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Key Points On Composition

Marcus Smith tells us about composition and the 3 main components of the discipline.

|  Photographers
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Here's something different. It may not be what you're expecting but hopefully it'll be interesting and useful. So if we can forget about software and hardware, lenses, lighting, accessories and the deity known as 'Digital' I'd like to explore the actual taking of photographs. By which I mean vision, prescience and most importantly composition. Indulge me if you will and I'll try not to bore you.

When I was 18 (a long long time ago) I went to my first job interview. I was asked to bring along a selection of photographs I'd taken. I had no idea why. After getting the job I later asked my interviewer why. He told me that he was looking for skills in composition. Having secured that position I embarked on a twenty five year plus vocation making moving pictures. I now realise that every frame of every moving image I made is in effect a photograph. Don't get me wrong, I'm passionate about still photography but the lesson I learned was composition is everything. You can buy all the technology in the world but at the end of the day it's what you actually put in front of your lens that counts. It's a short piece but let's examine three very individual proponents.

Edward Curtis
Edward Sheriff Curtis - edwardscurtis.com

Edward Sherriff Curtis is best known for his images of North American Indians and produced some of the most iconic photographs of the late 19th and early 20th century. Despite his subject matter and the natural backdrop being a gift, he worked hard and fastidiously to create each image. At the time photography was considered as more of an art form concerned more with the overall 'painted' effect of the finished product, often at the cost of the subject matter at hand. Curtis seemed to marry both art and integrity in his photography. It's well known that the majority of his work was 'staged' and for this we can forgive him as his medium was far less flexible than it is today exposure times were not only crucial but manual and large glass plate negatives were neither cheap nor easily portable. It's said he traversed America over 125 times. From his travails he either knowingly or unwittingly defined the three fundamental elements of composition which still hold good today: balance; the rule of thirds; and line. Line above all else belonged to Curtis. He understood that vertical objects (mountains, trees, etc.) conveyed strength; that horizontal objects (lakes, prairies, etc.) gave a sense of calm; and that power and motion could be expressed through angles (the slope of a teepee, a brave on horseback). In each of his photographs all of these elements are present and executed to subtle perfection.

AndySnapper - Wastwater - The Clouds Roll In - Image in the style of Ansel Adams

If line belongs to Curtis, then the rule of thirds must surely belong to Ansel Adams. It's almost impossible to look at an Adams photograph and not think about the 'rule'. His obsession with pre-visualisation may be a considerable and contributory factor to his success and artistry, but it's his subconscious and God-given natural ability to frame a shot that sets him apart from the rest. The main subject of an image is never crassly defined but often left open-ended, open to interpretation and for the viewer to decide. A visual dichotomy if you like albeit a very beautiful one. To refresh your memory the rule of thirds requires an image (pre-visualised in Adams case) to be divided into thirds both horizontally and vertically a bit like a noughts and crosses game. Placement of the subject matter is critical within this imaginary grid. Important objects should coincide with the intersections of the grid and any horizon should be at the one third or two thirds line (never central). It sounds, and indeed is, very formulaic and seems at odds with the creative process as a whole, but it appears to work and can produce stunning results. Re-visit Adams and try looking at it with fresh eyes. You'll see line and balance of course but it's the 'rule' that prevails.


Cate Blanchett by Annie Leibovitz

That just leaves balance and I don't have any particular champion in mind for this discipline. Moreover I have an anti-hero or in this case an anti-heroine Annie Leibovitz. Balance can be defined as both formal and informal. Informal balance juxtaposes smaller and larger objects to create scale, realism, interest and (well) balance. Formal balance is less interesting and can at times be remarkably boring. What can save formal balance from the fate of mediocrity? Fame. Notoriety and celebrity as a subject matter can often obfuscate the value of real photography as a passion and art form. Fame over composition? You decide. It can of course be argued that Leibovitz's focus on celebrity and commercialism (whilst producing some truly memorable images) served only to promote and highlight popular culture. It's my own personal opinion that any one of us could have been Annie Leibovitz had we been born at the right time and were in the right places in a late 60s early 70s San Francisco. Her work, therefore, is good but not unachievable by anyone with opposable thumbs. A little harsh perhaps but pick one Curtis, one Adams, and one Leibovitz image and stand them side by side they are all revered photographers and you'll have your favourite as I have mine. Sometimes and at the end of the day it just comes down to the "oh, that's nice. I could live with that" moment when you see something that just looks 'right'.

Have you taken any photographs that encompass all three disciplines? If so, feel free to share in the comments. 

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