Can Composition Be Taught?

What goes where in the frame, and why?

I recently watched a TV programme that featured an artist who was using his considerable talents and skills to carve uniquely Irish designs into stone and local slate. He was essentially creating — or crafting — works of art that would, he believed, last beyond his lifetime. He wondered if someday, possibly a thousand years from now, someone would unearth one of his ornate handmade carvings.

His hard work and vision brought home to me, once again, the immense value of crafted and gifted image-creation as opposed to the more casual shooting that’s typically the fun part of photography. Yes, fun’s good, but it largely bypasses the spirit of honed photographic expression. In the richest vein of artistic expression we always find intelligent planning, expertise, discipline and vision. The reward is significant — even for dedicated amateurs. It’s lasting and deeply satisfying.

In the right hands—because technique and vision matter—any modern camera and a few lenses are all that’s needed for successful creative photography. Add a tripod and a couple of useful filters and you can explore other techniques. Get your images into good software and you’re possibly well on your way to producing some eye-catching and evocative images.

Mountain Light

But here’s the thing. Not everybody has an eye for image content that gels. So what’s going on here? Can we be taught the right way too see? Is it something we can learn? Possibly not.

Thinking about how things look in the frame before the shutter button is pressed can make all the difference to your images. And sometimes it needs to be done very quickly. A zoom lens is very useful but, as the cliché rightly goes, it shouldn’t replace your legs. Try telephoto and more extreme wide-angle.

Think about the elements throughout the frame—people, furniture, mountains, structures. Use other elements, like overhanging trees, to frame the main subject. Think about what angle best suits the main subject. You may not want to position a person bang-on centre—it usually doesn’t work.

But hold on! This sounds like the textbook version of The Theory of Good Composition! Over the years I’ve asked myself, Doesn’t this stuff come naturally?

Sometimes you don’t have much time to think, and sometimes you do.
Wild Rose

It’s almost guaranteed that any textbook-related essay on composition will include a comment along these lines: “These rules on composition can be broken with impunity.” This should leave us wondering about the apparent contradiction. How can we be taught constructive rules that can be broken so easily and regularly whenever the creative urge takes us? “You should do it this way, but really, you don’t have to…”

Some are convinced that true compositional awareness in creative photography happens in your gut as you look through the viewfinder at the elements that make up the scene. Arnold Newman said it well: “There are no rules and regulations for perfect composition… You have to compose by the seat of your pants.” And Bill Brandt believed that “Composition is important but… is largely a matter of instinct…” Alberto Korda got the overall balance right when he defined the essence of photography: “If my students talk about the technical side of photography, I tell them it’s not about that. You can learn to operate a camera and work in the darkroom and still be mediocre. What you have to do is to take photographs which create an emotion within you.”

Jay Maisel had this to say about composition: “When I talk to my students I don’t call anything composition. I think that’s pretentious, to say you’re composing something. You’re not. It’s out there. All you’re doing is framing it and taking that piece of random chaos and making order out of it, or making it more chaotic, depending upon what you want. Everybody approaches it in a different way.”

Maisel understood that “The act of seeing is the moment of fun.” But he realised too that while we might see a special moment, we aren’t always able to capture it. We may not even have our cameras with us!

It all happens in the frame. Sometimes frames are different shapes in which the visual elements have to be arranged. Pictures that appear in CD booklets (does anyone buy CDs anymore? You might if sound quality matters to you) are square, so framing and composition must take that into account. Some cameras are designed around that format, but typically hobbyists’ SLRs, mirrorless cameras and compacts have a rectangular shape.

Composing within a frame is a good discipline but composition can be improved by cropping an image. The larger the image the better, within reason. Perhaps at the moment of capture we couldn’t physically get close enough (or zoom close enough), or there wasn’t time to get it right, or in retrospect the camera’s fixed lens’ angle-of-view wasn’t ideal. Or maybe we just like part of the image and think it works as well—two images in one. The above example is a crop from a low megapixel mobile phone shot (full image below). It’s much too small to use for a print but works well here.

So, is it actually possible to teach composition, or can we move no further than to offer a few guidelines that are already being expressed by an inner gift—a vision to see? After many years I’m still not convinced that true photographic composition can be taught. Instead I’m confident that the natural ability some have can be cultivated and invoked through inspiration. One way to achieve this is by thinking about how other photographers have composed their images. We can also find an inner resonance with the work of some film directors. Some old B&W films are truly superb visually. Every shot has been thought through meticulously.

Composition can be along traditional lines – literally – or it can be a bit different.
Has to be the Rule of Thirds, but not because you thought about the subject that way.

Are you familiar with the work of Ansel Adams? I’d bet you are or you wouldn’t be here. In 1932 he captured the image Rock and Grass, Moraine Lake. It’s certainly not one of his inspirational best but nevertheless it illustrates his wonderful vision very well. At first glance it seems not a lot is happening but then we should notice that the main rock mirrors the mountain reflection that fills the space on the lake. This is a good example of compositional skills, albeit in an average shot that will set you back $100 if you want a copy hanging on your wall.

The Craft of Photography

Let’s be honest about this. Attention to detail is the proof of photographic discipline. Unless we get lucky, the desire to be artistically creative will find fulfilment in our enterprising images only. Awareness is key. Conscientious artists don’t step back from doing their best simply because they know some of those who look at their work won’t be able to appreciate the vision and variety of skills involved. Not everybody’s opinion is valuable. Even humble dedicated amateurs must work above that.

Everywhere we go we find buckets of photography for the masses. Then there’s the more serious, creative photography for dedicated enthusiasts and some professionals. If we want to create something meaningful in the frame we have to take into account where the various elements fall—we must arrange them to inject creativity into our images.

This happens when we instinctively ‘see’ all that we have to work with.

Like just about every other subject under the sun, we can get ourselves bogged down in the science, theory, ideology, philosophy and the gearhead obsessions of photography. Occasionally it’s an interesting ride—occasionally… But after all the reading, writing and migraine-inducing analytical study surely it still comes down to this, and only this:

  • Enthusiasts must know their equipment inside-out.
  • They must sense what goes where in the frame.
  • The craft of photography is the bringing together of practical training and creative vision.

Overall, a simple concept.

Classic composition best suits subjects like this.

But don’t let it end there. When we get the content of the frame and the exposure sorted out we can take the raw image (which may be a JPEG by the way) into software and make the very best use of all the tones we have captured, if we need to. We can manipulate the image in a way that best suits the subject. This is much the same as the classical art of black and white darkroom technique.

In the old days a good negative—colour or B&W—was the starting point. Today, an appropriately exposed digital file can be subtly manipulated to produce what we have in mind—a reasonable representation of what we saw and felt at the time.

Are you a photographer who feels now is the time to push your hobby a bit further? If so, try to develop your skill through your vision. Work steadily until photographic expression becomes a craft that’s much more than an interesting record of personal events and travels abroad. That’s where the real reward is to be found.




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