Tutorial – Photographic Composition
by Jonathan Bourla (www.jonathanbourla.com)
Photographic composition is a funny thing. It’s something that comes intuitively to some, whilst others rely on widely held rules.
Years ago, when I was a teenager, I was a member of my local photographic club. Regular competitions were held, both within the club and with local “competitor” clubs. There were very firm rules on Composition, and I found if I wanted to do well in these competitions I would have to abide by these rules. The rules were absolutely set in stone, with no room for interpretation. One of these rules was The Rule of Thirds, which stated that the subject had to be located a third or two thirds into the frame. Placing the subject centrally was a big no-no. Blindly following these rules led to competition success, but later to disatisfaction.
Another no-no was cropping. Amongst the club-mates who printed their own pictures, several followed the custom of filing out their enlargers’ negative holders. When printed, this made it clear that the entire film area of the negative had been used. I thought this rather silly – painters produce paintings in a variety of different formats: square, mildly rectangular, very long skinny rectangles, even circles. Why then should photographers be limited to the format of their particular camera? It’s a good thing to try to use as much of the film frame as possible, but surely some images suit a square format, while others suit different degrees of rectangleness (if that’s a word?)? At the time I was shooting 35 millimetre colour slides. In one competition I had a slide that I felt strongly suited a more squarish format than the full 35mm frame, so I cropped out the unwanted element of the slide with a piece of tin foil. The judge hardly looked at the image itself in his disapproval of the fact the slide had been masked.
In 1997 I attended a fabulous workshop by American photographer Howard Bond. Howard recalled an occasion when he showed to a group of students a collection of fine art photographs by master photographers, including Ansel Adams. The students were horrified and bemused to see photographs by these master photographers which clearly flouted their strongly ingrained rules of composition. One photograph had the subject placed centrally in the frame, and the students couldn’t believe this highly revered artist would do such a thing. The fact that this composition was effective just caused more confusion.
I have a book by photographer Bruce Barnbaum which has a section on composition. In it he breaks down the elements which contribute to good composition. It was a good read.
Clearly, however, composition is an intuitive act for good photographers, and the risk of providing rules to follow for less confident photographers runs the risk that their photos look formulaic.
I think it’s a good thing to look at the work of the photographers you like or admire. Have a think if you would compose the photos in the same way as the photographers? If you find shots where you think “I would do that differently”, I think that’s a positive thing. That’s part of developing your own photographic “voice”.
When looking in the camera’s viewfinder or screen, or later on, say, the computer screen, be aware of where your eye looks when it views the photo. Does it, perhaps, get sidetracked to some distracting element on an edge of the frame. If this is distracting because it is lighter, perhaps, than the subject, maybe this can be corrected in Photoshop or similar image editing software. Or maybe it should just be removed by reframing the camera, or by cropping in Photoshop. You want the viewer’s eye to “enter” the photo, move around the different elements and stay interested.
I think a big issue is seeing a subject from afar, and taking a photo at that moment. Obviously it depends on the circumstance, but in my opinion you are far better to approach the subject and take the image with a wider angle lens.
Do see if you can get the Bruce Barnbaum book I mentioned, maybe from your local library?
I think my composition ability improved when I started using a view camera. The reason will probably sound strange to most non view camera using people. The image on the camera’s viewing screen is upside down, and left/right reversed. We’re not used to seeing the world like this, and it has the effect of making the scene more abstract. I read a long time ago of a photographer with a regular camera who had a special prism finder made that mimicked the view camera look. Obviously for most photographers this isn’t possible – the best advice is to try to be aware of how the eye moves around the image/photo, get rid of distractions by changing camera position, or other controls, and keep the eye interested in your photo.