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November 8, 2012

The untapped potential of S curves

The S curve is a composition technique that many are familar, though very rarely to its full potential.

Where its potency remains untapped is, all too often, S curves are captured as-is when a subject offers a ready made composition through a sole naturally occurring form in the landscape; a rivers meander, a sand dunes arc. 

The real value of S curves as a compositional technique though comes when they are created from multiple elements in the landscape.

Manufacturing S curves

In this example from Dead Horse Point, the S-curve exists through the conscious placement of numerous elements within the frame, as opposed to passive shooting of a natural S curve shape.

An example of S-curves in landscape composition

A group of 3 rocks (A) in the lower portion of the frame provide the lead in, drawing the eye up toward the cliff edge to the far left of the frame (B). The river then functions to pull the viewer across the frame to the next focal point (C), the sunlit ridge of the butte, the still Colorado providing a means for the eye to arcs around into the Canyonlands (D) where it picks up another curve to the horizon and exit the frame (E).

Creating 3 dimensionality

The primary benefit of the S curve's use in this way is to create a perception of depth in the otherwise 2d plane of this photograph. Its double switchback and sweep from left to right provides the eye with lateral and vertical line to follow across the frame, this sense of travel and continuity from element to element gives the viewer a sense of depth and 3 dimensionality in the image.

The ultimate leading line

S-curves also provide viewers with a clear and distinct path to follow through the frame, helping establish an order in an image and a continuity between elements that help tell a narrative.

Images that achieve a complete 'front to back' S curve through the systematic placement of key elements have a sense of completeness to them -- a beginning, a middle and an end.

S-curves which only occupy a portion of a frame however, break the eye’s journey and disrupts the illusion of depth and space. 

Example of the S curve composition technique

In this image above, the placement of elements creates and connects clear entrance and exit points. The spout (A) at the frame's lower right provides an entrance point for the eye. After a change of direction (B) at the top of a group of prominent boulders, another solitary boulder (C) at the falls base draws toward the top of the pony tail fall to exit the frame (D).

Order from chaos

Often seeing a set of elements to crate an S-curve is hard. The landscape is a chaotic, numerous feaures and elements vie for your attention.

One approach to sucessfully 'making' an S-curve is to think about features that draw you as prospective points of interest along a curve.

On this example below, I was drawn by several characteristics of the rainforest  -- the clubmoss drenched firs, the luxuriant green carpet and nursemaid logs. 

Soon I located a tree which had fallen at a strong diagonal (A). Needing the middle part of the S led me to change viewpoint in the clearing till I ‘saw’ another tree on an angle (B) which worked it's way to meet the bottom of the firs (C). At which point I 'saw' the eye could follow the vertical trunks see the moss and exit the frame (D).

Keeping the S cuve as a goal in my mind allowed me to break the landscape down into smaller constituent parts and stages of an image, connecting them along that imaginary path.

Creating S-curves within the landscape is a far more challenging proposition for the photographer, though the results are well worth the time investment in the field for the resulting depth and interest it will bring to your photography. Don't find it. Make it.

Paul Marsden

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