Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Thinking about composition

click photo to enlarge
"It is impossible to give you rules that will enable you to compose. If it were possible to compose pictures by rule Titian and Veronese would be ordinary men."
John Ruskin (1819-1900) English art critic, social critic, artist, etc

There is much truth in what Ruskin said because for many the art of composition is intuitive, something done without reference to direct learning. For such people the component parts of a painting or photograph are arranged "just so", and are just right. But for others composition is difficult, not at all obvious, and guidance is appreciated. There is no shortage of people willing to give instruction and many who seek to make it a mystery. The danger of following guidance in how to compose is that photographs become formulaic. Photography "experts" frequently come up with a set of "rules" to guide the amateur and when they do you can guarantee that they always mentions the wretched rule of thirds: this then seems to become the only thing anyone remembers. The best advice I can give is to study paintings and art criticism, not photography. However, that's not advice that I expect many to follow!

That said, I do know of one succinct piece of writing by a photographer that is brief and reasonably helpful. In eight pages of his book, Photography, Eric de Mare focuses on five aspects of composition (he calls them canons) as a starting point from which to move on to a wider understanding.
CONTRAST , he says, is necessary for variety and interest. Rough/smooth, vertical/horizontal, straight/curved, near/far, dark/light, big/small, plain/decorative, sharp/blurred, etc are examples of devices that can be used as the basis of a composition.
REPETITION makes for harmony through rhythm, though it can become monotonous unless broken in some way.
CLIMAX is the principal area of interest, the subject. Lines will often lead to it, it will usually be near to an edge of the frame, or at an intersection of thirds.
BALANCE is placing values in the image in equilibrium about an imaginary centre line. This is the hardest aspect for the beginner to achieve, because a small object of, say, strong colour can easily balance a much larger, but more subdued mass. Tones, forms and points of interest have to be weighed and carefully disposed. People are particularly "heavy", and when placed to one side can balance whole buildings on the other.
COHESION is about order and continuity, so that each part relates to the whole, and contributes to the story that the image is telling. A complex image, if it is cohesive, will have an overall simplicty and force.

The author of this sage advice adds that "composing can be reduced to fourteen words by quoting Pope's couplet on the landscaping of Windsor Park:
Where order in variety we see
And where, though all things
differ, all agree."

Today's photograph breaks the advice that most photographic writers give, namely to seek the power and interest of balanced asymmetry in your compositions. This view, from below an electricity pylon towards sunset, is fairly symmetrical; but symmetry has its place too (rules are made to be broken!), as long as it's not the only compositional device a photographer uses.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 12mm (24mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f5
Shutter Speed: 1/1250 seconds
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: 0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On