Exaggerate the Essential

‘Sunset La Mont’, Mont St Michel, Normandy, France
Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II, EF24-70mm f/2.8 L @ 70mm, 1/30 sec @ f/11 ISO 100
Manfrotto 441 tripod, Manfrotto 322RC2 Heavy Duty Grip Ball Head.
Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop.

“Exaggerate the essential, and purposely leave the obvious things vague…” Vincent Van Gogh

Exaggerate the Essential

For easel-painters who pursue a true-to-life style, perhaps the most rewarding praise is that “it looks just like a photograph”. I wonder how many photographers would feel so positive about their photographs being compared to paintings? It probably depends on the photograph in question, but for more abstract or creative work, some of us would relish such comparisons.

Striving for simplicity is one way of moving towards a more painterly photographic style, and there are various ways of achieving this: use of neutral density filtration, intentional camera movement or selective focus to introduce ‘blur’ and a myriad of post-processing techniques to simplify shape, tone and colour. However, before we make such considerations, the photographic process begins on location, with the first decision being our viewpoint; we move back and forth, side to side, up and down, until everything magically falls into place. All these movements alter perspective, changing the relative sizes and placement of background and foreground objects. Once our viewpoint is established, we then decide what to include and exclude in our photograph by framing our composition, which determines the direction we point the camera and our focal length, either by lens selection or by zooming. These two considerations, first viewpoint and second ‘framing’ are co-dependent, the process is iterative, with changes in one leading to reconsideration of the other.

When we are framing a scene, we could do worse than remember the words of Vincent Van Gogh, in a letter to his brother Theo, he explained that he was trying to “exaggerate the essential, and purposely leave the obvious things vague”. Van Gogh was actually referring to optimising the process of sketching because he felt that “whether you do it straight off with the brush or with something else, say a pen, you never get enough done”. Despite his different intentions, Van Gogh’s quote translates beautifully to the process of framing a scene.

This image was made on a shoot in Normandy; my intention was to photograph Le Mont St Michel, but the sun was setting behind me and luckily I turned around to see these wonderful diffusing orange and pink brush strokes painted across low lying clouds. I quickly set about framing the scene to exaggerate the ‘essential’ elements including the reflections in the mud-flats and these rather beautiful linear clouds along the top of the image to resonate with the highlighted clouds above the setting sun.

This article first appeared in Outdoor Photography Magazine. Reproduced with kind permission.