Mastering the Creative Process – Composition
As photographers, we have all heard the word “composition” mentioned so many times. But what does it mean?
Lets give it a try: Composition is the selection and arrangement within the image of the physical elements of the landscape
such as mountains and trees and its more abstract features such as textures, shapes, patterns and tonalities.
My workshop participants often tell me that, as regards the artistic/creative aspect of their photography, they would like to improve their composition. There is the general view that composition is part of, but never all of, the creative process that goes into capturing an image. However, if you read the above definition, which is in line with what most photographers consider composition to be, you will notice it is rather vague. Is composition part of the creative process, or is it all of it? Since what else does a photographer do when he/she captures an image, than decide what to include and how to arrange it?
I would argue that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to divide the creative process into parts or aspects, and it underlines the fact that the artistic/creative process in any visual art, such as photography, is very difficult to define and pin down. There is no formula or instruction set that tells you how to put together a compelling, evocative image. Photography is an art form, it is not a scientific or engineering endeavour.
Don’t Despair! Not All Is Lost!
Look carefully at compelling photographs or paintings and you will notice that there are certain features that are made use of and techniques that are employed. In this article I give you a basic introduction to a few of these features, it is by no means a complete treatment of the creative process, but I do hope it helps you on your journey to developing an intuition for what makes a compelling image. However, keep in mind, that simply including these features or techniques will not make a compelling image. The magic happens when these elements work together to create a powerful, evocative image. It is this magic that is so difficult to pin down or verbalize.
Look out for shapes such as triangles, circles and squares
When I started out in photography I was not enthusiastic about comments which praised an image based on the shapes that could be discerned and how they interplayed. I thought it was a dry, analytical way to appreciate an image, and I never noticed myself explicitly paying attention to shapes when I was photographing. However, that view has changed, and I realized that, at least subconciously, I was influenced by the shapes I perceived in the scene . That being said, don’t include a triangle in your image because it is there. Shapes are an important component of an image, but they don’t automatically make a compelling image.
Identify and make use of lines, whether straight or not
Look for line elements in the scene you are photographing. Lines are very effective at leading the eye and tying together parts of the image which otherwise would appear separate and disjointed.
Pay attention to textures, Shapes, Patterns and Tonalities
Textures, patterns, shapes and tonalities are made use of extensively in the visual arts. Each of them comprises a complex, multifaceted topic and here we will touch upon texture very briefly. These topics will be considered in more detail in separate posts.
Textures are easy to define. Consider the surface of a body of water such as a lake. If there is no wind or disturbance, the surface has a smooth and mirror like texture. If a wind blows, the smooth surface is disturbed, its texture has changed. The strength and direction of the wind influences the characteristics of the texture of the disturbed water.
The use of contrasting textures can be effective, such as rough vs smooth:
Some textures can be created, enhanced with photographic technique, e.g shutter speed:
Create a sense of depth
As we all know, a photograph is two dimensional. Everything is compressed onto a flat print or screen. Many features of the landscape that help us perceive three dimensions are lost. Sometimes this compression actually helps to make an image compelling, such as layers upon layers of distant mountain ridges. However, in several cases you would prefer to maintain a sense of depth. Fortunately, there are ways you can trick your brain into believing there is depth to your image.
1) Use converging/diverging lines:
The wide angle lens is great at accentuating converging/diverging lines.
2) Make use of diminishing scale:
The wide angle lens is ideal for creating a sense of diminishing scale: Big foreground and small background. Please feel free to read
my article on how to achieve powerful compositions with the wide angle lens.
3) Use lines to pull the eye through the image:
A curving line is very effective at guiding the eye, thereby creating a sense of depth. We addressed this earlier.
Encourage the Viewer to Explore The Image
Effective images always encourage the viewer to explore the photograph and there are techniques you can use to achieve this. For some of these techniques there is considerable overlap with those used to create a sense of depth.
1) Introduce Dynamic Tension
Make the eye bounce between points of particular visual interest. These are also called counterpoints.
2) Look for elements that mirror each other
Do elements in the sky, such as lines or textures, mirror those on the ground? The wide angle lens is particularly effective for this, since with it you can explore a 3 dimensional scene in your viewfinder and look out for elements which mirror each other.
3) Make Use of the Near-Far Perspective
A large foreground and small background immediately pulls the eye to explore from the front of the image to the back. This is effectively the same as the technique of diminishing scale used to create a sense of depth.
4) Converging/diverging lines
Converging or diverging lines always lead the eye to the point where they merge. This again is used to create a sense of depth
Techniques to analyze images
Analyzing your own images and, especially, compelling images of others, is very helpful for gaining a better understanding of how the features and techniques we covered work together. Identify the lines, counterpoints, shapes, patterns, textures and other features and trace them in the image. As you do this, you will internalize how these elements work together and they will guide your image taking process the next time you are in the field.
In this article I have covered only a small part of the substantial and complex assortment of features and techniques that are employed in compelling visual works. It is essential to keep in mind that the magic happens when you use these elements in a manner to achieve an image that is evocative and powerful. It is that part, the magic, that is so difficult, or rather impossible, to define. However, if you carefully examine images and other visual works that you find appealing, you will internalize what seems to make them work, and it will guide you on your creative journey. Good luck and get out there and capture the beauty!
For a considerably more in-depth treatment of composition, please have a look at our extensive, detailed ebook which discusses the art of composition and the principles of aesthetics. In particular, I explain the psychology behind aesthetics and image design, also known as visual thinking, which will enable and empower you to express your photographic vision powerfully and effectively.