Welcome to an occasional series on composition in photography. Life after Photoshop is usually about image editing tools and techniques, but many of the decisions we make about editing, cropping and local adjustments are based around effective composition, so it is a closely related discipline.
Of course, this doesn’t replace the photographer’s ‘eye’ when taking pictures. This is where most of the compositional work happens. But you can strengthen or simplify the composition later during the editing phase.
There are lots of ‘rules’ of composition. I don’t want to confuse things by adding more. Instead, I hope I can simplify the art of composition in photography with just two main concepts: shapes and lines.
There are lots of others, such as the ‘rule of thirds’, the ‘golden mean’, and so on. To me these are rather bland and sterile and seldom offer much value when used on their own. If you want your pictures to have life, dynamism, mystery and depth, it’s a bit more complicated.
The following ideas (and diagrams) aren’t all my own work. I’m indebted to photographer and author Axel Brück and his book ‘Practical Composition in Photography’. It was published some time ago and it’s likely you haven’t heard of it, but with the help of some striking and enigmatic black and white photography, Brück analyses the structure of images to reveal how and why they work, in a way that’s both direct and refreshingly clear.
So with an acknowledgement to the work done by Axel Brück, here are some further thoughts on successful photographic composition. I’m using a high-contrast black and white treatment in Alien Skin Exposure X for these examples, partly to recapture the spirit of Brück’s own experiments, but mostly because it produces a strong, graphic result that makes the effect of different compositional techniques more obvious.
Shapes in composition
These are a central part of any photographic composition. Shapes give a photo its structure. Quite apart from what the shapes actually are – whether they’re buildings, human faces or other objects – their size and position are a fundamental part of the composition.
There may be a single shape, or subject in the picture, or there may be two or more. This is where it gets especially interesting because you then need to find a balance and a connection between different shapes, and you can start exploring contrasts in position, size and tone.
Lines in composition
Shapes give a photographic its visual structure, but lines give a sense of movement into, out of or across the frame. The can converge to emphasise the picture’s focal point, they can diverge to create a sense of outward thrust and parallel lines can give a feeling of solidity and rigidity.
Lines can control the viewer’s eyes and attention as they study a picture, controlling the way they move around a scene and look at each part. Lines can create a sense of dynamism and ‘thrust’, or they can interlock to give a sense of static rigidity.
Shapes and lines together
The way shapes and lines interact in a complex scene can be difficult to analyse, assess and control when you’re in the act of taking pictures. In my experience, real world scenes don’t arrange themselves neatly into textbook compositional arrangements.
The only landscapes I’ve seen which lend themselves to the classic application of the rule of thirds, for example, have been mostly so dull as to be not worth shooting. They only become more interesting when you add in more shapes, objects or foreground details, and these instantly add so many extra variables that the rule of thirds is instantly ‘overruled’ by far more complex interwoven compositional elements.
So is planned composition in photography impossible?
Not at all. I hope to show that the basic ideas are really quite simple and it’s only when you have a lot going on in the frame that it becomes complicated – and that’s when you can trust (and train) your visual instincts.
I think the key is to compose shots ‘instinctively’ at first and then analyse images you like to see how they work when they’re reduced to shapes and lines. Slowly, this improves your ability to ‘see’ effective compositions when you’re shooting.
I do believe we’re better off trusting our visual instincts to arrive at good compositions, but that these instincts get better when you see how to break down successful compositions into their component parts. We can look at this in more detail in future instalments.