How Close Is Close Enough?

One of the characteristics of a strong composition is that it tells your audience your intention in making a photograph. If someone has to ask you what it is you are trying to show them, that’s one question too many.

One way to give your photos this kind of clarity is to make them simpler. And one way to simplify any picture is to get in closer to your subject.

But how close is close enough?

That’s where general guidelines turn into judgment calls, and your instincts and experience as a photographer kick in.

A Walk Through the Gardens

Recently, I was visiting the Caramoor Museum and Gardens in Katonah, New York, and I saw an interesting-looking urn that I wanted to shoot.

I decided to include the beautiful, ornate gold-and-black gate in the background of the picture. So I composed a shot (using my tripod, naturally) to include the entire urn and most of the gate.

Nice shot, I thought.

It looked good on the LCD, and I still like it. But then I thought that putting those geraniums in the foreground might be creating too much of a distraction and diminishing the impact of the gate.

So I zoomed in a touch to get rid of the flowers.

I liked this shot, too.

In fact, I’m using it in the revision of my book, “The Joy of Digital Photography.” With the reds and greens gone from the foreground, the shot will almost certainly reproduce better for the printer.

Finally, I took a third shot, moving in even closer.

I always advise photographers, “When you think you are close, you can still take a giant step closer — and usually come up with a good shot.”

I call it the Giant Step Theory. (Actually, I just thought of that name for it — but you get the point.)

In the third shot, while the gate is completely gone and there is no real foreground, it’s still a good photograph, and in some ways I like it best. One small step for you, one giant step for your photography.

Good, Better, Best?

So, is any one of these shots superior to the others?

It really depends on how you’re using it, and what you like — or what you like at the moment. If your preferences are like mine, they’re always changing.

But since digital is free and you only have to move a few feet to give yourself more options, go ahead, shoot the wide shot and then take a step or two forward.

As long as you’re not shooting from the end of a dock, of course.

5 Responses to “How Close Is Close Enough?”

  1. Jeff, I agree with you. The closest photo is the most interesting, in my opinion. The other two are good, but pedestrian. Now I just wish you would show us the "get closer" shot on the ornate gate! Thanks, good post. I'm going to practice this on my next shoot.

  2. As a summer employee at Caramoor, I know how beautiful the gardens are this time of year, and that they will only get more beautiful as the summer progresses. It’s a great place to come just to walk around or picnic, we also hold concerts in the gardens as part of our Summer Festival!

  3. it's funny I always have to push myself to get closer when doing engagement sessions, or any portrait work. I like to stay in my comfort zone and really I should be pushing myself to get closer to my subjects.

  4. Jeff,

    Great job illustrating the benefit of getting closer. I like all the shots, and they all have different context. I prefer the middle shot, since I can still tell that the photo is taken in a beautiful courtyard or garden form the background.

    To your point of the giant leap,I recently have put my DSLR away and am spending the summer shooting the streets of NYC with a m4/3rds and a 20mm (40mm equiv) lense to force myself to get closer and focus on composition and context in my street shooting. It's been quite an experience thus far - I am meeting lots of people and learning their stories in addition to taking their picture. The shots have more context and purpose to them as well.

    Great advice.

  5. OK, responses to all 🙂

    Jim: I agree, I like that really tight framing. I miss the context a bit, but I like the way those green plant blades dominate the top of the frame.

    Sarah: Yes! I love the music series. One of my closest friends is bassist Phil Bowler who played there with the late-great Jackie McClean. What a night! How lucky you are to work there. A very mystical place and there are a few photos in the new edition of my book The NEW Joy of Digital Photography that will be out in October. I'll give Caramoor a copy.

    Denver: Getting close to people is tough--good thing zoom lenses were invented 🙂

    Stephen: Thanks very much. And I love street photography, have always been a big fan of Joel Meyerowitz who was so great at street photography (and probably still is). I've been involved in storytelling a lot in my life and you made me think of a line I saw on a bumper stick at a storytelling festival: "The shortest distance between two people is a story." It fits your comment beautifully!

    Happy 4th to all.


Leave a Reply