Dealing with Complex Compositions

May Lily Leaves and Buds required thought in the field and cropping in the darkroom

By Bruce Barnbaum Back to


May lilies, or maiathemum, form a wonderful ground cover in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington in mid-April, and push forth their flowers in early May. They then last throughout the summer, completely disappearing by early October, as if they were never there. But for the spring and summer months that they enliven, they are a real joy, contributing immensely to the richness of the lowland and mid-level forests.

I have photographed these heart-shaped leaves in both color and black-and-white over the years, sometimes on my own property and nearby, and sometimes farther up in the mountains near my home. I found the cluster that I photographed here (in 1992) alongside a trail about seven miles from my home, but it easily could have been found right in my own backyard.

It was a tight cluster, with the shiny green leaves just as perfect as could be. The flower buds were standing straight up, fully formed and ready to burst open. This time, I chose black-and- white as my medium, for the color seemed less important than the richness of the silvery mid-tones that I felt could make the black-and-white image really sing.

Composing in the camera

Composing the image was no easy matter. There were a lot of leaves down there from which to choose. In essence, there were an infinite number of potential compositions. I settled on the in- camera cropping (seen in the straight print) to include the three clusters of buds: one at the lower right, and the others at the top center-left, and left side center. It seemed that the three formed an interesting triangular relationship. It also seemed to me that the edges were clean, with everything of importance contained, and no little pieces (of other leaves) just sticking into the frame. This is not easy, for in a subject like this, the edges can be maddeningly difficult, with important elements often cut off and unwanted items sticking into the image area. The composition looked really strong to me, and the resulting negative looked great, as well.

photographed the may lilies with my 4×5 Linhof Master Technika camera, using a 210mm Fujinon lens and Kodak Tri-X film. To retain the best separations, along with strong mid-tones, I placed the deeper shadows of the underlying leaves in Zone IV (always the best shadow placement for good negatives…except when you need to place the shadows a bit higher on the scale for specific intent), then slightly increased the inherent contrast during my negative development by extending the development about 35% longer than “normal” development time (in this case, going from 61⁄2 minutes of development to 81⁄2 minutes).


But after studying the contact proof (on and off, for about 14 years!) I finally decided to overrule the choices I made in the field and crop it, eliminating two of the bud clusters. Somewhere along the way I began to feel that the full composition seemed somewhat random, with my eyes darting from one bud cluster to another. When I put my cropping L’s to the contact proof, retaining just the lower right set of buds, it made the image immeasurably stronger. Suddenly there was cohesion to the image that was previously lacking. (In the gallery-size 16×20 print that I made, there is an amazing dimensionality, as well, which can hardly be imagined from the magazine reproduction.)

To make the final print, I increased contrast slightly from that of the straight print, rotated the easel about 4° clockwise, dodged the shadowed portion of the bottom center-left leaf, burned the lower left corner slightly, the lower center just a bit more (to prevent the lighter parts of those leaves from becoming too glaringly bright), the lower right 1⁄6 of the image quite a bit and the extreme lower right corner a bit more, and slightly burned the two leaves at the top center and right. Finally, I do a very quick bleach of the single remaining bud cluster, using dilute potassium ferricyanide, just to brighten up the individual buds a bit.

About the Author

Bruce Barnbaum
Bruce Barnbaum teaches photography workshops throughout the year, focusing on the art of seeing and the art of conveying impressions of your photographed world (real or imagined). He has two monographs in print: Tone Poems - Book 1, 2002; and Tone Poems - Book 2, 2005. Both are collaborative efforts, featuring a CD of classical piano music performed by Judith Cohen.