#622. Photographic composition in theory and practice : what’s your story?

By pascaljappy | How-To

Jul 26

You know the saying : “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach !”


A Bentley at Harrods


Being a former uni teacher, the son of two teachers, the nephew of a teacher and having built my marketing career on educational content strategies, I’d naturally have to disagree and strongly believe that teaching is one of the most essential building blocks of society, democracy and progress.


But …


Zesty Beemer


… sometimes it is a lot easier to explain stuff on paper than execute the process to make it work for yourself.


Case in point : composition.


Composition is my pet love subject in photography. As much as I like to rant about bad ergonomics and bee-wax lyrical about yummy glass, my true love is for composition.


Missing limb. Disappointment.


Composition makes a photograph. Nothing else matters, really.


Subject matter ? Yes, that’s important. But, more often than not, a powerful subject is an obstacle to creating a powerful photograph. Look at all the lousy photographs of royal weddings or round-butted celebrity on yachts. Contrast that with the understated natural masterpieces that co-author Philippe creates from decaying flowers no one else would even consider as a worthy subject for celebration or the abstract street details dear to Paul ?


At Vic & Albert’s place


Gear ? Yeah, gear matters. Gear stimulates, gets our heart racing or pesks the shit out of our creativity. With lenses, rendering even plays an active role in composition, making gear even more important. Gear specs (speed, AF points, ISO capability …) are largely irrelevant to composition and the creation of art, are used only by marketing departments short on storytelling skills and work only because of a nonaggression marketing pact between manufacturers and the chronic need for the media to fill their pages with new-and-improved copy month after month.




Post-processing ? Light quality ? Colour theory ? Sure, all super important. But only as accessories to composition.


The tree at King’s Cross


Ultimately, photography as a creative outlet (as opposed to documentation) essentially is composition with an epidermal dose of presentation (type of paper, toning, framing …) that is usually subservient to the composition itself or omitted entirely when the photograph ends its career on the web.


And the problem with that is that composition can be learned on paper, but it’s always super difficult in real life … We (at least I) love to hand out free lessons on the subject but it is a little more difficult to apply that knowledge to my own shooting.


I was brutally reminded of that fact during a recent visit to the airplane department of the Science Museum in London, where a large number of planes hung from the ceiling and I tried (and tried) to create something meaningful of the fascinating scene. Talk about fighting my way through difficulty ! I was constantly thinking to myself “there’s a lot more here than you’re delivering, think better”


This brought home the fact that we can teach composition on this blog (and a complete series is on its way) but no amount of theoretical knowledge ever really makes us safe from difficulty. Defeat is always at hand, much as it was for the well-trained pilots of these war machines. Theory is one thing, practice something else altogether. The photograph below is probably the best from my largely unsuccessful series and it’s still not a complete victory. Some cropping at the top and bottom is probably still needed to clean up the composition while maintaining the trans-generational dogfight storyline.


Plane but not simple


This post is largely a preamble to the coming series on composition. Mostly to admit that we are still pretty much students ourselves in spite of decades of practise. The reality is that is just really hard to create something meaningful.


Hard, and important.


You know of our fascination for the un-destination concept. It stems from the fact that postcards of famous scenes seldom satisfy the creative drive in all of us. As mentioned before, famous or powerful subjects rarely make for great photographs. Unless your composition skills exceed the power of the scene, that is. Only by applying your own vision upon the subject do you make the photograph a true creation, and not a tourist snapshot. The stronger / more famous the subject, the more personal your interpretation needs to be.


And our words, or the words of anyone else out there, are only 10% of the story. The other 90% is the agony you feel facing a subject you cannot turn into an inspiring 2D image and have to overcome in order to drive home satisfied 😉


London Bridge sandwich


Yes, it’s just plain difficult. The photograph above is a so-so effort. Way better that your average selfie or snap, but not wall-hanging material for the ages either.


I had very little time to do any better as most of my photographs on this trip were done in between flat viewings and administrative appointments. Travel photography at its fleetest. Still, no cigar, hombre.


It’s been a hard day’s night …


This (above) is a similar attempt at creating something better than the straight-on portrait of HMS Belfast. The story here could be tourist vs work. But the two parts are not related enough (tired soldiers would have been better than tired construction workers) for the image to really work. Also, need to crop above the buildings ?


At least, it’s on the right track, though. The only track that I know that can lead you to a mastery of composition : telling a story.


Our brains are wired to understand and learn from stories. Incorporating your subject into a story is what makes it yours. And, as naff as this may sound, this sentence is more important than all the articles to come on composition 😉


To illustrate this pompous truism, let me conclude with 4 images of a same subject : the Shard, in London. The first 2 are probably my favourite photographs from the whole trip, and some of my fave of the year. Very print-worthy, to me at least.


The first is about London itself. The Shard, the living river, the weather, the architecture, complex variety of style that blend so beautifully into a fascinating skyline (compare this to your average boring row of vertical skyscrapers), plus my not so slight disregard for corporate superiority feelings. I plan to print this in two halves, one above the other (the top part ending on the blurred grey wall above the reflection, the bottom ending above the barge). Each balanced and composed, overlapping on the middle and telling a complete story when brought together.


Shard 1, London


The second could have been a story of small vs large, rounded vs sharp, glass vs metal, but those stories would have benefited from much greater depth of field. The anthropomorphic look of the little bin – it looks like a little ninja to me – took me somewhere else 😉 It looked like Frodo hiding from Barad-dûr, Sauron’s dark tower, and I might crop the bottom to support that. Hey, I never said the story had to be meaningful to others, or grandiose 😉 😉


Shard 2, London


Version 3 is about the surroundings, nature in a glass and concrete environment (hence the colour, which are cold for the glass and warm for the flowers and vegetation). Nothing profound, but it works, on a minor level.


Shard 3, London


The final story is corporate vs leisure. It’s a simple diagonal composition where the top half is almost monochromatic and inorganic while the lower half is soft and colourful. The ice-cream van balances out the arrogant Shard. People are in the middle, coming my way.



Corporate London loves ice cream


Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the conventional skyline. But that’s more something you’ll see in a corporate office than in a souvenir album or a gallery wall.


Looming clouds, London


So that’s it for today. Plenty more to come. But if there’s only one thing to remember of the series is that the more you visualise a story in your mind’s eye, the easier it becomes to assemble the components of the story according to formal rules of composition and create something that’s really yours.


Isn’t that what photography is all about? What’s your story?


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  • Fran Oldham says:

    That’s Tower Bridge, not London Bridge! London Bridge is in Nevada, though it’s rumored that the people who bought it thought they were getting Tower Bridge

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ouch 😉

      London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady 😉

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Arizona (sorry, Fran) – and he knew he was buying the bridge they sent him – he inspected it before signing up to buy it!

      • pascaljappy says:

        Uh, who buys a birdge anyway ? Why not commission a local architect to design something fresh ? (just sayin’ because my daughter’s training to become an architect 😉 😉 😉 )

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    What’s “my” story? How much time have you got, to sit there listening to the ravings of the aged! I’ll give you a tip, Pascal – never ask anyone my age “how are you?” – they might answer! 🙂

    Years ago, when I finally mastered the art of taking a photograph with the second-hand Kodak box Brownie that was given to me on my 10th birthday and started thinking seriously about “photography”, I acquired an SLR and several books on composition. The books on composition were “interesting” – they talked about rules, and no sooner talked about them, than started “breaking” the rules, or doing something quite different. So – rightly or wrongly – what I learned from that, was that composition was all about “doing your own thing”.

    Hanging around with others my age, all photographing much the same subject matter but all “doing our own thing”, I learned to avoid having telegraph poles growing out of people’s heads – I learned to avoid cluttering my photos with a heap of extraneous material – I learned the art of developing my own films and making my own prints or enlargements – and I learned that those small images like the ones so many “photographers” these days circulate on the internet don’t provide the same opportunity to evaluate your work and improve your photography, that you get from making enlargements and decent size prints.

    That provides the foundation – along the way I realised that my mind had been programmed so that wherever I am, I look out for photo opportunities (real or imaginary) – without consciously doing so, I find I have been looking at things to assess the possibilities of creating a picture – framing what I see – should it be a horizontal or a vertical format? – what’s the lighting like? – the tonal range, both on a grey scale and in colour? – close in on it, or get further back? And that’s only the start of it. It does, however, provide most of the framework within which I photograph.

    Where to, from there, I guess depends on developing “the eye”. In the past 2 days I have been reminded of two stories relating to this “eye” thing.

    One, the story of Michelangelo’s David – the massive block of stone from which he finally sculpted his masterpiece had been there, in the quarry, for ages – it was imperfect, and everyone who saw it rejected it – Michelangelo saw it, and saw in it what he could create from it, so he took it, as a young man – it lay there for decades, while he did other work for his various patrons, including a long stint painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, to placate the Pope – till finally, towards the end of his life, he had the opportunity to work on this massive block of marble. And left us with the masterpiece you see in l’Accademia in Florence, today.

    The other, the furious reception that the Impressionists received from the French Academy, when they asserted that shadows are blue, not black. Monet’s paintings are inspirational in this context (and, indeed, in others). I was also reminded of that, when I took a shot in the street, around the corner from my house – hoping I had managed to capture this “blue”. And to my great delight, finding I had. What might otherwise have been a rather pedestrian shot of a bit of local streetscape suddenly became a “photograph” rather than a snapshot – with a wonderful nexus between the blue in the shadows on the facade of the building, and the blue in the sky about it.

    I do find that “photographs” tend to come from studying the opportunities. Not always – sometimes the magic moment is there, right in front of you, and you have to grab your only chance at it. But like so many of the other “rules”, as a general rule, some patience, some thought, some planning, some studying of subject matter, will all combine to kick goals – while a more casual approach will see the ball disappear to one side of the net and and somewhere past the backline.

    Which takes me back to your article. You say you didn’t have “time” – too busy with flat viewings and administrative appointments – does that mean you’re relocating? 🙂

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Bother – meant to add a thought – that shot of the bit of local streetscape around the corner – it was only when the print of the photo finally emerged from my printer that I had the chance to see, at last, that I really had capture the “blue” – both in the shadows and in the sky above – to complete the image as a “photograph” rather than just a snapshot. OK, billions of people no longer see prints of their photos – and in a few years all their photos will be forgotten. But there’s still a band of us out here who can’t stop at the point of “digital storage” or circulation, and HAVE to see prints of our photos. To make a proper evaluation. And to learn more.

      • pascaljappy says:

        I’ve all but given up on digital printing. My Canon Pro printer is up for sale (not on the website because it is large and couldn’t be shipped very far). But my longing for prints is taking me in new directions, back to the chemical lab, via contact printing of digital negatives. More soon on this topic.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Not relocating. Just setting up my daughter for her studies in London starting this September. The number of crappy rooms that people are putting on the market at insane prices is staggering. It took a lot, a lot, of searching to find something really nice (and not anymore expensive). Hence the running and hasty shooting, even for me …

      Interesting comments about Michelangelo’s David and, particularly, Monet. While I prefer Turner, Monet’s work kas had a more influential impact on me. The use of colours and of brush strokes rather than accurate lines to create a sensation of dynamism and movement is pure genius. That really plays an active role in his approach to composition. It is more difficult to apply to photography, but not totally impossible.

  • John Wilson says:

    How I learned to forget the “Rule of Third’s” etc. and enjoy photographing.

    55 years ago I bought my first “real” camera and spent the next 30 years struggling with the trials and tribulations of composition … rule of thirds, leading lines ….etc. Sometimes I got lucky and there are some really good images from those tortured 30 years. Some even good enough to win awards. But I never really “Got It”, hence things were always inconsistent, I never really developed a “style” or a “body of work”. Fast forward to 2004 when I lucked into two of the three photo courses that defined photography for me and me as a photographer. The first was on Vision and Style (Vision is how you see the world; Style is how you represent it) but the “killer” course was something radically different called Miksang. Miksang is a Tibetan word meaning the “good eye” and is all about developing and distilling your vision. Miksang was developed by a Buddhist monk who was an avid photographer and is based on the principle of being in the “here and now”. There are restrictions – handheld, available light and colour only (see para. 3 below). There are no discussions of the rules of composition, colour theory, gear, f stop, shutter speed …. etc. Miksang is purely and entirely about learning to SEE.

    So what did I learn from all that? A few things:
    1. Let me start with a question that may seem irrelevant. Did Newton “invent” gravity? Did Einstein invent “relativity”? No; they didn’t.
    What they did, and Science continues to do, is to understand and explain natural phenomenon of the world around us and the greater

    2. So what has this to do with composition? Well, everything! The “rules of composition” explain a natural phenomenon – what the human
    brain finds/considers visually pleasing. In other words, the “rules of composition” are hard wired into our brains … we already know
    them. What we do when we teach “composition” is place an obstacle in the path of perception that unconsciously traps us in an
    analysis of the external world we are trying to photograph rather than how we feel about what we see, connecting that feeling and
    capturing that photographically. What Miksang does in restores the connection between “seeing” , “feeling” and the act of capturing
    WITHOUT THE DETOUR THROUGH THE COMPOSITION RULE BOOK. In other words, the process becomes intuitive, not analytical.

    3. Miksang for all it’s benefits is trapped within it’s own set of rules. At it’s base it is just another set of tools in you visual toolkit to help
    you create the images YOU want. I freely, and willingly confess to being a Miksang heretic. I convert most of my images to BW and
    have been known to use a tripod for certain subjects. But as a tool for enhancing my vision Miksang is indispensable. What it really did
    was taught me how to get the hell out of my own way photographically and photograph what I FEEL. That leads to a simple guiding
    principle – if I’m thinking, I’m not photographing. Doesn’t mean every shot is a winner, but the process is far more enjoyable.

    On the question of whether composition is the most important aspect of photography, that’s a question for another debate … and lots of beer.

    PS: The BEST course on composition I have ever had was a course on Ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) I took with my wife many years ago. Its all about the distribution of “mass” and “space” within a confined space; that really is the bedrock of composition.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi John,

      this is precisely the part that interests me: explaining how we view and analyse images, and how that affects our interpretation. It’s a broad topic, complex, everchanging and way above my scientific paygrade. But I’ll still try to distill the essentials in ways that are practical enough to use in the field.

      I’d love to hear more about the bridge between Iebana and composition. Is that something that can be put into words in a reasonably short article ?

      All the best,

      • John Wilson says:

        Pascal – I’ve thought about this for a few days and tried to come up with something worth printing, but no luck. The course was just too long ago. But I still have the semiconscious image in my head of the principles but its like walking or thinking – you can do it but would have a tough time sorting out the principles of what you actually do when you do those things. My best suggestion is to google your locale for a course and go take it. It really is a lot of fun and you’ll meet some interesting people.

  • Brian Nicol says:

    The rules of composition should be called principles of composition. They are a great to start learning and develop your artistic skills but one does not want to be inprisoned by such things as rule of thirds as balance in an image can overrule that anyway. As one grows, you recognize a great image intuitively without necessarily knowing why. However, you do need to put in 10000 hours of practice and study. Study is enhanced by studying great photos and paintings. My greatest challenge is removing what does not enhance my subject – a fresh angle or get closer. I now try to be a carver; carve off what does not belong! I need at least another 10000 hours to work on this! Looking forward to your composition posts as it is a subject that can never be exhausted even for masters. Cheers Brian

    • pascaljappy says:

      Yes, exactly.

      I’d like to be able to provide information (rather than formal instruction) that would help someone starting out avoid some of the 10 000 hours of falling.

      Rules aren’t really useful in this context, but understanding how the brain analyses images is what I have in mind for the future.


  • Adrian says:

    I must admit that often I don’t think about composition and compositional rules that much. Perhaps that makes me a bad photographer, or maybe just lazy. Of course, I know some basics that others mention – checking the frame for “clutter”, and some of the concepts of thirds. I tend to use thirds quite often, because I feel it often works, perhaps because I like geometry and symmetry and since I photography cities and architecture more than landscapes and countryside, thirds and geometry seem to work well together. Of course, there are exceptions blah blah blah and I’m certainly not suggesting one follows them like a slave, but in my recent DS article about finding inspiration in Singapore (shameless plug: https://www.dearsusan.net/2017/06/09/605-powers-darkness/), many of the architectural shots tended to use some rule of thirds concepts. Mathematical theory shows us that thirds and associated ratios often occur in nature, and tend to be pleasing to our eyes.

    As for story telling, it’s not something that often consciously enters my mind when photographing. Again, perhaps I’m incompetent or lazy. Physique sports stage photos are record shots; my physique portraits to date don’t have a story, perhaps just a look or atmosphere; travel photos are often little more than up market record shots; and street portraits don’t consciously involve a concept of story telling, although they often start with the atmosphere of a “stolen moment”. I sometimes think about the ideas of “cinematic” photography, and have contemplated moving some male physique work in this direction, but the models are often more interested in a detailed record shot of their hard work rather than something where they may be much smaller in the frame, and “cinematic” photos in my mind require finding the right location, lighting, props and wardrobe that may I don’t able to control when working far from home. Cindy Sherman’s self portraits (although not realised as such for many years) always fell into that “cinematic” category for me, as they always invoked a feeling of curiosity about the situation of the subject, how they had got there, and what was happening. However, I don’t feel those pictures and their impact on me were because of composition, their story telling came from those other things – costume, make up, location, lighting, atmosphere… which is story telling, but not compositionally. Of course, Cindy Sherman could have composed them badly and they would not have had the same impact, but I don’t feel the composition was the story in itself.

    Thinking about painters such as Matisse mentioned earlier in the comments, I’ve always felt that such paintings strength came from use of colour and light – the painter capturing an impression of the way the light glistening on the water in which the lilies grew etc – and weren’t about a “story” but a moment or an atmosphere or mood.

    Perhaps I am being too literal in differentiating between story and atmosphere? I have always been a literal person, not a great quality for an artistic temperament I feel, and “art” in my photography has always been something I’ve struggled with as my approach is quite mechanical and technique based. As I have said here before, the pursuit of mastery requires both technical and artistic growth, and as amateurs we can all learn and grow.

    • pascaljappy says:

      I don’t think it makes you bad or lazy, I’ve seen your photographs 😉 It simply means you’ve ingested the rules enough for them to become instinctual.

      My guess is that the story in your physique sports stage photos is the person. I’m sure the way you light and frame a scene have an impact on how the person is perceived. The example of Cindy Sherman is excellent. Look at the difference between selfies in front of Tour Eiffer and her self portraits. Composition shouldn’t ever get in the way of the story. Philippe would call this virtuosity, a word he uses to describe the use of a technique (usually one you master very well) for the sake of it rather than a way to serve the performance or story. Composition for the sake of composition just the story into a blatant exhibition of the photographer’s ego. Cindy Sherman framed her shots, probably purely intuitively, but certainly not haphasardly.

      The use of colours and light serve composition. Anything that directs the gaze and provokes a reaction falls in the category of composition, if you ask me 😉

      Story vs atmosphere. That’s very interesting. In my mind, atmosphere is part of the story. The story doesn’t have to be a narrative. It can be a situation, anything that creates a reaction, emotions, feelings … But, hey, this is not exact science. Variety of opinions is what makes these conversations worthwhile ! I look forward to more with you.

      • Adrian says:

        Thanks for the reply Pascal. You raise some interesting points: if nothing else, that I am often very literal in my thoughts and use of and interpretation of language!

        John Wilson’s comment above I think sums up the issue of following a rule versus following instinct. The rules often try to codify what naturally looks “right” or is pleasing to our eye – that’s certainly how I feel about “thirds”, and I think my conscious application of “thirds” is just a way to help me work out what I think looks pleasing.

        I’m intrigued by the question of what story a photo of a stage event is telling. I don’t have any control of stage lighting or any action on the stage – physique sports is a sports event, as so like every other sports photographer, I am merely capturing moments. Of course, the framing, the choice of moment, and to an extent the post processing all help to create the final image. Recently I have tried to capture “moments” on stage, to get away from “record shots”, by trying to find something special such as an expression, facial gesture or when an athlete does something unplanned (physique sports comprises mostly of set poses, and so is very formulaic and repetitive). I suppose to an extent that is an attempt at “story”, although I think of it more as trying to show personality or a certain view of “beauty” or “perfection”.

        Of course Cindy Sherman composes her shots (and apologies if it seemed like I was suggesting she didn’t). I remember seeing an exhibition of her work more than 2 decades ago in London, and being captivated by the hidden story in some of her photos – a woman at the road side with a suitcase for example – and I’ve always felt that her work like that (rather than some of the more static portraits in period costume or with exaggerated make up etc) was very cinematic.

        Where you use story, I tend to think of “atmosphere”, which for me is things such as light or colour – I sometimes use a coloured gel on rim light, and often add a slight coloured tint during processing to “dirty” the image because it adds a slight sense of drama at the subconscious level. I’ve never thought of that as “story”, but it’s just a different word for the same thing (I think).

        If I take a photograph of Singapore at dusk and someone thinks it looks beautiful, or they say they would like to visit, I am pleased because I’ve created an emotion in them that I was trying to convey. Again, I don’t think of this as “story”, but perhaps you do.

        Of course, composition can create “story” in much more obvious or direct ways – I see lots of street photography that does this by the juxtaposition of a figure against some advertising or a backdrop, often where one reinforces the other (woman eating ice cream next to poster about how delicious ice cream tastes, man walks in front of giant hoarding with a pair of eyes and the slogan “we’re watching you” etc etc). The other approach to a “story” is the very obvious, where for example you photograph the homeless person juxtaposed with the luxury building/store/car, which I tend to dislike because the message is rather too simple for often complex subjects. Experienced photo-journalists and reportage photographers sometimes to do it rather better.

        I often find that when trying too hard to compose a photograph, the results get worse rather than better, or at least aren’t very good. Perhaps this is trying to hard to find a story, or not even knowing what your story is?

        • pascaljappy says:

          I suppose you could experiment your way to success without rules; but that would take a long time. With rules and feedback it’s much quicker to start learning. But no one follows the rules once they are fully understood, since that would limit the imagination. Consistent departure from set rules probably defines style in many ways.

          Personality is a certain form of story, I guess. One where the subject photo is the subject of the story ?

          Story may not be the accurate word, given that it implies a narrative, a beginning and and end. As you say, a photograph can work wonderfully by simply depicting an atmosphere. The important aspect is that you make the scene your own and create an image that shows something different from the guy next door’s, right ? The Petronas Towers in KL can be photographed in so many ways, for instance, that you can create admiration for the architecture, a repulsive reaction to the night light pollution, a criticism of wealth, a comment on the mix of state and religion … Those are the sort of things I call stories but aren’t really. In the end, what really matters is the ability to understand what it is that strikes you in a scene and motivates you to take the photograph. 99% of the time, I find that super difficult, particularly when time constraints make me rush like mad. But there is a great satisfaction when the “story” pops up in my mind and the framing, focal length, exposure and PP all come together to make the idea evident in the final image. That 1% makes the other 99% worth it 😉

          • Adrian says:

            Pascal, your final paragraph is full of interesting and thought provoking points, that could probably be another article in it’s own right, but let’s deal with the earlier easier things first.

            As has already been expressed in some comments above, lots of people don’t like “rules”, because they are limiting at best or “there to be broken” at worst. The latter is the type of comment I see from some when one offers polite suggestions for improvement and mention some “rules” of composition (as said above, better “guidelines”) and it is not taken well – one can ignore all the guidelines/rules and just do your own thing, but if you are to understand and develop then as you say, it becomes a potentially protracted and hap-hazard way of learning. As others comment above, sometimes putting a focal point in an unexpected place – near the edge of the frame, or actually cropped off at the edge for example – can make a very strong composition and make something better. However, for perhaps the 99 out of 100 other times, the “rules” can work quite well. Some people seem to become very emotive on the subject of “rules for composition” and seem to think anyone who talks about them is trying to slavishly enforce them, but in my opinion (experience?) simple rules like thirds or clutter in the frame can offer approaches that work with lots of subjects. Horizons often look better on a third – but sometimes they look great straight through the middle, or very near the bottom of the frame. It’s knowing the rules but also knowing when other things are good too, or better, that’s important, and that probably only comes with experience (or learning from others work).

            Personality… story… that’s a difficult intellectual leap, at least for me. There is a common belief that in great portraits you show or reveal something of the subject. I have to politely disagree. I’ve seen plenty of celebrity portraits where my opinion is that what we the viewer think we see is actually deliberately manufactured by the photographer, or the model, or both. I really think it’s a conceit to believe that all great portraits reveal some inner truth of the subject; I think we the viewer often superimpose own pre-conceptions and opinions on many portraits to create our own “truth” about what we think we are seeing. Certainly, in *my* physique portraits (off stage), it is often my direction, or the photographer and model together, that creates the final “look” (mood, atmosphere, story – choose your own word) – and more is added during post production where the mood and atmosphere can be further enhanced, or on occasion added where perhaps it didn’t obviously exist in the original capture. Thinking of much portraiture as “truth” is simply wrong in my humble opinion, although that is not to say that different subjects bring something different and a different energy to the process.

            As for stage photos, I compose, select and edit to ultimate try to show something – strength, power, fun – and occasionally if the planets align then you can get a glimpse of personality or joie-de-vivre that transcends another “record shot”. I have no idea if that is a story – if it is, then the story is often not pre-determined as one is largely the victim of circumstance – you can only photograph what happens before you. Any skill in story telling is identifying and reacting quickly enough to capture those moments. Other photographers approach competitions in very different and more artistic ways – from beside the stage, or reportage back stage etc – which clearly has more storytelling and artistic potential, but isn’t currently how I choose to work at competitions.

            Now on to the difficult stuff! I completely agree that understanding what strikes you about something is the bit that can be difficult, and I too often don’t have time or the ability to know what it is. I think it may be what others call “pre-visualising”, which I’ve always thought was a bit of a self-aggrandising pseudo-intellectual comment (“oh, I pre-visualised the scene”). Frankly, post processing can change the look and atmosphere of a scene so much that often I find it hard to imagine how I could know how it might look once I’ve finished with it! However, I do think that seeing the potential in something, or being drawn to something for a reason you at least half understand is 90% of the battle. Careful post processing will then allow you to try and bring out what you saw, or want others to see. When I photograph street portraits, it’s a combination of a quiet moment and being solitary (even with others around), or faces – I can’t tell you what exactly about faces, and I wouldn’t say it’s “good looking”, but it’s something about being interesting or attractive to the final photograph. When I see someone or situation or “moment” I often know it – and if I try to find it, often the results aren’t very good. I agree that sometimes the planets align in some way to get it “right”. Sometimes I seem to get it “right” when I release the shutter, and I often feel as if it is luck at play, but in reality I think it’s something sub-conscious based on past experience that means you instinctively know that something could be good or will work.

            And… lets be honest… serendipity also plays a part. Many professional photographers “make” their pictures – I know first hand of one national geographic type photographer who travels with an interpreter and pays subjects to spend time with them and get them to do things to create opportunities for the resultant photographs, although I suspect many believe the pictures are entirely serendipitous. Most of us mere mortal amateurs don’t have the resources to do that, and so must rely in part on serendipity.

      • Adrian says:

        Pascal, I meant to ask, were you photos taken with a 28mm lens?

        I particularly like “missing limb” and “Avalokiteshvara” – the former for the look given to the stone of the statue, and the latter for the dramatic effect on the figure (I think created by a very shallow DOF and heavy vignette).

        If I may be so bold, I’m not sure about “shard 3” and wonder if a square crop would work? (I find the lower part of the frame too loose and uninteresting, but perhaps I don’t understand the story!).

        • pascaljappy says:

          Adrian, the lens was the Distagon 35/1.4 ZM in all cases. It was a hurried session and I never changed lens. Yes, there is heavy vignette on the golden statue as the background was very distracting. And I figured that for a deity, having a central glow doesn’t really hurt 😉

          I like the idea of cropping Shard 3 as a square. In fact the top square and bottom square are bothin interesting. My preference goes to the bottom square, where the eliminated sky makes the colours shine more brilliantly.

          • Adrian says:

            I really do like the way the stone of missing limb looks, and the beautiful golden colour in Avalokiteshvara – I don’t mind the vignette, and the shallow DOF really brings out the shape of the statue.

            I agree a square crop of the lower part of shard 3 is interesting, I hadn’t considered that. Having considered it more, I think something like a 645 or 4×3 of the tip of the frame, to keep the shard in and end somewhere below the door or the bottom of thr steps is interesting.

            • pascaljappy says:

              Thanks Adrian. That’s an interesting proposition. And printing the two sections on one page would provide a very stable look. I’ll try simulations before printing.

              All the best,

  • Fabrizio Giudici says:

    Well, personally I started with the “rule of thirds” (I agree they are not rules, rather principles, or guidelines) as tons of people, because when I started photography I was really point-and-shooting. As tons of people I think, at the time (about twenty years ago) I was frustrated by the results when I realised that I wasn’t thinking at all while shooting. Also, I knew nothing about the technique (even the DoF stuff) and so – as my usual – I said: one problem at a time. First learn a number of technicalities, master the equipment, things such as exposure, later you’ll think of composition, which is the most important and the less technical. This period lasted about seven years, also because I wasn’t really shooting a lot (mostly during the summer vacations), and included the transition to digital. Digital was a game changer because I could see what I was doing faster and I could shoot more. Anyway, since composition wasn’t still my primary concern, with my first digital camera I started to program the viewfinder to always show the thirds grid.

    A few years later I was starting to like what I was doing – let’s say at least I was aware of an improvement (it was important because I had put myself a ten year period for a go-nogo decision). But, for laziness, I kept the grid until a couple of years ago. Then I realised that it was still conditioning me, and I removed it. I even programmed a custom button for completely declutter the viewfinder, so I can just look at the picture (I don’t use this very frequently, also because my viewfinder isn’t really cluttered even in normal mode).

    Rationalising what I’m doing now: I’m looking at lots of others’ photos (clearly, also here :-). Books, but mostly online. I collect them in galleries and then look through the galleries multiple times, concentrating on what I like and what I dislike. I do this mostly when I prepare for a journey, and it helps me in pre-visualising. In the EVF, I’m no more thinking of “global” compositional rules: I only think if I like or dislike what I see. Since, as other said, sometimes you “discover” what you want in post-processing, I take care of many shots per subject, with little variations. I could apply compositional guidelines more in culling than while composing, to understand which are the best picks. In a way, I’m trying to putting myself in the same position as other people whose work I look at and evaluate. My perception is that this approach was the real changer in my experience.

    The only guidelines I’m still taking care of in the EVF are those related to blatant errors: look around the borders, avoid clutter, have separation among parts, etc…

    Of course I can’t claim this works in an absolute way, because I don’t know how to evaluate my work comparatively. But since I shoot for fun, I realise that which this approach I’m usually satisfied. I must say that the thing works in two ways: because my idea of dealing with an art as a hobby (also playing a keyboard, for instance) is also a way to better enjoy and understand the really artistic work of masters.

    I think that the most important thing now is to be able to adopt a better procedure for evaluating my work – that is, separating travel photography (I mean: things that I shot at because I want to recall I’ve been there) from the shots that have more value. I’m not saying I want to shoot less: I still want to keep travel photos for my memories; but being able to better evaluate them might improve my capability to “see”.

    As a further point, but this is hard, and still at the level of desire: I’m studying paintings, especially from the XIV century up to XVI. In that period landscapes were almost never the subject of a painting; it was mostly the background of a portrait or of a religious subject. Those landscapes were starting to be realistic (unlike the one in bizantine art), but still symbolic, metaphisical. It’s really intriguing stuff and I wonder whether it could be used as an inspiration in my photography. To understand the references I’m talking of, look for instance at the slides 12, 15->21, 24->28, 30->33 from this presentation:


    PS I was struck by the shallow DoF of the statue too and I was going to ask what lens it was, but I see there’s already the answer.

  • Rob Telford says:

    Small factual correction: the planes are to be found in the Science Museum, not the V&A

    Writing on my phone so any more extensive response will have to wait a bit 🙂

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