The dictionary defines portal as “a grand and imposing entrance.” Used metaphorically, it can mean “the portals of heaven” or “the portals of success.” In my photography, I like to use “portals” through which I can allow the viewer to enter the image and gain a sense of place, meaning, or logic as to why it’s included. I like the fact a portal can be used as a metaphor. The portal can be obvious, simple, symbolic, traditional, etc. and it should make a connection with the subject on its other side. It allows the viewer to enter the photo and be lead through the opening to view another element in the image.
The portal can be the main subject, act as a secondary part of the composition, or be equal in importance to another element. For instance, in the image of Teardrop Arch in Monument Valley, the warm late light on the dominant red rock portal commands the viewer’s attention. Yet off in the distance, the supporting red rock formations draw the eye past the portal. Although much smaller in size, they are key components of the composition. The upper area past the portal reveals a graduated blue late light sky housed with interesting clouds, so the viewer looks past the foreground portal to the sky and is then drawn to the lower part of the image. All three components are needed to tell the story of how Tear Drop Arch and the background come together. The photographic math equates to 1+1+1=1.
In the photo of the schooner bow with the buoy and sailboat receding in the fog, the bow and rigging cables become the initial main focal point, even though the eye is ultimately drawn to the sailboat and buoy in the background. It can be argued whether the portal or the background elements are the main focal point. Based on exposure dominance and color, the portal wins, but in that it supports the subjects in the distance, they, too, command equal attention. Had they not been there, it would be a photo of just the bow but because the background pieces exist, the bow becomes a portal.
In some ways a portal acts as a framing element but not necessarily in the traditional sense. In the image of the lady reading the map in Grand Teton National Park, the window opening obviously frames her and the Tetons that recede in the distance, but it more strongly acts as a reference object to tell a story of the photo I shot for stock. The open window portal specifically says, “vehicle” as opposed to just someone reading a map out in the open. It defines automobile, road map, travel, find my way by car, etc.
Portals can be used with just about any subject matter. When you walk around without a camera, be aware of the environment and look for connections between the subjects you encounter. Whether you live in an urban or rural area, make connections between foreground and background elements using portals to tie them together. When you have your camera, you’ll use them in your photography.