Seeing Shapes not Things

Along with Narrative, seeing Shapes, especially Geometric shapes is very important to my being inspired to make an image. I’m not yet sure whether perceiving a pleasing arrangement of shapes comes first, followed by narrative creation. I know shapes are key in the initiation my of “Design” and “Belief” images but I also suspect they are key for my “Intuitive” images as well (see “Image Analysis by Initiative” post, from 13/06/2017). “Spectacle” images are primarily initiated by the quality of light and “Recognition” images by the narrative they have sparked within my memory.

The images in this post were all initiated by “Intuition” and or “Design”.

In trying to understand this feature of my work I have exaggerated the shapes from various images in the way I had perceived them at the time of taking the picture. Examples:

This image of Buchaille Etive Mor and the tree plantation is all about the shapes, balance and the image rotation around the vanishing point. It has very little to do with any potential narrative. There is a bridge in the scene, but it is so small as too be insignificant to the composition.

Garth Ness, Shetland

This is a very simple construction of shapes that I perceived as a two-dimensional scene with no perspective depth. My aim was to enhance this two-dimensional effect thus making the horizon appear like the edge of the world.

As with the previous image there is a single, strong rotational point but, this time, it is not the vanishing point. It is where the side of the building meets the horizon. The positioning and size of the 3 pieces of wood (bottom right) provides balance and weight to that side of the image.

This image has far more narrative potential than the last with its derelict building and the unsettling nature of the apparent void over the horizon.

Lerwick, Shetland

In my mind this image does not have a subject. Instead the landscape, water and the building form a single assemblage of geometric shapes that, again, I perceived to be two-dimensional with no perspective depth.

In this image there is no single rotational point. It is more about the balance and arrangement of various geometric shapes, lines and tones. For example, the way the sea and sky colours are reflected in the glass of the window.

The dark areas of seaweed underwater are the first non-linear elements that I have focused on. They contribute to the balance of the image by adding weight to the base. It was not their shape but their tones that caused me to emphasise them.

Ness of Sound, Lerwick

This image can be perceived in two-dimensions or three. In two dimensions the land horizon implies a deep void beyond.

In three dimensions the sheep track moving from the right side up to the horizon is critical to the arrangement. Along with the sea horizon it guides the viewer towards a point that appears also to be the focus of the concrete gun emplacement. Additionally, it helps create a subservient position for the viewer by emphasising the slope and that the viewer is looking up towards the gun emplacement.


This image is all about triangles, from the folds of the nets, the holes in the nets, to the shards of glass. The soft curves of the dunes and grasses are well integrated with the nets so that, at first, it may be difficult to extricate the shapes that made the composition attractive.

The shards of glass provide both an interest in that area of sand and a source of narrative creation.


A mirror but not quite a mirror.

I find the abstracted version of this image almost as pleasing as the original.

Unst 2

This is the first image where I have interpreted a very amorphous shape, the clouds, as a strong directing element pointing towards the subject of the image, a gun emplacement.

Along with the clouds, the mirror-like water, forming a dais for the subject to sit upon, give it a superiority, making it the key element, the subject, of the image. The other building provides an element of balance but the island is mere detail that could be removed without impacting upon the overall image.

Unst 3

A soon as I saw the potential of juxtaposing the concrete foundations with the old WWII Power house I chose this vantage point to link the two elements. Then I adjusted the camera height to ensure the horizon aligned with the top of the power house, with only the gable end emerging into the sky.

The only essential elements in this image are the foundations, the power house and the horizon. Everything else is just a canvas upon which these elements are arranged.

Unst 4

This final image in the set was also perceived as a composition of lines and shapes. When abstracted down to the key elements the result reminds me of paintings by Wassily Kandinsky.


What I find interesting in this exercise is how often the perception of shape in compositions ignores whether the shape could be a subject or is just part of the background, the canvas. Instead it is the intuitively seen interplay between elements that builds the patterns and compositions that inspire the making of the image. It is also interesting to see which elements have been intuitively ignored and merged into the background.

Most often there are dominant, usually geometric shapes that appear to sit upon a canvas of sea, sky and or land. However, occasionally, the whole scene is perceived as being two-dimensional. In such cases the sea, sky and land also functions as shapes and not merely as a backdrop.

Viewing the scene from a low position, where nothing is visible beyond the land horizon creates an unsettling impression that there is a void beyond. It also helps the image to be viewed in two, rather than three dimensions.

This type of photography depends upon simplifying the scene down to a few basic elements. This is another reason why I am more successful in remote, sparsely populated, usually treeless, locations where achieving a simple composition is much easier.

This area of research is far from complete. I’m sure there are more learnings to be made from these and other images. So, the conclusions may change over time. However, I do believe that my intuition is being highly influenced by how my perceptions of shapes and the juxtapositions of such shapes within the scene is operating.

What do I see in my images?

Alan Thomson suggested that you would find it interesting if I described, in more detail, what I see in my images and why I took them. So, here’s deconstructions for a couple of photos I took recently.

Of course, the lighting was stunning for this image. Any photo of these turbines would have been good but why did I choose this arrangement?

I have often imagined windfarms as invading armies, a bit in the “War of the Worlds” style. I chose this arrangement because the front turbine is definitely the one in charge and the other 4 are like a line of following squaddies. The front turbine is also raised up on a, well lit, dais giving it further authority. Also, the curving steps and the balcony made me think of a pulpit and the place from which the invaded would receive instructions. This was also why I chose a low viewpoint, emphasising its power.

Finally, the dark storm clouds behind speak of what’s about to come.

This is what I mean by my photography being driven by narrative. I usually start with just an intuition but then the narrative develops as I think about the scene.

Now for a more abstract narrative.

This first appealed because of the ambiguity of the scene. I saw (as I seem to do quite often) that the concrete block and metal bars could be interpreted as an artist’s installation, deliberately placed in this environment. By making it large and placing it in the middle of the frame I have given it a significance which, hopefully, asks the viewer to think of it as a piece of art rather than the banal object that it is.

That is the same reasoning I used when I chose to assemble my exhibition images with large white borders in good quality white frames. It’s a variation on the concept of “all fur coat and nae knickers”.

However, this image has a far greater meaning for me than would be obvious to any viewer. That is because of the lighting and the colours. The greens in the grasses and the bright, pale skies remind me of the colours and mood of a Rupert Bear annual from the 1950’s. When I was taking images in this location I was very calm, quiet and absorbed in the moment, just like, as a child, reading Rupert Bear books. In this image I have captured my emotions of the moment, but I doubt anyone else would get that.

My point in writing this piece is to show that there is a lot more depth to be found in photography if you can get below the surface of the scene and ask yourself why it appeals and what it means to you rather than just accepting that it does and pressing the shutter.

Interview with Bruce Percy

I recently had a very enjoyable, extended photographic conversation with Bruce Percy.

It was interesting to hear about Bruce’s methods, thinking processes and to contrast them with my own, so, I thought I would share some of the topics that came up.

Spatial Cognition and Intuitive Composition

We have both noticed (and been told by our photo-holiday customers) that we seem able to identify good starting compositions, almost instantly, upon arrival at a new location. Up to now I have been calling this “intuitive composition”. However, following our conversation, I wonder if a large part of this “intuition” is actually an ability to use our spatial cognition, even as we approach the location. By spatial cognition I mean an ability, to easily picture the viewpoint, arrangement of elements, parallax, etc., from another position based solely upon what we are seeing from our current location. I am not talking about small differences in position but starting to imagine the scene from several miles away (assuming an open field of view), then iterating towards a final composition as we get closer.

We are building compositions in our minds long before we have actually seen them. This will include, rejecting some locations, on the basis of what we imagine the composition will be, as well as driving us towards other potentially good locations.

In doing this, are we unusual, amongst photographers? Surely, everybody has these abilities but does everybody use them to the same degree? I can imagine that someone skilled at flying model aircraft or remotely controlling a vehicle must have similar abilities that are likely even better developed than our own.

Consequently, I now believe that Bruce and I are using our spatial cognition as we approach our location and that this accounts for our ability to go directly to a point with a potentially good composition. Perhaps, the remaining “intuitive” part is in our being able to relate our imagined composition to other locations, images, experiences, etc., that we know have worked in the past.

Emotions and Narrative

After our first meeting, I had decided that my key compositional driver was narrative, using metaphor to encourage viewers to create their own stories. However, Bruce’s key driver is emotional. He uses tones, shapes and graphical elements to create dream-like images and evoke emotional responses in the viewer. Stories versus emotions appeared to be very different motivations.

Following our discussions, I am now persuaded that narrative and emotion are not discrete characteristics. Instead they are just different points on the same continuum of “story”. An image narrative is based upon consciously creating stories, in the present, that are external to the self and based upon the knowledge of the viewer. An emotional response to an image is unconsciously created, from internal stories (memories), that result from the viewer’s personal history and experiences.

Consequently, both the narratives and the emotions created by an image are just different forms of “story”, one consciously created and the other unconsciously.

Unicorns and Space Ships

As Bruce was discussing simplifying compositions, he paraphrased one of his photo-holiday guests, by saying:

“I like dew on the grass, that river here and that cloud there. This rock is good and I must include that unicorn. And, there’s a space ship.”

I know exactly what he means. I have often seen multiple elements, all of which, I want to include in the image. Each element probably has its merits but including them all in one image is unlikely to create the best composition. Not thinking deeply enough about what to include, and why it adds to the composition is, for me, one of the most difficult things to do on location. But waiting until later is too late to achieve the best compositions.

This is why I particularly like fog, snow, overcast skies, calm days, anything that reduces the complexity of a scene for me. Photography is all about simplification. We should be eliminating everything that does not directly add to the narrative or emotional content of the scene.

Lammermuir Wind Farm

As a recent and very dramatic example of “human constructions in remote environments” windfarms have been a subject I have wanted to photograph. However, until yesterday, I was unable to get close enough to one to achieve representative images.

As usual I did as much planning as I could, using Google Earth to decide how to approach the wind farm above Gifford in the Lammermuir Hills. The only photographic hint that I gleaned from Google Earth was that the roadways leading to each turbine formed interesting, flower like patterns when viewed from above. I thought these might be compositionally useful. Other than that, I no clear ideas or expectations.

The walk in to the wind farm was across 3 miles of Grouse Moor. That was itself interesting as I disturbed many grouse, lapwings and hares as I passed by. On the way, I saw several of these, which I presume are rat traps laid to help protect the grouse.

I could see the wind turbines for the whole of my walk and started to consider the potential problems in photographing them. How could I include the turbine bases as well as the blades without resorting to distant or very wide-angle shots? I decided that the easiest solution was to make the nearest turbine base into a disruptive, foreground element cutting through the frame.

This was about my 4th attempt at a composition and the first that really appealed to me. I like the way the foreground turbine appears like a sentinel looking over the other turbines. I think it is the, almost face like appearance of the door that makes this work. The tiny electricity pylon on the left is an important element as it stops the eye from leaving the image on that side.

Here was one of several attempts to use the roadways as connecting, pattern elements. It hasn’t worked as well as I had hoped as am not high enough. The roadways are linking some elements but the pattern is not strong enough to lead the eye around the image. I think I will need to try again from the top of the hill off to the left of this frame.

When I think about it this image is not driven by narrative, as are most of my photos. Instead, seeing the flower like patterns on Google Earth led me to expectations around the potential for Design. I have not succeeded with that but I will try again from different locations.

One of the challenges photographing such a wind farm is to ensure there is separation between each of the many turbines. A pair of overlapping turbine masts is very messy and attracts the eye. Also, I must scan the whole image and try to take the shot when the turbine blades are not forming patterns with each other that might attract unnecessary attention. This is not too difficult and just requires a few seconds monitoring the viewfinder to understand the rhythms of the blades.

The cloudy sky was a problem. It is far too lumpy for my taste. Next time I need a smoother, darker sky so I can make the white windmills separate from the background more effectively.


“Silence is not just an absence of noise. It opens dimensions of experience everyone can take sensual pleasure from.”

This is a paraphrase taken from the trailer for the film In Pursuit of Silence.

I recently read a description of Edward Hopper’s paintings as being “metaphors of silence” and that they are about “tension and isolation” (Renner 2002, p85).

My own photography has long been influenced by Hopper, also Andrew Wyeth and, more recently, by the work of Hale Johnson. All American Realists who have created landscapes where the silence is profound and, even when people are included, they are images of isolation and loneliness. I do not consider these to be negative attributes, rather I find them comforting. Their paintings induce a tranquillity within me of a sort that I also want to convey through my photography.

Here are two images by Hale Johnson who specialised in paintings of New England.

Like Wyeth, and to a lesser extent, Hopper, Johnson uses a muted colour palette. This, along with his simple, austere compositions, helps evoke the silence in his paintings.

The isolation and loneliness come from the positioning of the houses on a hill, above the viewer, the empty space around the subject and the blank windows and open doors.

I have started to realise that I also use these techniques in my photography, albeit intuitively rather than as a conscious tactic.

The following painting is by Andrew Wyeth. I include it because it is a contradiction. Despite the obvious, stormy wind being implied (after all, the painting is called “Squall”), to me, it is a silent, comforting image.

The rain coats and binoculars seem so peaceful and calming, hanging there that the whites-horses seen through the window can be ignored. Even the open door does not evoke any sense of noise or even disturbance.

Wyeth wrote about this painting, in his autobiography. “…that strange quality reflected inside the white kitchen became more luminous as the squalls grew stronger”. (Wyeth 2002, p129). Perhaps it is that warm light, against the dark exterior, that creates the comforting calm.

In the Outdoor Photography magazine, issue 217, May 2017, page 104, there is a selection of 13 images on the subject of “Quiet Landscapes”. All of these images have muted, or B&W colours, a very simple composition with a single focal point that has a lot of space around it. Most images are further simplified by mist.

Conclusions – A muted colour palette and an austere composition are strong drivers in the creation of silence. Isolation and loneliness are helped by having a simple main subject and giving space around it. Blank windows and open doors give an impression of the buildings being unoccupied and so even more isolated.

I finish with one of my own “silent” images.






Seeing stories versus Making stories

After taking an intuitively composed image I can often find quite complex narratives within it. Given that these images have been intuitively composed, that is quickly and without any overt thought, I wonder whether these narratives were intuitively seen or just made up later from my thoughts when deconstructing the image.

My hypothesis is that most of the narrative is already seen, but probably not yet understood at the instant of intuitive composition. I will us a “thought experiment” to test my hypothesis.

I start with an image that became the catalyst for my final undergraduate project. I saw this scene and immediately knew it was going to be important to the narrative of the whole project. I couldn’t explain why. I just knew!

At this point, I had little idea what my project would be about, except that it would be images of objects and scenes at the National Trust’s, Tyntesfield House that were not normally be visible to the public.

The House was closed to the public whilst the staff performed a major cleaning operation. Here a portrait of Tyntesfield’s founding father has been removed from the wall, placed on the floor with the rope and some tissue providing a little protection.

It was the incongruity of the arrangement and the impression of a face hidden but trying to peer through the tissue that was immediately attractive to me.

However, the fact that this was some form of maintenance work seemed obvious from this composition. There is a narrative here but not a complex one. I wanted to achieve something more enigmatic.

This was certainly an intuitive composition. For the final version, with little more than a few seconds thinking I concluded that a closer crop was required to eliminate information and so create the required enigma.

Here is the final version. The whole process, from seeing the scene to creating this final version, was a matter of a couple of minutes. I knew I had something special but without knowing why.

Consequently, I consider this to be an “intuitive composition”.

Over the next weeks, as I looked at and started to deconstruct the image, the following narratives come out.

This is the portrait of a of a very wealthy and powerful man, Anthony Gibbs. In the 1800’s he made large profits from the South American guano trade. A result of his success was the 100 room Tyntesfield House and its 600-acre estate.

His portrait has looked down upon his descendants and their servants for 200 years.

However, today it is the thousands of National trust visitors who look at him as if he is just an attraction in a zoo.

I wonder what would he think?

Even worse, here he is, with his face hidden by tissue and guarded by a rope. Instead of a demonstration of his authority, his portrait is just another object to be cleaned. Would he be horrified by the indignity?

I knew some of the history of the family and house so how much of this narrative did I unconsciously recognise at the time of taking?

Or was it an intuitive recognition of the narrative potential, created by this unusual scene?

Or was the narrative wholly created later, based upon the composition I had taken?

I do know that I was so excited in the moment of seeing and taking the image that I must have recognised something instantly and intuitively.

I immediately understood that this scene would become the foundation for my whole project.

From then on, my project focused on the quirky juxtapositions of objects, accidentally created by conservators as they went about maintaining the house and its contents.

Today, going back to my “Artist Statement”, written at the time (2010), I found the following:

“My photography is about exposing and giving significance to the unintended compositions and accidental beauty of stored, sometimes forgotten and usually hidden objects within their landscapes. There is no deliberate narrative. These are “found” objects in “found” compositions taken without manipulation.”

I was not trying to create any specific narrative but was more concerned about the visual relationships to be found in the “unintended compositions”.  Later in the statement I wrote:

My viewpoint and composition invite the viewer to invent a narrative and attribute their own significances to each object and its place in the image.

I do want to viewer to be sufficiently intrigued by the composition that they will take time to wonder about and create their own image narratives.

In Conclusion

I am not, as I hypothesised earlier, composing based upon having intuitively seen a narrative that I cannot yet articulate.

Instead I am being intuitively attracted by the juxtapositions of a scene’s elements and the possibilities they create for making narratives.

It is an intuitive recognition of a potential narrative that is driving my compositions.

New Topographics?

I have long been inspired by the “New Topographics” photography. In particular the photographers, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and Frank Gohlke with their ability to conjure beautiful images out of banal subjects.

When I saw the following scene at Laugarbakki, Iceland I immediately thought it was something that might have been taken by Adams.  The new lamp post, the part-made road and the emptiness of a landscape rolling into the distance all reference his critique of urban expansion into the prairies around Denver, Colorado.

This is NOT an intuitive composition! I saw the potential for an image and then it was a case of trying several different compositions until I achieved something I felt was appropriate for an homage to Adams. I will show the initial attempts further on in the blog.

Adams always used B&W film and so I felt the need to convert my image to B&W as well.

Far from being an Icelandic scene this looks much more like the baking hot prairie as the grasses are so light in tone. The sky is heavily overcast and would never be the same as Adams, Coloradan, wall to wall, clear blue skies, which added to the emptiness of his images.

Here are 3 earlier compositions that did not work.

There is no shape to this image and the tyre tracks, far from adding interest, just appear confusing.

This is better as I now have the triangle of grass on the left providing something of a zig-zag shape to the foreground. The single lamp on the right, appearing to look into the image, is OK but feels too comfortable an arrangement. The distant hedge touching the lamp post is just wrong.

The foreground shape is now more powerful but the composition still lacks something. It feels flat, too symmetrical.

In the final version, shown again below, the base of the lamp is now at a fulcrum point around which the weights of the other image elements could rotate. The lamp itself is now looking out of the image and this feels like a tension point (imagine a rope from the lamp to the left edge of the image) which is supporting all the weight of all the image to the right.



Images analysis – Gestalt?


I read the following at

“Gestalt means when parts identified individually have different characteristics to the whole (Gestalt means “organised whole”) e.g. describing a tree – it’s parts are trunk, branches, leaves, perhaps blossoms or fruit. But when you look at an entire tree, you are not conscious of the parts, you are aware of the overall object – the tree.”

This is a very simplistic description of Gestalt Theory but the idea described here set me thinking about some of my compositions, especially those where the individual elements seem trivial but their arrangement, size, colour, tone, etc., make for an integrated whole. For example:

There are 4 key elements in this image: the fence, the hillside, the worn patch of earth and the sky (with small cloud). None of these is particularly interesting on its own but together they form a calm, balanced, and satisfying composition that suggests warmth, quietness, even silence. The elements make an “organised whole”.

The image may not immediately grab the viewer’s attention but it does have intrigue. The view of hills beyond the fence suggests height but there is no other indication of the location. Where is it? Why is the fence here? What caused the worn patch? What lies beyond that horizon? Is it a cliff edge?

The image was, in fact, taken about ½ way up Aonach Mor mountain, near Fort William and the fence is snow fence for a ski run.

The following example is similar but has an additional, and disruptive element.

Without the bulldozer, this image would be about the marks, shapes, and colours of the quarry. That humans are involved in the creation of this scene is obvious from the tracks. Also, the conical gravel piles, which can be created by natural (volcanic) forces, are more than likely made by humans.

The bulldozer is a disruptive element because its straight lines and sharp edges are distinctly mechanical. It immediately attracts the eye for its own qualities and not because it is part of the whole scene. Bulldozers have aggressive associations and the way this one is placed, slightly hiding behind a gravel pile, it could be a mechanical dog, guarding the quarry. It is not facing the viewer but there is a sense in which it is aware of the viewer, waiting, prepared. These feelings are enhanced by the tyre tracks leading past the front of the bulldozer. These imply there is a specific path the viewer should take into the image and this path goes in front of, and close to the bulldozer. Is this safe?

In this image, the quarry has become a canvas upon which the bulldozer sits. The whole is really two images which, when combined, produce a single narrative.

Conclusion – The first image asks us to view it as a whole, as a collection of shapes and colours. There is no dominant narrative element. It is the arrangement of the whole that creates a narrative.

The second image would be similar if it weren’t for the presence of the bulldozer. The bulldozer, its associations and its position dominate the image and create a new narrative that is not present when the bulldozer is absent.

Aonach Mor Ski Resort

Again, I am visiting a ski resort “out of season”. The aim is to show the man-made constructs against the natural hillsides, without the cosmetic effects and contextual information provided by snow. I am attempting to minimise context and create more room for conjecture about the actual purpose of these constructs.

The weather was very sunny and windy, neither of which helped me in creating my usual mood. There was certainly none of the mist that had helped with the sense of isolation I achieved on my visit to the Glen Coe ski resort, last October.

Do these images support my thesis that man-made constructs become attractive focal points for photographic compositions? I’m not sure that is still valid when the constructs are the only really significant elements in the images.

This first image was the “intuitive” composition. There was little active thought about its composition except for the positioning of the pole lying on the right edge.

It was the curves, the complex construction of the fences and the implied path over the horizon that attracted me. I deliberately cut off the pole (right side) as it exited the image. I saw this as a way of holding the right edge, as if it was a support for the white frame of the page. For me this makes the edge seem like a wall stopping the eye from leaving on that side.

There is little, except the small glimpse of ski matting through the fence to indicate the purpose of these fences.  The distant hills help with the impression of remoteness.

I then tried the following composition that includes more contextual information. More ski matting, a metal bridge and a coil of wire are now visible. There is now also a hint of a tree plantation on the distant left side as further evidence of human presence.

Next I abandoned the “curves” in favour of focusing on the fence and, in particular, the gaps in the fence. These gaps look intentional (not due to weathering) which suggests a purpose other than the containment livestock but there are no longer any obvious ski references.

In this final version, I have tried to simplify and remove the context from the image even more. Now we are just left with an isolated fence and a worn piece of earth.

The distant hills are inaccessible (behind the fence) and the sky far more prominent, both of which increase the sense of isolation. By moving further into the scene, by removing the right-hand piece of fence and our inability, now, to clearly see the distant hills, the horizon line seems closer and much more of a cliff edge. There is a sense of danger about this image.

Conclusion – This exercise has shown, again, the value of starting with an intuitive composition but then refining it by working out the narrative and deciding what I want to emphasise and conceal.

I took the images in the order shown here. The second and fourth compositions, I think, work best but in very different ways.

In the second image the plantation and the right-side fence are bowed to the right and seem to be both echoing and balancing each other. Also in this image, the distant hills are balancing the hillside to the right of the fence whereas, in the first image, there is no relationship or connection between these features. Consequently, the second image is the more complete composition.

Similarly, I think the fourth image is better balanced than the third. In the third image the several bits of fence, land and sky are not well balanced and lack coherence. However, in the fourth image the weights of the various shapes (fence, hill, bare earth and sky) fit together such that they could rotate around the point where the gap in the fence meets the ground. Also, in this image a nice addition is that the central cloud now seems to be a statement whereas in the other images it is just a minor feature of the sky.

Finally, I now think my thesis is valid. The fourth image has convinced me that, rather than seeing the fence as the “only significant element”, the patch of bare earth, the hillside, the sky and even the tiny cloud are all equally significant elements. It is the way that they all balance, complement and fit with each other that makes the whole composition work.


Auchencorth Moss – An image Deconstructed using Savannah Theory & Jay Appleton’s “Imagery and Symbolism of the Prospect”

I feel strongly that the composition of the following image works but cannot yet articulate why. Viewed traditionally the composition appears to break several “rules”. The horizon is almost exactly across the middle and a tree splits the image into two separate halves. The image also has multiple elements, none of which are on any of the “1/3rds”. Finally, what are we supposed to be looking at? The image appears to be a jumbled set of elements.

Yet the image works for me. I will use these notes to analyse the composition using two different but related methods to gain a better understanding of why this might be.

Auchencorth Moss by Neil McCoubrey

Viewed using Savannah Theory

Here is a scene where the two sides of the image have very different opportunities when considered using Savannah Theory (Mansfield 2014).

Both sides are being viewed from a high vantage point which should be beneficial for seeing any threats and or benefits (prey, for example) from a great distance. This is true on the right side of the image. However, this side also has relatively little cover (refuge from threats). It also has several horizons beyond which there may be invisible threats.

There are parallel tracks, mid ground, just left of the dead tree stump. Being parallel tracks they are likely to be human, not animal constructs and so indicate that people have travelled towards the horizon on a regular basis.

On the left side, there is water, one of the basic requirements for survival and so an attractive prospect. However, the water is in a narrow valley and once someone is in this valley to collect water threats could approach quite closely without being seen.

There are tracks made by either humans or animals heading along the fence towards the mid ground trees and, presumably, onwards to the wooded area in the distance. So, this side has lots of refuge opportunities but these refuges could also be hiding threats and the fence would impede any escape out of the image to the left.

Due to the difference in the colours of grass to the left of the fence, this area looks less fertile than the rest of the image. That may be an illusion but, emotionally, it would drive the viewer towards staying on the right of the fence. It is a strong inner frame.

There are two light coloured rectangular constructions at the centre of the image. Being geometric these are most likely to be human constructs and therefor attract the eye. There is also some form of derelict brick construction between the stream and tracks in the foreground. Both, evidence of human presence and, presumably, survival in this landscape.

Viewed using the “Imagery and Symbolism of the Prospect”

Jay Appleton’s techniques look at the scene in terms of the paths made by the light towards the viewer’s eye and classifies the different elements around the:

“…relationship between the observer and the observed landscape in so far as his view is encouraged or impeded by the content of the intervening environment.”

(Appleton, 1975, p.85)

Note – a panorama is wide view from a good “vantage point”, typically with a 360o view, whereas a “vista” is a view bounded by a frame.

In this image, we have a high vantage point of an “interrupted panorama”. Interrupted implies an object is hiding a portion of the view but not so much as to destroy the overall impression.

The fence, a path and stream form strong regular and irregular “vistal axes”, which guide the eye towards the mid-ground woods. However, progression is blocked by several scrubby trees and the derelict brick construction. Our eyes will not, naturally get to the woods from here. On the left side of the fence there is also space to move but once in there we are visually trapped in a triangle formed by the edge of the image, the fence, and the distant trees. The colours on the left of this fence are cooler than those in the rest of the image which would be less attractive to the eye.

If, instead, we follow the stream it forms a “deflected vista” guiding us passed the near trees and towards the mid-ground woods and the light coloured, geometrical constructions.

The two central trees effectively split the image into two different vistal themes, the left relatively close and contained and the right open and distant. The strong sunlight on the reddish bark of the central tree accentuates it role as a dividing line between the two sides of the image.

To the right of the trees we have several “magnetic lines”. These are the 2 horizon lines, without trees, which attract the eye because they are “secondary vantage points” from where we could also view the scene from a high place. The third horizon appears heavily wooded and, as such, will only work as a vantage point when viewing outwards, from the trees. It is less attractive as it cannot provide a 360o panorama.

On this side of the image there is also a vistal axis, resulting from an imaginary line starting at the base of the central tree going through the fallen tree, its stump and then on to the horizons.

Appleton also notes how “clear light”, as in this image, aids our ability to see everything, even at distance, and this helps when perceiving hazards or threats.

Triangles & Balance

The two previous methods have allowed some interesting analysis of the image content but not of the composition. In fact, Appleton’s analysis suggests that the composition may not work because of the visual blockages that do not allow the eye to flow around the scene. Instead I will try a less analytical and more graphical approach.

I have converted the image to B&W in order to focus upon shape and tone and remove the complexities of colour.

I see two primary, visual triangles in the scene. Both are roughly the same size. They are shown in white and are connected by a secondary triangle, shown in red.

Triangles are always an appealing arrangement in an image.

The left triangle is very solidly sitting on the base line. Being such a firm base and connected by the foliage (red triangle) to the central tree. It appears to act as a support for a mast (the central tree) with the right-hand triangle (being lighter in tone) seeming like a sail.

For me the three triangles together form a delicately balanced structure, with the red triangle as the fulcrum. Whilst, at first glance, the central tree appears to divide the image, it is actually these triangles that hold it together. I believe it is this imaginary structure that is the foundation of the image’s compositional appeal to me.


Savannah Theory suggests that, for a human, this scene has a good balance between potential resources, open views and refuge and any areas of risk are fairly obvious. Therefore, as a scene, it appeals to our basic human instincts as somewhere we can exploit. We like the content of the scene but what of its arrangement?

Appleton’s analysis techniques don’t talk about our likes and dislikes, the threat versus benefits, but about the processes we use to survey and evaluate the scene. These techniques show how our eyes move around to capture and so enable analysis of what we are seeing.

In using Appleton’s techniques it is clear that, in some directions, the route our eyes take around the scene is blocked and we have to jump over visual barriers, from one area to another. Such discontinuities are not generally considered to be a sign of good composition. So, there must be some other factor that makes the composition appealing to me.

I believe my enjoyment of this image is largely driven by the delicate structure formed from the three imaginary triangles and how this structure links the two halves of the image across the apparent dividing element of the central tree.


Appleton J. The Experience of Landscape Wiley & Sons, London, 1975

Mansfield J. Landscape and Evolutionary Psychology, 2014. viewed at on  19/01/17.