“How do you compose a photograph?” It’s the eternal question. Every photographer struggles with it, because every once-in-a-while, now-and-then, occasionally it all comes together and magic happens. It is the same in everything else too, sports, romance, cooking—but for today it’s taking pictures we are concerned about.
There are a whole bunch of rules, formulas, and recipes out there on how to photograph. The biggie is rule of thirds. That’s the one where you put the good bits at the nexus points of a 3×3 grid layed over what you are trying to take the picture of. If you are more advanced, aren’t we all, then you can spiral subject focus with Fibonacci, otherwise known as the golden mean or golden ratio. It’s like rule of thirds, only pushed off a bit in kind of a logarithm way. The main subject focus is at the center of a spiral in one corner or another of a scene with the secondary focus points winding out like a chambered nautilus shell across the photograph into a larger area with a secondary subject(s) (see figure above). Then there are leading lines to pull you into the photograph and diagonal lines to impart movement. And layers. You want layers with stuff happening, stuff to see in the front of the picture, stuff in the middle, and stuff in the background. Color too. Use color to pop the picture, and black and white tones to capture the essence of shape and texture. If you do all these things you can make a great photograph double quick.
Of course you have to use a tripod. And check where the light is coming from. Don’t take pictures in the noonday sun. Don’t shoot into the sun. Expose for the shadows. “Expose right” for the highlights in digital. Use filters on the lens. Watch out for color shift in low light. Bracket the exposure. Take several shots of the same scene. Get better equipment. Get better software. Learn more about you darkroom/lightroom. Don’t forget The Zone System either, and making natural frames around things.
It’s all like looking for El Dorado, that Fountain of Youth, the gold in them thar hills. I’ve spent hours, and hours, and hours trying all of that. If you are new to photography you will too. It’s called training or initiation, or something else less flattering.
Now you are ready to practice photography and take that perfectly composed picture.
But wait, isn’t this going to tell me how to compose the perfect picture?
Rule 1: What are you trying to take a picture of? A tree? A feeling? A dog? All three? Usually it ends up being all three kind of mushed together. Decide what it is first and take a picture of that. You can take pictures of the dog later.
When you decide what you are making a picture of, put everything in the frame. Everything. Don’t leave anything out, and don’t cut off anything at the edges so your prospective viewer looks at them and wonders what the hell is out there in no man’s land.
Take a favorite photographer and see how they used space around things to include everything and massage the mood: tips of fingers, bottoms of feet, mountain peaks and water edges–and when they didn’t too.
Rule 2: Think in color. Yes, you are a B&W photographer and Ansel Adams said he learned to think in black and white. That was then, this is now. He thought in how the photograph would look 100 steps down the road in the medium of his time. He thought in exposure, light, filters, developing, chemicals, papers, contact prints, enlargers, lenses, print development…. He saw the scene before him and played it through his vast database of skills, processes, and experience to see what the final print might be in the end. (I wonder how many times it wasn’t?)
Today color is differentiated in millions of digital variations filtered through the eyes of millions of photographers world wide, from film shooters to digital fantasy builders to product branders and marketers. You as a photographer need see the colors in front of you and how you want them to change after you capture them to turn them into your vision on a computer. Even if your photography is on film, most of your audience will be viewing your work on a computer screen. You will use digital manipulation to make it available to them in the way you saw it on all their screens. Maybe your art is monotone, maybe a digitalized film look, maybe blast the saturation, maybe it is as true to the natural color you remember as you can make it, maybe it’s retro sepia tintype. You have to think in color and how you are going to work with it just like Ansel Adams did with his black and white technology or Eliot Porter and his mid-century color film technology.
The color you see is the light. When you contemplate all the colors and their intensities you are analyzing the light at the same time. You have to think about the light and exposure to get the color or monotone or HDR or high key or low key or whatever your vision is at the moment. Color is light, light is color.
That’s pretty much it, two rules. I wanted three, but can only come up with two.
Oh yes, you have to do all the other stuff to get to the place where the two rules apply. Or maybe, when you practice the two rules diligently you do everything else at the same time, I don’t know.
Examples are good
Ansel Adams The picture is all there. I suppose it has edges, but I don’t particularly need to know where they go. He saw it in color to make it into this. Don’t you wish the traffic was still like that!
Sam Abell Color, check. Put everything in the picture, check. It helps to have Cindy Crawford in the picture, check. See that straight line he built much of his work on?
Ernst Haas What’s cut off in the picture you want to see? Color like a painting with 35mm film!
Annie Leibovitz Keepin’ it Annie. Low key light makes you feel that wind.
Yousuf Karsh Powerful color in B&W. Show all of Fidel. How did he get that shirt that way?
Eliot Porter All the color and nothing but the color. You can see every little thing in his forests.
Diane Arbus Color=B&W. Don’t leave anything out. I know they are touching the edges of the picture, very disturbing.
Dorthea Lange What does the color look like? Can you see the yellow sunlight? Is all of it there inside the frame? Did you look for something else?
Richard Avendon See the colors? So big the movement of the edges of her glad rags go outside the frame.
Drew Geraci Drew is one of the young guns in photography. He shoots time-lapse videos with Sony digital still cameras among others.
He shot this: https://vimeo.com/99061723 (House Of Cards credits)
Here is one of his stills: Ulrich color in the lantern light.
Got it now? Great! Go out and take great photographs.
One more thing, Lt. Columbo, look at photographs. Look in all the books in the library, look at exhibitions, look in art museums, and especially look at all the new photography that is happening out there. Photography is alive and vibrant today (vibrant is one of them photography terms). If you want to see it go to Instagram. Flikr almost had it, but Instagram has it now. Enjoy your time there looking at the explosion of image making around the world.
Here are a few on Instagram I like:
Enjoy finding the ones that surprise and delight your inner photographer. They’re all over Instagram and the globe.
And more not least, take your own photos, lots of them. Have. Fun.