Thoughts on Composition for Photographers

Disney Music Hall
Over the weekend an Uber driver and I struck up a great conversation about composition in art. When he learned that I was a photographer, he asked if I carried nature composition techniques into a cityscape situation. Essentially, do I shoot a building the same way I would shoot a mountain or a tree? The answer is yes… and no.

Don’t Be A Slave to Rules
Firstly, you can’t talk about composition without talking about the Rule of Thirds. It is one of the most common ways to line up the elements in front of you, and seems to give the image a balanced feeling a lot of the time. However, I believe it is overused by most people. If you always line up your shot the same way, are you really paying attention to the emotion of the scene? That is to say, are you giving precedence to the scene, or the rule? Don’t be a slave to the rule, because it won’t always work. If you do use the rule of thirds, ask yourself, “what can I add to this?”

Study Nature
Essentially, landscape and cityscape photography are the same thing. They are BOTH nature photography. Cities are man’s attempt to recreate nature. We have used the same electrons, protons, and molecules found in forests, mountains, and deserts, and rearranged them to create different forms, but they are still part of nature. Interestingly, certain forms found nature resemble man made objects, and vice versa. Sometimes humans consciously make these building decisions to reflect nature, and sometimes it is accidental (a topic for another post).

I have to reference “Mountain Light” by Galen Rowell. If you are a nature photographer, you have to read this book. Galen explains plainly that the reason diagonal lines are so powerful is that they trigger the brain. Over the time we have evolved as humans, we have developed a fight or flight response to danger, and those dangers are usually coming at us from a diagonal approach. The brain might not interpret a diagonal line in a photograph to be a threat, but it triggers your attention. Consider how you might find a diagonal line in your foreground. Is there a log, a rock, a tree branch? Is there a way to use these elements to lead the viewers eye from foreground, to middle ground, to background?

In leading the viewer, what journey are you taking them on? What is the story they are going to learn? Are there different stories? What will they see in the first three seconds, and is it different than what they will learn in the next 30 seconds? This is the most important part of composition. We could talk about techniques all day, but if you can’t find a natural flow to a scene where you are leading your audience on a journey, then try something else.

In the photograph here, our Uber driver’s question is answered. Architecture has borrowed from nature using diagonals and curves, creating a structure you have to look at. It is impossible to drive by the Disney Music Hall while looking the other way. Some LA architects I have spoken to surprisingly debate its relevance, but I think it is a work of art. As a photographer, I see it as a gift, as there are countless ways to view it. In this case, I found an angle that represented the emotion I was experiencing – a sense of awe; from the earth, a monolithic structure rose towards the heavens, displaying its curves like a dance of power. In this moment, I saw that I could frame the building with the Fibonacci Spiral in mind, also known as the Golden Ratio. My attempt is to lead the viewer from left to right, and then up to the sky, following the curve of the building. It is almost like the spinal cord of the building, and one of its most important features/angles in my opinion.

To Budding Photographers
“Learn the form, but seek the formless. Hear the soundless. Learn it all, then forget it all. Learn The Way, then find your own way.” – The Silent Monk, Forbidden Kingdom
While I had the Golden Ratio in mind, I didn’t follow it exactly. Practice composition techniques, use them, but then change them. Create your own unique compositions based on your own unique nature and emotion.

One Response to Thoughts on Composition for Photographers

  • I really appreciate the way you talk about techniques and knowledge, but suggest finding your own authentic expression. Great writing!

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