Compositional thoughts

It shall be stated…

That in today’s world a major defining difference between professional and amateur photographers is framing and composition. This however has been true throughout the ages. But with the advent of technological abominations that suck the skill and thought process right out of the art it is one of the few remaining distinctions. Back in the day, the evolution of the professional photographer was driven by the use of large format cameras. These cameras produced clean and crisp images, vs the brownie cameras which were glorified pinholes (1880’s personal cameras). It was not until the 1930’s that consumer cameras became capable of producing any real measure of quality, at least in my opinion. Through the years different models and film types were tried until the standard 35mm meet mass production, since then it has been the dominate film and camera standard. Our current DSLR’s are based around 35mm formats. Using 35mm was still a fairly technical process however, mostly due to the lack of complete automation and in camera computer assist. So throughout these ages the professional had to rely heavily on their technical skills. This required proper knowledge of emulsion properties, development, printing, along with compositional necessities. It is fair to say that in the era of digital photography that a lot of these skills are taken care of automatically. However there are still required technical tidbits about digital imaging that need to be known, along with all the technical attributes of light, lenses, and editing.

So…

Let’s get into composition, there is a lot within this topic and this will not be the first post, or the last, or even close to completely covering this topic. I can present tools, ideas, and situations that I use and find to be pleasing. The thing about composition, it is completely subjective. I could use the golden rules of framing, composition, and color.  I could present a “perfect” photograph of a yellow coffee mug, on a blue armrest of a wooden chair that is sitting on the porch, with a soft focus background of golden yellow hues on a field of wheat. This photograph could win awards, it may be placed in a museum, the Louver may replace the Mona Lisa with it. It could be generally accepted as the basis of photographic thought. Due to the subjective nature, all that matters is what runs through the head of the individual viewer. Which a good portion of whom, would probably think it was silly.  So with little delay I will present a couple simple tools to use to assist anyone in composition. Take them, apply them, but keep in mind that it is your perspective on the subject that matters.

Without further ado…

Tools, tools, tools!

The most important thing that I can tell anyone to dramatically improve their photographs is this, slow down. Slow everything down, take your time, wait, watch, learn. Too many people, too often fire away like they are operating a machine gun. This rapid fire technique may provide results by chance, but it is far too unreliable. When someone dose not know what they are doing, they compensate for it by doing the only thing they know how to. Pressing the shutter button. This is due to the lulling effects of the automatic settings that have dulled the minds of newer photographers.

Change it…

If you do not like what you are getting, change something. Take an educated guess and correct it, can you fix it with a change in aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focal length, or position? Reading through some of my other posts in the educational series will give you insight to what those changes will do (at least read the one on perspective). One of the worse things I have ever herd from someone was when I asked them about what lens they were using. I got a reply that was along the lines of “I don’t really know, it came with the camera”. It didn’t come with the camera, the damn lens probably came on the camera. Further questioning lead to further disappointment when I realized that this person didn’t know that the lens was removable, how to change it out, or even how to clean it. This person claimed to be a “photographer” and was actively engaged in a business! This conversation, has occurred in part and completion with multiple people, multiple. So take your time, adjust your settings in an educated manor. Just slow down. Also, read your damn manual; there is usually a lot of good information in it including some artistic direction.

Corners…

Another important step is to check the four corners, and the four sides of the field of view. Frame your subject, then look around it. This is one of the most, and most forgotten compositional step. Too many people will point their frame at a subject, seeing only the subject. They are blind to the rest of the world that exists in the field of view. It is irrelevant, there is no reason that a care should be given to the homeless man urinating in the background as you are getting that perfect shot of your five year old niece as she is thoroughly enjoying a waffle cone. This will not become apparent, until you have printed the image and have given it away. Magically this will suddenly become an issue. Do not worry though, this is a hard thing to master. This same concept applies to the fire service, too many firefighters are obsessed with spraying water onto a fire. There are times that this is completely non-effective but because it is fire it must be sprayed. There are situations where due to the transfer of heat by radiation causes another structure to ignite nearby or behind the firefighters. This failure is due to a fixation on one thing, and not taking a wider approach and viewing all the angles of the situation. For reference the proper response would be to ignore the fire and to hose off the nearby houses to prevent them from heating up to combustible temperatures. Not that your camera will catch fire, but the concept is the same.

It is amazing the things we as photographers miss when starting out in the world. Checking the frame consistently requires a good amount of discipline, even then it can be forgotten. This is where the initial cropping occurs, the selection of the world you want to show. Too many times to count people do not get in close enough to their subjects, there always seems to be so many distractions in the background. This is called filling the frame. Make your subject big, get in close, use a longer lens. When you have little people in a big world that can portray loneliness, seclusion, ect.  Which can be a significant artistic value. But if you are not trying to make that statement, and you want happy lively people fill that frame. There is too much to get into about the relation between subject, negative space, and background for this post however. For now my best recommendation is for you to go to your local book store and explore the photographic print section. Pull some off the shelf and take a look through them, flip page after page and see the differences that framing has on the image and how it makes you feel.

Location, location, locations…

The placement of the subject within the frame is vital. It is always good to fill the frame, and to leave some space to frame the subject. Think of it as space in the frame that is left empty is a waste of a good photograph. Everything in it needs to be something, somewhere. Placing something dead center in the photograph is boring, try to off set it. The human mind in western culture likes to travel from left to right in most cases. Try to trap the eye in the image, keep in mind that it will be entering from the left, so keep it within the frame. Place a subject on the 1/3 lines of the image to start with. Dose the sky in the lake shot allow the eye to escape through the top? Can you eliminate the sky all together for a better image? Check it, tilt it, turn around a couple times until you find what you like. The placement of lines and angles into the image will draw the eye along them, much like a train riding down it’s tracks and you can bring it to rest on the subject of choice. Angled lines can create a positive or negative feeling, usually going from left to right and the line going diagonally up in the fashion will create an uplifting feeling. This is probably due to the mathematical graphing we all have hammered into our heads from school and business.  Also the placement of two centers of focus for the eye to travel between can be beneficial. Yet again keep this in mind as you flip through photographic print books.

Other Thoughts…

Look at your subject, look at the background, look at the framing, and look at the four sides and corners. Look at everything separately, and combined in the field of view. Look at the relationship between the everything. Is your subject segregated from the frame, or other action that is occurring.  Is the subject large in the image, or are they small? What is the attitude of the subject? Is there a personification of an inanimate subject, or animal? Putting thought and methodology into the composition of the photographs will yield greater results then the typical photograph of a “pretty” subject. Finding a way to combine the shallow aesthetics with thought provoking concepts is the key to ultimate success, a key I am still trying to forge.

Go forth already!

Get out there! I am going to take this advice because it is beautiful and after a couple cups of coffee and a house fire I am ready to go and do some shooting.

So you should as well. Go then, shoot, play, read, look at prints on the rainy days.

For God’s sake use the manual settings!

That’s right I am saying it again, flip the damn switch to something more manual and use that brain you were given!

If you are already using manual settings, then good job. Keep it up.

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-JC

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