All photographers and artists are aware of the need for good composition in creative work. Regardless of the art-form, whether it's photography or any of the other arts, once the initial technical skills are mastered this is often the next topic of study.
There are many ways to learn about composition and many books, tutorials etc. available. Having studied many of these myself I found myself continually seeking a deeper understanding. This article is the first step in the process of documenting a set of ideas and techniques for myself, driven by the realisation that composition is often personal.
So what is composition? It's often described as the spatial arrangement of elements to achieve cohesion, harmony, interest, balance, tension or meaning. Many compositional techniques focus on the spatial aspect but that's just one dimension. I think of composition as encompassing all of the things mentioned, however it is also personal and the development of it is important to the further advancement of our photography.
What follows is an analysis of a selection of my own photographs showing what I have learned in the process of making them, expressed in a way that helps me to approach new subjects with these ideas in mind. This is written primarily for my own education. I'm not consciously trying to relabel existing ideas but rather to personalise how I see my own work.
This is very much work-in-progress.
Satisfy the Soul
I think initially it should be pointed out that in any creative work it's important that we aim to satisfy our own souls, rather than that of others. In that sense then, if something I create resonates with me then no matter what technical or compositional weakness it has it really doesn't matter all that much. It can be out of focus, under or over-exposed (for example) but can still work at a creative level. If so, nothing else matters, it is good. There are no real rules, just the satisfaction of self. I may not choose to share photographs like this (or I may do), but either way I feel the job is done.
Reflections of Ourselves
This is probably the most fundamental reason why art exists. Art is an expression of something, a feeling, an experience, a state, an idea - something that can't be communicated easily by other means. This can be an abstract or a literal expression. This is the great power of art. Sometimes the subjects of a photograph resonate so strongly that they create the most powerful images - even if aesthetically they are not strong. This recognition of ourselves in a photograph is very potent indeed.
Juxtaposition of Scale
Juxtaposition of all kinds interested me. For example it could be juxtaposition of natural and man-made things, of people in architectural settings, of colour and the absence of colour, order and disorder and so on.
In this example, the scale of the tree in relation to the distant mountain is the central theme. This can express the sense of scale that we feel when we put ourselves next to things in our physical world. Whether it's a mountain or a skyscraper, scale always impacts me. Another possibility is that this could communicate how we may feel that we relate to something in our life, for example a problem, a challenge or an experience.
A visual story is a way to arrange things in a scene that allows the viewer to go on a small journey when viewing. A scene with a visual story is in some way intricate, and ideally has depth, the viewers eye can 'walk though' the scene and experience the photograph. This is more than simply 'looking' at the photograph.
Below is an example of what I feel is a visual story, taken on an early morning in Venice during fog, the scene is constructed with a strong element (edge stones) leading the eye in from the bottom edge, up to the buildings which are fading from right to left on account of the fog. On the upper left is an area of indistinct fog, representing The Void (mentioned in a section below).
Imperfection and Incompleteness
The mathematician Kurt Gödel once said that "every non-trivial (interesting) formal system is either incomplete or inconsistent, there will always be questions that cannot be answered". Gödel was writing about mathematics however ever since coming across this idea many years ago it has never left my mind. To me its a philosophical statement and therefore it relates to art too.
While we always wish to strive for the very best in our work we secretly know we have to accept limitations and incompleteness. For me this is strong enough an idea to be a subject of art itself however in artistic work it is relevant in that we know that we must accept our own imperfect work and, perhaps deep down, we know that imperfect work is a reflection of our own imperfect selves. In that sense we might prefer imperfect work to something that is 'too perfect', because we can identify with imperfections.
The photograph below resonates with me even though it was a high contract scene (sunrise) and the light was challenging. I could have attempted to account for this but I ultimately didn't feel it was necessary - the photograph worked for me even though detail is challenged. I accepted it.
I take this term from the work of architect Christopher Alexander, from his book The Nature of Order. It's common in photography to refer to the idea of negative and positive space, but somehow I found this term to be a little weak, mostly because it refers just to 'space' and not to other ways in which a 'void' can exist, for example in depth. Here's a quote from Alexander (his concern is primarily that of architecture but I feel the observation is relevant to art also):
“In the most profound centers which have perfect wholeness, there is at the heart a void which is like water, infinite in depth, surrounded by and contrasted with the clutter of the stuff and fabric all around it …
This emptiness is needed, in some form, by every center, large or small. It is the quiet that draws the center’s energy to itself, gives it the basis of its strength. The fact that the void does not exist so often now … is the result of a general disturbance in our capacity to make wholeness …
The need for the void arises in all centers. A cup or a bowl rests, as living structure, on the quiet of the space in the bowl itself, its stillness …
The void corresponds to the fact that differentiation of minor systems almost always occurs in relation to the “quiet” of some larger and more stable system.”
Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life
Positioning subjects in the center of a photograph is often discouraged in compositional discussion but nonetheless I often do this. Certain subjects have a confidence and clear identity that for me works well when centred, there seems to be no reason to over-think composition for these subjects. I call these photographs Portraits, as for me a portrait doesn't have to be limited to photographs of people but they can be a study of an object or of a building, as if the subject is a living thing - these can be reflections of ourselves.