Choosing a Background First
Photographic composition is generally built around the subject of an image, with additional decisions regarding background and other factors being made in support of that subject. But sometimes a better option is to choose the background first, and then find a subject.
The easiest way to explain what I mean is to illustrate my point with a couple images.
I shot this first image on the Oregon coast. I was up early on Canon Beach hoping for some good light for sunrise. With Haystack Rock and other great rock formations, it seemed like a great opportunity, especially given that low tide was going to line up fairly closely with sunrise. Arriving in the dark, I wandered along the beach looking for possibilities as it gradually got lighter. There were only a few high clouds, but for quite a while, it looked as if not much was going to happen in terms of the main event. The sky was slowly turning from black to gray to blue, but there was no golden hour light to be had.
Given the low tide, I continued wandering closer to the water line hoping to salvage something of the occasion if I could find a nice tide pool. About ready to call it a morning after walking quite a ways down the breach, the few clouds there were suddenly lit up pink just before the sun peaked over the coastal hills. Standing at the water line, I struggled to come up with a composition. The background was a suddenly gorgeous sky, but there was nothing else in front of me to make the subject. I had earlier noticed the reflections on the wet sand as I walked, and realized the clouds in front of me would reflect as well, turning the huge arc of pink clouds into an "X." But what to put on that X?
I ran as fast as I could back up the beach see if I could center Haystack Rock on that X, arriving barely in time to fire off a few shots before the color started to fade. In the end, it was a great morning sunrise after all. But to return to the topic at hand, the decision to use the reflected sky as a background came first, followed by my frantic search for a foreground.
This second image was taken on a ferry trip across Puget Sound, headed for the Olympic Peninsula. I've written about this image before but how it was shot makes a great point relative to this week's article.
Given the nature of the regional geography the Washington State Ferries operates a fairly large fleet of boats. Those on most routes carry both walk-on passengers and vehicle traffic. The Seattle to Bainbridge Island route I was on this day carries around 200 cars. Once underway, the ferry crossing doesn't last but half an hour or so, but while onboard there really isn't much to do. Weather permitting, it's quite common for passengers to be up on deck admiring the scenery. A fair number of those passengers will have cameras with them.
For company, all those passengers are generally accompanied by flocks of seagulls that have learned over the years that at least some of those human folk will feed them. And whenever there are flocks of birds flying around people with cameras and time on their hands, a lot of those cameras will eventually get pointed towards those birds. I've done it myself countless times.
The problem is though that the exact flight path of any particular bird is somewhat unpredictable. Trying to closely follow one with a longer lens can be a frustrating exercise. Try as you might, you'll always be following the bird rather than leading, resulting in haphazard framing with more space behind the gull than in front of it. It's not difficult to get a close-up image of a seagull this way, but it is difficult to get a good image.
Rethinking the problem one morning ferry trip, I decided to approach things differently. Rather than constantly going where the seagull went, I instead pointed my lens toward a preset location and waited for a gull to fly through the scene. They were randomly flying all over the place so I was hopeful one would sooner or later fly where I wanted it to. I composed the image with two downtown Seattle buildings, one on either side of an open patch of sky in the middle. I pointed the lens back towards Seattle both because of the possibilities presented by the downtown skyline and because of the fact that the circling birds were generally facing the same direction the boat was travelling, meaning they would be facing towards me if I was looking back at them and Seattle. I pre-focused the lens based on how far away the gulls were flying, and waited with my finger on the shutter release cable. About five to ten minutes later, I got what I was after, resulting in the image here.
So the moral here is that the subject isn't always the first part of composing an image. Sometimes a given background is just too good to pass up and you end up madly searching for a subject to put in front of it. Sometimes starting with a great background is the best way to capture a great but elusive subject. Sometimes, a little thought is all it takes to come up with a better way to approach photographing what nature provides.