A nice sunrise will not save a badly composed image
I have recently found myself leaning less and less on photographing sunrises and sunsets per se. Don’t get me wrong, I still chase good light, golden/blue hour light, sun rays, interesting light patterns, in less words – light around these two moments of the day – but I no longer try to look directly into the sun hoping for colored clouds and dramatic light. Not because it is wrong or a bad thing to do, as a lot of images work best during sunrise/sunset, but because I see so many images on social media that have nothing working for themselves aside a nice colored sky and maybe a great starburst that I can’t tell if it is optically created or added later in post. Add all this to my stubbornness to follow trends, hype and general movement of photographic crowd and you have a perfect recipe that will make me move away from such images to follow my own path and vision for perfect shots.
I know very well that orange, yellow, magenta, high contrast, sun containing photographs will yield more likes and more engagement on your social media accounts, but I choose (and I am not saying you should do that too) to try to be unique and original as much as possible. And this is truly hard, especially because there aren’t many places left that haven’t been photographed in as many ways as possible.
The above sounds condescending enough, I know, so let’s analyze one of my recent images that, in my and Raluca’s opinion, has nothing much going for itself than a nice sky and orange light.
At the time of capture, I was more than happy with my mind pre-visualization of the result, believing that everything was in the right place, all stars aligned and a “portfolio worthy” capture has been produced, even if there aren’t many sunrise and sunsets (sun facing at least) images in our portfolio. Pretty happy with the scene, I let the image ferment for about a week and then edit it in it’s final form as you can see it above.
After more days contemplating it, I started asking myself why I did not feel the image is as good as I felt it when I pressed the shutter? What wasn’t working about it? Let’s analyze it together, shall we?
First question I asked myself is what’s the subject of this capture? I can’t say for sure if it is the sunrise itself, the rock on the right side of the frame, the sea, the sky… etc. There is no clear or easily detectable subject and this makes the message of the frame very ambiguous to the viewer. The ambiguity is furthermore deepen by me completely failing to align the rails in the foreground (that should act as leading lines) with whatever the subject of this image might be. Currently they point to nothing, or maybe to the horizon, but I can’t feel that the horizon is interesting or compelling enough to call it the subject of this image.
Going deeper with this image contemplation, I realized that the left and right sides are too crowded for my linking. Although at capture time, I believed the edges will act as holding anchors, keeping the eye inside the frame, focused on the subject (or what I believed the subject was at that time), I soon came to accept that lack of obvious image center focus point, will transform the edges into distractions.
To be further honest, the sky is not helping either. In my opinion it only adds to the clutter of the frame, and I feel that even if I have had a clear subject in this image, it would have still detracted by pulling the eye to the contrasty area that is present in the middle left side of the picture.
There are many ways I could have improved the image on the spot, but I was so thrilled about the fiery sky that I completely underestimated the importance of a clear composition, hoping that color, sky and sun will compensate for my lack of profound thinking and correct decision making. I should have stopped, breathed, slowed down and put more thought into properly composing the shot rather than panicking and shooting for the sake of the sunrise.
Mistakes were made, but the important thing is to accept and learn from them. I will definitely return to this spot and improve the composition until I get the image I currently pre-visualize as I write this text. Patience is essential.
This article is not a rule that of thumb that can be applied to every image, but rather my subjective artistic interpretation of my own image that lacked on so many levels. If you feel your images are better or enhanced by looking directly into sun during sunset and sunrise, then, by all means, feel free to follow your own composition decisions.
Otherwise let me know if you have had a similar experience in your photographic journey so I can learn something from someone else experience.