By Doug Petry
I enjoyed the chance to prepare over the past few months for a presentation on the subject of Photographic Composition at the Photo Club, and Wednesday evening before a pretty good sized crowd I finally got it done! Phew…..
While doing research for the workshop on Composition I re-discovered a textbook that has been gathering dust on my shelf for years and I’ve mined a few choice nuggets from the book titled “Photographic Composition” by Grill & Scanlon and published by Amphoto.
Basically it boils down to this, Composition is control. The Composition of the photograph is how the photographer directs the viewer toward or through the idea that was the inspiration of the photograph. It gives the photographer influence over the viewer physically, emotionally and intellectually. Composition is control!
One more bit of information from the book that I found enlightening was that the rules of composition were developed after the fact. Basically, art critics analyzed well composed works and came up with the “rules” that we’re familiar with.
They did the work for us in a sense.
But we have to remember that a Compositional rule is useful only if it enhances the idea behind the photograph. If it doesn’t, then the rule not only can be, but MUST be broken!
When I started thinking about Composition my mind went first to the importance of answering the question “what is our Inspiration for taking a particular photograph?” because I think that before you know why you’re taking a photograph, the process of composing it is likely going to be either a) haphazard or b) kind of by rote.
As artists, is that how we want to be making our art? Is it enough to be shooting in a sort of automatic mode (in our brains) even as we pride ourselves in never shooting in the automatic mode on our cameras? Probably not!
Perhaps we’ve figured out how to produce technically excellent work, but we’re so focussed on that side of things that we aren’t as creative as we could be, we’re lacking inspiration. That’s one possible outcome.
Or the other side of the coin is that we may have an amazing artist’s eye and we can visualize great photographs but we too often miss out on seeing them through to their potential because we’re in too big of a hurry or we aren’t properly prepared and that limits our creative options.
So to me, the first step in a good composition is to ask the question, “What am I trying to accomplish with this photograph?” If we can pause and think for a second and visualize what it is we’re trying to say through the photograph we’re on the way to turning our inspiration into a photograph that we can be proud of.
But once that is accomplished, how do you go from inspiration to composition to the finished masterpiece.
Well the secret is apparently…..your diet.
Recently there was a post on PictureCorrect.com called “Key elements of a great photograph: the Photographer’s Diet”. I found it interesting and I believe that using this process can help us to make better photographs and to evaluate our work to see how it can be improved. I’m going to quote a bit here from the article.
“Each photograph we take–whether carefully composed or just a quick snap–has elements within it that determine whether it provides a strong visual impact on the viewer:”
Design, Information, Emotion, Timing.
Below is a link to a YouTube video explaining the concept and below that is a link to the Picturecorrect.com post where I first came across the concept.
In the post, the author states, “If we can dial in even two of these elements in a single photograph, we’re likely to have an image that works. Add in one to two more, and we’re likely to get a memorable image–one that’s likely to be a portfolio shot.”
So what do these terms mean?
Design is probably best thought of as the traditional elements of Photographic Composition. Check out the link below to learn more.
Information refers to some kind of context, the story or idea behind the photograph, you want to make your viewers think, you may just give a hint and let the viewer complete the narrative for themselves.
Emotion – a photograph should cause an emotional reaction in the viewer, you want the viewer to feel something!
Timing refers to that decisive moment when a photograph looks as though it couldn’t have been taken even a moment sooner or later. It captures that particular moment perfectly.
Try evaluating your work using these four criterion, I think you will find it useful.
These are some of the elements of Composition that are part of that “Design” element that we mentioned earlier and the first one is space
- Space – the area in which the design takes place, also active & dead space. Subjects and objects are generally given somewhere to look or move into within the image. Active space is the space in front of the subject.
- Vertical or Horizontal, Panoramic, Cropping the image
- Decide how much or how little to show
- Where to place objects within the frame
- Rule of Thirds
Some cameras have a rule of thirds grid built into the viewfinder and LCD screen that you can turn to help you with composition.
- Negative space is the area between and around objects in a photo. Use it to see shapes and sizes more effectively, and produce better composed images.
- The area occupied by the main subject is known as Positive space
- Try to ignore the objects in the scene altogether and instead concentrate on the gaps between and around them. This forces you to pay more attention to your composition, and helps you see shapes and sizes more accurately.
- Form refers to when shape takes on three dimensions. Form is created by shadows and highlights on an object in the photograph.
- When the light is behind your subject, that creates backlight, and backlight creates silhouettes. Silhouettes are two-dimensional and they are shapes.
- When the light moves to the side or front of your subject, that creates shadows and highlights, giving the subject form.
- Shapes can be geometrical and/or abstract.
- Square & Rectangles represent strength, human-made things, they imply stability & trust
- Triangles are dynamic and imply movement
- Circles & Ovals represents unity, wholeness and perfection
- The way subjects connect to each other in a photo will often form shapes that draw the eye from subject to subject.
- If a photograph’s composition lacks shape, the photo becomes too busy or awkward to fully appreciate.