Distilling the Scene

January 14, 2010

Landscape, Making an Image, Photo Tips

One of the differences between snap-shots and great photographs is what is NOT included in the frame. New photographers tend to include everything they see in their pictures, while experienced photographers are more deliberate about their composition. I don’t mean that experienced photographers always think about the rule of thirds or leading lines, but they have a good idea of what they are trying to communicate with their photos. You can develop this skill with practice

Remember to ask yourself WHY you’re making a picture. What did you see that made you want to lift your camera to your eye and press the shutter? It can be a challenge to answer this question when you’re starting out. One way to figure this out is a process I call “distilling the scene”. One meaning of distill is to “extract the essential meaning or most important aspects of (something)”; in this case a scene you want to photograph.

Grand Canyon, AZ. A fairly typical "postcard" shot


Go ahead and take the big overall shot when you find something you want to make a picture of. Then slow down and really LOOK at what you’re shooting. Make a lot of pictures, and don’t be afraid to experiment. Try to figure out what caught your eye. Try to make a photo that you can describe in one sentence. Decide what story you’re trying to tell.

Take time to notice the light and how it affects your subject. Light is what gives a scene it’s character and mood. The combination of light and shadow is what helps your viewer see shape and texture. How can you best capture the light in your image?

Does your current vantage point afford you the best background for your subject, or could you change your position to make a more interesting or less cluttered photo? Do you want to isolate your subject, or include the environment to give it context? Watch the edges of your frame. If something doesn’t make your photo better, don’t include it in the frame.

Grand Canyon, AZ. This shot reflects more of my personal experience on the rim of the canyon at sunrise.


I think this process will help you to make better pictures, and help you to develop your personal vision. The more you go through this process, the fewer photos you will need to take to make “the shot”. You can develop your eye so that you figure out the important aspects of a scene and how to capture it before you make your first shot. You’ll be telling your own stories and making beautiful photographs before you know it!

I will be teaching shooting tips like this, as well as Lightroom workflow, HDR and more at my March workshop in Mal Pais, Costa Rica. DPexperience readers can enter the discount code “dpexperience” to receive $200 off of your tuition. Click here to register.

Top photo: Nikon D700, 24-70mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens
Bottom photo: Nikon D300s, 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 VR Nikkor lens


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This post was written by:

- who has written 23 posts on The Digital Photo Experience.

Rob Knight is an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop Lightroom and a two-time Photoshop Guru finalist. Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Rob loves to travel and share his passion for photography with others.
You can follow Rob on twitter @RobKnightPhoto, and find out about Rob’s classes and photo workshops at Rob Knight Photography


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