Mastering Photography – Those Pesky Power Lines

Bison in Field Near Denver, Colorado Bison At Rocky Mountain Arsenal

I’ve noticed over the years, the tendency of landscape photographers, including myself, to lament the presence of power lines in their composition.

Power lines are just about everywhere one goes. They are a byproduct of human civilization.

As a photographer, sooner or later, you’ll have to make a decision on what to do with them in your scene.

The first choice I see many photographers make is to simply edit them out in post processing.  Don’t want no stink’n power lines in my photo. It ruins the essence of nature I’m trying to capture. I’ll change reality and make it look more natural with a little help from Photoshop.

The second choice I often see is changing position to obtain a different field of view, one that doesn’t include the power lines in the scene. This works too, most particularly when a different position provides a better photographic viewpoint.

A more amateurish approach would be to be completely oblivious to the power lines and just take the photo. This is a rather hit and miss approach and often results in a strange combination of composition elements that don’t really capture the true essence of the scene in a pleasing manner. I call these “snapshots”

One of my early photography teachers enlightened me on how to handle them, photographically speaking.

I’ll share the knowledge.

Don’t look at power lines as being a negative.  Always start with the assumption that the power lines are part of the scene and try to find the composition that uses them rather than take the approach that they should be removed or avoided. Removing the power lines in post processing or compromising the composition by moving to a less desirable position should always be plan B or C.

The first decision you must make is rather or not the presence of power lines maintains the continuity of the scene.  By continuity, I’m talking about the reality of the situation. Why the power lines are there, where they appear, where they go. Are they really creating a distraction or is it some mental hangup you are experiencing that causes you to think they are really a problem.

Make the power lines work for you. Find the continuity of the power lines and the environment that complement the reality of what you are trying to capture.  The first choice should be to use them, not lose them.

The Bison photo explains this concept perfectly.

This shot was taken at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver and the backdrop of the Denver skylines defines how to approach this scene. Anybody who has been to RMA National Wildlife Refuge knows about these massive structures and it can sometimes be quite distracting to find a nice buffalo or deer standing under a great steal structure. It just doesn’t feel natural, so it’s a common practice to ignore the shots that include the power lines.

In the case of this photo though, the power lines aren’t out of place. The photograph conveys the juxtaposition of the natural world with the hand of man. The presence of a majestic bison in a field of tall grass with the Denver skyline in the background. Of course this isn’t what this scene would have looked like 200 years ago. Denver didn’t exist. But this photograph wasn’t taken 200 years ago. The power lines explain the environment and the composition uses them to frame the scene.  The power lines also amplify that juxtaposition of man vs nature. The bison is oblivious to the power lines, it’s only the human eye that knows what they are and why they are there.

Use good composition skills and learn to use the environmental elements to your advantage.

Tell the story.

Photography doesn’t have to be a deception. We don’t have to pretend that the human presence in nature is obscene or distracting. The truth is often more interesting than fiction. Reality trumps thought. Embrace the realities of the scene and use it to your advantage.

It’s possible that someday, these power lines will be gone or that civilization creeps into the environment to a greater degree. This photo documents reality as it existed when the photo was taken. Somebody viewing this image fifty years from now may have a different take on what it looked like “then” and what it looks like “now.”  It’s a historical representation of the truth. Those real life historical contexts can make this photo far more interesting for a much longer period of time.

We often try to separate humans from nature in photography, but the simple undeniable fact of life on earth is that humans are part of nature and so are the things we build. Give some thought to explaining nature as it exists now.

Learn to love your power lines and you’ll find their presence less bothersome.