A lot of opinion currently in print, both physical and virtual, has been presented over the past few years on the topic of composition in photography. Ignoring the issues of quality or quantity of content inherent in most of the offerings, one thing had become obvious to me. The topic is not being taken seriously. Even by some, who in light of their educational credentials and background in art, should have a more in-depth understanding of the topic than they present in their writings. Of the many webpages on the topic, most will lightly mention the rule of thirds and move on. If this is all that the person knows of composition, they should not be offering their knowledge as a model for others. The rule of thirds is nothing more than a simplistic model for when all else fails. In reality it is merely a simplistic generalization of the Golden Mean, first attributed to Pythagoras by the Ancient Greeks. It only deals with “Cartesian co-ordinate” placement of objects within the frame and ignores any influence of Center, Armature, Perception, the Elements of Art and Principals of Design. All of these qualities heavily inform and are the underpinnings of composition. At the very least anyone wishing to consider themselves an artist must be aware of them. To ignore the knowledge contained within these elements is to doom yourself to a long drawn out struggle with your medium.
Composition is a complex subject. However, that should not scare you. Composition is easily understood and fun to learn. Composition does not have to be memorized, the best the student can do is simply become familiar with its tenents. Simple exposure to the topics accompanied by an occasional review is enough for anyone serious about learning good composition. Composition is a tool, used at will to improve image creation. Composition is not a set of rules that one is bound to follow when creating images.
Over time, most artists develop an inherent sense of composition. In the case of photography, the camera is usually raised and settled within 2 or 3 seconds well balanced on the scene. It does not take a lot of hunting, with the camera at the eye, to settle on a pleasant placement. It is when things don’t seem to be working out or when camera placement is not intuitive that the tools need to be brought to mind, finding ways to improve the strength of the presentation. Even then, it is not a matter of running through the entire set of element to come up with a solution. It is more a matter of looking for the visual center(s) of the scene and finding a balance within the frame, allowing these tools to inform the eye.
Next time: Ingredients
Composition is much like cooking. A chef has at their command a kitchen full of tools, some have more tools than others but they make do with what they have. It is using the tools and the mixture of ingredients that allow them to create meals. So too the photographer – we have assorted sets of tools in the guise of cameras, lenses, etc. Our ingredients are the subject we are shooting (the main course), how we decide to frame the scene (side dishes), the light (spices and flavor interactions), and presentation for both. Chefs stand in a kitchen all day preparing food, occasionally getting out for new fixings. Photographers sit at a desk editing images all day, occasionally getting out for new images. Most chefs enjoy the prep work as much as the actual cooking and presentation, just as photographers enjoy image production as much as shooting.
The ingredients of Composition are more than placement in a frame, leading lines, and color, as some stress in their writing. Composition is the configuration of the elements of art united to the principles of art” around a visual center. These are also the tools used in the formal analysis of a work of art. The elements of art and the principals of art are the traditional higher echelon constituent parts that have been learned and observed by artist through history, beginning in the pre-renaissance when artists and scientists began to take note of such things. Science and art haven’t stood still in the meantime, and the knowledge base available for composition now includes the study of the effects of one color upon another, how the human animal perceives what is seen, and the psychological elements influencing what they see. It should now be apparent how composition is not just splitting the frame into thirds.
The constituent parts of composition are:
Human Perception & Gestalt Theory,
leading to the use of
The Elements of Art,
used within the framework of
The Principals of Art,
for affective mood, &
for balance and comfort.
We will discuss each of these in depth individually from a Western perspective. In the end, it will be apparent how the elements fit together and are utilized to enhance the overall image while suggesting a stronger, more direct message to the viewer. Do not let all these fancy terms scare you away. You do not have to memorize anything, you only need to absorb the ideas. When you are stuck and things are not fitting in the frame comfortably, let the brain bring some of the ideas back for consideration. Even if you only remember parts of what is discussed the brain will aid you by suggesting placements you did not see to begin with. It may take the form of a different point of view by moving around the scene, or a lens change. However, if the subject is indeed worth recording, improvements may be made using these tools.
Many examples will be included. Many will be photographs and others will be drawings, paintings or graphics. Images are chosen based on making it easiest for the general reader to observe the point being presented. When mentioning topics not covered in the body of these documents, hyperlinks will be offered directing the reader to additional web based material about those subjects. There will also be a bibliography included referencing additional reading material on the topics presented.
This is going to be an in depth discussion and will take some time to complete, so it seems best to publish it in a blog form allowing you to concentrate on singular issues with continuity to what came before. Keeping it to blog format will also help to alleviate getting overloaded with too much at one.