The Art of Exclusion

Morkel Erasmus All Authors 10 Comments

I know I should probably get cracking on the proper trip report of the recent Mana Pools photo safari that I hosted for a wonderful group of guests…but my 2-year old son ending up in hospital over the weekend with broncho-pneumonia put a stop to any photo processing and blogging plans I had lined up for the weekend evenings. He’s doing better now and is back at home, thankfully.

Anyway, I thought I’d “plug the gap” as it were with a short post about what I like to call the “art of exclusion”.

You see, photographic composition and story-telling is often more about what you EXCLUDE from the frame than it is about what you INCLUDE in the frame. This is particularly true in nature photography, where the elements of nature (landscape vistas, changing weather, flying birds, moving insects and roaming wildlife, etc) conspire to clutter our compositions with confusion and chaos. It’s the job of the discerning nature photographer to create order from that chaos, to frame a moment in time that both tells the story of what was actually happening as well as implies the story of what might have been happening.

Case in point the photo below…captured on said recent Mana Pools safari.

This is uncropped, straight from Lightroom with a slight round of sharpening and local contrast after resizing in Photoshop.


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This little elephant calf was not alone. You can see the undulating rolling landscape of this particular stretch of floodplain and many of the members of this breeding herd (the calf’s mother and family) were grazing in the depressions between these undulations. You can see the bum of one of the herd members quite prominently here.

We were busy driving back to our camp for a late brunch after a fruitful morning’s photography, and I instructed Kevin our guide to stop for a moment. I told the guests who were on my vehicle to await their moment and capture the calf on its own in the frame. I did the same. This is my resulting image – processed as per my vision and intent…

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Careful timing to make sure the elephant is isolated from other elephants and also from the trees around it. Careful cropping to present the frame I saw in my mind’s eye. Monochrome conversion.

It’s a bit stark, I know. I did a very quick job in processing and will probably take a bit more time to tweak it when I eventually process it proper. Try to forget what I described and what you saw in the original frame. Try to look at this image on its own. What does it tell you? What could be the story here? A young elephant, smelling for its mother, looking lost amid a meandering forest of gigantic trees? The last elephant on earth, wandering desolate woodlands?

I’m not saying that this is the story-line I would have pitched to you had I simply only showed you this image – I don’t want to do bait-and-switch with my photography…what I am saying is that the stronger mood, the more open-minded interpretation (where every viewer makes up their own implied story) and the stronger composition is found when we exclude the obvious and include the mystery of the moment. Besides the fact that other elephants in the frame would have muddled up the strong lines and distinct shapes I ended up with in this frame from an aesthetic point of view, the stronger story and implied mood/message is with the lone little calf in the forest. You can also infer a conservation-based message here, the possibilities are endless.

You see what I mean? Art – and photographic art by extension – is supposed to EVOKE more than it DESCRIBES…and a photo that lingers in my mind is the photo that doesn’t show just what a subject is…but also what ELSE it is…

Does that make sense?

As a last swing of the axe – check out this inspiring photo of an African Wild Dog puppy captured by Kim Wolhuter.

This was not the only Painted Dog (as they are also called) in this particular pack on this cracked mud pan on this particular day…the whole pack was there. What Kim did is isolate the pup (exclude the others), convey a deeper message of the plight of these animals (only 4000 or less remain with ever-decreasing land and range) and won himself the 1st prize in the category for endangered wildlife in the BBC Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards a couple of years ago.

What’s the take-home message then?

I normally provide quite descriptive stories with my photos. I love retelling them as it happened in the wild.

Yet, I also love creating images that have a conceptual message. A broader application. A deeper connection to the viewer it’s presented to and the fragile ecosystem it depicts. It doesn’t have to be either or, it can be both and more. A metaphor and a simile, a memoir and a message, all in one…

Okay, that’s enough of the deepness for now.

Y’all have a great day now!

Feel free to respond to my ramblings by dropping me a comment below…do you agree/disgree? Why?

Morkel Erasmus

About the Author

Morkel Erasmus

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Just a regular guy, camera in hand, overcome by the beauty of the African continent, and passionate about sharing this beauty with others!

Comments 10

  1. Andrew Cromhout

    Obviously the opposite is the art of inclusion. Often, as a newer photographer, I wanted to get in as close as I could to the subject. Zoom in and fire away. More often than not I had just another pic of an elephant or a lion. Now, by zooming out considerably, we can make a humble impala look exceptional in its surroundings. By zooming out and cropping appropriately, you can tell a story of the surrounding trees and vegetation, any other animals in the vicinity, as well as probably where the photo was taken. Maybe get some clouds in, or maybe even a simple blue sky where you will place some text for a cover article, etc, etc.

    I suppose the real art is knowing how far to zoom in or out – include or exclude, for the best story to be conveyed. What is the real message you aim to achieve with your photo.

    Nice short article.

  2. Brooke Reilly

    Thank you for the informative blog read. Im quite new to photography, a couple years now. I’m an Aussie but spent 4 wonderful months working at an a elephant park in Sa and then did a bit of a tour further up north of the continent. I’ve always been told I’ve had an eye for nature photography when I take pictures, but it wasn’t until my trip to Africa where I bought my first dslr (yay!) that I really got stuck into it. I love the art form, but I keep trying to tell myself not to see life just through a lens. I try to take beautiful pictures but also try be in the moment as it happens also. Which sounds easier than I actually find doing. Your elephant photo is beautiful, had you not told us that the herd was near by I would of thought of it as a orphan looking for his mother than was more than likely poached. Isn’t it amazing the stories a photo can tell when you don’t know the background story, thanks for sharing it with us 🙂

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  3. Jakes De Wet

    Based on this and comment about inclusion brings me to a point of struggle that we all have as nature and wildlife photographers. The ongoing mind battle on what equipment to use. It plays a key role in flexibility especially when stuck in a vehicle or hide. Long fixed lenses are great for top quality images with fine detail and capturing every strand of hair, fly on the nose or all other relevant detail and images are judges on the quality of detail. Zoom lenses are more flexible, maybe slightly less sharp but allow for flexibility, allow us to think more about the context the composition, the inclusion and exclusion. I look at the work of people such as Nick Brandt, Andy Biggs and others who create images for the high end commercial market and it is all about context. I see brilliant images everyday with great stories about the sightings, the event etc, the question for me is this, as a photographer who sell images and not one who run photographic events and safari’s, can the images stand on its own and convey a sense of moment, context and light. Thanks for a great article always very informative and thought provoking.

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      Morkel Erasmus

      Hey Jakes. Good points for sure, creating images that speak for themselves and stand on their own is the hardest kind to make. It’s something I keep challenging myself to do…and there’s no hard and fast recipe for it. I think the important thing is being able to capture those kinds of images regardless of the gear/lens you have with you…you need to be so in tune with your equipment and so focused on your vision that you can hit a straight shot with a bent rod, as it were.

  4. Vicki Sandman

    A great article and so interesting, and shows how emotions can be affected.

    The first photo made me feel happy, thinking that the elephant was off on his own little adventure and having a bit of fun.
    But the second photo made me feel terribly sad. Is he lost? Has his mum been killed?

    All those times I have isolated one animal from a group but never really considered just how much the story telling could be affected.

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  5. Pingback: Long Lenses Do Not Limit You - Wild Eye

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