Use Natural Angles

Here’s the thing about us photographers: we’re very excitable. We spend a bunch of time thinking about what gear to pack for a shoot, then we spend time getting to the location, and then we go nuts taking photos. We fall into our zone of finding a shot, then the next shot and so on. Sometimes, though, we get stuck photographing this one “thing” over and over again. If you’re unsure as to whether this has happened to you, look through your photo library and see if you have a bunch of the exact same photos of a particular subject. If you’re like me, you’ll be able to find a number of examples pretty easily. This often happens when we come to a new subject or location. We gravitate towards the eye-catching thing and defer to filling our frames with it. I’ve long since referred to this type of photo as the “Gimme Shot” and have written about it extensively in my book, The Visual Palette. The Gimme Shot is an important one to get, but it’s as important to keep in mind that it isn’t the only photo worth getting. Once you satisfy the need of the Gimme Shot, your responsibility as a photographer is to begin hunting for different ways to frame up your subject. One of my favorite ways to do so is to take a step back—literally and figuratively—to find whether there are other surrounding elements that I can use as a natural frame.

Let’s take the photo above of Weisendanger Falls in Oregon. When I first visited this waterfall, I immediately set my camera up to get my Gimme Shot. In my opinion, this represents the most common composition that just about every other photographer would get of this waterfall. It’s basic and it captures the essence of the subject. It’s Weisendanger Falls—nothing more and nothing less.

As you can imagine, I have a bunch of photos that are nearly identical to this one with minor variations. In one case, I may have moved my camera to the right a bit and in another, I may have tightened my focal length. Still, all of the photos are relatively the same. This is where your responsibility as a photographer needs to kick in. With the Gimme Shot(s) in the bag, it’s on you to look for different ways to capture your subject. This is one of the most effective ways to put your own stamp on a subject. If you can leverage your surroundings to come up with unique compositions of the same subject, you’re putting your personal touch on it. As an example, here’s a follow-up photo of Weisendanger Falls that I took a few minutes after the previous photo. Notice that I utilized distance, scale and other natural elements to offer up a wholly different take on the same subject.

Let’s look at another example. We’re still going to stick with the waterfall theme and this time, we’re going to Proxy Falls—one of my favorite waterfalls in the Pacific Northwest. The first thing I did, as before, was to get my Gimme Shot out of the way. I have several variations on this basic photo. Some are horizontal, as is the case here, while others are vertical. The common theme is that they’re all photos of the waterfall itself. Pretty straightforward.

With the Gimme Shot in the bag, it’s on me to find different ways to capture this waterfall. And as was the case with the previous example, I found a more unique way to capture this waterfall by walking away from it and incorporating other elements to create a natural frame. Individual taste will obviously determine your preference but, as far as I’m concerned, I strongly prefer this “alternate” composition of Proxy Falls to the one that simply presents itself to you.

And lest you think that this practice of looking for different ways to compose your subject is limited to natural landscapes, check out these examples of architectural scenes. In each case, I made it my goal to take a step back (often times many steps back) and find elements—both natural and manmade—to use as frames. I’d argue that, in each case, the overall composition is far stronger because of this practice as opposed to simply presenting the primary subject as is.

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