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Iterative Composition

Exposure can be tricky when you are watching the sun rise, whether it be beside a beautiful mountain stream, on the ocean shore beside some sea stacks or in the desert staring up at an imposing rock formation. Really, it doesn't matter where you are. You probably wouldn't be there taking pictures if you didn't want those pictures to come out well.

But it's not just exposure that can be tricky when you're trying to get the best images you can. Sure, you can compose your photos the same way you've seen everyone else do. Most places have been photographed countless times before by others. Before you ever went there you probably saw published photos taken by others of the same general location. Even if you didn't they're likely still out there in books and online. In order to get original photos you have to push yourself and your abilities. And that means composition can get tricky too.

It used to be, in the film era, you couldn't see the pictures you had taken until you got your slides developed. Whether you took your film to a one-hour photo place or mailed it in to Kodak or another mail-order processor, you didn't get to see your pictures while you were still on location where you took them. Thankfully, digital has changed all that. And since you can now see your photos as soon as you take them, you can learn from your mistakes in time to try again. This lets you not only adjust your exposure as needed, it lets you fine tune your composition using a technique I like to call "iterative composition."

With film, I remember shooting a whole role of slides at Artist Point near Mt. Baker in the North Cascades. It was early in the morning; while there was some color in the sky, the sun hadn't yet crossed the horizon. Exposure times where in the range of 30 seconds to a full minute. With such long exposures, my eyes could only see a fraction of what the film was recording. After I got the developed slides back, I discovered that nearly every shot had a metal signpost in it that I didn't realize was there at the time. A great many shots I thought were going to come out beautifully had been ruined. If only I could have seen it while I was still there. This is just one simple example of how digital changes everything.

Take a photo and look at it on the digital camera's LCD back. What was in front of you in three-dimensional reality is now compressed to two dimensions on the LCD screen. It's also compressed in brightness range since even current digital cameras can't represent the same range from deep shadows to bright sunlight that the human eye can perceive. If the exposure was more than a quick shutter click, the image on the LCD screen also not only shows you details your eyes could not perceive, it also shows you the effects of motion blur that happened during that exposure interval. What you do with what you see when reviewing your images is up to you.

When you see a new shot on your camera's LCD, evaluate it. Does it look balanced? What do you like about it and what might have room for improvement? How can you take what's good and push yourself to make it even better? Think about it a bit and then act on what you come up with. Don't take too long of course since the light often change quickly when the best pictures are to be had. Now take another shot and repeat the process. It doesn't matter how many shots you end up with so long as you get what you want in the end. You can delete the rest if need be to make room if your compact flash card or SD card isn't as big as your creative imagination requires. With each shot, you should be getting closer to what you are after but if something doesn't work out you can always try something else entirely too.

The basis of iterative composition is rooted in the age old philosophy of "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again." It's the instant feedback provided for by digital photography that makes this possible. Take advantage of it.

Date posted: January 11, 2009


Copyright © 2009 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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