The Joys of Tunnel Vision

One of the traps that ensnares photographers is trying to stuff too much into a single photo. Especially when we're plunged into a new environment, we naturally want to include as much as possible in our composition of it. This isn't always a bad thing. If your purpose is to document an event - whether it's a concert or a family reunion - then shooting "wide" may be necessary to capture more action involving more people.

In most other situations, though, it's worthwhile to slow down and think about the individual elements of a scene that speak to you. Ask yourself what made you stop and reach for that camera. It wasn't everything, but one or more specific things, that arrested your mind. You should always ask yourself: What am I photographing here? If you can't answer that question for yourself, chances are you're wasting the effort on a shutter click.

I went on a photo walk yesterday in an unfamiliar Tennessee town. The scene was charged with visually interesting things; my brain was briefly overwhelmed by the cacophony of colors, shapes and lines. My initial impulse was to lift my camera and start shooting everything in sight on the street. You might get some sentimental photos like that, but I'm almost always disappointed by these photos when I look at them later. They lack a clearly-defined subject, and the viewer's eye has no obvious focal point on which to rest. Our eyes seek out a resting point in an image.

Sometimes I find more interesting subjects in alleys than I do on Main Street, like this gun shop side entrance. The white lines added visual interest by breaking up the solid red.

In these situations, give yourself permission to take a few snaps of everything in sight - get it out of your system! Then slow down and start examining the main elements that make the scene interesting to you. The photo walk took place in an historic town with lots of interesting urban decay juxtaposed by new and occasionally charming details. The leaves were beginning to change, so here and there were splashes of color. Crumbling walls with peeling paint partially revealed a mystery item priced at 5 cents back in the day. A modern but classic pedestrian garden was near one end of downtown, across the street from an old-time barbershop with a spinning barber pole out front. Each of these elements made for an interesting photo on their own.

When you try to include too many details, the details become so much visual noise. The next time you find yourself struck by a complex scene, take the time to explore the details. You'll probably find, as I have, that the most memorable photos come from thoughtful exploration of the details. One final tip: Be sure to bring a tripod along, if possible. Being able to securely position your camera is important  as you get closer to your subject.