Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Basic Photography: What about composition?

I was a painting and drawing instructor for many years. During that time I found that some people just have a natural sense of good composition. Good composition is simply arranging things so that they are pleasing to the eye and interesting to behold. However, there are some basic rules that help improve ones composition, but they also occasionally can be broken under the right circumstances. The image on the left incorporates many of the rules. First I would like to use it to define some terms. Within a photo, painting, or drawing one has to deal with space within the frame of a two dimensional surface. I would like to label these areas of space as positive or negative space. In the image left, the positive space is all the detail of the light and light pole. The negative space is the clear blue sky. You can also think of positive space being the subject. In this photo the subject is the light pole. The light pole creates a stark contrast from the sky. This is not always the case. Many times a plain mono-toned sky is boring and clouds create a dramatic effect, but in this particular image the mono-toned sky helps make the image. This image also provides balance as contrasted with symmetry. Don't get me wrong... there are times when symmetry can be effective, but usually balance is a better device to use. What do I mean exactly? In the image there is a balance of positive and negative space that makes the full frame of the image pleasing to look at. The last thing that I would like to mention about this image is the way in which the pole runs out of the image on the lower left. It is important to have things either run off the page of the image or to be clearly within the confines of the frame. Objects placed too close to the edge are usually distracting.

The image on the right has several aspects of good composition according to the rules of composition. First it is a great example of the rule of thirds.... top third sky, middle third, buildings, bottom third freeway. Just to be clear, thirds can also work horizontally as well as vertically. There is also the rule of diagonals at work in this one. The streets and railroad tracks go back vertically drawing the viewer into the scene. Another compositional piece is selecting the time of day. It is at the end of the golden hour and the beginning of the blue hour. There is enough subject in this one so that many spaces run off the page and some are contained. There is not a concept of negative and positive space so much in this one. However, the focus of the building in the lower left and the buildings running diagonally across the image also helps draw the eye into the entire scene.

The photo on the left is a good example of making the subject the focus of the frame and allowing the background to be muted becoming negative space that enhances the subject. The detail of the brick works to ground the people and the lack of symmetry adds interest. Both of the figures are allowed to run off the page at different places adding interest as well. It is important to have crisp sharp detail with the subject. This image was also taken at a time when the sun was overhead and the lighting is harsh. It adds to the overall brightness of the scene making it work as a candid moment captured in time and space. Another element that adds to the design is the curve of the arms of both grandma and grandson. This is a device that can be used often simply known as repetition. In critiquing the shot, I would say that it would be even more impacting if it were cropped square. While the negative space above the heads works ok, it would be a stronger composition if it were cropped to be a square frame.

Finally the image on the right shows additional aspects of good composition. The truck is placed on the left side of the frame to allow it room to run out of the scene. This helps carry your eye across the entire frame. There is a lot of contrast between the negative and positive spaces within the image. This is also and example of vertical thirds. Finally, I think that this shows a way in which breaking the rules works to add to the composition. The post and pier placed in the center of the frame add interest and make the image just a little off to the point of being interesting. The stark contrast between blue of the sky and the almost black tones under the bridge structure really add over-all interest to the image. I would suggest that you click on all of the images to see them in a larger format to be able to see the detail in each. Keep in mind that rules are made to be broken and you can break them all you want, however, you will only be happy with rule breaking when it works! Please comment and add your experience and perspective. We will cover this again I am quite sure.


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  2. You have included a lot of good information in this post Joe. I think I am one of the people with a natural sense for composition. When I first became interested in photography I was frequently told that my photos had good composition and I had no idea what they were talking about - LOL I have learned a lot about the technical side of photography in the last 3 years, esp. on Picture Social and now the Daily View from people like you who know what they are doing - LOL

  3. A nice summation of composition techniques with good examples. A useful refresher for amateur photographers like myself!