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Putting it Into Words, and Going Beyond Words

If you like an image you see, it is often said that putting the reasons why into words can help you improve your own skills at composition. This is generally true to a degree, but the technique does have its limitations.

If you go to a scenic location with your camera on a nice day, its not hard to come home with reasonably good images. That's somewhat the point of why such locations are called "scenic," and probably had a lot to do with why you went there equipped to shoot photos. In such situations, you could almost get by simply by pointing your camera where the signs told you to. A great many casual photographers are quite satisfied to record such outings this way, preserving memories of their trip for the enjoyment of themselves and their family and friends.

There doesn't need to be much thought put into this sort of approach to photography apart from "ooh, that looks nice!" or perhaps "I hope this shot comes out good so I can show my friends." Modern cameras can take care of most of the technical details for you, and all you have to be responsible for it pressing the shutter release button when something interesting presents itself. Photography really doesn't start to more difficult until you try to go beyond this "default" mode of shooting. Only then do you find yourself facing the question of how to actually look for good image possibilities. Only when this sort of opportunistic mode of taking images begins to shift towards a more proactive mode of making images does the question of how to get better images arise.

There are any number of guidelines and "rules" out there for improving photographic composition. Perhaps the most well know is the "rule of thirds" that says by mentally dividing the image frame up into a tic-tac-toe grid and placing the subject along one of these thirds lines, or even better, on the intersection of two such lines, you can create a more powerful, dynamic image than if you simply "bulls-eyed" the subject in the middle of the frame. I really don't know who "invented" the rule of thirds. Wikipedia tells me it was first written down in 1797 by John Thomas Smith in a book about painting, but at some point, someone noticed that this arrangement could yield compelling renderings. No doubt most of you are already aware of the rule of thirds. It can give you a way both to find good images and to describe them. With enough familiarity, when you see an image composed via the rule of thirds, you can typically recognize it as such right away. You can almost see those thirds lines mentally superimposed on the image.

Once you see enough images composed based on the rule of thirds though, they can start to see a bit repetitive. Since all such images have something in common, they start to look like each other. A strategy that started out helping you to create better images can eventually turn into something that limits your creativity. Rather than looking for the best composition you can, you end up looking for a composition that most closely employs the rule of thirds. And all these rule-of-thirds images end up as somewhat duplicative and derivative, lacking in originality.

The same can be said for other ways of describing good images. By putting a compositional strategy into words, you thereby risk creating an impediment to seeing being that strategy. Suppose you determine that you like images with certain color combinations, or those shot at a wide angle, or images that show a typical behavior of your subject in its natural surroundings, or really anything else that you think looks good. It really doesn't matter what strategy we're talking about here. You notice an idea that you think could help you repeat your successes. You then employ this strategy in the field as a compositional tool. Use this often enough and it shouldn't surprise you if the resulting images all seem to have something in common.

I find this an interesting dilemma. Putting a compositional strategy into words gives you a straightforward way of finding your way back to a familiar territory that has proven to useful for getting good images. But if you follow that strategy too single-pointedly, it can create a barrier that prevents you from seeing other possibilities.

When I teach composition, I tell people to consider why they like a particular image more than other variations of the same or similar subjects. By being able to put their feelings into words, they create a strategy for recognizing similar compositional possibilities in the future. This provides a quick and easy way to zero in on what could and hopefully should create pleasing compositions, the same as is generally said of the rule of thirds and other well-known strategies. This gives aspiring beginner and intermediate shooters a way to avoid being satisfied with just getting a compelling subject in frame and pressing the shutter release. It provides a means of moving from simply shooting pleasing subjects to creating pleasing compositions of those subjects. But at some point, such strategies can become self-limiting when they become an end in themselves rather than a means to an end.

Readers here no doubt vary in their level of experience, and therefore may relate to this article in varying ways. Some would gladly have anything to look for when composing images to help them improve. Others may be struggling with why their once useful strategy seems to be yielding diminishing returns by producing images that look too much like the ones they shot on their last trip. Sooner or later, we all could end up facing this dilemma though. So, if you find this applicable to your situation, consider this: once you find the composition your strategy leads you to, use that as a jumping off point to see what else you can find. Go beyond your ideas and words, and let the elements of the situation lead you to new ideas.

Date posted: January 14, 2018


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Related articles:
The Rule of Thirds
Going Beyond the Rule of Thirds
It All Depends on How You Look at It
The Importance of Seeing

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