Capturing the Moment

2000 Mike MacDonald

Alone in the Fog Have you ever taken a picture of a fabulous scene only to later discover that what you caught on film did not properly capture what you saw or felt? If you answered "yes," you're not alone.

First, let me begin by emphasizing that a picture is really just a story. But, unlike a literary piece, a photographic story must be kept simple: the tenderness of a flower, the action of an animal, the light on the land. Writers are constantly dreaming up new story ideas. But, with nature photography things work quite differently, in that the plot is sitting there right in front of you, waiting for you to discover it— to see it.


There are an infinite number of subjects to photograph and just as many ways to interpret them. Study the world around you and be sensitive to your emotions. Base your selection of what to photograph on your feelings. Decide with your heart, not your mind. This is the first step in the process of forging your own recognizable style.

Once you've made your heartfelt selection, it's time to uncover the story that evoked the emotion in the first place. To tell your visual story requires three elements: a central theme, a cast of characters, and relationships between the characters. Ask yourself, "What's the ONE thing here that really moves or excites me?" When you answer that question, you will probably know the central theme. It's usually that simple. And, here's a little tip: Often, the main relationship IS the central theme.

While I was hiking in the snowy forest preserves on one foggy winter day, I came upon a solitary tree. The relationship of the tree to the barren landscape attracted me to the scene. I was struck by a strong feeling of aloneness, inspiring the photograph called "Alone in the Fog."


Now that you know the central theme, carefully decide which characters and relationships are essential to telling your visual story. Keep the number of characters to a minimum being careful to exclude any element that does not serve the central theme. This is key, because too many unnecessary characters will only confuse the viewer by obscuring the storyline. It is important that your picture should tell one—and only one—story. Remember, less is more. If a picture's worth a thousand words, then it's probably a worthless picture.

In "Alone in the Fog," the central theme of aloneness results directly from the relationships (or lack thereof) between the characters. There are three main characters in this story: the solitary tree, the snow, and the fog. Two other characters, which might be called supporting roles, are the tree's soft shadow and the faint horizon line.

The snow and fog emphasize the solitary nature of the tree. The snow conveys a cold, somber mood, while the fog implies emotional distance and the inability to see the future. The soft shadow beneath the tree gives the tree substance and dimension, but also depicts a certain vulnerability. The faint horizon line gives us a glimpse of hope.

Every character and every relationship in this photograph serves a purpose in this story of "aloneness." If you are true to the central theme, then the characters and relationships go hand in hand.


Okay, now that your story has been defined, it's time to put your feelings on film, your emotion on emulsion. To begin with, compose the story by arranging the characters and their relationships as you envision it.

Next, carefully refine your composition until what you see in the viewfinder evokes the same feelings as when you first laid eyes on the scene.

Pretty in Pink This final step is much easier said than done. You must be able to compose objectively and to separate your overall experience from what you are actually seeing through the viewfinder. It's easy to get in the moment, making it very difficult to be objective—to see and compose the real story. The camera can only record what you see, not what you've touched, smelled, tasted, or heard.

To become more objective view of your composition, it helps to detach yourself from the complete experience and concentrate solely on what you see through the viewfinder. Allow only your sense of vision to control how you feel. As you peer through the camera, pretend that what you are seeing is a framed photograph on your wall at home. Then ask, "Does this picture move me?" If you think your composition does a good job of telling the story, but the feelings just aren't coming through, tweak the composition slightly to include or exclude certain characters or relationships until everything comes together. You'll immediately know when it happens, because you'll feel it.

With "Alone in the Fog," I positioned the solitary tree dynamically in the frame, then zoomed in and out looking for that perfect amount of space around the tree—one that would most effectively convey the feeling of aloneness. Only after the composition in the viewfinder made me feel a strong sense of aloneness did I finally released the shutter.

This technique works especially well for scenics and landscapes, where you can set up a tripod and fine-tune the composition. However, with a little practice, it's just as effective for fast-paced shooting situations like wildlife and special event photography.

Be aware of what fascinates you or elevates your emotions, there's a story there. And when you see the plot unfold in the viewfinder with the same drama and emotion as when you first set foot upon the scene then everything is clicking—even your camera! You're capturing the moment—this time for sure!

Photography classes, digital camera courses, nature photography workshops, and private photo lessons by Mike MacDonald Photography & Creative Eye Workshops.

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