Home » Art » A Tale of Two Worlds—Learning to Effectively Compose Your Photograph

A Tale of Two Worlds—Learning to Effectively Compose Your Photograph

We learn by listening

We learn by listening

What I am going to be presenting here might come across to many of you as the title suggests, A Tale of Two Worlds —and it actually is just that. My guess is that some of this might be hard to believe or understand, especially if you came to photography as many of us do, without formal education, and have learned through the amateur literature, organizations and photo sharing sites—and maybe even more so if you started within the last 10 years.

Within the last few years, I had the occasion to do research into this topic and ended up surveying literature on art, design and photography back into the 1700’s. What I found was that there were two different types of information out there on this topic and they didn’t cross paths too often. For amateurs, the common path is full of guidelines and rules. One book, from the early 1800’s and the earliest I could find specifically about such guidelines, had a simple title but this subtitle:

“…or The Whole Art of Picture Making reduced to the Simplest Principles
by which Amateurs May Instruct Themselves without the Aid of a Master”

and had the following passage in the first part of the book:

“IN GIVING the following rules for producing Pictorial Effect, it is not intended
in the slightest degree to imply that pictures cannot be produced without,
or even in direct contradiction to any one or all of ‘them; but the object
of the present work is to show how pictures may be produced without
requiring so much skill, or taking so much trouble

(my underlines for emphasis)

It is the sections here, that I underlined, that are really the most important considerations with regards to rules and guidelines—that they are designed to help the novice create successful images quickly, before they have had time to become more knowledgeable and skilled.  And that they are the most simple, actionable things one can derive from a larger body of knowledge. (That book is actually the genesis of the infamous Rule of Thirds—although the version known today is even more simplistic and, actually, incomplete.)

The fact is that in any new undertaking, we want—and need—some early successes or we will often end up losing interest. I saw a very good example of this when my son was in the 7th grade and he and a couple of his friends decided to learn to play the guitar. My son’s teacher was a music major and was teaching him foundational principles that would have served him well in the long run—but those can be a bit boring and, while important later, are difficult to know how to effectively use early on. What he learned was not, shall we say, actionable nor did it produce “amazing” things right away.

His friends went to an instructor who taught them to play the popular songs that they all liked. They could “jam” together while my son was left out and could only practice his major and minor scales off in the corner. At that age that doesn’t work well and I am sure he was teased about “not knowing anything” and he quit—as did his friends eventually.

The reality of such situations, if one can stick with it, is that when his friends had lost interest in those songs they learned, my son would have developed the ability to just listen to any new song and be able to play along with it—and have the basis for developing those wonderful, creative lead riffs we all love. It is certainly possible that at least one of his friends may have progressed there as well due to raw aptitude and the ability to translate what he learned into a broader set of knowledge. In most cases though, having had the exposure to more foundational principles helps most of us get there more quickly than otherwise and delivers a body of knowledge from which we can grow over our lifetime.

The unfortunate thing in amateur photography is that there really doesn’t seem to be much good information out there to really help one move beyond the level of understanding promoted in those more simplistic guidelines and rules.

But there is that other world I mentioned. In 2005, I visited a photo-sharing site for the first time. By then, I had been photographing for 27 years, most of it doing personal, fine art work while the latter 15 of those were also as a commercial photographer serving national and international clients and working with this countries top art directors and designers. Educationally, although I did spend some time with amateur literature, I had been encouraged, early on, to take art classes at the local college—I took 3 of them. I also had had the opportunity to study with several master photographers and photographic educators, including Ansel Adams, at various workshops. As I said, I had attended but also later taught classes in an art college and had been involved with many different fine arts organizations, including ones that focused on photography. (more specific details can be found in the “about” section here)

What I found—even with that broad exposure to photography—when I visited that photo-sharing site in 2005 were all these rules and guidelines and I had never heard of any of them before—including the infamous Rule of Thirds!

What I had learned with regards to composition and tools for analyzing/critiquing images were what I am going to suggest are the foundational principles, the Elements of Art (the things we can see: Point, Line, Shape, Mass, Space, Tone and Value, Color, Texture, Pattern and Movement) and the Principles of Design (how we arrange those things: Balance, Proportion, Scale, Rhythm, Emphasis and Subordination, Unity and Variety). In fact, these are the things that are taught in Colleges and Universities when one studies art or design, including photography. You will not find even one of the popular Rules or Guidelines promoted in amateur circles in the textbooks used there. None of what is presented is about what you should do or not do but rather more about cause and effect, how things work visually and psychologically. The goal there is not to teach the student how to immediately create successful images, of a certain kind (eg a dynamic one) or with standard characteristics (eg space divided into thirds),  but rather to teach a body of knowledge that can be drawn upon in any situation to create a successful image that serves their idea most effectively.

So, although I didn’t know any of those Rules and Guidelines I saw in 2005, I could certainly see where most of them came from. For instance, I had studied Line, all types of line and how they affected the reading of an image. The rule “Leading Lines” was just one aspect of the uses of line but didn’t explain the many other uses that might be important to understand when we are composing an image. Images where we want to suggest power or quiet or stability or instability etc. “Leading Lines” is a limited view of what line is about, but it is directly ACTIONABLE (tells you what to do) and easy to understand. What I learned leaves the action to be taken up to me based on what type of image I want to create and the idea I want it to convey. In fact, there are cases where only a few of these principles even need to be considered or thought about while in other situations, more or different ones become more relevant. (note: the goal is actually to be able to compose without having to think about these things at all, to respond intuitively drawing on what has been learned. We will think about these things and describe them when we analyze images, our own or others. That is how we create that same kind of response that is akin to the muscle memory an athlete or musician etc develops through practice and drills to be able to react intuitively and expressively to whatever comes up.)

Now, the better photo books or on-line resources on photography will often include things like Balance, or even a discussion of Line, among the other guidelines, however, they are most often presented as having the same importance as the “rules” rather than demonstrating how those rules and guidelines are subsets of that wider principle. Doing so might give more insight into the role of guidelines and where one can go to grow beyond them. (This is something I am working on creating)

The problem here is further complicated by the fact that I don’t know if there is a photographic textbook that even covers those foundational principles. The ones I have seen all cover more fundamental issues with regards to the nature and use of the camera and the optical properties of lenses– or they delve into more philosophical issues. The reason is that if you do study photography in an art college or University, you take one or two years of “foundation” classes. Those classes are taught to all art majors and include those Elements of Art and Principles of Design. These are then drawn upon and reinforced in the remaining classes over the 4 years of study when critiquing or analyzing any piece of art—photographic, painting, sculpture etc.. There isn’t a direct reason to cover these things again in a textbook on photography. If you want to learn more about these, right now you need to review them in art books or books on design. There is a wonderful link below to a presentation on these by a Cornell professor (Note that she calls the “Elements of Art” the “Elements of Design”. You will find variations with these depending on the resource you visit): char.txa.cornell.edu/language/element/element.htm

My hope here is that this information will open up a new, more robust way of looking at how to compose your photographs and how to analyze those of others—as well as your own. And that you will see that if you deviate from those “rules and guidelines” you learned that you are not, in fact, “BREAKING THE RULES” but rather that you have learned a broader, foundational set of principles to help you more effectively communicate your intent. And as such, there is no such thing as “don’t do this” or “you must/should do that”—there are just things that either work or don’t with your specific image and intent.

Now I realize that it is often hard to allow that what you learned as the “facts” about something—those rules and guidelines—are not complete or foundational. That there is another body of knowledge out there that someone suggests as more important and more complete.   On the other hand, it certainly might explain why there wasn’t any way to describe why images were successful that didn’t follow any of those rules. Or even why ones that did weren’t really always that good.

A few years ago I shared this basic information in another forum and one of the photographers there has suggested to me several times how much this has helped him grow. I shared most of what I wrote above elsewhere just this week. I thought his comment there, having married these two worlds together over time, was wonderful and I wanted to share it with you. (he knows I always flinch when someone suggests there are rules, but it’s still wonderful!)

“Through my interpretation, the point is not “whether or not we should follow rules” (although it’s a side point, and the short answer is ‘sometimes’), but rather understand the difference between those common rules and the underlying principles of art from which those rules have been derived….this way we can work towards truly being in control of conveying exactly what it is we want to convey, without doing so through a filter of a simplified interpretive summary.”


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