Good composition is like a suspension bridge – each line adds strength and takes none away.
1 – Introduction
This is part two of a two-parts essay. In the previous essay, part one, we looked at how the image was created, from field work to studio work, including shooting, converting, stitching, processing and image optimization. Here, in part two, we are going to look at the composition of the image, not only in terms of how the image was composed in the field but also in terms of what we can learn from comparing the different compositions that I considered when creating this image. In this regard a few words may be useful in order to explain how I approach composition. Let’s start with that.
Because of my approach to field work, I return to my studio with many different options for the composition of the image. You may say ‘well, what is your approach to field work then?’ Good question! In short, my approach to field work is to shoot liberally, not being concerned with the final image but rather with returning home with plenty of material (read captures) to work with. This approach is radically different from the approach I used when I shot film (I started photographing with film in the 80’s if you are new to my essays and my work). With film my approach was the opposite of what I do now. I was shooting very conservatively to make sure I got the final image in the camera, making sure that the photograph was as perfect as can be in terms of composition, exposure, focus and other technical qualities. The motivation was the cost of film which for 4×5, which I was shooting primarily, was close to $10 per sheet when the cost of film plus development and shipping were tallied up.
This is a completely different ballgame now because when shooting digital images are free after you spend the first $20,000 on cameras, lenses, software, computers, hard drives and the like. Feel free to adjust this figure to taste in order to fit your budget and taste in gear. However, whatever your final number might be, the logic is the same: after making the initial investment in gear and software the images are free. The cost of data storage is so ridiculously low that I simply ignore it. This leaves me free to shoot as much as I want. The most important consequence of this approach is that it has totally changed the way I photograph. Instead of being concerned with returning home with ‘fine art quality’ images out of the camera, I now return home with a ‘pile’ of raw files from which I create the final image. How I go from one to the other is the focus of these two essays. As I said above, we looked at the processing part in the first essay and in this second essay we are going to look at how this affects the options available to me regarding image composition.
2 – Using the Crop overlays in Lightroom
Before I start discussing my approach to composition and the options available to me for this image I want to point out a very useful feature available in Lightroom in regards to composition. This feature is the Crop Guide Overlay available from the Tools menu in the Develop module when the crop tool is selecte. Here is a screenshot of this function:
I find this function very useful and I use it routinely to ‘check’ the composition of my images (more on this in a minute). Of the seven different overlays available in Lightroom I find the Golden Ratio and the Golden Spiral to be the two most useful ones for my work. Clearly, as with most things in art, this is a matter of personal taste and work focus.
3 – Alternate compositions
As I just mentioned, when I photograph I create a lot of different captures of the same scene. As I do I vary the angle of view, the composition, and I move from one location to the next rather quickly. I call this ‘walking the scene,’ meaning that instead of staying in the same spot the whole time I work one location as much as I can until I run out of ideas, or inspiration, then move on to another nearby location to find a new angle of view and explore new possibilities.
As I do this I don’t ask myself which location is best. Instead, I do my best to maximize the compositional possibilities offered by each location. I gather images in large quantities, following the logic I just laid out, and I don’t worry about the outcome. I like to compare this approach to the gathering of raw ingredients. The cooking part, to make a metaphor between creating a dish and creating photographs, will take place in the studio, and the perfect combination of ingredients will be achieved later on.
While it is important to acknowledge that some of these images will be discarded, given the mass of photographs I am gathering, it is equally important to keep in mind that no ingredients, or images, can be missing, because it will be impossible to collect them once I leave the scene. It is thus of primordial importance that I focus on gathering all I need, including extras, in order to give me the largest creative latitude possible so I can have full creative freedom once back in my studio.
3 – Non-optimal compositions
We are now going to look at the different compositions I created for this image. Before doing so I want to start with a few remarks.
First, this essay being written after the studio work for this image was completed, I am presenting the final image after having decided which one is my favorite. This is of course different from the workflow I follow because when I start the process I have no idea which image will be the best.
Second, rather than say ‘this one works and this one does not work’ I prefer to say that an image is optimal or not optimal. This is less judgmental and more in tune with the goal of finding the best image, or the most optimal image for a specific location.
Third, the screenshots below are all taken in Lightroom, with the crop overlays superimposed on the images. Only the final ‘best’ image (shown at the start of this essay) is fully optimized for color and contrast, the others are only partially optimized up to the collage point, meaning that only Lightroom processing was applied to them (see my previous essay for a detailed description of my images processing approach). Notice also that all the images
Finally, as I mentioned, I photographed this scene from a variety of different locations. For simplicity’s sake I am referring to these diverse locations as Location A, B, C and so on. Here we go:
4 -Vertical Composition
While I shoot multiple versions of the same scene, I also compose photographs both horizontally and as vertically. I do so because, once again, I want to give myself as many options as possible. Rather than make a call in the field about the best direction for a given image, something which is not required, I prefer to capture both horizontals and verticals then decide which one offers the strongest composition once back in my studio. I don’t see why I should take the chance of missing out on the best composition by making a decision in the field while I can wait until later on to do so.
5 – The strongest composition I was able to find for this scene
This is the location where I found the strongest composition. This is not to say that there isn’t a stronger composition in this location, just that this is my best effort in this instance.
6 – The Importance of Artistic Expression
This essay is clearly about a ‘soft skill’ or rather an ‘artistic skill,’ namely composition. I write about it because I believe that studying art and soft skills is just as important as studying technique and hard skills. This is the approach I follow in both my work and my teaching, as you most likely know if you have been following my work and my essays.
I certainly did not take the easiest route by focusing on artistic and technical qualities at the same time in my work. A better choice in regards to being ‘popular’ would be to focus on technique and ignore art. I am saying this because It seems that technique is taking over the photography world and that art is either ignored or considered to be an ‘automatic’ outcome of good technique.
We all know that this is not the case of course and that good technique results in little more than technically perfect photographs. However such knowledge is not instinctive and beginning photographers sometimes need to learn this the hard way. A frequent mistake is to study technique until one masters it only to realize that ‘sharp images’ (a metaphor for images that are technically perfect) are often boring as well. Even worse in regards to the self esteem of beginning photographers is the realization that non-photographers are often fascinated by images that exhibit technical flaws. This realization is often accompanied by disdain for those who are able to find beauty in the midst of technical imperfection as well as for their inability to see the technical flaws that such images contain. However, the reason why these flaws are obvious to photographers is because they think of little else besides technique. However, to a non photographer, these flaws are invisible because non-photographers focus on the emotional aspects of the image and ignore technical flaws unless they are blatantly obvious.
The reason for this focus, I was going to say this near-obsession with technique, is also due to the many technical hurdles that we need to overcome before we can reach a state of satisfying self-expression with our photography. Just as important is the fact that for many practitioners photography is a craft as much as an art, and the doing is often more important than the ‘thinking’ or rather, to put it more accurately, the reflection that comes with all artistic activities. It is this reflection that takes most of the time available to the artist, the doing, the physical creation part that is, being the outcome of this thinking.
I had a teacher, Scott McLeay, who told me that he did not photograph for one solid year. After seeing my shocked expression he added: but I thought about photography every day. This made me understand which of the two, doing and thinking, was the most important in photography. It was not a surprise to learn that because in painting and drawing (which I was studying at the time being enrolled at the Beaux Arts) we did the same, but it was a shock to hear it from a photographer because I erroneously believed that photography was essentially technical. So much so that one of the first things I did after buying my first camera was buy a technical book on photography and read the chapter on filters. In comparison, the only books I read about painting and drawing were about composition. I learned from studying with painters, from painting, from looking at exhibitions and from reflecting on all that.
7 – How to Study Artistic Composition
As this essay demontrates, Artistic Composition is the focus of my current research. One of the outcomes of this research is the publication of the Artistic Composition Mastery Workshop on DVD/USB card. This is the 8th tutorial in the Mastery Workshops series. Detailed information about it is available at this link:
A limited time special offer is available at this link together with a detailed description of the contents, sample materials, and an intriguing free gift which is guaranteed to surprise you and the free 21 pages eBook table of contents at the link above.
8 – About Alain Briot
You can find more information about my work, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to my Free Monthly Newsletter on my website. You receive 40 FREE eBooks when you subscribe to my newsletter.
I create fine art photographs, teach workshops and offer DVD tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing and marketing. I am the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, Marketing Fine Art Photography and How Photographs are Sold. All 4 books are available in eBook format on my website at this link. Free samplers are available so you can see the quality of these books for yourself.