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Becoming Composition Conscious

Becoming a More Creative Photographer Column by Harold Davis, July 2009 (updated November 2009)


Introduction | I: Expecting the Unexpected | II: Focusing on What Matters | III: Becoming Composition Conscious | IV: Making the Unseen Visible | V: Knowing When to Quit | VI: Setting Limits | VII: A Spiral Model of Creativity

This is the third in a series of articles about becoming a more productive and inventive photographer. In these articles I’ll share some of the techniques I use to boost my creativity and I’ll show you how I’ve learned to be more imaginative with my photography. My goal is to help you to become more creative, too.

Each of the articles in this series presents assignments that will help you hone your creative approach (should you choose to accept them!).

In the first article in this series, Expecting the Unexpected, I explained that:

  • There is no simple formula for creativity;
  • It’s important to learn to see what is really there, as opposed to what you expect to see;
  • Great photographs can only be made when you strike the right balance between planning and “going with the flow”.

The second article, Focusing on What Matters, moved on to take a closer look at what you photograph. As I noted in the article, “Don’t believe those who think of photography as something than can always be done casually.” As with life itself, it is often (but not always) the case that the more effort you put into your photographic work, the more you will get back.

The point of the second article was to help you focus on what really matters to you and your life, to better be able to integrate personal passion with your photography, and to progress on the life-long journey of discovery that true artists make.

This third article approaches the creative issues of photographing from a completely different viewpoint than the first two articles. By necessity, creating a photo is an act of design. Specifically, a photograph is a composition of two-dimensional design framed by the border of the image. Put this way, what are the elements that go into formal photographic design, and how can you approach composition to enhance the creativity of your results?

Concepts of creative composition can be divided into a number of different high level areas and concerns:

  1. How can you use the tools of conventional photography to enhance your compositions?
  2. How can you unleash your imagination within the constraints of composition?
  3. Can compositions be extended with the tools of the digital era?
  4. By becoming conscious of formal design issues, can you improve your photos?

You can’t divorce the subject matter of a photo from its composition. But looking at photography from both distinct viewpoints—as formal designs, and as expressions of passion with primary interest in the subject matter—is a good thing.

This article emphasizes issues of composition and design over those of content. But actually, you need both halves of the whole. Design without imagination is barren and futile; but imagination without design is unruly and unsatisfying.

Composition is a big and important topic, so I won’t cover everything in detail in right here and now. If you are interested in exploring the issues I raise further, I’ll be writing more about creative design and composition on Photo.net. Also, my book Creative Composition is due out from Wiley later this year.

Photographic Technique and Composition

A painter uses a paint brush, and the scope of what the painter can put on canvas is limited by the paint brush and the techniques that the painter uses to employ the brush.

Your camera and lenses are to your photographs what the paintbrush is to the painter. These are the tools that limit what you can do, and provide you the many opportunities for what you can do.

It’s important to understand the palette of techniques open to you, and to be very familiar with how the tools and techniques influence how your compositions come out.

From a compositional viewpoint, the most important photographic technique issues are:

  • Lenses and focal lengths, and their impact on composition
  • The way your choice of shutter speed renders motion
  • How your choice of aperture impacts depth-of-field and apparent sharpness

In the photograph of a rock formation in the Southwestern desert shown to the right, I used a moderate wide angle focal length to give the illusion that the vast landscape could be seen as a flower.

Your assignment: Choose a lens focal length to create an abstraction of your subject matter. In other words, it shouldn’t be immediately clear to your viewer what the subject matter is, although the subject will likely be revealed upon close inspection.

Exotic lenses are fun toys, and great ways to jumpstart creativity. I’ve got a great deal of mileage out of using my digital fisheye lens in unexpected ways, as this extreme wide-angle portrait of my infant daughter shows.

Your assignment: Take the weirdest lens you have, and spend all day only shooting with it. Note: I’m not asking you to go out and buy an expensive piece of glass. If you own a fisheye already, great. But otherwise, improvise! For example, hold a small mirror in front of your normal lens, and only shoot with the mirror held up to your lens for the day.

When you set the shutter speed on your camera, you are actually not setting a speed. This setting controls a duration of time: how long the shutter is open. The impact on composition is to change the way motion is rendered.

In the photo of clouds moving by moonlight below, I used a two minute shutter speed to make the nearest clouds seem soft and dreamlike as they flew by in the brisk wind.

Note: You can choose your shutter speed by using shutter-preferred or manual metering. With most cameras, if you want a shutter speed longer than thirty seconds you need to set the camera to manual, and use the Bulb setting along with a remote shutter release to keep the shutter open as long as you’d like.

Your assignment: Make a conscious choice of shutter speed to change the way motion is rendered in a photo. For example, you might choose a very long shutter speed to make motion appear elongated and blurred like my clouds.

The choice of a aperture in an image controls the depth-of-field, the range of distance within an image that is in focus. In the photo of the California poppy shown below, I used a wide-open lens setting to create as little depth-of-field as possible so that only the flower was in focus.

Note: The term wide-open means that a large lens opening is selected. You can choose a large lens opening with aperture-preferred metering, or by using manual exposure controls. The smaller the number notated in an f-stop, the larger the opening in the lens. For example, f/2.0 means a large opening in a lens, and f/36 means a small opening in the lens. The larger the opening, the shallower the depth-of-field, meaning the less range of subject that will be in focus.

Your assignment: Create a shallow depth-of-field photo by focusing on the important part of your subject and choosing a wide-open aperture.

Composition in the Digital Era

Can compositions be extended with the tools of the digital era? Well, obviously.

Digital manipulation of photos in post-processing for creative and compositional impact is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some people think doing this kind of compositional extension is inherently fraudulent in some way, and shouldn’t be part of photography. Others—and I belong in this camp—think that digital photography is one part photography and one part post-processing software. Since post-processing has such a big impact on composition, why ignore it?

Whatever your feelings about the Photoshop darkroom, to do the exercises in this section, for the moment put aside your prejudices against post-processing, and get out your favorite software as a compositional tool!

Note: There’s no need to go out and buy software. Most image processing software, including Photoshop and Photomatix (used for creating combined images with extended light and dark values) are available for download in free trial editions. You’ll find a great deal of information about creative techniques you can use in post-processing in my book, The Photoshop Darkroom (due out from Focal in September).

Standing on an overlook high above Zion Canyon in Utah, I realized that I could not create a single photo that captured both the dark shadows and the bright clouds. So I shot five different exposures and combined them into a single image in Photoshop (“Coming into Zion”).

Your assignment: Design an image that you create using post-processing software by combining more than one capture.

Objects can visually be more than one thing at once. For example, a sports car wheel can be altered to look like a flower, as in “Wheels Within.”

Your assignment: Use post-processing to transform a photo of into something new.

When I photographed a butterfly specimen, I thought the image was too static. So I used the Photoshop darkroom to combine the image with itself, and give it the illusion of motion.

Your assignment: Use the Photoshop darkroom to add implied motion to a stationary object.

Photography Is Applied Design

Since the time of the Greeks, design principles have been applied to visual images.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that there are any formulas that you can automatically apply to designing a photo. For example, take the famous “rule of thirds,” which suggests that you divide a composition into thirds with two horizontal and two vertical lines, and place important elements where the lines intersect. If you follow a precept like the rule of thirds too literally, your compositions will become boring and rigid.

But you do need to be aware of the compositional component of photography, and to be conscious of design principles when you create your photos.

From a formal viewpoint, a couple of the key issues you might want to think about when you create an image include framing and pattern. For example, the photo at the top of this story shows a detail of a decorated car window. The framing of the image lets the underlying pattern show through and become interesting.

In terms of framing, an image sits within a “frame” created by its top and bottom. How does the content of the image relate to its frame? In the photo below of water drops on a flower stem, the composition is made interesting because the major dark element (the flower stem) diagonally divides the image frame.

Your assignment: Create a composition in which an important element in the image diagonally divides the frame.

Formal compositions that show a pattern repeating with variations can hold great appeal, particularly when the pattern exhibits the underlying structure of the subject matter of the image. The photos of the dandelion and the architectural dome below are very different in subject matter and style. But both show the structure and pattern of their subject.

Your assignment: Create a photograph where the underlying pattern helps to show the structure of the subject matter.

Some other important formal compositional organizing principles include:

  • Iteration, meaning patterns that repeat
  • Complex frame division
  • Using spirals
  • Perspective rendering
  • Combining order and disorder

I’ll be showing you how to create interesting compositions using these and other design principles in a future Photo.net article.

Conclusion

The most important aspect of a creative photo is its meaning. Meaning can be found in surprising places, and I am often surprised by the magic in the mundane. But by itself, meaning is not enough if you want to make great photos. You need to be aware that the subject you portray in your photo is part of a formal composition.

This formal composition is created, extended, and limited by the tools and techniques of photography. The composition can be augmented in the Photoshop darkroom. Ultimately, your compositions will succeed or fail as a work of two-dimensional design. This does not mean that you should slavishly follow design “rules”; it does mean that you need to become conscious of creative photographic composition as design.

This article has provided some assignments to help you become more aware of composition as part of the photographic process. These assignments include:

  • Photo technique exercises, to help you better understand how your lenses and exposure settings impact your composition;
  • Post-processing exercises, to get you started thinking about how you can use the Photoshop darkroom to add creativity to your compositions;
  • Design exercises, to help you learn to become conscious of photographic composition as applied design.

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About the Author

Harold Davis is a photographer and author. His photographs have been widely published, exhibited, and collected. Many of his fine art photography posters are well known. Harold’s images have won a Silver Award in the International Aperture Awards 2008 competition, and inclusion in the 2009 North American Nature Photography Association Expressions Showcase. Harold is the author of The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post-Processing (Focal), Creative Composition: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Close-Ups: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Practical Artistry: Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers (O’Reilly Digital Media) and other books. Harold gives frequent digital photography workshops, many under the auspices of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association. More »


Text ©2009 Harold Davis.

Article revised November 2009.

Readers' Comments


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Steven Richardson , July 16, 2009; 09:55 A.M.

Harold, Thanks for the great article.

Keith Aldrich , July 16, 2009; 03:21 P.M.

Thank you.

Great article, I especially appreciate the "Your assignment" sections. Its nice to have a goal in mind when going out to shoot, and sometimes its hard to come up with your own goal!

Danny Deckers , July 17, 2009; 08:19 A.M.

Thanks again, Mr. Davis! I'm printing it all out for reference.

Harold Davis , July 17, 2009; 01:38 P.M.

Thanks Steven, Keith, and Danny...Best wishes, Harold


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