You may own the most expensive photo equipment and have the latest array of software for tweaking your images, but it’s all for naught if you haven’t quite figured out the fundamentals of how to put together a well-balanced composition. Creating a harmonious photographic composition is not easily accomplished or learned. With today’s sophisticated digital cameras sporting high quality LCD monitors, each photo you make is instantaneously presented to you with zoom capabilities, histograms, shutter speed, etc. The trick is to embrace this technology. If not, you have overlooked your best opportunity to create and fine-tune your composition. The LCD monitor is the best and only feature your camera has that can actually aid you in framing up your next great photograph.
Just as there are clear guidelines that pertain to writing, music, and sculpture, there are similar parameters that apply to the two-dimensional arts like painting, photography, and printmaking. A strong composition, regardless of the content, usually makes the difference between a mediocre photograph and a poignant image.
Back in the day of film, most of my commercial photography work was done using a large format View Camera. As a rule, when making a large format photograph, you would expose a 4/5 sheet of Polaroid instant print film to check your composition, lighting, object placement, etc., before loading your film and tripping the shutter. You would diligently check every square inch of the Polaroid making adjustments to the composition—too close or too far away, should I be a bit higher or maybe just a tad lower a bit to the right or left, lens choice, depth of field/aperture/shutter speed… By adopting this type of workflow, images could be refined one Polaroid at a time. When the composition is right in conjunction with the lighting, it’s time to pull out the film and make the photo. This workflow model fits perfectly with today’s digital cameras. The photographer now has instant feedback with every click of the shutter, just as the Polaroid did for large format photographers. Today, you can compose, shoot, check your LCD monitor, adjust, re-shoot, adjust, and re-shoot as many times as necessary until you feel comfortable with what is happening inside your camera’s viewfinder. In essence, you are becoming your own best critic each time you post up another shot.
Creating a good composition is a dynamic process just as are all creative endeavors. We all approach image making, interpretation, and expression of self differently, as we are unique individual seers. Creating a well-crafted composition takes time, patience, thought, consideration, experimentation, and of course, being at the right place at the right time. “Dynamic Mode”—relative to composition—is acting, interacting, and reacting to what is going on around and within you then reflecting, composing, fine-tuning, and finally capturing your image. If you are not working dynamically in conjunction with your LCD monitor when framing up your next photo, you are missing the mark! Hence, your efforts to stalk, capture, and display your trophy images will more than likely translate into a cliche or worse yet, mundane imagery.
The relationships of objects within a scene are affected as you raise your camera’s vantage point higher or drop down lower as well as from side to side. There are lens, aperture, and shutter speed choices to make as well as pointing the camera from level, up, down, and side-swing. These are all choices one makes when composing, and each adjustment will affect your composition. Computing all the variables in creating a good composition can be overwhelming for anyone. Adopting a “prescribed workflow” means taking compositional efforts step by step. You will begin to see how one adjustment affects the whole; thus leading to the next adjustment, and perhaps the next, until you have created a good, well-balanced, poignant image.
When out scouting around for a photo op, I try to stay focused on light quality, shadows, color, or any other type of stimuli that will attract my attention and draw me in. When drawn to something that attracts or strikes a chord, approach the scene and begin a visual exploration, then check the scene in the viewfinder. The more deliberate you are while composing, the more intimate you will become with the physicality of the scene and its particular nuances. More times than not, if you are dynamically composing, you will intuitively be drawn into what the particular environment is emoting. You may very well discover what normally would have been passed by, due to the half-hazard “point and shoot” syndrome which should be avoided at all costs. There will be various aspects to consider when you are staking out your first compositional take. Make one compositional adjustment and see how it affects your overall composition. Continue no matter now many times you need to make adjustments until you are feeling confident about your image capture! Click, make your final assessment using the LCD monitor, then pack it up, and move on.
What I personally have discerned after teaching photography for many years, is generally when students go out to shoot they are stuck in the point and shoot mentality. They discover suitable subject matter to photograph but don’t take the time, or have the prescribed workflow to concentrate on composition—the primary target! The common scenario is to raise the camera, point and shoot, check histogram, adjust the exposure if need be, re-shoot, then move on to the next image without closely studying and refining their composition. This type of mindset is not easily overcome. It is habitual for the most part, and originates from naively assuming that photography is as easy as point and shoot. This nonchalant approach to photography is pretty much a dead end, and certainly not a dynamic way to get involved with the magical experience of image making and creative process. Slow down and be in the moment while you are out composing your next award-winning image. The proof will be obvious to your in your future photographic compositions.
About the Author:
David Hoptman is an award-winning Commercial and Fine Art photographer who teaches Photography Workshops in Tuscany, Italy and the USA. His commercial work has been published for numerous magazines such as Architectural Digest, Sotheby’s, Travel & Leisure etc. His Fine Art/Mixed Media photography has been shown all over the world; collected privately and by Museums such as Polaroid.
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