Start With the Corners

Duncan Fawkes

It began as I played with Isla, my three-year-old daughter.

For a long time, I’ve valued the importance of the corners of my photographs. Several years ago, I attended a talk by acclaimed UK landscape photographer David Ward who spoke of their criticality, referring to corners for photographers as the equivalent to the artist’s mark for painters. What you put in the corner shows due care and attention; a sense of “I made this” and a realization that all of the details in your photograph help it transcend from snapshot to personal statement. As we spread the pieces of Isla’s Disney Princess jigsaw puzzle on the table, I told her to find the corner pieces. “Start with the corners,” I suggested. And that’s when it struck me.

For those who have attended my workshops and my photography talks, my almost OCD-like attention to corners has attracted some good humour. “Look at this going into the corner,” or “See how that nearly goes into the corner? Think how it might be stronger if it did,” and so on. I get quips during presentations of “Look, it goes into the corner!” 

Beyond being coincidence or obsessive behaviour, after this aha! moment, I started to look closer at how I composed a shot. What I found was that time after time the content of the corners was not an afterthought, not even secondary, but often the starting point in my composition. 

There are nearly four corners in this photograph. I wanted the right-hand dark curve coming into the lower right corner. The cloud line reaches into the top left. The details of the rocks in the lower left, water washing over them, reach into the corner to anchor the image. I could have let the higher rock touch that corner (and did try), but I think that slight gap adds not only a sense of trepidation but also the balance between ocean and land.

Corners are important for their historical equivalence to painters, but they represent so much more. For me, they are often absolutely the most important detail in the frame. They can be ill thought out, leaving the elements in the center of the frame to do the talking, or they can be well thought out, a clear indicator from the photographer of, “I found this, and it’s important to the photograph.” The actual content can take on many shapes and form and is essentially irrelevant in terms of the lesson. I often find rock cracks or unusual texture anchored into a lower corner, a striking line in the cloud rising to a top corner. I equally want to avoid an errant branch, tree, or other distraction reaching into the corner and diminishing its power.

A painter might decide to paint whatever he or she wants (or nothing) in the corner. But for photographers who rely on the physical world as the basis for our images, messy corners feel like an accident or inconvenience. But if you think about how those corners can strengthen the image, the entire photograph seems to come together. For example, I often find an interesting feature in a rock formation. You’ve likely heard of “leading lines” which often take the form of fences or roads, but a simple crack in a rock achieves a similar purpose; it leads the eye into the frame while also saying, “I found this interesting feature, and to me it’s important.”

 This image is quite abstract; there’s not a lot for the eye to latch onto, and in a sense, any element could have been positioned anywhere. I wanted the strong orange/brown flow to come out of a corner to give the image a focal point—somewhere to lead into the rest of the frame.

As I am keen to tell people, the background isn’t going anywhere. You can walk 300 feet or more and whatever is in the distance of your photograph will look much the same. At the same time, you’ve passed a countless number of possible foreground combinations that represent the lower half of your photograph: all of those rocks, cracks, flowers, puddles, or whatever would help anchor the image so that it’s more than a picture of a distant mountain ridge. And once I spot that interest in the foreground, I often find that if I start by putting it in a corner and pivoting around it, the rest of the frame seems to come together. This obviously isn’t always true, and it takes a degree of experience and intuition to realize the combinations that work. For example, it can be difficult making a strong presence out of a foreground rock when similarly toned rocks muddle the mid-ground, so while your corner may be interesting, it risks getting lost in the rest of the frame. But other times it works—it’s a fine balance. It can be overwhelming to know where to start, but focusing on finding an element for one or more corners gives you a starting point for your composition.

 For me, the key to this image is the line of white water from the lower right corner. Place your hand over it and notice the difference. Without that element, the image loses direction and purpose.

Less powerful than corners, edges also have a role to play. I think of the frame as marking the boundary between the real world (what isn’t photographed) and the virtual world (what is photographed). I often look for ways to isolate a section of the real world for my photograph, and it then becomes my own little fantasy where my—and hopefully the viewer’s—imagination can frolic. To maintain this illusion, it’s important that elements in the corners and along the edges do not dispel the myth and drag the viewer’s attention to what may lie beyond: the stray tree branch, the brightly coloured house that suggests the scene is less wild than we would like to believe, the telephone wires, the mountain that leads us along the ridge line out of scene, and so on. It’s important for the viewer to feel that everything that is important lives within this one frame, without second-guessing what exists elsewhere.

For similar reasons, I like to darken the periphery of an image to keep the eye—and the mind—from drifting elsewhere. A small vignette to darken the edge of the frame or some subtle darkening or lightening of objects pulling attention on the frame edge help keep attention front and center. 

 The lower right corner here is key. I have several other compositions where this line of granite is positioned higher or lower, resulting in a loss of presence. By curving slightly into the frame, it helps to ground the rest of the image, balancing attention between it and the waterfall without distractions in the other corners.

So if you find yourself out in the field and scratching your head about what to do, look around and find something of interest that might work in the corner of your frame. Start there, and then build the rest of the puzzle. More often than not, it completes itself beautifully.

 

Interested in more than just a point-and-shoot landscape experience? Duncan's eBook, The Perfect Shutter, explores how the creative use of shutter speed can impact your landscape photography in a beautiful way. 

Duncan Fawkes' passion for photography developed as an upwelling of suppressed creativity stemming from his background in corporate IT management. With a love and respect for nature and the outdoors, he hopes that his photography shares the world as he finds it, in its many moods and forms. He readily admits that being alone in the natural environment is where his senses come back to life, awakening from the slumber of modern living. Duncan is a strong advocate of being true to your inner creative, believing that art is about self-expression rather than pretty pictures to hang on walls or trophy locations to bag.

A native of Scotland, Duncan now lives in the idyllic surf town of Yamba on the northern NSW coast of Australia, where he runs photographic workshops not only in Yamba but also further afield, taking people to places off the photographic route to provide a clean slate for students to find their own interest and reaction in the landscape. Learn more about Duncan on his website and his Facebook page. 

Duncan Fawkes

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