Common lies of photographic composition

​Here's the rub. You can find dozens of books, hundreds of online articles and thousands of tips about composition in libraries and websites devoted to photography. Most were written for painting

Painting is an additive process. You start with an empty page and decide what to add, where, with what colour intensity, shade ... Either through instinct, planning, keen observation skills or intense practise, you build up your image to the final composition you want. And the various rules on sinuous curves, leading lines, rhythms (...) can more or less be used ​at will​.

​Outside a studio, photography is an adaptive process​​​. A scene lies before you as nature/man made it, not as rules of composition dictate. Good luck finding interesting situations that actually fit the rules. Besides, why would you? Do you want to transmit to the viewer the emotion/energy that got you to press the shutter release, or do you want to ​distort it to conform to rules sometimes written down long before photography was even intended? That sounds like the obstinate 3 year old hammering circular toys into triangular holes, doesn't it? ​;)

​To make things worse, many of the rules you can read about online or in books originated in someone's brain and are now taken for granted, even though absolutely no hard science is there to support them. The angry 3 year old has now turned into a ​child following a compositional piper to a land where all things are shaped as pyramids and golden spirals and there is no center to anything, only thirds.

​A rock-solid central composition (c) Pascal Jappy

​Painters have canvas, paint, brushes. We, togs, "only" click. The perceived superiority of painting as an artform is linked to the complexity of building from scratch. Mastering not only colour theory but drawing, brush strokes, light, imagination ... is indeed laudable.  

Photographers' plates are equally laden, however. We have to build a mental frame for the sort of work ​we want to produce, so as to guide our every photograph, ​understand composition and exclusion, ​master post-processing and printing to create a final ​print that firmly captures the attention. No mean feat either.

In order to compose a photograph, we photographers have at our disposal feet (or other means of moving about), time, focal length, lighting, colour and shape. It is our job to order the available visual elements so as to impart emotion and meaning to our images by either waiting for the desired alignment, or moving about the scene to alter the placement and size relationships between elements, or using focal length to compress and blur, or light to direct attention.

Both painters and photographers have a frame and human psychology to work with. Understanding the frame and visual psychology are all we need to compose images that matter.

​A spiral curve and a rule of thirds, yippee (c) Pascal Jappy

​This course has no rules, no tips, no presets. It digs deeper into the psychology of our vision and formulates principles that you can apply to your own photography rather than follow blindly. You can decide to apply them, or deliberately (knowingly) break them, ... mostly, make them your own and incorporate them in ​your​ photography according to the goal ​you set yourself​.​​​​​​

Again, I make no claims that this is absolute truth. This series of articles isn't supported or endorsed by academic overlords. It is the sole product of my readings and personal experience with composition. I ​do however think they are a lot more interesting than the millionth reshash of the rule of third and that they can be used to form your intuition to react quickly and effectively on location.

Criticism welcome. Sharing very appreciated. Comments​ welcome. ​Sharing and comments are the only form of repayment I'd like to ask for in exchange for the free information provided here. Here's to talking with you 🙂

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  • Sean says:

    Hi Pascal,
    By jove, you anarchist, I think you are onto something here, and I say this with all due respect, to you.

    I particularly like what you’ve said, being “… Understanding the frame and visual psychology are all we need to compose images that matter…” and this “… You can decide to apply them [rules], or deliberately (knowingly) break them, … according to the goal ​you set yourself​.​​​​​​..”

    If this refreshing advice doesn’t help rid oneself of the, at times, stifling yoke of ‘framing rules’ I dunno what will.

    I get the feeling some will need to learn how to unlearn, to be able to undo such constraints, prior to being liberated from the entrenched framing mantras.

    My sense on what your on about is to know that certain compositional rules but they’re not absolute and don’t carry the force of some law. They’re there, but it’s not necessary to feed them – move on; and use them as a point of departure to cultivate your own style, freed from the myopic constraints of compositional rules.

    Yes, you’ve certainly let a cat out of a bag. Maybe we should endeavour to photograph like a child, and use composition in an unencumbered way so that composition works on an individual level and context specific to the image being crafted – not to some generic compositional mantra.


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