Lesson from the Scene: Sometimes a Detail Tells the Whole Story

by Stanley Leary



Figure 1
We have all seen photographs with too much “stuff” in them. The image fails to communicate, because the photographer makes no attempt to select one subject, (Figure 1). It’s the visual equivalent of a run-on sentence.
Many photographers want to shoot general views because they believe they offer “good composition” or to capture the beautiful light. But a close-up of a detail (Figure 2) frequently reveals more of the subject than a picture of the whole subject.
The detail photograph can have more impact and communicate more because the photographer is forced to be interpretive with the detail.
The isolated part can tell more, be more emphatic, and be more quickly appreciated and understood. It tells the story in compressed, sometimes dramatic, fashion by scaling down to point out a specific idea to greatest effect.

Figure 2

In approaching a subject, decide how much to include in the viewfinder of the camera. Force yourself to look around the subject and look at each of the corners and everything within the frame of the viewfinder. If there is anything that detracts from the theme, move in closer to eliminate it; if there is not enough to tell the story, move back to include more. The key to this process is to know what you want. The details will fall naturally into place and “composition” is achieved.
I have found the following exercise effective with my students at Reinhardt College. First, shoot a large scene, then close in on it and cut it in half. Close in again and again until, finally, you isolate the most important subject and thus make a statement about the main thing in the scene. In this way, you learn that much of what you see in a picture may not really be that important — and how to select the part or parts that are most meaningful.
Great photographers know that composition is a matter of feeling rather than of rules learned by rote. You will develop this feeling as you gain experience, but you will never really “know it all” because, as you learn more about life, you will put emphasis on different things. Composition, ultimately, is just another way of looking at life.