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Within the Frame

When you watch a movie on a theater screen, you mentally tune out what lies beyond its borders. Your entire experience lies within a frame. That's how we should approach photography.

It's hard to visit a destination right at its peak. It does happen, but more often than not, I find myself a week early or late. Whether my objective is fall colors, blooming wildflowers, or the first snows, it isn't easy to plan a trip at precisely the right time. A lot depends on the turning of the seasons, and while we know reasonably well what to expect, our uncertainly grows when asked to pick the precise time. Weather in the mountains can be fickle, and a forecast for a nearby town can yield only the vaguest clues as to conditions at higher elevations.

As such, it's necessary to work with what we have, even as we wish for what might have been. "Those flowers would have looked perfect ago," we lament. "The leaves are only just starting to turn," we complain. One spring, I drove down to Mt. Rainier every weekend in search of perfect conditions. I still probably missed the peak of the wildflowers. They bloom so fast in subalpine regions because the season is short. It's the same with the fall leaves. One weekend, they could just be turning yellow. The next, they could all be on the ground underfoot, with the branches all but barren.

Under perfect conditions, you might have been able to point your camera almost anywhere and frame a shot of nature in all its splendor. Under less than ideal conditions, you have to exercise more care when creating your compositions.

Luckily, even when the seasons aren't progressing as you had hoped, not every tree and every flower follows along in lockstep. Some areas get more moisture from snowmelt or rainfall, or better nutrition from the snow. Some are less well situated and progress more slowly. Change happens on different schedules based on elevation, too. You can often find at least a small patch that looks the way you had hoped with a bit of effort, even when your timing isn't perfect.

Rather than getting bummed out that don't you find yourself surrounded by the magnificence of nature, though, it's worth remembering that it's what you see through the viewfinder that counts, not what lies beyond its borders.

When standing at a scenic location that almost takes your breath away, it's difficult to remember that all your eventual audience will see is what you end up capturing. When people look at your images, they won't know what it felt like to be there. All they'll only see what you show them. It can also be difficult remembering that this is equally true when the scenery isn't entirely up to your ideals. But keeping this in mind can give you a whole new way of approaching the task at hand.

When filming a major motion picture set on a planet in a distant galaxy, they obviously can't go there, so they build a set. But to make the result look believable, they don't need to recreate the entire planet. They only need to be concerned with what the camera will see. Some directors plan this out in minute detail, while others build out more sets to provide greater options. Unless every shot becomes nothing but CGI special effects, they have to work within practical limits.

As much as we might want to have an entire hillside covered in verdant wildflowers, a bit of planning and attention to detail can allow you to work within the limits of what you are fortunate to find when you are there. Perhaps most of the fall leaves have already plunged to their destiny on the ground. But a close-up of what remains might still be able to do the trick. Or even a pile of colored leaves blown by the wind might prove worth exploring. All you need is one perfect rectangle you can frame in your viewfinder.

Maybe the way you use to show off your images is just a Facebook group or file-sharing site. No matter. The only thing people will see is what you successfully captured with your camera. Not everything else that surrounded it. Their entire experience lies within a frame.

Date posted: November 15, 2020


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