Sunday, September 19, 2010

Photographic composition - some thoughts and ideas

click photo to enlarge
There is a craving amongst photographers to "learn the rules of composition". This is quite understandable because composition is crucial to constructing a good image. However, composition isn't a list of tricks, it is a way of seeing. John Ruskin has a couple of memorable lines on the teaching of composition. He was speaking in relation to architecture and painting, but what he said clearly applies to photography too. His first remark that I recall is, "If a man can compose at all, he can compose at once, or rather he must compose in spite of himself." In other words, a trained eye or a someone who is driven to create art does it without thinking. He added, "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." Alexander Pope, in his poem "Windsor Forest", described landscape composition most succinctly and what he said applies to photography too: "Where order in variety we see, And where, though all things differ, all agree."

Desirable though it may be, it is unrealistic to expect the average photographer to immerse himself in Venetian painting, art theory, and poetry in order to master composition. Consequently writers on photography frequently list compositional "dos and donts". Here are a few that I have come across over the years. Most of them are helpful, especially to someone starting out in photography. They are in no particular order, and clearly there is no suggestion that a composition should include all of these devices. Rather the list is an aide-memoire, or a menu from which to select.
  • The rule of thirds (the only compositional tip that many photographers remember!), whereby the subject is "best" placed at an intersection of two vertical and two horizontal lines, that divide the picture into thirds.
  • Give the image visual balance about an imaginary centre line, always remembering that it is not the size of an object that determines its visual weight. In a landscape, for example, a person can be as "heavy" as a tree, a red object invariably has more weight than one that is brown, etc.
  • Choose a rigidly symmetrical composition only when the subject suggests it or is itself symmetrical.
  • Balanced asymmetry should be the usual aim because it offers the viewer more interest.
  • Have a single main subject, thereby telling only one story in the photograph.
  • Introduce contrast (dark/light, rough/smooth, near/far, in focus/blurred etc.) to give variety and interest.
  • Introduce repetition of forms to give a rhythm (a line of columns, a row of trees, fence posts etc.), and consider breaking it with a person or some other intervening device.
  • Give the composition a focal point in the sense of a principal area or climax...
  • ... towards which leading lines (for example a road, railway track, fence, buiding facade etc.) will sometimes point.
  • Look for cohesion in the composition so that every part relates to each other and supports the narrative that you are illustrating. 
  • Introduce calm and stability with horizontals and verticals, dynamism with diagonals.
  • Some say avoid horizontals, such as the horizon, at the centre of the composition because of the tendency for it to split the image into two parts. 
  • Avoid large, empty areas in an image unless it is a device to emphasise an object.
  • Avoid distractingly bright or strongly coloured areas away from the main subject.
  • Consider framing the main subject with a naturally occurring object such as a tree branch, an arch, etc.
  • Separate subject and background by, for example, lighting, colour, focus, etc.
  • As well as left/right balance aim to have the bottom of the image heavier than the top: this feels more "right" to most people.
  • People facing or moving into the frame usually works better than people "leaving" it.
  • Objects and people usually need "breathing room" around them in the frame otherwise they look constricted.
  • Many find an odd number of objects in a photograph works better than an even number (when the number is below 7 or thereabouts)
  • Linked to the above, some say that a third element can make a simple composition more satisfying e.g. a vase of flowers (two elements) plus a few fallen petals (third element).
I suppose I could add to this list, or illustrate it, but that will have to do for now. The most important thing to remember about any advice concerning composition is it is just that - advice - and can be ignored to very good effect. There are fine photographs that flout each of the suggestions above, and many are equally good because they, knowingly or unknowingly, include them. The best advice about composition is this - if it looks right to you then it is right, because it's your photograph.

I was prompted to venture into this subject because I (unconsciously) included a third element in today's photograph. The distant boat is the one on the right of yesterday's photograph (which also has three elements!) I moved my position to include it in this image because it seemed to make it work better. Put your finger over it to decide whether you agree or not!

To prove my final point about rules being made to be ignored, here's a photograph that has compositional similarities to today's but has only two elements.

photograph and text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 14mm (28mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f5
Shutter Speed: 1/500
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -0.3 EV
Image Stabilisation: On