Tuesday, 28 May 2013

It's the Composition, Stupid !

Spring on the Don River
I have been reading about composition in photography for years, just recently I got how important it is. 

I think I've always had some intuitive feel for composition, but generally have made photos by seeking out something interesting and then pointed the camera at it.

Learning to use composition in my photos is the most important realization I've had in photography, and yet I resisted it for so long. Maybe it was laziness, or I didn't understand it, or I didn't want to be analytical, but over the years I could have made so many photos so much better.

We often have things in our photos that have emotional content, for example a stormy sky or an old barn. That's good, but I've learned that a photo almost always needs more than emotional or sensual content. A photo is a graphic design just like a painting. In other words a photo is an arrangement of visual components like form, line, angle, pattern, repetition, tone, balance, contrast, foreground/background etc. For a photo to really have power it has to have a composition that adds to the content. And you can make a great photo that has no special content, but has its elements arranged in a composition that is interesting. That's what the best street photography is all about.

The painter has freedom to arrange elements on the canvas. The photographer, having to deal with the physical world beyond the camera, has severe limitations. Although I can sometimes move elements prior to the shot, something I do without hesitation, it is often impossible. So I must use all means available to arrange what shows up on the camera's view screen. The challenges are legion; for example a slight change of viewing angle to introduce a line may cause something else to disappear from the frame.

One of the best teaching stories I've heard recently was by a renowned photography instructor, Ben Long, who found a pile of old car doors that for some reason were sitting in a meadow. He wanted to show not just the doors, but their incongruous location. After trying to get a good shot he said he gave up because, although the doors had interest in themselves, there was no way he could make an interesting composition that included the meadow. His acknowledged failure taught me so much.

The other day I found a stone head stuck in a tree leaning over the Don River, the head taken, I suspect, from a nearby graveyard by vandals. I initially thought that because of the location all I could do was a rather straight-on shot but then I pushed myself to find someway to make a composition The photo above shows how I finally included the sparkle on the water as a balance for the head. Still not a great photo, but at least its more dynamic and interesting than the head alone.

So now I refuse to be intimidated by reality. I try to use all the photographic modifiers I possess to structure the world into a composition. And if that doesn't show in my photos, please kick my lazy ass!