How To Avoid Tension With Your Photos

By |2014-08-31T10:31:22+00:00Aug 31st, 2014|

When I took this photo of some brush and brain rock in White Pocket, Arizona, the sun had just risen and each minute that elapsed afterward began adding more and more harsh light to my scene. Time was of the essence. My job as a photographer is to maximize this fleeting time to find a photo that looks good while finessing my camera and lens to compose it accordingly. When I took this photo, I didn’t allow myself to chimp for more than a second, just long enough to ensure a proper exposure, before trying out something else.

Later, when I analyzed the photo in greater detail, I realized that my choice of framing introduced tension with the primary focus point: the brush. I cleaned up and processed the image but kept the tension intact for illustration purposes. When you look at the bottom of the frame, do you get a sense of unease over the proximity of those three little bushes to the edge? What about with that hard shadow on the lower left corner of the frame? That uneasy feeling is a result of tension that’s introduced when key and high-contrast elements are either in very close proximity or intersect with the edges of your frame.

So here are some basic photo tips to avoid tension with your photos. An obvious solution would have been for me to either zoom out or take a few steps back to allow for more breathing room. Another modern solution would have been to simply clone out the offending areas or even to expand the canvas and see how well Photoshop’s Content Aware Fill would work to fill in the gaps.

Above all else, I recommend practicing PIRL (Photoshop In Real Life) or getting it right in camera. I can’t stress enough the importance of training yourself to scan all four corners of your frame before you trip the shutter. Make sure your edges are clear of any distracting elements and that you afford enough space between any key focus points and the edge. Making this part of your standard behind-the-camera workflow will have a huge impact in establishing more thoughtful and effective framing of your photos.

9 Comments

  1. Mark Esguerra August 31, 2014 at 11:17 am - Reply

    Very nice image and great write up. Good tips to put into practice.

  2. Erik Kerstenbeck August 31, 2014 at 11:31 am - Reply

    Well seen

  3. Veritas August 31, 2014 at 11:44 am - Reply

    Good Article Brian,and a really enjoyable site.. -)

  4. Mondell Salmon August 31, 2014 at 5:58 pm - Reply

    Great tips appreciate it, keep it coming.

  5. Reichlyn Aguilar August 31, 2014 at 11:28 pm - Reply

    I need to spend some time IRL learning from you!

  6. Cynthia Pyun September 1, 2014 at 9:28 am - Reply

    Excellent point captured and explained. thanks, Brian!

  7. Rebecca September 12, 2014 at 7:21 pm - Reply

    I appreciate your thoughts on composition, not enough is said about it lately and I want to learn more. I have never heard this particular tip and to be honest I don’t really feel tension in this photo. In fact if I were composing this photo I would probably put the brush exactly where you did it as a foreground element. When I googled the concept, I can only find articles about good tension in photos but I think they are referring more to what’s happening in scene itself (like say, a photo of two people staring each other down which is compelling and interesting, or an ominous sky about to storm) and not the arrangement of the elements in a landscape composition. Can I read more about this somewhere else so I can understand it more deeply?

    • Brian Matiash September 14, 2014 at 10:00 am - Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Rebecca. You’re most certainly correct that there is a ‘good’ form of tension in art with the aim of eliciting an emotional response from the viewer. However, for the purposes of this post, my form of tension is one that relates to obtaining a clean composition. I find it unsettling when certain elements teeter too close to the edge of the frame. In other words, I feel that there should be some ‘breathing room’ along the edge of the frame. Similarly, I try to avoid having thing protrude through the frame. The easiest example of this is having tree branches bust through the top of the frame out of nowhere.

      • Rebecca September 14, 2014 at 10:45 am - Reply

        Thanks for explaining that more. I think you’re right compositions are stronger when there is less clutter along the edges. Thanks Brian!

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