Is Simplicity The Goal In Landscape Photography?
How often do you hear that the best photographs are the simplest ones? Sometimes it is expressed as filling the frame with the subject.
Can this lead to a blind spot in your photography?
This photo of Old Faithful by Ansel Adams fills the frame and does illustrate that simple can be very impactful.
But, I propose that a great photograph does not have to be simple.
I believe elegance is the goal of landscape photography. A complex, but elegant, photo can be just as impactful as a simple one.
Using Ansel Adams Photographs
Distinguishing a great photograph from a good one is very subjective. To avoid imposing my subjectiveness, I picked out for discussion a photo from a widely acknowledged great photographer, Ansel Adams. One of his most popular photos is, “The Tetons and the Snake River.” Popularity does not make it great, but it is better than my declaration that it is great.
(Note: The Ansel Adams photos in this article are in the public domain because he was an employee of the US Department of the Interior at the time. They can be found in the US National Archives.)
Reviewing a Complex Photograph
There is lot going on in, “The Tetons and the Snake River.” The visual elements are the Snake River, the Teton mountains, trees, brush, clouds and sunlight.
There are a broad range of tonal values which is a hallmark of an Adams photo. The sunlit clouds and river are very bright. The shorter mountains and the trees on the left are very dark. The tallest mountains and the brush are in between.
All this combines to be a very complex photograph.
One way to make it less complex is to fill the frame with the Tetons. Adams did this in, “Grand Teton.” Much of the foreground is cropped out. Note the title of this image is simply, “Grand Teton,” while the first one is, “The Tetons and the Snake River.”
The second photo does not have the tonal values of the first. But, even if you image the second one with similar tonal values, I think most people would prefer the first one.
Getting a Great Image from a Complex Scene
The story of both photos is pretty much the same. The overall scene is a river and mountain under dramatically cloudy skies, possibly before or after a rainstorm. The compositional elements are the leading line of a river pointing to a mountain. The highlights in the clouds also emphasize the mountains.
But, the more complex photo does a better job at story telling.
The obvious element is the tonal values of the first image help lead the viewer through the photograph. There are strong highlights in the Snake River creating a leading line to the Tetons. The highlights in the clouds also tells the viewer to look up at the Tetons. The Grand Teton is a little bit dark, but the shape is enough to make it a key element.
As mentioned earlier, the tonal values of the second image could be adjusted to match the first. But, would it still have the same impact as the first? What more does the first image have?
What makes, “The Tetons and the Snake River,” more impactful is that complexity is needed to tell the story of the image. The story is not of a random river and mountains. It is specifically the Snake River and the Tetons.
The second image has cropped out most of the Snake River. Including more of the Snake River shows its snake-like form. It also shows that it is a big part of the Tetons area. The river in the second photo could be almost any river.
Another composition could have been to fill the frame with the river. But, it would lose the context of the Tetons and become yet another random winding river.
Including both the Snake River and Tetons prominently makes this image stronger.
This image does bordering on being cluttered which could distract from the story. The second image has less of the foreground brush and trees as a distraction. The shorter mountains in both could also be distracting. The first image removes the clutter by darkening the brush, trees and shorter mountains.
(Note: I do not know if the National Archives published the edited images or just the raw prints from the film. I do not know much about film photography, but it is amazing if this was done in camera.)
Creating Elegant Images
Both simple and complex photos can be great photos. But, if we have to choose a single goal, what separates great photos from not-to-great photos? The unifying goal of both simple and complex photos is elegance. A elegant photo uses grace and style to tell the story.
“The Tetons and the Snake River,” is an elegant image. It is a busy photograph with a lot going on, but it avoids being cluttered. It is somewhere between simple and cluttered where the physical elements tell the story and the tonal qualities enhance it to make it graceful and stylish.
It is easy to say that the story always comes first. Out in the field, it is not that simple (pun intended). Ansel Adams took multiple images of the same spot, so it seems he did plenty of experimentation. But, he did not get stuck on always zooming in and avoiding complex scenes.
The lesson is that striving for simplicity in the field may create a blind spot. But, taking a photo of any cluttered scene is not very helpful either. The goal should be to create an elegant shot that is graceful and stylish.
In, “The Tetons and the Snake River,” Adams was able to tell a compelling story with a complex scene, but with grace and style.