Thursday, September 27, 2012

Composition Basics

Abstract Composition

Action Composition

Emotional Composition

I find it difficult to write about the most fundamental part of picture making - that being "composition". I have to admit from the outset, it's not something I put a lot of effort into. I don't take care to stage or construct things, nor do I get people to pose for a shot. I really prefer using what is in front of me, as it occurs, undisturbed. Most of the time, it is only afterward that I get a sense of the merit, or lack of, in the composition that happened. My approach is to evaluate lighting conditions, location, and making sure my equipment is set correctly, and composition just kind of looks after itself. This may not be true for every photographer, and in fact, it should be more common to first make sure the composition is great, because that is what most makes for a great picture. Perhaps my sense of composition comes from my experience of drawing and painting in my younger days, along with a few sessions of art classes. I've also put pictures out there that are just plain awful, composition wise, but I'll make something else out of them, such as a deep foreground crop that emphasizes texture. I love textures in photographs just as much as I like strong compositions.

I have put up three shots here, taken in Moncton yesterday, and true to form, I noted that the conditions were perfect for taking pictures - the sky was partly clouded, the air was humid, and the lighting was soft and natural. I made my way down to a skateboard park near the river, which has all kinds of interesting shapes and colours. There was one solitary boarder, doing his thing. I just let him go with it, without asking his permission; I just had a very strong sense that he wouldn't care one way or the other if I took his picture, and this time I was right. Sometimes you really need to be careful about taking pictures of people.

So, lets talk strictly about the composition of each of these. The first one is pure abstraction. It may look a bit awkward, seeming to be a picture about nothing, but I'm liking it more and more. As with most abstract images, it is very academic; by that I mean it is all about the picture itself, not about the absent skater, or not even particularly about the skateboard park itself - I had taken many other shots here that were strongly about the location, and it's features. This one is minimalist when it comes to the features of the park itself. So, we can talk about it strictly in abstract terms. 

First, it is based strongly on two rules of good composition - the "Rule of Thirds"- I placed the very strong dividing line from inside to outside along the upper third dividing line, and "Lead the viewers eye in from a corner" which is done by the rail at the bottom. From there, the viewers eye is taken by a strong S-curve which terminates at the smooth concrete exit in the upper right, leading to the world outside. Although the picture is static, there is a very strong sense of movement which almost puts the viewer on the skateboard, heading toward this S-shaped manoeuvre and out of the park.

The second shot of course came about, as I noticed the skater getting ready to roll down the grade, and I was already in position from the previous shot. Sometimes you just get lucky like that - being exactly ready and in the right place at the right time. The only challenge here was to press the shutter at the right time, which I did. This is where you need to be totally acquainted with your camera's performance. I've mentioned it here before, but it bears repeating - a digital compact has a bit of shutter lag. In recent years, it has gotten much less severe, especially if you are pre-focused by pressing the button halfway down. Older compacts were terrible with shutter lag, which would have resulted in our skater being caught only in the foreground from the waist up. With enough practice, people could get a feel about how to fire early, but typically, with older digital compacts (not true for film compacts, especially older mechanical ones, which always had instant shutter action), shots like this would not turn out. I managed to place him on a "rule of thirds" line perfectly, which, combined with good "negative space" in the surrounding concrete, makes this composition very strong.

The third one was very interesting. I had changed position a bit, and the skater had just fallen off his board. I was totally aware of his disappointment, and really wanted to capture something about that. The upturned skateboard, and the lad's disappointed hunched over gesture were a true decisive moment, which I managed to capture. But it was only after looking at this on my computer, I discovered a lot of other great compositional things at work here. Notice how everything else in the shot leads the eye solely to the skater. Nothing leads out of the picture; everything leads in, and also points to him. The concrete path at the bottom leads to him, the asphalt in the lower right points to him. The two concrete shapes on the left point right at him, while the concrete slab next to the stairs form an arrow with the shape to the left that points right at him. Even the stairs leave no escape - an exit is blocked by the tree at the top of the stair, so they can only lead into the picture, not out. Every picture tells a story!

I don't always compose well, because I seldom think about it. For me, it happens subconsciously. It is a minds-eye thing, and I have to have an optical glass viewfinder to make it work. My mind's eye for composition usually fails me when using compact or smartphone cameras that only have an LCD for viewing.

There are so many things that come into play when composing a photograph, and the best approach, I think, is to read up on the elements of good composition. It eventually comes naturally and quickly, but the best advice I can give is to start slowly and deliberately, following the "rules", and then selectively breaking them, once you know how.

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