“The art of placing the various points of interest of a photograph in a way that is conducive to storytelling”. That’s my definition. I promised something more useful than ranting, a few days ago, this is my attempt.
You’ll find plenty of others in other articles, and whole chapters could probably be devoted to the topic in academic circles, but I’m interested in something actionable in a creative hobby.
So, more than a definition, let’s focus on the goal of composition in order to better understand how to achieve the results you seek.
The purpose of composition is to make an image strong. How ? By taking control of how the viewer reads the image.
And how do you do that ? By understanding the psychology of vision and the noble art of storytelling.
There, that wasn’t so hard, was it ? 😉 😉 😉
There are two ways you can start learning about composition.
One is bottom-up. Learn about and accept a set of rules (rule of thirds, diagonals, curves …) all of which have been covered in abundance all over the Internet, and use your personal experience to decide which works for you in various contexts. That approach carries with it all the might of empiricism (good) but requires a fair deal of hit and miss experimentation, plus a great deal of determination to find your way in a complex landscape without a compass.
The second is top-down : try to understand how vision works and use those principles to craft your images predictably. A wonderful idea, but one which presents the drawback of letting you drown in theory before you ever leave home to shoot. And also one that may require too long a think to be usable in the field and may prove to be really exploitable only in retrospect.
But that’s fine, as you don’t have to become an absolute expert in neuroscience to make this work and the retrospective analysis of your work and the work of others is a great way to improve your photography. At the end of the day, fun things happen when top-down meets bottom-up. When the theoretical knowledge lets you analyse / refine your shots, the creation process gradually becomes intuitive, allowing your style to shine through rather than being ironed out by an overly normative training.
So, let’s tackle this series on photo composition from 3 angles :
Each of your photographs can then be analysed very simply from these 3 perspectives. Easy, quick but formal enough to draw conclusions and evolve. Onwards.
This is where the science of vision is most important. Now, I’m not an expert in that field and the science related to it probably advances faster than I could learn as a hobbyist. So those are quick and easy facts that are meant to provide guidelines more than help you along with your PhD.
Our vision analyses a tiny spot of our environment with very high resolution. Contrary to silly claims that a sensor requires x hundred megapixels to match the resolution of the eye, our eye has high resolution only on a very tight area. For instance, can you read both number plates above, simultaneously? Thought not.
Instead, you can read one (and even that requires some scanning) and then your eyes can switch very rapidly to the next and read that.
When we analyse a scene we scan it in numerous small movements, over and over again, until we have built a complete mental picture of it. The same happens when someone views one of your photographs. A strong image just grabs the spectator by the eyeballs and forces them to look in a predetermined way so as to tell the story the photographer intended. When the image is weak, the viewer scans randomly for a couple of seconds, wonders why he/she lost her time doing so and moves on. A strong image keeps the attention for a much longer period of time and leaves the viewer with a clear meaning.
Any good story has a beginning and a plotline. The strongest visual element in your photograph will always be the beginning of that story. Whatever has the most visual weight in the image is where the viewer’s eye will settle first (it may land somewhere else but will be drawn here first). There is no exception to that.
Our eye/brain vision isn’t just about a tiny patch of high resolution information. It is *mostly* about the mechanics involved in peripheral vision that automatically and very very quickly tell you where to focus that tiny patch. If all of our retina was high resolution, analysing our environment would use up a huge amount of processing and would slow us down considerably. Moore’s law doesn’t seem to apply to our brains, sadly, and our ancestors would have been devoured by sabre-tooth tigers if it had taken them long seconds to examine every detail of a scene in parallel.
So our peripheral vision is hard-wired to detect shapes and movement in an ultra fast process that tells us where to look intently. If you close your eyes and open them in front of a photograph, repeatedly, you’ll find yourself returning to the same first spot over and over again. You’ll almost feel the processing happen in your brain. If not, do not rearrange your mind. But by all means, do switch to an image with stronger composition.
This is your first litmus test. Does your image have a solid starting point ?
Very often, the starting point is also the end point. The photograph is about that point and nothing else. There’s nothing wrong with that. People often struggle with that idea, looking to rules of thirds or other ways to deal with the fact (or alter it artificially) that, in essence, their story is a very simple one. Just don’t. When the story is about one object or subject, just plonk it right in the middle. That is where the eye will go naturally and whatever de-centering you artificially add will only make the viewer ask “why is this not in the center”, with you providing absolutely no answer. Picture : broken.
The photo above is about a horse. The bottom is kept very dark, the sky is very uniform. The horse is in the center. The tall reeds provide some context, suggesting that this is a horse in the Camargue, not in Iceland. This is just an early morning photograph of a horse in Camargue. This simple story cannot support any fancy compositional trickery.
So what is it that creates visual weight and draws the eye in first to give our photograph a good starting point ?
Basically, anything that helps identification !
I will return to this topic in a separate post. There is not enough room on this page to illustrate all possibilities 😉
For now, let’s just say that multiple elements will compete for attention with a relative strength that’s proportional to their visual weight. In a portrait, if you leave a recognisable, contrasty object next to your model’s face, it will create tension and divert the gaze from the face. That’s why portraits are often shot against dark flat backgrounds. Moving on.
This is a topic I already wrote about in a separate article so let’s keep it simple here.
Essentially, in a frame with hard edges (see original article to see why this is important), each edge acts like a wall that bounces the eye back inwards. Leaving the frame means leaving a world of information and entering one that contains none, so we bounce back into the image.
Predictably, in a square frame, the natural resting place is the very center of the frame (each edge having equal force in pointing the gaze inwards). The same goes (even stronger) for the round frame, the Tondo, used in renaissance art.
A vertical frame allows the eye to move up and down a vertical line, centered along the horizontal axis and as long as the frame is elongated.
A horizontal frame does the same along a horizontal line.
Elongated horizontal frames, therefore, are well suited to landscapes (where the eye scans along the mid height horizontal) or action. Our upbringing and, in particular, how we write dictates how we read the image, from left to right (most occidental countries) or from right to left. Sharon Tenenbaum has an interesting ebook on the topic.
Elongated vertical frames, on the other hand are naturally suited for imagery that conveys height, ascension (and, therefore, spiritual imagery)
More elongated frames have a more dynamic impact whereas more ‘compact’ shapes (3×4, 4×5, 6,7) feel more serene and sedate. There’s a reason Guernica is so long and Monet’s garden views are much closer to a square.
So a frame dictates a certain feel. And your composition can align with that feel or can fight it. Both are valid options, so long as you have a clear idea why you are chosing one over the other.
In the photograph above, the centricity of the pole, road and tree work hand in hand very the almost circular frame. There’s very little else your eye can do but end up following that road to the horizon, having first started with the central telephone pole. The spectator’s gaze will likely be confined to the two. The image feels quiet and static.
In the square photograph below, there’s nothing in the center but the base of the huge clouds. The houses look tiny and threatened at the bottom and the eye returns to them after following the clouds to the top of the frame. The two are very far apart and the image feels a lot more threatening and nervous (a fact emphasised by the harsh post-processing).
Whether your composition works with the frame or not helps you control how balanced, natural and safe a photograph feels to the viewer. But the shape of the frame always creates a starting point for the dynamism of the image.
The photograph below is almost the complete opposite to the one above. It’s a very serene scene inside a longish horizontal frame (which could be more elongated if I removed some of the questionably useless sky). The lone figure creates an immediate starting point, which is why it was so important to ensure it wasn’t encroaching on the reed beds in the background (I was balancing precariously on a picnic table using the rear screen to compose, in order to achieve this). The horizon is almost on that mid-height line the eye will naturally roam on and the elongated frame, the rising sun at left … all ensure that the eye inspects every tree along that horizon. Sort of like making sure the viewer sees the same things as the lone figure (buddy photographer Philippe) is seeing.
Neither photograph is a case of bending a rule. Both use the rules of vision to create a different feel (although, to be honest, a lot of this interpretation happens in retrospect and the framing is largely intuitive on the moment).
Remember the part about the starting point and the plotline in your story ?
Well, as described above, the element with the strongest visual weight acts as your starting point. Always.
And the relative strength and positioning of the other elements in the image are what define the plotline.
In the case of the horse image above, the story goes “here’s a horse early peeping at me through reeds early morning, ain’t it pretty”. The horse is the story.
Bring in other elements and relationships begin to develop. And what are stories if not relationships, and their context, being described ?
The dialog (scolding ?) above feels more serene than the Homeric battle between man and savage, below. The post processing, the more elongated frame and the more eccentric placement, all contribute to that.
Eccentricity creates tension. Every frame dictates a natural focus point that acts like a fulcrum for the placement of the various elements in the image. The further from this fulcrum you place an element, the more tension it introduces.
In a rectangular or circular frame, that natural focus point is the center of the frame. Place a single subject there and, hey presto, a balanced photograph that’s all about the subject. If your image contains a single element, you’d better have a very good reason for not placing it at the center.
When you do place an element off-center, the imbalance it creates is proportional to its visual weight and its distance from the center. You can bring balance back to the (no, not the Force) image by placing a second element off-center, symmetrically from the first. The stronger the visual weight of that second element, the closer it can be to the center. The weaker, the further out in the boonies it needs to be to balance the primary de-center. It’s all like a see-saw, where fat dad has to be really close to the middle while light-weight daughter is sitting at the very end of the pole.
The pink-headed mannequin above is larger and in sharper focus than the white-headed mannequin on its left. It is also slightly closer to the middle of the frame, the smaller, out of focus mannequin having to be slightly more off-center to balance out the visual weight of the first.
As an extreme example of that weight balancing exercise, here is a photograph from Mont St-Michel, in Normandy. The mount and abbey are just a tad top right of center, whereas the tiny lady is a long way off at bottom left. The photograph feels balanced, and the shadows and general direction of the lady gives the sensation that she is walking towards the mountain (she was, shoe-less in the mud in the wee hours of the morning, carrying a heavy film medium format camera, dedicated her …).
Now this is not exact science, thankfully. You may feel this photograph is better with a little less sky and in a 4×5 horizontal format. I wanted a bit more blue to balance out that very mustardy dominant colour (which I do not like, hence my aversion to “golden hour” photographs, I guess). It’s really a matter of understanding the rules and then using them knowingly to create the effect YOU want. Interpreting the rules is a lot better than following them blindly, in a creative hobby. But going about it haphazardly without understanding the logic behind the rules is the worse you can do for yourself. If this post gets you closer to getting a feel for how these rules work and how their interplay creates the story, I’m a happy man 🙂
Ultimately, it’s not about rules, it’s not about bending or breaking them. It’s all about you taking control of the image and how you want others to perceive it. Compare the image below to the Pieta at the top of this page. This photograph (below) is about the setting, the cliff-hugging church overlooking all of Provence. It contains the exact same statue as the image at top. But that top image was all about a mother losing a child. A more religious person might have focused more on the central figure of Christ. But dogma does little for me whereas sentiments are what make us human. And I doubt that many sentiments are as difficult to handle as losing a child.
That picture at the top of the page is all about that agony and the dignity displayed by the mother under those circumstances. The clouds split to reveal her upright figure (compare to the person crouching on the ground), the sagging shoulders and desperate upward tilt of the head convey the pain. The upward triangle formed by the 3 figures mirrors the vertical frame. The bottom-right de-centering is balanced by the top-left clouds. Very little of this entered my mind while making that image, I only focused on keeping the horizon clear of Christ’s head and body, and on placing the Virgin Mary’s head in the gap in the clouds. I then composed in a way that felt balanced.
Most of this is intuitive and the intuition has been nurtured by hours of studying the rules and comparing my photographs with those rules.
You could argue that few photographs are as simple as the conversation below and more like the complex arrangement above.
And you’d be right. Not all photographs have human elements interacting with one another.
But that changes nothing.
The role of the frame’s format remains the same whatever its content. And the forces at play between sections of the image are identical whether the photograph is an abstract or revolves around clearly identified human beings.
It’s not just faces that carry visual weight. Light streams dig a passage through dark masses. In-focus packs more punch than out-of-focus (which is why bokeh quality plays such an important role in composition). So does sharp and contrasty compared to blurred and hazy. Converging lines create a strong weight at their intersection (see pic n°2 on this page. Wide-angle lens, anyone ?) Large masses close to the fulcrum need to be balanced out by smaller masses placed further away (unless you want to create an unbalanced image, that is. A perfectly valid objective). Hide the plane engine below, and see how that alters the whole balance of the image, for example.
So that’s it. This is more or less the extent of my understanding of photographic composition.
Not all photographs need to be compositional masterpieces. This image below is rather weak in that respect but is still pleasant to look at because of the subject matter and nice lighting. The story is “hey look, they have pelicans in the middle of a capital city, in Australia”. It’s not about the social struggle of a pelican minority faced with scorn. It’s just a memory from a gentle afternoon stroll on a balmy winter afternoon (yes, I miss Perth …)
This, at roughly the same spot, an hour or so later, is much stricter, as befits a skyline shot. The inclusion of the waterfront cafe bay window (yeah open windows, mid winter, at night …) creates a frame within a frame, some less formal context and added interest.
So there you have it. This is the top down version of composition as I understand it. Take a look at your pictures, or those of others you admire, and see how they fare when it comes to those 3 topics (visual weight, frame, eccentricity).
In particular, work out what packs the most visual punch **for you**. Is it faces, is it contrast, is it converging lines, zigzags, sharp focus, a particular colour … ? The science behind human vision is all well and good. And I’m pretty sure some twerp will soon program an AI to figure average weightings and automate perfect composition. But no one can tell you what *you* prefer and react to most. And your photographs will never be strong if you don’t understand yourself.
Now, the bottom-up work is yours to do! I’m pretty sure strong intuition will follow quite quickly 🙂
Next up, lighting. The giving never stops on DS …
So, what say you ?
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