"Working the Scene" and Avoiding The Obvious Picture

True fans of the CSI: Las Vegas television series (the original is still the best) will recognize the investigator's phrase - "work the scene." While most of us don't analyze crime scenes, DB Russell and his crew give us a method for trying to photograph imaginatively. Let me explain.

My goal as a photographer is to avoid taking The Obvious Picture - that picture that is the apparently obvious way to compose and record a scene. When I walk up to a place I think I want to take pictures (and in particular a place I have not been before), I've found that the best way for me to "break through" the impulse to take The Obvious Picture, is to take a shot and get the impulse out of my system. It's clearly my shortcoming not to be able to calmly and analytically examine a scene and wait until I have enough information to choose the best shot; my approach to dealing with this shortcoming is to yield to it and take The Obvious Picture right away! That simple act frees me to put the camera down, take a deep breath, and start working the scene.

Like those who train CSI investigators, I use the term "work the scene" to mean the process of looking closely and carefully to all the aspects of the area you want to photograph. Some of this process is technical: considering the lighting available and the resulting options for f-stops and exposure times, or identifying a distracting background that limits the point(s) from which a shot can be taken. But the larger element of working the scene is esthetic and imaginative: looking for the compositional elements lurking in a scene, and finding ways to capture a special aspect of the subject that reveals a truly powerful sense of the scene.

Let me illustrate with a concrete example. I was in Sequoia National Park, heading up to the Giant Forest, when I spotted a beautiful little waterfall just off the road. I quickly pulled off and grabbed my camera backpack. I hiked up to the waterfall, and there it was: The Obvious Picture. So I took it. And it's not a bad picture; it accurately captures the totality of the scene and gives some sense of the loveliness of the falls. But it is completely ordinary! It has no real point of focus, and it conveys no emotion.

Knowing that I had a shot "in the can", I could relax and look at other, better ways to capture the beauty that had made me stop the car. 


There are some "tricks" that help me work the scene; you may find them helpful, too. One (for those of us who shoot in a non-square format) is to always compose an attractive scene both as a horizontal and a vertical orientation. While a scene may have an Obvious Picture orientation that you just know is the right way to compose the shot, after you take that shot, force yourself to rotate your camera and look at the same scene through the viewfinder set over 90 degrees. There may not be an immediate "rightness" to the image you see in that rotated viewfinder; if not, stop and change an element of your composition. Another technique is to try zooming in or out, moving the point of view a bit in one direction or another, or finding a better point of visual focus for the shot. My point is that there will very often be another great picture hiding in that relocated viewfinder, and it is well worth your time looking for that unexpected picture because it will often delight your esthetic sense.

 Try composing your shot from a height other than the average human eye. We all see the world from our eye height, and everything looks "natural" when photographed from that height. Before you decide you have taken all the shots there are at a particular scene, try getting a different perspective. Is there a place where you can get additional height and bring in more of the vista? Is there a lower vantage point that lets your viewer see a part of the scene that would be hidden from them at eye height? Can you change the background and visual focus of your shot by that change in viewpoint? That change of perspective may open a new way of seeing the scene, and give you an unexpectedly interesting shot.

For my waterfall shot, I first moved over to one side of the falls. That helped - it reduced the effect of some distracting foreground branches, and let me zoom in on the falling water and surrounding rock. That seemed to tell a more compelling story, but I still wasn't happy with the overall effect of the composition. It was too harsh and sterile with that rock wall in the background, and I had lost the "jungle" feel of the lush foliage.

 So I experimented with some closer shots. I zoomed in on the point of the falls where the water splashed onto the lowest rocks, and was rewarded with a greater sense of motion and power of the falls. But I still wasn't sure about how much surrounding vegetation to include. I tried both landscape and portrait orientations; the landscape seemed stronger but it didn't have the interest focus I wanted; the falls were getting lost in their surroundings. I had the lush feel back, but the composition was too busy.



Then I tried climbing up onto a rock outcropping near the falls, to get a different vantage point. This let me try some additional closely-framed shots, concentrating on a "splashy" area partway down the falls. It also helped me to just pick one interesting clump of ferns as the key foliage contrast. That reduced the tendency for the foliage to overwhelm the falls, except now the ferns and the waterfall were equals in the shot. That wasn't what had drawn me to the scene in the first place- the falls were the key point of emphasis when I first spotted the scene

But finding that clump had helped me decide what really needed to be in the frame to tell the story I wanted. I swung further towards the other side of the falls, reoriented to a vertical layout, and used the clump of ferns to anchor just one corner of the image. That freed me to zoom in the most active portion of the falls themselves, and that helped me capture the sense of motion I really wanted to emphasize. This shot had the motion of the falling water, the lush green of the background moss, and the delicate form of the ferns that repeated the falling motion of the water; it was my keeper from my work at the scene.

The other thing I urge you to force yourself to do, in the heat of getting the best shot, is to look behind you. You may have walked up to a fantastic vista, or found the absolute best location to frame a shot. Go ahead, take that fantastic picture. Now, turn around 180 degrees: see what is hiding behind you. Something drew you to that particular vantage point to take a shot; what you may not have consciously realized is why you were drawn to that point. It may well have been some of the elements you passed on the way, and unless you take the moment to really see the whole scene, including the vista behind you, you may have missed the best part of the moment available to you to capture the power and beauty surrounding you.




I was quite happy with the images I had captured of the falls, but I walked across the road and surveyed the scene off the side of the mountain. It was completely different from the waterfall, but it spoke to me as well.

The ridges of the Park, stepping away into the hazy distance, were abstract in their form and color, in stark contrast to the fine details I had been shooting at the waterfall. It was an exciting moment, taking in such a distinct image that had nothing in common with my first scene. It was a great stop!

A final thought: I find in my own work that many of my most rewarding pictures were either the very first or very last shot I took at a particular scene. I suspect this is due to a couple of factors. I do think that the first impression you have of a scene as a careful photographer is often a very good one: you have been struck by something in the scene that spoke loudly to you. Listen to that instinct and take that shot; just don't think it's the only one. When you keep working the scene and find the non-Obvious Pictures, you get more and more attuned to the scene. For me, that process leads me more and more to real beauty of the scene, and when I have arrived at that point, it becomes apparent that it is OK to stop.

And you can do all this without latex gloves....