Introduction to Composition
by Alain Briot
Trees in fall colors, Zion National Park, Utah
Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas.
It is a creative art.
A new Series
This essay is the introduction to a new series of essays whose focus is composition. As it stands right now this series will feature 8 essays, as follows:
1 - Introduction to composition (which you are reading right now)
2 - The traditional rules of composition
3 - The untraditional rules of composition
4 - Composing with color
5-Composing with Light
6 - Composing in black and white
7 - The importance of the image borders
8 –The Importance of knowing your photographic locations
This new series is related to my previous series of essays that dealt with inspiration, creativity, vision and personal style as well as to the essays before that in which I discuss the differences between how we see and how the camera sees. All these essays are available on this site and can be accessed from the Briot’s View Column page.
Composition is a vast subject. Unfortunately this subject is too often narrowed down to what is referred to as “the rules of composition.” Certainly, rules are important. But to limit the entire subject of composition to a set of rules is to limit what composition is as a whole. It is also to limit how photographers, both newcomers and experienced practitioners, perceive what the field of composition encompasses.
For this reason I prefer to refer to the subject as being the field of composition rather than as being just composition. The world field implies that there are multiple dimensions to the subject of composition and that, implicitly, composition is not limited only to a set of rules.
Composition is about much more than a set of rules. Composition is about how each photographer uses light, color and contrast. It is about how each photographer sees the world and how each photographer wants to represent this world to his or her audience. In short, composition--when approached from an individual perspective-- is about your way of seeing the world. It is about your way of sharing what you see with your audience, with those that will look at, study and admire (or criticize) your work.
Art, facts and Landscape Photography
The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.
In writing this series of essays I approach photography as an art form. As such, these essays are written for people who desire to practice photography as an art and who either consider themselves artists or desire to become artists.
I consider this statement important because photography, just like any medium of communication and representation, is not necessarily an art form. What makes a medium an art form is not the medium itself but the intent of the practitioner who uses this medium. Painting, music, sculpture or any other medium are not imbued with the ability to create art a priori. Any medium can have multiple uses. What makes something a work of art is the intent of the practitioner not the medium that they use.
Photography can have many uses. Photographs can be used to document scenes or events. Photographs can be used to create visual documents for future study or research. Photographs can be used as forensic evidence. Photographs can be used on passports, ID cards and other administrative venues. Photographs can be used to document news articles. Photographs can be taken for record keeping, for insurance purposes, as souvenirs and for many other uses.
Hardly any of these uses can be considered art. Why? Because the photographer did not intend to express an emotional response to the subjects being photographed. Instead, the goal of the photographer was to record a place, an event, a person or an object.
Art is not concerned with record keeping. Art is concerned with expressing emotions, feelings and opinions. Record keeping is factual, concerned with capturing reality and concerned with recording things as they are. Art is non-factual and is concerned with interpreting reality rather than with capturing reality as-is.
Record keeping is a necessity. We have to have passport photographs. We have to have visual documentation for research, for forensic analysis, for legal evidence, for news reports and for many other uses. We have to have images of our belongings and of ourselves, be it just for legal documentation.
Art is not a necessity. Art is something we want, not something we need. Artists create art because they want to, not because they have to. Similarly, collectors purchase art because they want to, not because they have to. Any of us can live without making or collecting art. Arguably our lives may be less enjoyable and less meaningful without art, but we would not perish the way we would if we did not have food, clothing or shelter.
These two different goals – factual and artistic representations – result in two different approaches to photography. While factual representation is concerned with documenting facts, artistic representation is concerned with expressing emotions. The photographic process that aims at documenting facts is completely different from the photographic process that aims at expressing emotions.
When capturing facts one must be careful not to distort reality so as not to modify the facts being recorded. The value of a factual photograph lies in how accurately it depicts the scene, the object, the people or the event represented in the image. A factual photograph is about the subject of the photograph, not about the person who took the photograph. As such the person taking the photograph must be careful not to let his emotions become mixed with the facts being recorded. In many ways the factual photographer must remove himself from the process so as to become “invisible” to those seeing the photograph. His presence or his personality must not be felt when looking at the photograph.
When capturing emotions one must be sure to take into account one’s feelings about the scene, the object, the people or the event being photographed. An artistic photograph is about the response of the photographer to subject of the photograph. It is about the person who takes the photograph first and about the subject of the photograph second. In fact, the more a photograph veers in the direction of art, the more it becomes an image about the photographer and less an image about the subject itself. The personality of the photographer must be present in the image for an artistic photograph to have value.
Trees in fall colors, Zion National Park, Utah
The differences between composing factual and artistic photographs
What I am seeking is not the real and not the unreal but rather the unconscious,
the mystery of the instinctive in the human race.
Composing a factual photograph is entirely different from composing an artistic photograph. Both the techniques used and the mindset of the photographer must be different. A factual photograph is concerned with showing the subject in a realistic manner. As such, seeing the details of this subject is very important. For example, in portrait photographs taken for US Immigration purposes, seeing the right ear of the subject is a requirement. Similarly, photographs taken to record scenes, events or objects must be detailed enough so that the subject is clearly visible.
Often, factual photographs will be taken with flashlight when ambient light is insufficient. This is done to guarantee that the light is even across the subject and that the subject won’t move during exposure. The goal here is not to have the most pleasing light but rather to have enough light to guarantee that the photograph will be sharp and that the subject will be clearly visible. Furthermore, the same light quality is used from one photograph to the next to guarantee a certain level of consistency. Finally, colors are balanced to match the original subject as closely as possible.
Composition in factual photographs is also concerned with showing either the entire subject, or showing the part of the subject that is of interest. The goal is not to dramatize how this subject is located in the frame, or to emphasize one aspect or another, or again to use a rule of composition aimed at furthering the creativity of the photographer. The goal is not to take a creative photograph. Instead, the goal is to take an accurate photograph, a photograph that can be used as evidence by the intended audience.
On the other hand, artistic photographs are rarely concerned with showing the entire subject. Instead, they often rely on the fact that less is more, and, following this credo, the artist seeks to eliminate all elements that do not contribute to making the image stronger. In keeping with this rule certain important elements may be cropped so that only parts of these elements show in the image. Or, elements that may be deemed absolutely necessary in a factual photograph may be removed entirely, the reasoning being that the absence of these elements makes the image either stronger or more intriguing.
Similarly, light is used creatively in artistic photographs. While some artists may prefer soft and even lighting, others may favor more dramatic types of lighting such as contre-jour (backlight) or clair-obscur (quiaroscurro, a type of lighting that emphasizes the contrast between light and dark areas of a scene). Some artists may use both types of light alternatively depending on their mood and the effect they seek to create.
None of these types of lighting are prone to revealing the essential details of a scene in a realistic fashion. While the former reduces contrast, the later exaggerates it. Neither are concerned with “the truth,” whatever that truth may be. Instead, artists using either types of light are concerned with expressing their feelings towards a particular scene. Their goal is to use light as a way to share their emotional response to the subject with their audience.
The artist is concerned with aspects of composition that the factual recorder, the scientist I should say, has little or no concern for. The scientist is concerned with showing the subject objectively and accurately and asks himself if the photograph is a faithful representation of this subject.
The artist on the other hand asks himself a totally different set of questions. For example, the artist may wonder if elements in the picture agree or disagree in their artistic form. Or, the artist may be concerned with how negative space contrasts with positive space. Or again, the artist may question whether unity is achieved or if the image is out of balance.
As you can see the motivations of the factual recorder and of the artist are poles apart. Still, both of them use the same medium. Both of them use photographs to capture the subject they are interested in. No wonder that many practitioners, of various levels of skills and involvement, question whether photography is art or not. The answer is that photography can be both. It can be art, or it can be a factual form of visual recording. It all depends how it is used. It all depends on the intent and the goals of the photographer.
In this series of essays we are going to study how to create artistic compositions. This is not to say that factual compositions do not need to be studied. This is simply to say that our focus will be on how to compose expressive images, images whose purpose is to share our emotional response to the subject with our audience. As we will see, achieving this purpose is a multi-step process, a process that starts with analyzing the differences between what we see and what the camera captures, a process that continues through the study of the different possible approaches to composition, and a process that culminates in developing a personal style.
In my previous essays we have already studied the differences between how we see and how the camera sees, and we have explored the process through which inspiration leads to creativity, vision and eventually personal style. What remains is to study how composition can help us express our creativity and our personal style. This is the goal of this collection of essays.
Garden of the Gods, Escalante Grand Staircase, Utah
Photography is not dead
When I am finishing a picture, I hold some God-made object up to it
- a rock, a flower, the branch of a tree or my hand - as a final test.
If the painting stands up beside a thing man cannot make, the painting is authentic.
I f there's a clash between the two, it is bad art.
The case has been made in magazine articles, online forums and other locales that “photography is dead.” I always raise an eyebrow anytime such a sweeping statement is made about any field of human activity. Certainly, such a statement is guaranteed to generate reader curiosity. However, such statements are usually more provocative than accurate.
In this case the point that is usually made is that digital photography, because it has made many aspects of photography automatic, has killed photography because now anyone can create good photographs. All it takes to create a good photograph, or so the argument goes, is the ownership of a “good” camera and the knowledge of how to use Photoshop or other image processing software. The hardware and the software will do the job, placing talent, hard work and years of study in the closet and labeling them as passé and unnecessary.
In the past, or so the argument continues, artists used to study, work hard and use their talent to express their emotions through their art. Today, all they need to do is buy a digital camera and Photoshop. Times have changed. The old is out and the new is in. We just need to get used to this situation.
Or so the belief goes, because it is a belief and nothing else. Automaticisation is not a replacement for talent, hard work and study. Automaticisation simply means that certain tasks that used to have to be completed manually are now automatic.
What are these tasks? Focusing for example. Hardly a creative or challenging endeavor, except when selective focusing is desired, and except when maximal depth of field is desired, both areas where the hardware is unable to perform automatically and where the practitioner is required to step in and make choices and decisions.
Exposure for example. Except when a specific type of exposure is required, one that differs from the exposure calculated by the camera, in which case the photographer has to step in and modify the settings manually.
Color balance for example. Except when color balance as chosen by the camera is unpleasing to the photographer, and a different color balance has to be chosen, manually, by the photographer, usually during raw conversion or post-processing of the image.
Contrast control for example. Except when a specific type of contrast is desired by the photographer or when the contrast of specific areas of an image have to be controlled individually.
The list goes on and on. What remains constant is the pattern that emerges from this list: the camera or the software chooses and the photographer needs to step in when the automatic choices aren’t satisfying. In other words, the photographer has to make choices and decisions.
And on what basis are these choices and decisions made? On the basis of talent, study and hard work. Only these three factors will give us the experience we need to make difficult choices that the hardware and the software alone cannot make. Why cannot hardware and software make these decisions? Because it requires thinking and because above all it requires artistic decisions, decisions that cannot be programmed even though software and hardware may have the ability to “think” further down the road.
The decisions that the photographer must make are decisions that are made on the basis of feelings and emotions. Decisions that are aimed at expressing our emotional response to a scene, our perception of the subject we desire to photograph, and our personal artistic approach. All of these represent individual choices, choices that we are usually unaware of until we find ourselves in the act of capturing a specific subject with a lens and a camera. As such, this process prevents camera designers and software engineers to program either the hardware or the software to automatically express our response to the subject. They cannot program it any more than we can program it because both of us ignore what this response will be.
So what am I getting at in this explanation? I am getting at the fact that no matter how advanced and automaticized the equipment and the software we use becomes, there cannot be a substitute for individual input and expression.
What I am also getting at is the fact that the field of endeavor where this individual input is best expressed is the field of composition. Why? First, because composition is about personal choices: very few, if any, aspects of composition can be automaticized. Second, because composition is a field of endeavor composed of multiple facets and not just a set of rules. If it was just a set of rules it would be possible, theoretically, to think that these rules may be embedded in camera or computer software and that such software may have the ability to “compose” photographs on the basis of these rules, or the ability to give us directions aimed at helping us compose images in a specific way.
For example, the rule of thirds could be implemented in such a way, with the camera telling us when the image is divided in 3 equally spaced areas. Or, with the help of a software-controlled, 3-way mechanized ballhead operated by servo-motors, the camera could conceivably find this composition itself, making the “photographer” little more than a passive observer of his cutting-edge hardware. In such a scenario, which right now may seem a little ahead of its time but which may very well be reality in a short while, the photographer’s skill would be limited to first purchasing the proper equipment and second to finding the location where to set up this camera.
Sunrise, Colorado Plateau, Southern Utah
But would this camera, if it existed, be able to express the inner feelings of this photographer? Would it be able to know the emotional response of the photographer to the scene he or she is photographing? Would this equipment be able to include, in the moment captured by the camera and in the print later made by the photographer, the complexity of emotions and the many possible ways of seeing this scene?
And if it existed and was made widely available so that the limiting factor of ownership would be cost rather than availability, wouldn’t such a system create images that would be representative of the system’s designers and engineers way of seeing, rather than the photographer’s way of seeing? And wouldn’t the photographer be little more than a “mule,” a carrier of equipment designed to express the equipment makers’ view of the world rather than individual photographer’s view of the world? As such, wouldn’t the owner of such equipment be furthering the cause of the machine that he is using rather than his own cause by expressing the vision of the manufacturer rather than his own vision?
My answer to these questions is “of course” and my solution was to write the series of essays that begin with this introduction and continues with the next seven essays. Through these essays, and through the expression of the many aspects of the field of composition, I want to share my belief that composition cannot be automatized because composition is the way through which an individual expresses his or her vision of the world.
I have already explored the field of vision and personal style in my previous series of essays. It is now time to explore how this vision can be implemented through the composition of specific images. This is what I will be doing in my next essay: The Traditional Rules of Composition. Until then, this series is a suivre.
Alain Briot creates fine art photographs, leads workshops and offers DVD tutorials on composition, printing and on marketing photographs. You can find more information about Alain's work and tutorial on his website at http://www.beautiful-landscape.com.
Alain also welcomes your comments on this essay as well as on his other essays available in Briot's View on this site. You can reach Alain directly by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.