elements of photography: composition

Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Rule of Thirds, Leading Lines, Fill the Frame, Golden Ratio… if you google photography and composition, endless rules like these will come up. But that is not why I arrived at the world of art- I came here for the lack of any stringent rule. I had nothing to abide by, so I could do anything without being granted the scorn of a rebel. Not all art is rebellious, but art that makes a difference is.

In that rebellious spirit, let us first decide what exactly is composition? I always found composing a photograph akin to solving a jigsaw puzzle — arranging oddly shaped interlocking pieces to produce a complete picture. The "solved" picture can be thought of as a unified, harmonious representation of each of the individual pieces. Unlike jigsaw puzzles though, in photography, you and I could start off with the same pieces and "solve" completely different pictures, telling completely different stories. Which is fantastic!

A masterclass in composition - how the eye travels from the back of the image, to the front to finally notice the red bucket at the bottom right.  Photograph by Sam Abell

A masterclass in composition - how the eye travels from the back of the image, to the front to finally notice the red bucket at the bottom right. Photograph by Sam Abell

When looking at images, or things in general in front of us, we don’t see it all, all at once. The eye randomly darts through the scene, making sense of what’s in front of it as fast as it possibly can. In photographs, it is the artist’s job to make sure this "random" movement of the eye happens in a controlled manner, as the artist intended. When a photograph is well composed, the movement happens from the element which the artist wants to the viewer to see most prominently and remember the longest, to the element of secondary importance, and finally towards the other elements in decreasing order of interest. This is how we can tell different stories with the same pieces — by making the eye move through the scene in different ways.

This is also why often times when we just snap photos of a very interesting scene, it fails to translate into a fine photograph. The eye accepts that what it sees is indeed interesting, but then randomly darts through the scene, haphazardly moving from element to element, trying to put together a story. Instead of forcing viewers to go through your messy room finding the important piece, clean up and arrange the room instead. (Our moms were right)

There are two main aspects of a good composition. All the "rules" and techniques help us in achieving these. One is unified thought, the other is simplicity.

From the series Architecture of Density, Michael Wolf

From the series Architecture of Density, Michael Wolf

Unified Thought means that all the elements of a photograph work together. There is a central theme, a central story underlying the photograph throughout. One way of achieving this is to have a central point of interest, but it doesn't always have to be that. Photographs with repeating patterns don’t often have this, but they still make for good photographs, because of a unified and harmonious theme that runs through the image.

Side note — this is also why your favourite Instagram account uses the same colour palette, for feed goals and feed aesthetics, to make it look like it’s all one unified thought.

Paris Rooftops, by Michael Wolf

Paris Rooftops, by Michael Wolf

Simplicity does not mean making photographs that are very minimal and plain. Paraphrasing Einstein, photographs should be made simple, but not simpler. What this means is a photograph of a complex scene such as a war or riot can have simplicity. And all good photographs of such complicated scenes do have that. This is what allows the artist to get her point across, to tell a story. Otherwise, the photograph just seems like a rambling of sorts. This was one of the hardest things for me to understand, on how to make images of a complicated scene, like a photograph of a busy street, and make it simplistic. Make it so that the viewer doesn’t feel confused or crowded while looking at the image.

A photograph of an apparently chaotic scene, told with such simplicity giving it almost a minimalist vibe.  Photograph by Neils Wensted, of Ajax supporters after they won the UEFA Champions League semi final first leg match against Tottenham Hotspur.

A photograph of an apparently chaotic scene, told with such simplicity giving it almost a minimalist vibe. Photograph by Neils Wensted, of Ajax supporters after they won the UEFA Champions League semi final first leg match against Tottenham Hotspur.

All composition techniques which we use are tools that help to achieve the above goals. Playing with colour and colour palettes, movement, positive and negative space, texture, shutter speed, etc are all just tools. There are no rules here. But keeping in mind that the photograph needs to have a unifying thought and that it shouldn’t be messy — should be clean and simple, helps in composing the image and telling a good story.

“Rules are foolish, arbitrary, mindless things that raise you quickly to a level of acceptable mediocrity, then prevent you from progressing further.” —Bruce Barnbaum, from the book, The Art of Photography