contains no reeds, reflection of trees, nor lily pads, but only a poorly-drawn half oval shape and some radiating lines. The literal is gone and all that’s left is the abstract. I could ask myself, “Is this an interesting design that holds my attention?” If no, I would move on. If yes, I have something to work with.

When working with students in the field, I might ask them to squint their eyes a little so the the literal is blurred out and all they can faintly see is the skeletal structure of the scene. This is good practice if you’ve never tried it. The literal just fleshes the image out.

When photographing in a beautiful place, it is too easy to be seduced by the scene’s literal beauty and overlook what really makes a strong composition. The way I see it, there is always time to sit back and appreciate the beauty of nature. In fact, I force myself to step away from the camera from time to time to just sit back and soak it all in. That’s important for many different reasons. But when it’s time to get to work, I’m looking much deeper into the scene for the abstract qualities that are going to take it beyond just a pretty picture and into the realm of true artistic interpretation. That means letting go of the literal.

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  1. Posted March 4, 2013 at 1:20 am by Boyan | Permalink

    Another blog that I follow recommended this a few years ago

  2. Posted March 4, 2013 at 6:09 am by Jeff Sinon | Permalink

    This is a great tip. Another one I use, while in Live-view slightly de-focus the lens so the shape and line in the scene is more noticeable. When I’m having trouble composing, I often fall back on this little trick. I wish I could remember where I first read about it, because it certainly isn’t my idea.

  3. Posted March 10, 2013 at 10:25 am by Nancy de Flon | Permalink

    Quite right, thank you, Richard! This can be applied to other modes than nature photography as well, but I think it’s most helpful with nature work because we can be confronted with so much at once–how to make sense of it? This is a great post.

  4. Posted March 12, 2013 at 4:17 pm by Jim Denham | Permalink

    Awesome tip and something to think about while out and about with the camera on my next excursion! Well illustrated too!

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