The Artist’s Blog of Marlene Breitenstein

Exploring the creative process: inspiration, techniques, challenges, results.

Benefit from Standing Back

by | May 30, 2023

While studying for my art degree, I was taught to frequently stand at a distance to assess my work, as I was creating it. Artists benefit from stepping back, because they can see how the whole piece is evolving, rather than getting caught up in details. That’s one reason why a painter will stand at their easel, instead of sitting: standing facilitates movement back and forth. (Of course, this can apply to drawing and sculpting, too.)

Think about what happens when you walk into a room of an art museum or gallery. Your eyes scan the work, and you find yourself attracted to the pieces with the strongest compositions and clearest elements.

It’s the same when deciding a photo’s potential: Step. Back. In between checking for focus, either view your images at small thumbnail size, or literally roll your chair away from the monitor to get a more distant view.

The Pitfall of Not Stepping Back from Your Work

Otherwise, here’s what happens: When looking closely at a photograph—necessary to make sure it’s sharp, if nothing else—it’s easy to get caught up in the beauty or serendipity of minutia.

It goes like this…

Oh my gosh, a tiny bird flew into the landscape I was shooting, and it’s sharp, and its wings are at attractive angles. It adds something special!

Sunrise photo of a hillside, topped by a lone, broad-canopied tree in silhouette. The sky has a dramatic orange glow and blue-gray clouds. The hill is lined by rows of vineyards. In the mid-ground are two tall, slimmer trees, also silhouetted, and in the low foreground are the orange and green leaves of autumn grapevines.

Luckily, this image works for numerous other reasons, than the tiny bird that you can only see, blown up at full resolution on a large screen. This image benefited from me stepping back and looking at the whole work.
See the cool, beautiful bird?

… or like this …

Holy cliché, Batman, check out the dew drops on those leaves (or flower petals, or insect wings). They’re sublime!

Isn’t the light reflected in these dew drops stunning? (Can you see the dew drops clearly enough to tell?)

We photographers LOVE the close-up details of our zoomed-in, giant, on-screen image. You know, that same detail that maybe nobody else will notice when the image is at thumbnail size, before they enlarge it to … medium size, and maybe still don’t see the element that was screaming beauty at you (especially if the image has been compressed).

How You’ll Benefit with Distance

To benefit from standing back, look for a strong composition, either as shot, or in processing potential. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Do—or will—important elements fall on the 3×3 grid lines, the rule of thirds? (If you’re breaking the rule, do so intelligently.)
  • How’s the overall interplay of light and shadow?
  • Have you effectively used shape and/or form?
  • Does the photo offer eye-catching color harmony, contrast or highlights?
  • Where does the “negative space” direct the eye?
  • Do contrasts, colors, and/or shapes keep the eye bouncing around in the photo?
  • Conversely, do any elements draw the eye out of the photo, never to return?

Here’s an example of the rule of thirds, color harmony, negative space and highlights:

Your Work: Small and Strong

Whether a photo is eye-catching is key. Your photo at thumbnail size must catch the viewer’s eye, or nobody’s going to enlarge it (or zoom in), to see any of the glorious details. If your photo doesn’t work at thumbnail, it’s likely not your strongest work. When a photo is muddy and the elements are rather indistinct at thumbnail size, consider whether it’s worth posting, or if you should just move on to the next.

This also applies to processing your photos. It’s a good idea to frequently step back, to see how your tweaks are affecting the overall composition.

Thanks for your time and attention, both are valuable. 🙏🏻
I invite you to view my photographs and paintings, and to learn more about me.

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©Marlene Breitenstein. I welcome your inquiries about purchasing, licensing, or republishing my work. I take my intellectual property seriously. This post and its contents, unless otherwise noted, is owned by Marlene Breitenstein. It is not to be reproduced, copied, or published in derivative, without permission from the artist.

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Okay, since you actually clicked on this, and I’m a bit of an ambassador for things I believe in, I’ll explain:

Mastodon is the most engaging, refreshing social media I’ve experienced. It is a social network based on a non-profit, ad-free model, designed to allow the user fine control over what they choose to see and who they interact with, while retaining full data ownership. It may be smaller, but that’s actually a benefit!

Glass is an image-focused social network, designed by and for photographers, using a subscription-based model, which also provides full user and data control.

Where Am I?

Sometimes in the Washington, DC area.
Sometimes I’m traveling elsewhere.

Otherwise I’m near Landau in der Pfalz, in the Südliche Weinstrasse (Southern Wine Route) region of Germany, characterized by endless vineyards, and bordered by mountains covered with fairy-tale forests. France is 25 minutes away.