The Senoran Desert, in southern California and Arizona, is packed with all sorts of cacti and other plants. You never have to go far to find a good subject to photograph. In fact, deciding on which subject to photograph and isolating it from the rest of the plants is the most challenging part!
Creating a good composition in a crowded desert scene is a matter of elimination, isolation, and careful placement of the remaining objects in the frame.
Have you ever been impressed by the grand scene in front of you, but then when you try to photograph it all in one frame, it falls flat? That’s when you need to make some choices and start eliminating objects from the frame.
Look at the scene and decide what is most important. Then, what secondary subjects help to tell the story or give the scene a sense of place.
In the desert, there are lots of opportunities for making a composition of a lone cactus – isolating a single cactus is a good tactic for making a clean composition. But once you have a bunch of those you start looking for scenes that are more challenging without being too cluttered.
In this photograph I made in Quartzsite, Arizona, I was struck by how this little group of Saguaro Cacti looked like a family. I decided to make them the main subject. It may seem obvious when you look at the photo, but there were cacti all around me, all potential main subjects of a photograph.
Please click the image to view a larger version.
Once I had the main subject, I had to decide what secondary subjects added to the scene. In this case, it was the mountains in the background. I could have made the photograph facing the other direction, with more Saguaros in the background, but I liked how the mountains added a sense of place and depth to the image.
Finally, I like to look at the edges of the frame and the negative space that balances the image. As you can see, there is a lot of scrubby brush in the desert that can really clutter up your image. But if I wanted to some negative space around my Saguaro family, I would have to include some of that brush. I decided to include a patch of rocks in the foreground to make the bottom edge clean so the image appears less cluttered. I used the rule of thirds to place the main subjects in the frame and allowed lots of empty space around to balance the dominance of the Saguaros.
Some people just have a natural eye for this stuff and can do it without really thinking about it. I’m actually not one of those people! I usually stand around and contemplate things like what the main subject should be, what secondary subjects add to the scene, and how I can make an interesting graphic design out of the elements in front of me.
The only trick is to get there early enough that I can make all of these choices and settle on a composition in time to catch the good light. Good light is essential.