More than thirty years ago, I was enjoying a walking tour of the Victorian homes in Cape May, New Jersey. I was dating a guy whose dream was to purchase an old Victorian home and restore it to its once splendorous condition. Once in town, we learned of a gentleman (probably a member of the historical society) who gave tours for free.

One small statement that he made during this tour has always stuck with me: “Too much is never enough.” The comment referred to the opulence of Victorian architecture. If one level of trim was sufficient and functional, then five different colored layers must be better.

I suppose, in reflection, not much has changed since the late 1800s regarding the American culture in general: food portions, McMansions, ginormous SUVs. Every American “thing” needs to be on a grand scale. The bigger, the better.

And so perhaps in this vein, sometimes I subconsciously try to cram as much as possible into a composition. After all, too much is never enough, right?

To that end, I want to share a recent disaster composition and unless I had made a print, I am not too sure I would have noticed. After all, everything looks terrific on the camera’s LCD screen.

Let’s take a look at one particular train wreck example of mine. This is why I love monochromatic images. You cannot hide behind color. If your subject is not clearly presented, nothing will make it look good. Your messiness is staring back at you square in the face. Your eye cannot find your subject if you don’t have one.

Above is a recent shot of the Wading River in The Pinelands (New Jersey). Once I saw the image pop up on the back of my camera I was doing a happy dance. This is great! Yeah, right. Who is kidding who.

Once I printed it for an exhibit, I gagged.

On the print, the texture of the clouds competes with the trees. The diagonal lines of the water bank take your eye through the image to the center back but those trees are just about lost in the visual chaos. The reflections fill in the negative space on the water to the lower right, but the dappled sun on the lily pads in the water makes my eyes jump all over the place. Your eyes will always look first to the brightest part of any image and probably stay there. Between the sun on some of the lily pads and the trees way in the background, and the highlights in the clouds … well, frankly, I have motion sickness.

Some might say well this is a terrific image. Anytime you have a swelled head about your work, try printing it. It doesn’t have to be 20″ x 30″. An 8″ x 10″ will happily show you very clearly if there are any glaring issues.

And I don’t mean take the image to Costco or send it off to a lab. Print your own work. Figure it out. Printing I have discovered will thrust you naked into the world for all to see. I highly recommend spending the time and the dollars learning how to print your work. I mean honestly – we spend a fortune on gear and travel to places to shoot, but we don’t “own the print” and do our own printmaking? Control freaks unite! Yes, you will have total control of the outcome (unlike most of my life) if you make the print.

I avoided printmaking like the plague for 8 years. But then, I didn’t print my work. Nobody printed my work. Oh sure everything looks amazing on a retina-display iPad or iPhone. Show me the print. You can’t blame it on “the lab” if you print own your work. I am dithering about putting work up on sites such as 500px or SmugMug or FineArtAmerica. Do I really want my work heading out into the world without me seeing it? I don’t think so.

Yes learning to print is another thing to master as if we aren’t having enough trouble keeping up with technology, gear, and new software. But in the end, I have learned at least one valuable lesson so far: my images sure look different on paper than on a backlit computer screen.

But what about processing? You can fix it in Photoshop! (cough, cough) Some would say that all I need are a few well-placed luminosity masks to lighten up certain areas, darken others, and “direct” the viewers’ eyes where I want them to go. It seems like work to me, only to discover that the real culprit are the clouds.

In my work, I need a place for my eye to rest. Visual calm. Negative space with nothing going on is good.

Here is another example of a busy (meaning lots of texture) monochromatic scene. I think this composition works better. Let’s see why.


Cape May State Park, Cape May, NJ; Nikon D750 converted to 830nm; Nikkor 24-120mm f4

Your eye has a place to rest in the cloud-free sky at the top and the darker water at the bottom. These areas also serve as a type of frame. The horizontal lines of the landscape create gentle triangles (always interesting and pleasing compositional shapes). The alternating light and dark areas give repetition. However, in my mind, if there were a lot of puffy white clouds in the sky (as in the first image of Wading River) and reflections of those clouds in the water, I am pretty sure we would have another example of compositional chaos.

It is for these reasons that I love infrared. You are stripped of the distraction of color. You only have form and texture. You are wearing The Emperor’s New Clothes. I feel I am looking for and finding better compositions. I am learning to make lemonade from lemons on days when the atmosphere doesn’t behave as I think I need for a compelling composition. Rather than not shoot at all, I need to be more aware of my compositions and allow the right amount of negative space in the image to give my eye a place to rest.