When we create a photograph, there are things we can do to take it from mundane to interesting. Here are some of the most important aspects of composition and the unteachable factor that is exclusively for you to discover.
It has a lot of confused people. They don’t know what photographers mean by telling a story. Every photo has a story, but a more compelling image says more than just “it’s X”: it’s a bird. Add to that another meaning, so it becomes “this is X, doing Y”: it is a bird taking flight.
“It’s a bird that flies away because a cat leaps.”
“It’s a couple dancing together because they’re in love.”
“It’s an island in a calm sea.”
You can expand this to include a subtopic.
“This bird takes flight because the undernourished cat leaps.”
“This older couple is dancing together because they’re in love. But compare them to the young people in the background.
“The smoothness of the sea contrasts with the roughness of the island, and their natural shapes contrast with the artificial straight lines of the lighthouse.”
This last group of stories is about creating relationships, and those relationships are contrasts. It’s using the word contrast in a broader sense than just the differences in tone we usually talk about in photography.
The opposite of contrast is uniformity. Uniformity relates to subjects with similar characteristics, for example, soldiers in uniform, bridesmaids at a wedding, and birds in a flock. However, it can also be less obvious: contiguous colors (those that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel, e.g., blue and green, yellow and orange, etc.), direction of movement, size, shape and shape.
Of course, there are times when you want the story to say nothing but “it’s X”. A few years ago I was commissioned to take pictures of different types of gravel for a company that supplied it to the construction industry. They wanted to display uniform and simple images of their products on their website. So I took dozens of photos that were little more than an accurate description of the product. But most of the time we realize more than that.
The uniformity of an image or a set of images can give a feeling of stability, calm, comfort, harmony and pleasantness. On the other hand, contrasts in images add disharmony. They make photographs more stimulating, bringing out feelings of excitement, disagreement and negative emotions. As I showed in a previous article, negative emotions have a more powerful impact on a photograph than positive emotions.
Virtually all the adjectives we can find to describe an object can have an antonym: big/small, wide/narrow, high/low, natural/artificial, close/far, smooth/rough, old/young, moving/still, etc. . also have their opposites; they are complementary colors: red/green, yellow/violet and blue/orange.
Photos often work best when uniformity and contrast go hand in hand. There are exceptions, but images with too much uniformity can be bland – that gravel I shot was definitely not the most exciting subject I’ve ever photographed – while those with too much contrast can seem too busy, confused or unorganized.
Making the most of contrasting elements in a setting has a lot to do with their positioning relative to each other. This is where awareness of the different rules of composition comes in. There are many, from the often misunderstood rule of thirds, which can be misapplied and sometimes overused, to the golden ratio, refund, armature, and more. I wrote an article on this subject in March, so I won’t go over them all here.
The positioning of subjects in the frame works best when we reinforce them. We often do this using main lines and entry lines. These lines go to the point or points where we want our viewers’ eyes to rest. The lines do not have to all come from the same direction. Think of the multiple radial lines on a spider’s web that all lead to the focal point in the center of the spiral. They also don’t need to be continuous; they can also be implied. The brain extends the lines past their ends, so our eyes naturally follow the extension to where they would run.
The positioning of a subject in a scene has a lot to do with the positioning of the camera. Experienced landscape photographers rarely stand in the first place they see when arriving at a location. They walk around, survey the area and determine the best possible position and height to place the camera. Repositioning oneself changes perspective and point of view. If they have a particular style of photography that they like to adopt, it may depend on how they position their camera.
A few colloquial phrases meaning the same thing come from different parts of England. One is “skew whiff”, which originated from the weaving trade in the north of England, not far from where I live now. This means the weft is askew, so the fabric was uneven. The other is the lesser known phrase “on the huh”. It’s Old English and it’s still used in parts of the country where I come from. As a seascape photographer, having the horizon straight and not on the huh is essential. The effect is jarring if tilted half a degree to one side. However, in some circumstances the photographer may want to tilt the camera. This imbalance can add tension and drama to what might otherwise be an uninteresting shot.
All of these and other techniques, such as exposure control, depth of field, and stopping or depicting motion, valuable as they are, are nothing in and of themselves. When combined, they are more than the sum of their parts. Yet even then, they add less of an essential element that will elevate your photo to a new level. It’s integrating your personality into your photography. It’s something only you can do. Nothing I write or anyone else writes can teach you what it is.