Square Pegs and Round Holes

One of the worst things people can do is to make something into something it is not. Whether it is a politician telling lies to get elected, a marketing executive trying to make a product sound far more exciting than it really is, or a cover band turning a rockin’ song into a horrible slow jazz remix, when you turn something into something it is not, you end up with something that lacks definition and substance.

The same is true with nature photography. Too often, we try to jam compositions into preset formulas, looking for sweeping lines when none are called for, or pumping the light and colors in Photoshop to turn a modest sunrise into a Disneyesque cartoon. We get obsessed with trying to capture something bold and compelling, and forget to simply capture what Nature offers us.

Rather than trying to make something into something it is not, we should at all times seek to be attuned to what our something actually is. We should seek to reveal the essence of our subject, rather than reinvent it. We should let existing shapes and light guide our compositions; we should let the pace and mood set by Nature be our Muse, rather than try to bend her to our will.

I photographed this same location in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile a year ago, but this time I got a completely different result. Last year, an epic sunrise called for a tight, simple, and powerful composition. This year, subtle pre-dawn light and wind-driven clouds called for something less compelling, but more elegant. I opted for a wider view, including elements that had been distracting or unimportant the year before. I let the scene’s light, mood, and movement guide my composition, instead of trying to fit existing conditions into some preconceived notion of what the image should be.

By trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, we end up with something that reveals nothing of the true essence of our subject or of the moment. We end up with something that has no soul. By staying true to the place and moment, we tell the story of our subject, in a way that is ultimately more compelling than a paint-by-numbers approach. At all times, we should seek to find a way to make the pieces fit—seamlessly, elegantly, and naturally—rather than pounding them into place with blunt force and hoping for the best.

"Aurora's Blush" by Ian Plant

Twilight glow above Los Cuernos, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile (Patagonia). Canon 5DII, 24mm, ISO 200, f/11, 2 minutes.

Ian Plant

Author: Ian Plant

World-renowned professional photographer, writer, and adventurer Ian Plant is a frequent contributor to and blogger for Outdoor Photographer Magazine, a Contributing Editor to Popular Photography Magazine, a monthly columnist for Landscape Photography Magazine, and a Tamron Image Master. Ian is also the author of numerous books and instructional videos. Ian leads photography workshops and tours around the world to help beginner and advanced photographers explore and expand their personal vision.

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