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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Can composition be taught?

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not the most technically-minded of photographers. Sure I know about apertures and shutter speeds, how to mix flash with ambient and do what I need to do in post processing. But I don't use a big studio lighting kit, tilt/shift lenses for architecture or do big production advertising shoots with catering, tethered shooting and make-up artists. It's just not my thing.

But I do consider one of my strengths to be composition. Whether this is a misguided opinion or not you guys will have to be the judge on that one, but at least allow me the fantasy to think I'm OK at it. :)

Anyway I was thinking about doing some blogs on composition the other day and sat down to nut out some ideas when I came to the conclusion that it's actually a really hard thing to teach.

The technical side of it is easy - slow shutter speed equals blurry moving subject, small aperture equals big depth of field - blah, blah, blah. But when it comes to the topic of where to put the elements within a frame that's a whole different ball game. And yet composition is one of the biggest things that can make or break a picture.

We're constantly bombarded by various compositional rules such as the rule of thirds, don't have the horizon in the middle, have people looking into the frame etc. But then we're told that we can also break them. So they're not really rules but guidelines, which you don't have to follow if you don't want to. If you stick to them you may or may not get a pleasing shot, and if you break them you may or may not get a pleasing shot. Confused yet?

So what's a poor photographer to do? I think it's one of those things that has to be felt. It's an intuition tied in to the emotion you feel looking at a great picture. The trick is to find the compositions that speak to you. And the way to do that is to look at and take as many pictures as you can. The ability to feel what to put in and what to leave out is a very personal one and no two photographers will line up the universe in the same way.

Having said that I'll try and post some images and talk a little bit about the thought process behind the composition. Yes I use the rule of thirds quite a bit, but I tend to put the subject even farther to the edges of the frame sometimes. One thing I have learnt over the years is that your composition has to be used to emphasise the subject of the image. If your viewer doesn't instantly know what it's a photo of then you're composition's no good. As the famous photojournalist Robert Capa once said, "If you're not happy with your pictures get closer". Or something along those lines.

What do you all think? Can composition be taught? Can it be broken down into a few simple rules or does it have to come from the heart and intuition?


Jon T said...

Good topic for discussion. One aspect of it the conscious versus subconscious notion of composing a picture.

I find that sometimes I see it, with no need to think at all, and hopefully my technical camera handling skills are enough to take care of that side without interfering with getting the picture I saw and want to record.

But it isn't always like that, and I find myself sometimes having to make compositions, thinking about it in terms of position, angles and viewpoints, and then, applying a touch of of the 'rules', like two thirds.

Of my pictures, I know that I love the most are those ones that were taken without a scrap of the conscious, right side, rational, analysing, part of the brain getting involved!

And no, I agree with Paul, that can't be taught. It takes repetition over time, again, and again, and again...

Dan said...

Interesting post Paul - I think composition can be taught, but I agree with what you say about emotion. I find that I often "feel" a good photograph. I can walk around and find something interesting to shoot, and shoot from various angles and perspectives, but I'll intrinsically "know" when I've captured a good shot. It becomes inate after a while - I'd like to think so anyway!

Kevin said...

Great topic Paul. I feel that it's like learning a second language in a classroom. You learn it the textbook way, then you get to the country and find out you understand nothing. Composition can be taught but you need to connect with the scene, and each scene can be translated differently by each person's eye. It's an art, and it's an artistic expression.

Paul Dymond said...

Some great ideas here guy. I too agree that you can learn the basics but to get to the really advanced stage you kind of need to feel it.

I think the analogy of learning a foreign language is absolutely perfect. A little light bulb went off in my head when I read that Kevin.

In a former life I worked as a Japanese medical interpreter. My wife is Japanese and my two boys have Japanese as their first language (even though we live in Australia) so I know firsthand the difference between learning a language from a textbook and being proficient in it. Great analogy, truly.

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