Less is More

From Lair of Sorrow

While discussing a photo of an ant I will do my best to tackle rather important topics of composition and style.

Those two ideas are strongly related to each other. The way frames are composed acts as a very clear indication of a style - and a photographer's style imposes certain ways of seeing each frame before it is taken. Of course, style is something that evolves over time and rules of composition have been around for centuries - you could say that personal style is one's own interpretation of the rules. That interpretation is influenced by photographer's individual characteristics, preferences and other strongly personal factors in addition to the topic of the photograph.

Now with the lengthy intro over, let's walk through the picture of an ant I took recently during a beautiful spring afternoon in Turku.

Raw photo

You may notice that the image basically is ready to be cropped to a square. There are three reasons for that: one, I prefer to have the frame ready while taking it; two, there has been around 20 photos of that particular ant and only this one was sharp enough; and three, I really like that format, especially for nature photos. There is something to it that makes the photo nicely balanced.

Crop 1: ant in the middle

But clearly, the above cropping makes the picture anything but nicely balanced. My attempt here was to put the ant in focus and it obviously worked. There is a little part of the leaf bud to provide context and quite a lot of negative space, but the overall feeling is underwhelming.

This frame tells nothing. It is a statement of the fact: here is an ant on a branch. So let's try moving the crop a bit.

Crop 2: and with both leaf buds

This time there are buds on both ends of the frame, negative space is equally balanced on both sides of the branch, and the ant is still the main focus. It is even placed more-or-less in the bottom-right focus point, if you would strictly apply the rule of thirds.

This composition is better than the previous one and it probably would work for others. To me, it has some annoyances. The bud at the bottom is cropped violently, creating an uneasy feeling. On the opposite end of the branch the bud is seen full, which breaks the symmetry - it may make more sense to remove the bottom part of the branch completely from the crop and make more space in the upper-left corner.

Crop 3: perfectly balanced

This is it! All key components of the frame are almost perfectly symmetrical. The ant is in opposition to the leaf bud and they are even on opposite sides of the branch. The empty space on the frame is also almost perfectly divided into two, but it differs in colours: the bottom left half has more green in it, while the other is more gray.

There is nothing else in the frame - only the most relevant things. Less elements on the picture resulted in much better overall experience, as there is nothing distracting and causing the viewer's attention to leave.

Time to apply colour fixes - this image is very minimal in its use of colours. This time I decided to do it over two steps - I started with general white balance, contrast and highlights/shadows corrections. The goal was to bring the details of the ant to attention. As a result some of the parts of the branch were too bright and stole focus from other elements of the picture, so greens and yellows need to be decreased in brightness, leading to much more pleasant picture to look at.

After colour fixes

Lastly, of course, tiny vignette.

Ant It Just The Way

If you are looking at this picture as I am, the first thing you notice is the orange glow of the ant, then the branch leads you to the leaf bud at the top. Next you scan the empty parts of the photo and your focus comes back to the ant. You notice its jaws and all the other tiny details you missed the first time around. You move up the branch again to discover a tiny petal in the upper-left corner, and you slide back to the ant again. Is the ant going to eat the plant?

Hey, I am eating here!

he ant decided to eat the plant.

That is the same ant and the same leaf bud - but as you see the image is flipped. To be honest, this is how the main photo of this post was aligned, but if you applied the cropping, the ant ended up above the bud. The composition would be pretty much the same, but the message would be different. The focus would not be on the ant, but on the leaf bud. Since that is not an interesting topic, the photo would look dull.

So here we are, at the end of the editing and at the end of the post. I mentioned balance as the main factor in having a successful composition - at least in the case of this image. The way elements on the picture relate to each other, the colours, the use of empty space - all that depends on the photographer and their perception of things. This is where style comes into play, defining the composition. Not the other way around.