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Composition: What Do You Want To Say?

I've written periodically here about composition but the topic is important enough that I've decided to devote a number of weeks to a more detailed treatment. To begin with, we need to establish what we mean by composition. When comparing two images of the same subject, both perfectly exposed and in focus, one may still seem "better" than the other simply because of how the elements are positioned within the frame. This is composition.

Photographers of course aren't the only ones that have to deal with composition. As we begin our investigation of photographic composition, it can be instructive to take a moment to look at how those involved in other creative endeavors approach it.

As a visual art, photography is often compared to painting, yet the process of creating each is quite different. Painters start with a blank canvas and must add to it paints chosen from the palette they have selected to express themselves. The painter needs to be responsible for filling the entire canvas or it will remain blank. A photographer, on the other hand, must start with what is there in front of them. Through their choice of lens, aperture, perspective and framing they must isolate and simplify to achieve their composition. Both must make choices to achieve their aims, but one is an additive process while the other is subtractive.

Similarly to painters, musicians must start from silence and add to it the notes of their composition. A truly great symphony though owes as much to the silences between the notes as it does to the notes themselves. Were no silence to remain, the resulting cacophony would likely not be very entertaining. Photographers too need to be responsible both for what they retain in the frame as much as they are for the spaces that they decide to leave empty.

Writers also must work by adding words to a blank page. Poets though have the added challenge of choosing each word extremely carefully. Poetry can connect with a reader in a very profound way. To be truly successful, a poet must strive to transcend the words themselves in order to get their very feelings down on that page. Photography too can have the power to connect deeply with a viewer. The more a photographer is in tune with what they want to express in an image, the more successful they are likely to be at doing so. A good image may accurately depict a significant place or event, or it may express more of how the photographer felt about an otherwise ordinary scene.

It is extremely important that the photographer strive for simplicity in what they create. National Geographic photographer William Albert Allard put it this way: "What's really important is to simplify. The work of most photographers would be improved immensely if they could do one thing: get rid of the extraneous. If you strive for simplicity, you are more likely to reach the viewer." Yet simplicity is not easy. A hastily made photograph often will contain many distracting or otherwise unnecessary elements. To get the best compositions possible, a photographer must first understand the operation of their camera gear inside and out, but that alone is not enough. They must also pay attention to their own feelings and allow those feelings to be expressed in how they approach composition. In the book More Joy of Photography, Pete Turner, another National Geographic photographer wrote "Ultimately, simplicity is the goal - in every art, and achieving simplicity is one of the hardest things to do. Yet it's easily the most essential."

There is a myth that in order to be good at composition, one must be born with a certain visual sense. Fortunately for the majority of us, this isn't true. By studying the elements of composition, it is possible for anyone to improve their ability and get great images. There is another myth that composition is hard, yet we all know what we like and what we don't. Getting in touch with this sense of what we like is one of the fundamental ways to help us improve our composition without making it hard. Composition should not become simply an academic pursuit devoid of our connection to the image and what we feel about it.

Begin to pay more and more attention to how you feel about the photos you take as well as those you see from others. Photographs are all around us in magazines and books, on billboards and other media. If you like a shot, ask yourself why. Put it into words if you can. This will help you become more in tune with your feelings. If you don't like an image, try to put this into words as well. As you learn more about composition, look for the various elements that make the images you like work. If you do, you'll be more likely to find successful compositions in the field when you are out shooting. Just as a musician who feels the rhythm in their very being is more likely to make better music themselves, a photographer who is in tune with what comprises good composition is more apt to achieve good composition themselves.

Next week, we'll start to take a look at the nuts and bolts of composition to give you some tools that may prove helpful. Until then, start by getting in touch with your own inherent sense of what you like. Once you start paying more attention to this, you'll begin to notice more in the world around you. When you go out to photograph, allow what moves you to be your guide. Figure out what you want to say and distill this down to its essence — then capture it on film (or digital of course).

Date posted: December 7, 2003


Copyright © 2003 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Previous tip: Good News For Photographers Who Fly Return to archives menu Next tip: Composition: Thinking Graphically

Related articles:
Composition: Thinking Graphically
Composition: A Look at Color
Composition: Putting Things in Perspective
Composition: Some Thoughts on Subject Matter
Composition: Equipment Notes
Composition: Pre-visualization
Composition: Putting it All Together
Iterative Composition
Getting Down With It: Bending Your Knees for the Best Shots
Shooting Quickly versus Thinking More
The Myth of Being Born with It

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