Composition Principles

Composition Principles: Not Just for Designers

We are photographers—visual communicators, peddlers of our ideas upon page and screen and gallery wall. Our work is spontaneous and immediate. We see the world through a viewfinder and capture slices of life within the complex apparatus of our cameras. It is easy to get caught up in the gear and technology and in the energy of the process and forget that, in the end, all of this is merely a tool, like a painter’s brush or draftsman’s pencil and ruler; but the final goal is the same. We are image-makers like the rest, and when our viewers consider our work they will not be thinking of apertures and shutter speeds or cropping and cloning and color balance. They will first see an arrangement of shapes, forms, light and shadow, color and texture, and this initial impact—which, after all, is where any image succeeds or fails—will be based on abstract aesthetic ideas. The content of the image, the expression on a model’s face, whether or not the focus was caught perfectly, and the myriad other details of the photographer’s craft are always of secondary importance.

Whether we are creating a painting on canvas, an advertising spread in a magazine, laying out a website design, or looking through the viewfinder of a state-of-the-art DSLR, our work lives and dies by the same principles—the principles of design governing the manipulation of visual elements on a flat surface. So, before we can be good photographers, we must first be good designers.

But how do we develop this awareness of the abstract qualities of the world around us? Sure, we all know the basics: the rule of thirds, perhaps even the golden mean, and we know that we shouldn’t merely center our subject in the image. But the secret to strong compositions is more basic than that: We must stop thinking about what things ‘are’ but rather consider what they ‘look like’. A tree is not a tree, it is a vertical design element. A shadow cast by the evening sun is not a shadow, it is a triangular shape which can create movement and lead the viewer’s eye through the image. A cup of coffee sitting on a table is not a cup of coffee, but rather it is a form which can balance another opposing form on the other side of the frame. The sweep of a shoreline is not a shoreline, but rather a graceful s-curve which lends harmony and order across the composition.

The secret is in the abstract, and in learning to notice the abstract: forget what you think you see and just SEE.

Once we learn to view the world in this way, our surroundings, and even the simplest of subjects, will come alive and offer themselves for our aesthetic manipulation. Then it is our task to arrange, balance, and order these elements to our advantage, to create dynamic images of high impact—images that arrest our viewers upon the first glance remain cemented in their minds long after.

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