There are those who love to wax philosophical about composition, plying it with every mathematical and theoretical hindrance they can unearth to burden the happy photographer.
Yes, there are rules, but in reality, composition is a personal matter. Every picture you take will have its own personal dynamics. As with all rules however, those that are used in composition are meant to be broken and some of the most dynamic images I have seen have broken those rules big time.
Competition judges go on and on about Pythagoras, rules of thirds, the Golden Mean and all sorts of other things, which, quite frankly, are all Greek to me.
Essentially, composition is about
1/ Pleasing arrangement of elements in the frame.
2/ Drawing attention to the subject.
3/ What you like.
The arrangement of elements in the frame is important and for the naturally gifted it is a matter of the heart. The Golden Mean is a mathematical approach to photography that is too often used as a basis for judging competitions and thus dictates the nature of far too many images submitted to them. While it is deeply rooted in some serious mathematical stuff, essentially it is a rule of thirds. It all started about two thousand years ago when Pythagoras asked his students where a knot should be tied in a piece of string to make it look “aesthetic”. His students decided it was about .38 of the way in â€“ roughly a third. How they came up with that is far too banal for my liking. For me, that is an accountantâ€™s approach to taking pictures. But, credit where creditâ€™s due. It does actually work.
Now, no one is saying you should get out the slide rule and calculator every time you compose a picture. But this rule â€“ the rule of thirds – has been a rule of thumb for many kinds of images â€“ from landscapes to portraits and still life arrangements.
Basically, your frame is divided into vertical and horizontal thirds. These lines create areas that are used for effective subject placement. The points at which these lines intersect are considered the most dynamic areas within the frame. The interesting thing about all this is that it does come naturally. There is a sense of movement and flow about thirds that takes away the static nature of what is really a fixed image.
Viewpoint and Format
But much more is involved in composition. Following the rule of thirds is not always the most dynamic way to compose your picture and often more dramatic compositions are the most effective. However, viewpoint and format are both every bit as important as subject placement and are vital to the creation of dynamic images.
Viewpoint can make or break a photograph. Your choice of camera position is the deciding factor for creating visual interest and can even dictate emotional responses. Viewpoint is really about camera height, and in portraiture, this is an essential aspect of the manner in which the subject is conveyed. An upward viewpoint gives the subject a suggested elevated appearance, evoking the idea of power or dominance. The reverse can be true when the camera is placed overhead, a mistake often made in family snaps of children. It can demean and humiliate a subject.
Â Viewpoint also is a vital consideration in landscape photography. Dramatic foregrounds can be used to lead the eye into a scene when lower viewpoints are taken. Landscapes taken from eye-height can often disappoint because they are exactly that â€“ images taken from the same viewpoint as everyone else who has been there. Learn to see the world from another perspective and watch your photography evolve.
Format is about the choice of horizontal or vertical framing, which are usually called landscape and portrait, but in my opinion tend to suggest that these are the formats that must be used for either. Choosing the format is a key element to dynamism in photography because it will often dictate the way a subject is framed, what the main subject is and what elements of the scene are permitted to remain and what are not. It is not wise to adopt a default view of landscapes and portraits, relegating them to default formats. Choosing to frame a photograph either horizontally or vertically is often just a case of what to leave in and what to leave out. While sounding simplistic, this decision of inclusion and exclusion is vital to the creation of pleasing or dynamic images.
Walking the Tightrope.
Dynamic compositions incorporate a balanced mixture of subject placement, viewpoint and format, with other things thrown into the mix such as colour, contrast and critical focus. Careful placement of subjects can still yield boring photographs if the choice of format and viewpoint do not agree. Composition is not the be all and end all to a dynamic image. There is a â€˜tightrope balanceâ€™ required in the interplay of all the key elements to dynamic images, and we will discuss more of these in the next issue.
Composition is a word also used in music. It is usually considered to be the culmination of chords, notes, rhythm and even instruments and lyric. The balance between these elements in music is critical to appeal of the music. It is no different in photography, in which composition refers to the careful balance of the ingredients discussed briefly in this article.
But as with music, composition is something that can be learned and applied with the mind, but without heart is actually lifeless. I have little theoretical knowledge of music, but I have a heart for it and enjoy playing guitar. While I have heard musicians trained in theory still make the most beautiful instruments sound like fingernails scraping on a blackboard, I also find my distinct lack of music theory knowledge the greatest hindrance to my growth as a musician. The growth and success comes from matching academics with talent.
In the end, apply the rules with your head, and forget them with your heart. After all, thatâ€™s where your images come from.