You’ve likely heard the word composition thrown around a lot. But what exactly does picture composition mean? And how can you use it to improve your photos?
After years of training photographers online, I can say that I’ve finally come up with an answer. And it may not be what you’d expect.
Composition, in it’s most basic definition, is the act of arranging the contents within your frame to create a image. This really doesn’t do much to help you improve your photos though, does it?
Nor do a lot of the rules and tips out there.
The fact is, you don’t really want to (or need to) know what composition is. Instead, you need to know what great composition is. How the pros take beautiful photographs that just seem perfect.
So instead of me sharing with you rules and formulas that describe any and every photo out there, let’s focus on what counts: visual power.
There are photos that have it and photos that don’t.
If you find that your photos are lacking that “umph”, it’s not a composition problem. It a visual power problem.
Add more visual power into your photos and you’ll have better shots.
So what is visual power?
Visual Power is Focus
Each time you step out your door you are bombarded with thousands of objects, multitudes of colors, and an endless amount of things.
A photograph is what you aim to convert all of this into. But a photograph is just one little four-sided object. People glance at it for a second or two and, from this instance, decide whether it’s interesting or not.
So what happens when you combine those multitude of objects and colors into this tiny little frame that people look at for one second?
As Jay Maisel says…
“The more… you have in an image, the less drama you get. The details start taking over; the mystery is all gone.”
To compose with visual power, you must isolate. You must bring order out of chaos.
Arrange complexity into elegance.
Consider yourself a tour guide in the middle of the jungle. Sure, you could print them out a big pamphlet with every plant and animal and tell them to go explore.
Or… you could hold their hand and tell them exactly what to look at. More important, you could tell them where not to look. Leave one door open, the rest closed.
Give viewers the opportunity to look at what they want and they’ll run. Rob them of this freedom and tell them exactly what to look at and they’ll look deeper than you can even imagine.
The best visual experience is guided. Regimented.
“Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do. ”
Ask yourself, what do you want to show to viewers when you take this picture?
If you find yourself saying mundane and non-specific things such as “the mountains” or “the house” then your composition will likely show it. Dig deeper. What specific element is calling you to photograph it?
Once you find that element, isolate it. Make it so that very element is the only thing your viewer can look at. Give them no other options.
When you’ve done it right, you’ll know.
Visual Power is Tension
As a viewer lands upon your photo, what is it that keeps them from wandering off to the next?
Photo compositions without it are a bore. Those with it can force viewers to stare in awe for hours upon hours. I know I’ve caught myself numerous times stuck in front of an image I just can’t seem to stop obsessing over.
The contrast of colors, lines, shapes, and light all work to produce visual tension, forcing your eye to explore.
“Contrast plays the biggest role in defining lines visually; contrast between light and shade, between areas of different color, between textures, between shapes, and so on.”
The Photographer’s Eye, Michael Freeman
There is a fine skill you must develop to determine what just the right amount of tension that creates balance and what is just too much.
When you frame your image, pay close attention to the contrasts of various elements. See what works and what doesn’t. Only after repeated trial and error will you get a better feel for how to combine different elements together in such a way that viewers are mesmerized.
Visual Power is Rhythm
Every great photograph has a tempo of its own. There’s a visual beat that moves viewers and guides their eyes along the frame.
Consistency is present. Repetition.
Finding patterns, similar lines, shapes, or objects helps you create this rhythm.
By composing a shot with objects similar in some sort of way, you allow the viewer to expect and predict what will come next. It is this pulse that allows you to get viewers to into the image.
By creating rhythm and pattern, you easily can surprise and startle your viewer by breaking it.
“A style, like a culture or climate of opinion, sets up a horizon of expectation, a mental set, which registers deviations and modifications with exaggerated sensitivity.”
E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion
Visual Power is Form
How many times have you composed an image according to what you see within your viewfinder? Most likely every time, right?
Just because your camera gives you a set aspect ratio and frame to use, it doesn’t mean you need to use it.
Often times a slightly more square or rectangular frame works better for a particular shot you’re trying to take.
Herein lies the power of the crop.
Decide exactly what you want to capture. How large of a frame you want. Whether you want it to be square, rectangular, or just a little different than the frame your camera gives you.
By making this decision, you go from letting your camera dictate how the image form is to taking full control over this important creative decision. It’s empowering, really.
“There falls a shadow between the conception and the creation. In the annals of innovation, new ideas are only part of the equation.
Execution is just as important.”
Visual Power Is In the Details
“…photography is a matter of tiny details.”
When I first began learning composition, I struggled. Most of my shots did not satisfy my creative desires. And it is for this reason that I improved.
I set a total, unwavering commitment to taking remarkable compositions and vowed to not quit until I reached it.
By giving yourself a similar commitment, you’ll find that as you compose, you pay much more attention to the visual details within your frame.
It’s easy to point your camera and snap away. Only a strong desire for creative excellence will motivate you to focus on the details.