The Nature of Photographic Composition

Attached is an article taken from Andreas Feininger’s book on composition.   He brings up some interesting aspects about composition and I hope you will also find the article interesting. -Sandy

No matter how violently photographers may disagree in regard to specific aspects of composition, they all agree in one point; a well composed photograph is more effective and makes a stronger impression that a badly composed one, a fact that can only lead to the conclusion that the purpose composition is to heighten the effect of the picture.

The nature of composition as the photographer Andreas Feininger seen it, is in photography, even the few acceptable rules of composition are nothing more than suggestions that the photographer should consider as a check-list and then be free either to follow or to disregard them.

Valid exceptions can be found to even most ironclad of the rules and breaking the rules is sometimes the best way to produce a stunning photograph, provided the photographer knows what he or she is doing.

Andreas listed the most frequently quoted academic rules of composition, which in his opinion, are at best half truths and at worst indefensible restrictions or downright fallacies.

Rule 1 The Golden Section or Golden Mean

The Golden Section or (Golden Mean) is not a cure-all although its use assures pleasant proportions. Because of its placid effect , the Golden Section may even produce tensionless and therefore boring results.

Rule 2 The S Curve

Like the Golden Section, a composition in the form of an S Curve is not an infallible device for producing interesting photographs. In fact, the S Curve is perhaps the most hackneyed of all pictorial cliches.

Rule 3 Leading Lines

The entire theory of Leading Lines, lines that allegedly lead the viewer’s eye to the so called centre of interest in the picture, is a fallacy. Scientific investigation of this theory with the aid of special “eye-cameras,” which record the movements of the viewer’s eyes have proven that the eye instantly focuses on that part of the picture that arouses the greatest interest, completely disregarding all those lovingly prepared Leading Lines. Furthermore, the viewer’s centre of interest does not necessarily coincide with that intended by the photographer.

Compositions based upon Triangles, Opposed Diagonals, Dignified Curves, and so on, staple items of most dissertations on composition and in text-books usually illustrated with carefully drawn line diagrams, exist only in the minds of the photographers who made them and of certain academicians who still teach the “old” photography. as a matter of fact, with a little bit of trying by cropping here and there and using some imagination, almost any random photograph can be forced to confront some kind of post-conceived “composition,” triangular or otherwise. However, the unbiased viewer of the picture usually does not recognise such an arrangement even when it is pointed out to him or her, and then couldn’t care less.

Rule 4 Horizon

The Horizon, or any Important Line, should never divide a photograph into two equal parts because the effect would be monotonous. But what if a photographer should wish to illustrate the concept of monotony in his picture?

Rule 5 Movement

Movement or action should always proceed from left to right because this is the way we read. An indefensible stand, of course. Besides, some languages is read from right to left.

In a photograph, the space in front of a subject in motion should always be larger than the space behind it. A moving subject placed close to the edge of the picture toward which it moves suggests arrival, a concept that is often important as, for example in racing.

In portraiture, if the subject does not look straight at the camera, more space should be left in the direction of the gaze than behind the head. Not necessarily true, particularly if tension should be suggested.

Rule 6 Light and Dark Picture Areas

Light Picture Areas attract the eye before Dark ones. This is complete nonsense. Any Dark bold form surrounded by an extensive Light Area provides an instant focal point of interest, while the light surrounding it is disregard as background.

Rule 7 Repetition

Repetition of identical or similar elements makes particularly interesting photographs, the so-called “Pattern Shots.” Totally Untrue. There is no earthly reason why a photograph of a multitude of identical and usually totally uninteresting objects should be superior to a picture of a single one.  Actually, the more perfect the pattern, the more mechanical and boring the effect.

Authors Note:
Now that we have got the so called rules of composition out of the way we can deal with how to work with composition in a different way.
 – S Wilson

The nature of composition

The nature of composition is organisation; its purpose, to emphasise the subject and present it in the graphically most effective form. This of course, presupposes an ability on the part of the photographer to see reality in graphic terms. Edward weston once said that good composition was merely the strongest way of seeing things. Personally, I start composing the moment I conceive the idea for a picture, my main concern being with its organisation. How can I introduce order into the natural chaos of my surroundings, where everything acts upon and interferes with everything else, where objects over lap and merge and vie with one another for the observer’s attention, a riot of colour and form confronts and confuses the spectator? How can I separate the essential from the superfluous, the meaningful from the meaningless, the beautiful from the ugly? How can I isolate my subject , simplify my picture, and present what I see and feel in the graphically most telling form?

There are many effective ways of graphically separating the important from the superfluous, lifting a subject out of a confusing setting and feeling it from distracting influences, of editing the picture before it is made, but all of them rest on two basic assumptions ; a total subject approach, and the ability to see reality in a photographic terms.

A Total subject approach

Unlike photo-technique (focusing the camera, exposing, and printing), the different operations of which follow one another in an orderly fashion sequence and can therefore be considered separately one at a time, composition is NOT a step by step procedure.

Instead when composing a photographer must use what we call a total subject approach and give simultaneous considerations to all the different aspects of his or her future picture because they are inseparably related; a change in one will invariably result in a change in one or more of the others.

Here is a typical example:

When considering his or her camera position (the starting point of any composition), a photographer, having studied his or her subject from different angles and viewpoints cannot simple decide, I like this angle best, and proceed to make a picture. This particular angle might indeed show the subject itself to best advantage, but this may not necessary be true of all the other components of the scene. What about the background? Is it suitable, or does it contain features such as telephone wires and utility poles that are likely to spoil the beauty of the future picture? Or is background so similar to the subject in colour or tone that the two will visually merge in the rendition? Does it contain patches of bright colour or glaring white that, because of distance , appear innocuous in reality but will ruin the picture? Is there an obtrusive pattern effect (often caused by light or shadow) that might detract from the subject? Is there a light source or glaring refection that might manifest itself in the picture as flare? and what about the direction of incidents light? Is it satisfactory in regard to the distribution of lightened shadow, texture rendition, creation of a feeling of depth? or is it perhaps too flat- front light- or too contrasty -backlight?

Considerations like these make it imperative that a photographer, while studying his or her subject from various angles and viewpoints, must at the same time pay attention to ALL the other factors that contribute to the effect of his or her picture; background and foreground distribution and direction of the light; location and extent of the shadows; colour, contrast range; texture; perspective (and perspective distortion); juxtaposition and overlapping of forms, and so on. No matter how right the subject may look from a certain camera position, unless all the other compositionally important picture elements appear satisfactory, too, the photograph cannot possibly become an unqualified success.

Authors Note
I think that Andreas has made two things very clear in his article:
– One, not to follow the so called rules of composition slavishly.
– Two, to use the total subject approach when making your pictures.
  – S Wilson

Copyright Material from “Principals of Composition in Photography” by Andreas Feininger.

Authors Note

Although the above book was written back in 1973 it is still very much up to date as far as photographic composition is concerned. Technology moves on a pace but the principals of composition have to a certain degree remained the same.
 – S Wilson

No matter how controversial and difficult, not to say elusive, the concept of composition, sooner or later the photographer must come to grips with it. How is up to him or her, because , composing is an intensely personal affair. 
Quote by Andreas Fenininger


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