Capture The Magic: Train Your Eye, Improve Your Photographic Composition


I was photographing an extensive growth of barrel cactus in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas and wanted to create an image that would lead the eye into an archetypical Chihuahuan Desert scene. Using a very wide-angle lens, I moved as close to the nearest cactus as safety would allow. Although each cactus head is approximately the same size, the wide-angle lens distorts the size of the nearest cactus and intensifies the sense of perspective, leading the eye into the image. As you can see, the red spines and their delicate detail draw the eye into the frame and become a pathway to infinity. This approach allows an amazing amount of information to be imparted to the viewer. It’s as if there’s a macro image combined with a landscape image: the foreground provides details and the background provides context.
All Photos © Jack Dykinga

Capture the Magic (Rocky Nook, ISBN: 978-1-937538-35-4) uses a structured approach to teach the art of creating interesting, well-composed images. It provides solutions to problems that often get in the way of producing great photographs and emphasizes the importance of training the eye to exclude the extraneous. Examples of strong images are juxtaposed against flawed images, illustrating how to create a successful composition. Topics covered include light and shadow, lens choice, framing, negative space, and many more.

In this book, author Jack Dykinga encourages us to look at photography as a way to communicate. Dykinga says, “Photography is a marvelous language that crosses linguistic borders as a universal, powerful, and direct communication. As photographers, we see something we find interesting and simply want to share it.” Readers will learn new ways to create interesting and powerful compositions that communicate their intended messages. Filled with beautiful color images throughout, the book is sure to inspire, teach, and motivate photographers of all levels.—Liner notes supplied by publisher.

Rocky Nook produces very high-quality instructional books and this one, from Jack Dykinga, one of the most respected and honored nature and outdoor photographers of our time, struck me as strong in both the quality of the images and the straightforward approach to helping readers improve their compositional—and visualizing—skills.—Editor

Similarly, ice fragments washed onshore in Chilean Patagonia’s Lago Grey provide information about the blue icebergs and the storm-covered mountain environment and bring the viewer’s eye into the frame. In this image, layer upon layer of ice shards lead the viewer into the scene. Because it’s all on a sharp plane of focus, all the elements read well and the image works. If the foreground was out of focus, it would break the pathway into the image and the viewer’s eye would be pushed away. Whereas here the near-to-far effect reaches from the bottom of the image to the top, other images can achieve the same effect by leading the eye from left to right or from right to left.

As you will see from the images in this chapter, lens choice controls how and what images communicate. A lens’s effect can either work to reinforce your statement or to weaken it.

Wide-angle lenses have the virtue of providing a line of sharp focus from near to far. Many photographers, however, fail to realize the power of a wide-angle lens because they’re too timid to place the lens right up against their subject. An image’s strength is determined by the camera’s placement in close proximity to the subject, which effectively increases the relative size and impact of the foreground against the background.

Tiny flowers in this garambullo cactus are inches away from my lens, and the plane of focus from left to right takes the eye into the frame along the powerful diagonal pathway. By using a wide-angle lens and a small f-stop, the depth of field encompasses the entire scene and the visual pathway is complete.

In this image, photographed at Joseph Creek in eastern Oregon, the flower on the right anchors the composition. At the same time, the flower also leads the eye into the frame and, ultimately, to the tiny waterfall. In these types of compositions, the foreground anchors the image, but it also requires a destination for the eye.

The foreground’s central element can be further emphasized when it stands alone in sharp focus. In the fast-moving water of Utah’s Virgin River, the wet stone becomes a mirror of the canyon and sky. The stone is a powerful foreground anchor while the moving water reinforces the pathway up into the canyon.

About The Author
Jack Dykinga won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for Feature Photography, and is a regular contributor to Arizona Highways and National Geographic magazines. He has published nine wilderness advocacy books, including Frog Mountain Blues, The Sonoran Desert, Stone Canyons of the Colorado Plateau, and Desert: The Mojave and Death Valley. Other books include ARIZONA, a compilation of Dykinga’s best Arizona images, and IMAGES: Jack Dykinga’s Grand Canyon, which reflects his love for this fantastic location.

In April 2010, the International League of Conservation Photographers selected Dykinga’s image, Stone Canyon, as one of the forty best Nature Photographs of all time. He also received the Outstanding Photographer of the Year Award from the Nature Photographers of North America in 2011.
Dykinga has donated his talents to the International League of Conservation Photographers’ RAVEs (Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions) in Mexico, Chile, Canada and the U.S. At each RAVE, Dykinga joins teams of celebrated photographers from all over the world to highlight potential environmental degradation.

Where To Buy
Capture the Magic: Train Your Eye, Improve Your Photographic Composition (ISBN: 978-1-937538-35-4) by Jack Dykinga is published by Rocky Nook ($39.95, 188 pages) and is available online and at fine bookstores. To learn more, visit