Photography 101: Layers and Context


As most of you know, WC devotes most of his photography efforts to birds. But that doesn’t mean he’ll refuse an opportunity for a landscape shot, if one presents itself. And while WC is hardly a professional photographer, he has taken a few photos, and can offer some advice to those who would like to improve their photos.

And because WC is still basking in the afterglow of the name correction of Denali, we’ll use a photo of The Mountain from a couple of years ago to illustrate a couple of principles.

Denali from Camp Denali

Denali from Camp Denali

WC kept this photo for three reasons. First, it demonstrates layering fairly effectively. Layering is composing a photo so that it displays depth through a series of objects at different distances. The foreground trees, the pond, the valley, the ridge, the clouds and only then Denali. Layers create a three dimensional feel to a two dimensional photograph. Layers also give the eye a path to follow, adding visual interest.

The second idea from the photo is a sense of context. Denali is huge. It dominates Interior Alaska, visible from amazing distances. When you are lucky enough to be in the Park on a clear day, the thing towers over the landscape, But that sense of vastness is difficult to capture in a photograph. The classic shot from Highway Pass, on the Park road, shows a white bump. There’s no context, nothing to show how immensely large the mountain is in relationship to things around it. By photographing it towering over an impressive ridge, you provide scale, a sense of context.

The third idea from the photo is composing for the subject. The pond in the foreground is called Reflection Pond. For this photo, it was teased by a light wind, blurring the reflections. WC has photos with the pond a perfect mirror, but the reflection is a distraction. A perfect reflection adds nothing to the subject of the photo, a truly huge mountain, the biggest on the continent. A perfect reflection diminishes the intended impact, by showing a huge mountain in a tiny mirror. WC thinks the wind blurring the reflection makes a better photo.

Take all this with a grain of salt. WC is an avian photographer. But the composition principles are the same.

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