Composition and Composure

Does your photography move you emotionally?  Do other people comment on how it moves them?  Is there a “wow” factor?

NotebookExperienced photographers who share their knowledge with new photographers spend a lot of time talking about composition and the “rules”.  Leading lines, rule of thirds, negative space, etc. help to teach the eye what to look for when evaluating a scene.  But they don’t spend a lot of time talking about why these rules matter at all.

I can only find one answer:  it’s an effort to disrupt the composure of anyone who views the image.  To get a reaction.  Most often positively, sometimes with delight, and sometimes deliberately negatively.  The “rules” provide a roadmap for the senses, and by extension, for the emotions.  To be truly successful as a photographer, you have to tap into that emotion – yours and your viewers.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowlege the basic list of compositional “rules” that we all work with:

  • use of colour/absence of colour
  • negative space
  • rule of thirds
  • rule of odds
  • leading lines
  • repeating patterns and lines
  • placement of horizontal and vertical lines
  • framing – fill the frame, creating a frame from elements in the photograph
  • isolating your subject – making it obvious what it is
  • find a unique point of view
  • balance of elements
  • eliminating distractions
  • avoiding fusions – where two elements blend unrealistically
  • angles and perspectives – sometimes expected, sometimes unexpected
  • focus points and depth of field
  • simplify the scene

You can get pretty far with just the above concepts.  They are invaluable to the new photographer.  But like learning to read or ride a bike, the training aids can only take you so far.

I listened to a podcast recently by one of my favourite photographers, Glyn Dewis, and one of his graphic designer friends, Dave Clayton.  It’s a great podcast, and well worth your time.

He Shoots He DrawsThey discuss the worlds of photography and design and explore the good, the bad and the ugly of these trades.  In a recent episode, they were lamenting the fact that when discussing their work with the public, the questions most often asked are “what settings did you use?” or “what camera do you carry?” or “did you do that on a Wacom tablet?”.

For many, you just need to mix good gear with good settings, frame the shot, and voila, a masterpiece.  The majority of the public (and frankly the majority of those who pick up a camera, in my view) isn’t really interested in discussing the emotional impact of a photograph, or the journey the photographer and viewer might undertake to experience that emotion fully.  That’s a shame.

Wildlife Photographer of the YearOne of my favourite annual photography exhibitions is the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, staged by the British Natural History Museum.  This show travels around the world, making a stop in Toronto over the winter.

Each photograph includes a written story, elegantly narrating what went into creating the photograph and why it is important.  Yet, as I walk through, only 25% of patrons stop to read the stories.  I read every one.  I can’t imagine not.

I’m also finding that even the most experienced amateur photographers sadly don’t invest much emotionally in their photography.  It’s often one of two extremes:

  • opportunistic – no thought at all; something that they happened to encounter while they were carrying a camera
  • staged from a recipe – meeting an online challenge, a lesson recently taken, a video recently watched

Don’t get me wrong, it takes time to learn the basics.  And practice with recipes is the best way to do that.  At some point though, what separates one photographer from another is their ability to instill and channel emotion.

I was in a workshop recently with a mix of experienced and new photographers.  I could clearly see a difference in skill level.  I could also clearly see a difference in emotional awareness.  The two did not line up.  Some newcomers already “got it”, while some more experienced photographers clearly didn’t.  Their work was more “snapshot” than “photograph”.  The way they described their work, when asked, brought the point home.  That made me wonder if emotional awareness is learned or instinctive.  I don’t know.

Moose PetersenScott Kelby and Moose Peterson, two very well known photographers, were discussing how a photographer learns and grows professionally.  This was in a recent episode of The Grid (Episode 319 – Why Photography Gets Harder as You Get Better).  Moose’s work, particularly his landscapes, leaves me breathless.  Moose made a fabulous point – that as you get better as a photographer, you actually struggle more.  Not only do you have a more critical eye, but it’s really hard to find a way to create impact, generate emotion – do something that’s different and reflects the essence of what you want to say with your work.

Every photographer, as they learn and improve, should eventually hit that wall.  They’ll suddenly discover that taking the shot becomes instinctual, but finding exactly the right presentation actually becomes much harder.  Their gut will churn, their brain will say no, no, no.  It will take more time, not less, to get the shot.  They’ll hate the result, try again, hate it even more.  The best ones then say “what if” and try again.

Then they hang out in a blind for 3 weeks.  They climb the backside of the mountain, instead of the side all the tourists take.  They take over a street and recreate a moment from Americana.  They hang off the world’s tallest building documenting what it’s like to work as a window washer.  The floodgates open.  They find their voice.

I’m not there yet.  My voice is only a babble.  I need more.

One last thought.  I often hear that the key to improving as a photographer is practice, practice.  Shoot more and shoot often.  Based on where I am now, not sure I fully agree with that.  Maybe for the tradecraft of knowing your equipment, settings and framing, that approach makes sense.  Practice will keep you sharp and not let mundane details get in the way.

But it will do nothing for your emotional awareness.  Make equal time to just think about your photography, to really evaluate your own work and consider where you want to go next.  That’s more important than knowing what settings give you good bokeh.