What is photography? At a fundamental level, it is the arrangement of visualized elements within the limitations of the frame, according to compositional guidelines or “rules.” Virtually all of these guidelines are identical to those applied to paintings and illustrations. Photography and these other media have so much in common that it only made sense for early photographers to “borrow” these long-established compositional guidelines for the creation of what is now understood as a properly, or artistically, composed photograph.
The first consideration when composing a photograph is that it is restricted by the frame, just as paint can only be applied within the dimensions of the canvas. When you choose a scene or subject to photograph, the primary artistic challenge is to arrange the elements within the border. Your goal is achieve a balance with the broad underlying colors, basic shapes and contrast between light and dark areas of your image. When you are able to accomplish this, the viewer’s mind is highly receptive to your image, which creates an attraction and an interest in what you’ve composed.
The second artistic challenge in your search for what is photography is to learn to think of the primary subject of any image (even if it is your mother) as one of a number of shapes within the frame. This is a difficult skill for many photographers, even those with experience, because the mind wants to identify whatever it sees, so it tells you that what you see through the viewfinder is your mother’s face. As a photographer, however, you must visualize your mother’s face as an oval shape first, if you expect to compose an excellent photo. To be able to see the scene or subject within the frame as a series of basic shapes (square, circle, triangle), you must learn not to focus your attention on the details in your photo, which is a mistake many photographers make.
Composing a photo successfully, according to the visualized basic shapes, is only part of what is photography. What actually attract the viewer’s mind immediately are the areas within the basic shapes that are the brightest and most colorful, or have the greatest contrast. Only then does the mind begin to recognize the shapes outlining those areas and the balance of the shapes within the frame. If you can create photographic images that grab viewers’ attention in this manner, then they will spend more time looking at your pictures, and having that pleasing experience that becomes praise for you or being paid for the image.
TIP: To control and prolong viewers’ attraction to your photo, make sure the basic shapes are completely contained with the frame. Quite simply, your photo of your mother shouldn’t show the top of her head outside the frame.
TIP: Compose your photo with no details in the corners and keep the corners dark; otherwise, the viewer’s eye could wander outside the frame and lose the artistic connection with you and your picture.
The use of lines is another important compositional element that will help you understand what is photography. The first line to arrange within any photo is the horizon. In most cases, you don’t want the horizon to divide your image into two equal parts. Applying the rule of thirds, a more pleasing arrangement is to divide the photo into one-third and two-thirds. In fact, if you study the best landscape photographers, you’ll often see them move the horizon line very close to the top of the frame or the very bottom of the frame. Avoid a long, uninterrupted horizon. One of the easiest ways to direct the viewer’s eyes to the basic shapes in your photo is to place them across the horizon line.
Composing with converging lines also reveals more about what is photography. The classic example is railroad tracks moving through the multiple planes of your image, drawing closer, until they appear to join at the “back” of the photo, or even beyond, into infinity. Converging lines give your composition more interest and energy because those lines emphasize the third dimension, or depth, of your pictures. Like the horizon line, converging lines can be used as an “arrow” attracting the viewer’s eye toward the basic shapes and primary object/subject of an image. Converging lines are even more dynamic if they are also diagonal lines. Using the railroad tracks again as an example: Don’t stand between them so the lines are “straight” as they converge. Move to the right or left of the tracks and suddenly the lines of the track are more powerful and just may lead your mind and your viewers to a better understanding of what is photography.
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Photography by PhotographyTalk member: Woody Walters