Photography is all about abstraction. As you reduce three-dimensional scenes into two-dimensional photographs, your world flattens and becomes filled with geometric forms.
If you are not careful, this compressing of dimensions can result in images that seem depthless and uninteresting, but, if you manipulate perspective in ways that provide clear shapes and interesting contrasts, your images can create depth through a implied movement. In the case of photographing rivers, lines are the single most important geometric feature.
Perhaps the best known lines rivers form are S-curves. Winding waterways, photographed from just high enough to pick up the sinuous shapes of a river’s course, can create pleasing, placid images. Combined with landscape camera orientation—implying serenity—curving lines create calmness. Viewers’ eyes travel slowly through S-curves, recreating the three-dimensional experience of being at the water’s edge. Viewers travel with their eyes along the sinuous surface of the water, a viewing experience that adds depth to an images width and height.
A variation on the S-curve is the half-S-curve, that is, the single sweeping line. Whereas full-S-curves show a river’s bending back and forth and comprise the greater part of the movement in such images, half-S-curves initiate movement in images and then allow movements to continue beyond the half-S-curves.
Sometimes half-S-curves lead to an second hidden half-S-curve, completing a full-S-curve. While not as simple and serene as full-S-curves, half-S-curves allow viewers to explore the mystery just around the corner. In other words, full-S-curve river images are nearly perfectly peaceful right up front while half-S-curve images that lead to additional half-S-curves in the background are both calming and vital. They require additional, active eye movement on the part of viewers to discover continued parts of the waterways.
While full-S-curves and half-S-curves are common geometric forms used in river images, the third design element for river photography is the use of the straight line. Implemented poorly, a straight line in a river scene can be terribly boring, but if the straight line leads to a second subject—often stronger than the river itself—then a river-as-pointer can be highly effective.
One of the most common ways to use rivers-as-pointers is with rapids or waterfalls. An angular cascade running as a straight line may not be the most pleasing photographic subject, but adding a strong subject near the end of the line can transform one the mundane geometric forms of a line segment into a highly effective design element. Rivers-as-pointers can lead viewers’ eyes to interesting trees, colorful leaves, well-positioned wildlife, or other nearby points of interest.
In order to emphasize the river-as-pointer, a polarizer filter increases contrast and allows shutter speed slow enough to blur water movement, transforming the river from a highly detailed subject, which attracts viewers’ attention more fully, into a graceful line leading to your main subject. [For more on selecting the proper shutter speeds to create pleasingly creamy water flow, see David’s “Shutter Speeds for Waterfall Photography.”]
Next time you photograph a river scene, think about how best to represent it to your viewers. Envision the scene graphically, geometrically, and two-dimensionally (perhaps covering one eye). As you decide what to frame out, imagine what the viewing experience will be of what you frame in, as your audience meanders along full-S-curves, explores the hidden mysteries beyond half-S-curves, and follows your rivers-as-pointers to a remarkable riparian landmarks.