The Art of Composition
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Old 02-05-2007   #1
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Default The Art of Composition

Special Request:

For all of you photographers out there who create beautiful pictures, please post them here and comment on your OWN composition. This is not a thread for critique, but a thread for learning. I wrote the following article based upon what I have gathered by looking at other people's works, and the tidbits I have read in one book or another. Many do not need the information that I have written, but some do.

If you would be so kind as to post a picture or two and explain why it is good composition, those of us who need to learn will be greatly appreciative of those who have gone before.

In advance, I thank you.

Photographic Composition

When we look at a photograph, what is it about the photograph that makes us like or dislike it? Are there elements to composition that are common to photographs that receive rave reviews? For new photographers, the answer often seems elusive. Being an unschooled photographer, I take the opportunity here on the Camel to analyze the photographs that are posted to learn as much as I can about composition.

I have been pondering the art of photographic composition for sometime now, and have yet to find the definitive answer as to what constitutes excellent composition. Of course, the "definitive" answer does not exist, since so much of what we see is subjective. However, a basic set of elements does exist, and understanding those elements can help the beginning photographer create better pictures, and know how to critique.

When talking to others less experienced than me, meaning they have little or no experience, I hear the same question...how does one compose the photograph in the mind prior to taking the photograph? How does one know what to look for in a photograph when asked to critique it?

I have been looking for a book on composition, but have not yet found one. So...I decided to start this thread. I will share what I have found to be the "rules" of composition by reading this or that, and am asking, pleading, that if you have examples that illustrate these points, to share them with us here. I have seen many examples of these elements on the threads here on the Camel, but lack permission to pull the photographs into this thread.*

Although for some, the art of composition comes naturally, for others, we need to train our eyes to see the world around us as an artist would. Accessing a new vocabulary allows us to see more clearly, creatively, and thus communicate with our viewers what it is that we have seen and what we want to create.

So here goes what I have been able to garner about the "rules" of composition. To many, these will be very basic. To others, who are looking for hooks on which to hang their thoughts and improve their photographs, they will be treasures. In the words of an educator, all of what we learn helps to build our schema. When our schema grows, so does our knowledge. Without our schema, we can not learn. So here is to all who need to broaden their schema:

Focal Point - The Center of Interest

Each photograph needs to have a focal point, the main part of the picture that captures the eye. The focal point should be clear and obvious. Other elements within the photograph should not compete with the focal point. At times, we look at a photograph that someone has taken, of a landscape say, yet the image lacks a clear subject. The photograph may be of a beautiful flower garden, but without a focal point, it is merely a backdrop lacking a subject.

The Rule of Thirds

One of the most basic "rules of composition" but one, that when it is not clearly explained, seems very mysterious to the novice. I remember when I first learned about the rule of thirds several years ago. The explanation lacked a picture, and forever I was mystified as to what was meant by the rule of thirds.

Simply put, imagine taking a photograph and folding it into thirds vertically, then horizontally, much like one would fold a letter to place it in a business envelope. The result would be the photograph being divided equally into nine rectangles. The lines moving through the photograph horizontally have divided the photograph into three horizontal sections. The lines moving through the photograph vertically have divided the picture into three vertical sections.

Placing the most important elements along one of the four lines, either horizontally or vertically, creates a more pleasing and dynamic image. Placing important action at the intersection of two of the lines aids in developing a pleasing image. Subjects placed along one of the lines should also create some sort of momentum that moves the eye of the audience towards the center of the picture, not away.

Lines

Learning to see naturally occurring lines and using them in photographs is another important element. Simple lines in a photograph include bridges, roads, train tracks, planks, etc. Often lines can be seen by repeated objects, for example, a row of pews in a church.* Be aware of the lines that occur and how they can be used to provide contrast or interest in a photograph.

Leading Lines

Learn to look for lines and how they cause the eye to converge upon the subject. Once again, lines created by roads, fences, bridges...anything that creates a line, can lead the eye of the viewer deeper into the photograph and to the intended subject. Be careful that lines do not cut into your subject. For example, be careful that a fence or a handrail does not run into the head of a bride, in one ear and out the other. This is a photographic faux pas.

Curves

Curves provide elegance and grace to an image. As you examine what you would like to photograph, look for naturally occurring curves that can also be used as leading lines. Sometimes, lines and curves can be used in the same photograph to create contrast. The human form is made of curves. How can these curves be used more creatively? Other curves include winding roads, rivers, flower borders, etc. Learn to see the curves and how they relate to your subject.

Space

The use of space, it seems, is very subjective, but it is an important element of composition. Space helps create the mood you are wanting to communicate through your image. Be aware of how space, in relationship to your subject, can create different moods. I am thinking of one of Gabe's pictures in weddings. He recently shot a couple's engagement pictures, and in one of the pictures he placed the embracing couple in the lower left third of the photograph, leaving the rest of the photograph empty. This creative use of space allowed the viewer to see the importance of the relationship between the couple.

Texture

Although the images we create are not three dimensional, the objects we photograph are. Every three dimensional object has texture. How can the textures around you help create an image you are wanting to create? I am thinking of Cedric's pictures. Cedric uses textures well when he creates his images of his boats and water. In one picture in particular, the texture of the churning water contrasts with the more placid texture of the water at river's edge. The texture of the water contrasts with the buildings along the side of the river. In other Cedric pictures, he has left the shutter open to create a cotton candy texture to flowing water. The use of texture in this manner creates a feeling of awe. In other pictures, I have seen a soft, fluffy blanket used next to the skin of a baby. These complementary textures helped create a softer image.


Contrast

Contrast is not limited to color, or shades of gray, light and dark. Anything can help create contrast. Curved lines can contrast with straight lines. Smooth textures can contrast with rough textures. Youth can contrast with age. Looking for contrast and incorporating them into images can enhance the overall quality.

Story

Pictures can be dynamic or static. A static picture tells no story, where as dynamic pictures tell a story. Photographs, even photographs that have little or no action, can tell a story. A story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Examine your photographs to determine if there is a beginning, middle and end. As someone reads your photograph, what story are you telling them? Sharing a story through the image you creates an emotional connection between the viewer and the image. As you learn to tell the story in your pictures, you will gain status as a photographer because your photographs will be more memorable.

Surprise

One of the elements of story telling that can be incorporated into photographs is the element of surprise. One of the clearest examples of surprise is a photograph submitted by Gabe. Some folks did not care for it, I loved it. The street scene of this wedding photograph looked innocuous at first. A poster in a storefront window appeared to be the subject of the image, or perhaps it was the pedestrians walking away along the sidewalk. But then, emerging through the glass, a bride and groom stole a kiss while the world passed by. For me, this element of surprise worked. When I spotted the bride and groom, I gasped, because they surprised me. I did not expect to see them where I did. Once I spotted them, the whole composition came to life, and the story unfolded. To me, it was brilliant.

Action

For me, as much as possible and wherever possible, action should be incorporated into images. Action aids story telling. The action can be subtle, or it can be bold, depending on the subject. Action aids story telling, story telling aids emotional connection with images, and emotional connections make the photographer, as well as the photograph, memorable.

Depth of Field


Another one of the basics. Learning to control the depth of field is an important element of good composition.

I may have missed some of the elements, but these will be enough to start.

If you can post a picture that demonstrates one of these elements, please post it and label it with the element you are illustrating.

If I have left off an element, please be so kind to add it to this list.

Thank you very much. This has been a good exercise for me.



Note to self: framing, repetition

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Old 02-05-2007   #2
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Default Re: The Art of Composition

Have you read John Hedgecoe's The New Manual of Photography? It does cover the basics of composition.
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Old 02-05-2007   #3
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Default Re: The Art of Composition

Quote:
Are there elements to composition that are common to photographs that receive rave reviews?
Sadly, I've had most success with oversatured colors. Also, timing is critical. Thin DOF for action photography tends to be a winner (not always), as is the color of the "golden hour".

Quote:
I hear the same question...how does one compose the photograph in the mind prior to taking the photograph? How does one know what to look for in a photograph when asked to critique it?
The second question is pretty loaded, but the first one is answered simply: you just learn to do it. After a while, your eye will take over, and you will unconsciously think about composition as you go around. I definitely do it, as I always.

Now, for the critique bit... I'll have to get back to you, having come off some heavily conceptual (and possibly quite useless) critiques in which what I felt was some of the best work displayed was the only work significantly disparaged.

These aren't the best shots ever, but I figured I'll share some easily accessible stuff. As a tribute to Hedgecoe, I'll include as much technical data as I can. ; - P


Rule of Thirds: I normally don't follow this one, but this one is approximately divisable into thirds:


M3, 90mm, 1/60 sec @ f/2.8. Fuji Superia 400 X-TRA (US region), negative scanned on HP Photo(not-so)smart 3200 All-In-One, converted to B&W using Channel Mixer.
The subjects face falls roughly on four of the lines/points. Honestly, I'm not a big fan of the rule, as if I try to follow it religiously everything starts to look about the same. I tend to halve my photos or break down into fourths or fifths.

Lines:


D70, 35mm, 1/500 sec @ f/8. ISO 200. Converted using Capture NX.
Here, the lines created by the fountain's spray parallel the tower, and frame the tower to some degree.

Leading Lines:


D70, 50mm, 1/500 sec @ f/5. ISO 200. Converted with Capture NX.
The dancers here form leading lines, or at least, I think they do. We do, however, have a line growing out of the lead dancer. Oops.

Space:


D2H, 105mm. 1/40 sec @ f/4.5, ISO 640. Converted using Capture One.
I left the rest of the photograph blank initially to hide the clustered backdrop, but it leaves nothing but our subject and her expression. In reality, she's looking up at an installation, but displayed here I've manipulated the composition to make it appear as if our subject is instead expressing incredulity, perhaps at a ridiculous statement.

Action:


D2H, 17mm, 1/25 sec @ f/2.8, ISO 800. JPEG
Here I used flash and a slower shutter speed to give a feeling of motion to the photo.

...some good ol' sports action:


D2H, 70mm, 1/500 sec @ f/2.8, ISO 1600. JPEG
Illustrates a specific action moment in time.


D70, 17mm, 1/50 sec @ f/8, ISO 200. Converted using Capture NX.
More subtle here....

Depth of Field: Here's an example of thin DOF....


D2H, 85mm, 1/2000 sec @ f/2.8, ISO 200. Converted using Capture NX.
This was mostly just an excercise to illustrate the bokeh of my then new 85mm f/1.4, but I also wanted to isolate the flower from the surrounding foilage, as I felt the image would be a little more powerful.

...and here's one of deeper DOF....


D70, 50mm, 1/250 sec @ f/6.3, ISO 200. Converted using Capture NX.
I stopped down to f/6.3 to include the trees, but I didn't stop down further as I still wanted some seperation from the backdrop.

...and even deeper DOF:


D2H, 24mm, 1/4 sec @ f/11, ISO 200. Converted using Capture One.
Everything's in focus. I wanted to show every little bit of the installation, so I closed down to let everything be in focus.

I have to get going now... I'll come back when I'm not as busy and will have more to say (and hopefully, more to share).

EDIT: wow, would you look at the time stamps... I need to get away from my computer, haha. =)
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Old 02-06-2007   #4
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Default Re: The Art of Composition

Michael!!!! This is exactly what I was hoping for. A milllion times thank you. Not only has writing all of this out helped me think through what composition is, it has made me think of additional elements!

What I do hope is that on this thread folks will be willing to post photographs and explain what elements of composition are evident in them. You have made me quite happy.

I plan on posting a few images to illustrate concepts tonight also.

No, I have not read that book, but will look in to it.

Again, thank you so much for taking the time. I know some of my friends will be grateful also.
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Old 02-06-2007   #5
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I'm grateful * *What a great thread Kelly,* Thanks for taken the time to explain the fundamentals of composition!!* I've been studying photographs for some time trying to piece together what you so eloquently explained.* Great work!!* *I'm going to try and find some pictures that demonstrate these "rules"* *

Pretty much everything I've learned is by looking at other peoples pictures and reading on this board.* *Its very interesting to read a reason as to why a picture stands out to me.* *Hopefully I'll be a better commenter now that I have a foundation of rules to reference

Thanks for taking the time and sharing.

cyclohexane,
Thanks for the examples

Jay



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Old 02-06-2007   #6
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Default Re: The Art of Composition

Good to hear it Jay. I was hoping as I spent a couple of hours writing last night that a few of us on the Camel would find this thread helpful. I am going to begin looking at some of my own pictures and see where I think I did things right and posting them here. The more people we can get to post, the better we will all be.

I also plan on contacting some of the Camels to see if I can link some of their works here for commentary. Not critique, mind you, but commentary on what makes good composition.
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Old 02-06-2007   #7
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Default Re: The Art of Composition

When I started photography less than 2 years ago, I knew that the hard bit wouldn't be the technical side. That's trivial. I knew I'd have to work hard on the composition. I'm a technician in all I do, even music. For photography I've tried hard to not be one, so I tried to internalise the process to concentrate on the end product. So I read everything I found, including many books by John Hedgecoe. When I thought I could remember everything, I started looking at books of photos, without any technical information, trying to see what was making these photos good and how I'd go about recreating them. Then I took my camera and went out to make the photos I had in my mind.

I don't think my photos are to be used as examples because I'm just starting photography, but ere are a few photos that might illustrate your rules.

Rule of thirds (using it and breaking it at the same time):


Lines:


Lead in lines:


Curves:


Space:


Texture:




Contrast:


Story:


Surprise:


Action:


A few more rules:

Patterns:


Framing to keep the eyes on the subject:


Foreground interest:


Symmetry:


Colour:


Alwasy focus on the eyes:

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Old 02-06-2007   #8
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Heres a few I think demostrate a few things.

Curves and leading lines:


lines and the rule of thirds:


Focal point.* I tried to get the focus on just the face of the watch:



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Old 02-06-2007   #9
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Default Re: The Art of Composition

Here is a primer on some theory that might awaken some deep thoughts on why certain compositional guidelines work: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_ratio
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Old 02-06-2007   #10
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I am truly appreciating the response thus far. As a community, drawing our work into one place with a focus on composition will help me and others.

Cedric, your statement that you have only been a photographer for two years is most encouraging. You are a master of exposure.


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