The attraction of clouds, water, fireworks, trees…

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Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed that there are a few subjects that tend to be universally attractive to a wide audience – and I’m not referring to cats, bikinis or brick walls (or strange combinations of all three). They tend to be of the type clouds, water, trees, fireworks etc. I’d like to explore that a bit more in today’s article.

I’ve got a few theories as to why this might be the case:

Pattern recognition
One of the things the human visual system excels at is the ability to pick out subtle differences in patterns by recognizing changes in spatial frequency, color, luminance etc. I suspect this is a survival instinct: you want to be able to recognize a bear that’s about to eat you from the surrounding forest. Conversely, we’re also very good at identifying objects of a similar nature or type: you know something is a car even if it’s a design you’ve never seen before. (On an unrelated note, the latter has proven to be something very difficult to program simply because it requires quantifying an idea or concept into a series of logical steps; except you cannot describe something that you have not seen. Yet in real life, we are very good at joining the dots and figuring out a cat is a cat, and not, say a lioness or a dog or a novelty table.)

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The opposite of boredom
Visually uniformity is uninteresting. Perfect visual uniformity is interesting, as is irregularity – both disturb our sense of pattern recognition sufficiently that images of both hold our attention for longer. Subjects that appear to repeat but are actually unique therefore hold our attention for longer because they fall into both categories of pattern recognition, but at the same time, neither: on one hand, you know a photo of a forest is made up of trees, and can identify them as such, but they’re all different. At a subconscious level, we’re probably still looking for the bear – but at the same time marvelling in the diversity of execution in what is fundamentally the same object. The more time we spend looking, the greater the micro-level unpredictability holds our attention.

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A connection to nature
Interestingly, most of the subjects that fall into this category are largely natural: that is, either they are completely non-manmade, or the results are not able to be determined precisely. At a fundamental level, nature – and the nature of the our environment, especially that which we cannot fully understand – still interests us as a species. That investigative and unending experimental curiosity is what largely separates us from animals; whether it’s through active/ quantitative scientific experiments or simply something observational and visual. For the most part, these subjects are beyond our control.

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Here, we connect again to unpredictability: if we know what the exact outcome is going to be, it is no longer interesting to us: there is no need to do the experiment (in this case, looking). We only know that the subject is going to take a certain range of forms. But within that range, there’s a huge amount of potential variance: therefore, we spend time looking for compositions and subjects that break that range of variance either through uniformity or being completely outside the range of expectation. Even when we find those breaks in pattern which hold our attention, there’s no end to the level of detail to which we can explore and photograph them: there is no abrupt scale boundary after which the subjects cease to become interesting, unlike manmade objects. A mountain range can be just as interesting as a tiny dirt ridge, if properly lit; however, a building may hold interesting form in completeness, but most people are probably going to lose interest in a single brick in fairly short order. Nature does not suffer from these limitations.

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This of course leads us to the obvious conclusion that the main reason this class of fractal subjects holds endless photographic potential lies not just in the way they hold and attract the attention of the observer – which must necessarily be both photographer and audience – but also in the fact that effectively infinite variations are possible. You will never photograph the same configuration of cloud twice, as the conditions that define the cloud change from moment to moment, thus resulting in a different outcome each time. I personally find I have trouble knowing when to stop shooting with a cloudscape, because there’s often so many different configurations that work aesthetically and compositionally – photographically, you are only really limited at the point when the light becomes unfavorable.

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So, what kinds of subjects fall into these categories? Note that I’m looking at very specific things (in itself a form of pattern recognition, I suppose) that fulfill the criteria of being uniform, repetitive, but infinitely variable and not homogenous at a macro level, but more importantly, also differing heavily with changes in time (either due to changing light and a fixed subject, a moving subject, or both) and spatial position of the observer:

  • Fluids: water, clouds, fireworks, fire, auroras, ice/ snow
  • Repeating natural configurations: forests, trees, plants, grass, leaves, mountain ranges, sunsets/ sunrises
  • Swarms of entities: flocks of birds, herds of wildebeest, fungal colonies (though not on your lenses) etc. Some manmade things may also fall into this category, though we generally don’t make things in sufficient quantity to qualify, or we don’t see them all in the same place at the same time in a disordered manner. Think of this and the previous category as ‘life outside our control’.
  • I’m open to suggestions.

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Our interest in people is more fundamental, I think: it’s down to the fact that we are social beings and like to interact with and observe each other; a photograph of a person – especially a strong portrait where the sitter is looking into the camera and through the resulting image into the eyes of the viewer – is definitely a communication. Though people fit the bill of infinite variation and being outside control, you’re probably not going to get swarms of them or close enough to discover the fractal repetition.  People are an introspectively separate category of subject unto themselves.

Beyond that, what does it all mean for your photography? Firstly, if you’re stuck for inspiration or subjects, try one of the ones we discussed here. Even if you live in a concrete jungle, you’re probably going to have access to clouds, or sky, or sunsets. And almost certainly water, even if it’s only in your kitchen sink. Light can always be made. Secondly, it’s possible to photograph these things repeatedly and not get bored: there’s a lot of potential here. Infinite potential, in fact; one could make a portfolio – possibly a career of some sort – out of just photographing auroras or trees. Finally, think of it is inspiration to keep shooting: there’s always something left to be captured. MT


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  1. Ming, what are fractals? Are they jagged lines? Are they the opposites of geometric shapes? Are they to be found in detailed shots and in wider views? I read the article, watched the Cyriak youtube video, did an Internet search, but still don’t understand the photographical definition of the word fractal.

    • A fractal is an object that without other objects for comparison, appears the same at various distances. It is an object that is recursive and has effectively endless detail.

  2. Path Photography. Maybe that that a modern way of expressing the idea of capturing the soul of the natural world. Not that one is limited to the literal path. My favorite ot this series is the half sea half sky. It is an image of elegant contrasts. Thank you again for delving into the why of things.

  3. Raymond Loades says:

    Raylo says:
    Ming, for me an interesting aspect of this which you did not touch on in your article, is the way that the brain, when confronted with some visual phenomenon that it does not immediately recognize, will scrabble through its apperceptive mass for a past experience that matches it and will often impose a pattern on the scene that doesn’t really exist. I find that when I view urban trees at night which are illuminated by artificial light, I can perceive bizarre human faces in the shadows and highlights of the leaves. There is a small tree outside my front door which my brain tells me is the residence of numerous grotesque physiognomies. Maybe I should photograph it to see if this false perception persists on screen or print. The way that we can sometimes see faces in wallpaper designs is perhaps another aspect of this. Any thoughts on this, or have I just wasted your time with a silly irrelevance?

    • It’s certainly an interesting idea, but I can’t say that my brain forces patterns on scenes based on experience. I just see the scene; maybe something upstairs is broken.

      Simple test for your idea though: photograph the object you think that has those patterns, and see if anybody else sees them…

  4. it’s impossible to refer everything to the bear. One can include clouds ( trees, waves) to the same pathetic collection of dogs, bikinis or brick walls, so we should talk not about the subject but about the connection to environment, playing with light (available or lighting) and most important – geometry inside our images. The image with the sea, separated 50/50 with the sky – the classic photographers can say that this separation is wrong and not help to our perception. But parallel lines makes it interesting, even disturbing ( may be this disturbing makes the image interesting). along this image – the next one looks ugly and not interesting. because of color ? dirty marks in the lower part ? or not too interesting lightplay ?
    Anyway – i love your try to explain with this bear theory.. but the explain a bit monotonous. and this bold black framing is also limit my ability to connect with these samples ( part f them really interesting)

  5. For Fractals look up ‘Cyriak’ on youtube….just don’t do it before bedtime!

  6. stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

    Ming, I hope you won`t take my fifty cents for petty criticism but you ask for it by being a perfectionist to a such degree. The first cityscape-clouds pict looks nervous in its lower as the structures are tilted. An architectural parallelism would improve the pictures contrapunkt – stoic and static cityscape and dramatic clouds somehow reflecting hidden dynamics of the city. As usually you often menage to have a favorite for everybody. Mine is seascape/blank sky. Reminds me of my national flag ( I´m Polish). Beautiful

    • Not at all – your point is a valid one, and the way I initially envisioned the shot. Except: straightening the buildings would lessen the drama of the sky by making the clouds occupy too much of the top, and I don’t have (there isn’t either) a 21mm shift lens. The best we can do is make the inward lean symmetric on the left and right. And the horizon is actually straight, but the clouds make it appear otherwise.

  7. Hi Ming…

    I am a long-time daily reader and admirer of your posts and work. This is the first time I feel like I can add a little to the conversation. You’ll notice that all your pics in this post except the last has one thing in common other than being “nature” pics – they are all devoid of a human presence. I think at a visceral level photography is a deeply contemplative art-form. Deep down, perhaps we like to be alone with the picture we are looking at, and perhaps a presence of humanity in the subject, especially en masse, distracts. I feel this might hold true even at a subconscious level, without us being aware of the dissonance. Just my 2c.

    Please keep up the good work.

  8. I’d say that the connection to nature and its visual manifestation through an image is the main attraction.
    After all, as a species, vision is our prioritized sense in use for survival.
    Pattern recognition is the way we filter what we see, that was a very astute point.
    You could say that seeing the elements, earth wind water fire, strikes a tender chord inside us.
    A different, fresh look at how they work never fails to get our attention.
    And that’s the reason that macro-micro photography has such a large audience.

    • Personally, I also find the same attraction with large fractal artificial layouts such as aerial cityscapes; it’s just that nature is a lot more accessible and provides infinite variety. The manmade world is very much static and isn’t ‘designed’ beyond a certain viewing distance.

      • I feel the same. The moment I read your reply a picture of an array of large antennae (dishes) for radio-astronomy in a desert somewhere came into mind. Or a similar set of industrial solar panels.
        You could say that the main point of interest in such images is interaction of man with nature and his attempt to conquer the landscape.

  9. MT, good analysis. and a great food for thought

  10. You sir are a champion – the water photos are great !

  11. This was a very healthy read. I’m in a photographically bad phase at the moment and need inspiration. I will try this.
    I really connected to the third image, so beautiful. And the second to last picture of the trees “look up” is good – reminds me of one of my all time favorites of yours, “the forest”.

    • Thanks! Look up and The Forest were shot in the same forest – actually the same spot; literally, Look up is the vertically oriented version of The Forest…

  12. Thanks for reminding us. I think almost all natural counts. I specially like the trees here.

  13. Very interesting read. Lots of great ideas for subjects.

  14. Hi MingThien, I always into the nature capturing despite I am not the expert but just a very novice. What you have elaborated here are true and very informative to me that I can do a portfolio for it but it will be merely for own self-satisfaction. The coverage can also be the lightning, tornadoes (dangerous), the waves of the sea and many more. The usual natural is the essetial part of our visual but when we look deeper into it, actually, it moves, talks and having feelings. What I meant here were about viewing pictures with feelings instead of just for the sake of viewing. The patterns of each natural being are very unique by itself with different perspective. Like when I look at your pictures with music playing on my ears will give different feeling and viewing stake altogether.

    I was very happy when I read this artical of yours that I learnt more which I hope I could find and yet I found this at your blog. Wild animals also have many expressions and body gestures that not only humans can have. Trees with lights, lake with swan, lightning with rainbow, sea water with flippers, leaves with semi-colors, mirroring rainbow with tiny grass from other angle and many more. The fog that creates add-on to the nature will have another special effect. I treat this as art sense. It is truly amazing to see all these and managed to capture it. I thank you for this post that I love it so much which indeed combined with the music that I listened.

    This is solely my own opinion about the art, pictures and the article. It is nothing to do with any professionalism or expertise in the mean of photography. I respect individual’s style and am learning about it at all times. I thank you again. Blessed day.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. You remind me of the reason why I started shooting wildlife: to be better at shooting people. We’re not in control of animals, and we can’t affect the way they interact with us – so if we can get that moment that captures the essence of their personality, then it makes it easier to do it with people, with whom we can communicate and understand better…


  1. […] (Water surface, by Ming Thein, from his series on natural patterns) […]

  2. […] pleasing, others are not. Most of us tend to like things that are neat and solid; but we also like organic fractal layouts. The former has a sort of post-human surrealism to it, being the complete opposite of natural. The […]

  3. […] of depth. (The black patches are seaweed and seagrass.) I suppose it’s one of those fractal subjects that once again has the power to hold your attention for a significant amount of time because there […]

  4. […] a similar effect; perhaps we just get bored of human-derived faux-order and need to find something fractal after a while to satisfy our inner caveman. It of course no coincidence that most landscapes tend […]

  5. […] a similar effect; perhaps we just get bored of human-derived faux-order and need to find something fractal after a while to satisfy our inner caveman. It of course no coincidence that most landscapes tend […]

  6. […] also fascinated by clouds: like trees and water, they’re fractal objects with endless variety that means you never get bored. One thing I’ve always wanted to do is try to create a consistent […]

  7. […] challenge lies with the fractal nature of the subject and the resulting high frequency of detail. If the frequency of detail is too high, then you land […]

  8. […] visual break from the uniformly geometric concrete we live in, and an embracing of the naturally fractal and chaotic world for a change instead. Judging from the feedback on previous images and photoessays, I’ve […]

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