Composition is a Form of Communication
Composition is an elusive thing for many photographers. On the other hand, the technical aspects of photography are fairly straight forward and systematic. One camera setting affects another in a logical way. Once that is learned, the photographer understands how a camera processes light coming through the lens and can create a well exposed photograph. This systematic and technical aspect of photography is most likely the reason that so many engineers are attracted to it.
The thing that most photographers struggle with is composition because it is anything but systematic. Yes, there are “rules of composition” that can be easy to follow, but they are not really rules, they are more like guidelines. Simply applying them to a well exposed photograph might result in a good image, but not necessarily a great one.
Beyond basic composition are the more abstract things like style, creativity and meaning, to name a few. When applied to a composition the systematic, technical part of photography becomes driven by the anything but systematic, the creative part of photography. Do you see the challenge?
Composition is the process of breaking down a subject into a series of lines, shapes, colors, and shading and putting them together in a way that draws attention to that subject. That may work as a technical definition, but I like to think of composition more as a way to speak with your camera. It is a tool of your creative voice and will speak volumes to the viewer if you compose your photographs with this in mind.
Using composition to express a feeling
In a previous blog post, I mentioned how charming the little creeks of Lancaster County Pennsylvania can be. To me, hiking through quiet places like Kelly’s Run or the Tucquan Creek shown below provide a refreshing experience. The Japanese call it “shinrin-yoku” which translates as “forest bathing.” The concept of shinrin-yoku is that leisurely visits to the woods and other natural places rejuvenate the body and soul. Can you feel that in these photographs?
Look at the photograph directly above and below. The one above is all about this little waterfall on Kelly’s Run. The composition directs the eye to it while only hinting to the environment around the creek and the waterfall.
The photograph below puts another smaller waterfall in perspective. While it is the ultimate focus of the photograph, the viewer also experiences the forestscape around it while being visually lead to this sweet little waterfall.
As stated previously, the art of composition follows rules that are not really rules. They are simply a place to start. They are building blocks that can be used to assemble your finished photograph. This isn’t a lesson on how to compose, but here are some of the tools you can use to build a composition.
- Lines and shapes that lead and direct a viewer to the main point of your photograph.
- How the quality of light from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights is expressed and establishes a mood.
- Color, or tonal range in a black and white photograph, is another way to to express mood and direct a viewer to the subject of a photograph.
- Ultimately, the subject of your photograph must be interesting and have something to say to the viewer of your photograph.
Knowing the technical side of photography leads to mastery of creating well exposed photographs. Knowing the technical side of composition does not lead to mastery. In fact, mastery of composition is pretty much impossible to measure. How do you logically measure the ability to express feelings, emotions and engagement with your subject? Composition is where photography becomes art and a way to connect to others with your craft.
- Mastery of the technical side of photography is simply a vehicle to express the art of photography.
- Use the rules of composition are meaningless unless they are used as a way to communicate to the viewer.
- It’s a good idea to look at composition as the instruction manual for the viewer to understand your photographs.
When you share photographs online or on a wall, you are telling the story. Ask yourself, what do you want to say in that story?