Posted by on Jul 7, 2010 | 6 comments

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The story: Journey of you, as a novice photo enthusiast:

You have no clue about framing or composition and shoot it the way you think it looks best in the frame you see when looking through your camera’s view finder (or at the display of your digital compact). Often you’re surprised by your own work, people compliment it even!

If you have real passion for it you’d probably want to discover what makes a pleasing image just so you can make more of them. You browse around for tips on composition, pretty soon you find photography forums and galleries where fellow “photographers” burn each other for putting subjects in the middle and many more rule of third based preaching. Photos also get shot-down for having blown-out highlights and no shadow detail. You realize that many of your own pictures you like so much would get burned in almost all of these online forums, all those “expert photographers” would rip them apart.

However your passion for photography is strong, you decide to learn everything about the rule of thirds, complementary colors and all the other rules that should tell you what looks good and what doesn’t. You even switch on the grid in your view finder so you can really nail those thirds.

Months go by, maybe even years, you shoot and post the photos you like to those online forums. You always select them strictly, “Details in the shadows, CHECK! No blown out highlight, CHECK! All that is interesting on the thirds, CHECK! No horizon in the middle, CHECK!”. You’re making real progress, and no one ever writes a bad comment under your photographs! Surely all you need to do is continue like this and it won’t be long before you get recognition for your work and people will start writing positive feedback.

You upgrade your gear and you buy a full frame digital camera with the best (and most expensive) midrange zoom, more vivid colors and sharper images. You buy a Scott Kelby book and pay for a subscription on one of those video websites where real photographer tell you how its done.

On Flickr you sometimes get a nice comment, “nice work, thanks for sharing”, “cool <insert big group banner>”, “Nice colors”. On the critique forms you also sometimes get something that looks like a compliment. You start to doubt if this is really for you, maybe you’re just not good enough, maybe you do not have that special something that makes a great photographer, maybe you should start photographing naked ladies because those guys seem to get all the kudos.

You lie awake thinking about it, turning and turning, much to your cats annoyance. The next morning you poor your self a really big mug of coffee, extra sugar and the works. You place your self behind your laptop and browse around on Flickr with a single thought, “what makes my work different from those other guys”. An hour passes after which you come to a startling conclusion…. Your work isn’t any different from all those guys! Everyone seems to have followed the same class and they’re all top students, details in the shadows, no blown highlights, everything neatly arranged based on the rule of thirds. All the same all…. incredibly….. hopelessly….. B O R I N G G G !!

You nok over your second mug of hot coffee, it spills over the  table and horribly burns your leg. While limping back from the kitchen holding the fabric of your pants like a 19th century ballerina holds her skirt, you review your recent epiphany. You realize that you read published books on the matter. Not long ago you’ve seen an art program on tv explaining by example the golden mean, “The open window, to the milk kan, to the head of the man sitting at the table” all following the golden mean. But now it all seems as far fetched as those Dan Brown books!

After tending your wound you start to look for some more information to gain a bit more perspective. You find out that there’s only a handful of artworks where the golden mean can be applied, and of those only a couple of modern pieces were created with the rule as such in mind. Although invented by the Greeks most artists didn’t even know about it until people again started talking about it around 150 years ago. So this wasn’t the rule the great classic painters were using!

A bit more background

Okay until here my autobiography our story of our fictive photo enthusiast. So what’s going on here? The truth is that when our photo enthusiast was starting out with photography by photographing what, “looked good in the frame he could see through his camera”, was a much better approach. He probably experienced some emotion when looking at the scene and unconsciously that made him decide on the framing. Although there are exceptions most of the time that’s what photographers do, we find an existing composition and we have to frame it in a way so that it conveys a feeling or message that you want the viewer to experience or read.

There’s no right or wrong place within a frame! If you’re shooting a portrait for a magazine which runs a story of the modern woodworker, it would be perfectly fine to place the woodworker in the middle of his store and frame him in the middle of your picture. He’s the subject, the most important in the frame. You simply do not have a reason to put him anywhere else. If you would frame him left the picture becomes about the woodworkers workshop, for example.

Composition is much more the just the rule of thirds. It’s complex a lot of books have written on it even more talk given on the subject. You have to reach a balance between form (you’re framing and where shapes are located in the frame and their relation to the lightest and darkest values) and the story you went to tell with your photograph. Realize these two things when you’re getting ready to take a shot and you’re images will improve without knowing every single details about composition.

Nothing meaningful can be said about composition if you do not know the intention or story behind the image.

There are a host of clichés to be found on the web some are even humores, “An image should read from left to right because that’s how we read“, so we have to be able to read first before we can see? What about the people that read from right to left? Are we talking incompatible artwork?

A crude but not inaccurate description of art, “Art is creating an image or object that pleases (the onlooker)”. By that definition our photo enthusiast was well on his way of creating art when he started out.

Imagery can’t be defined by rules, of course there’re guide lines you can keep in the back of your head and which are important to know, but they should always compliment the story not the other way around.

Anyone can go on a forum an criticize your work. You’re the one that decides if a comment is useful, don’t be persuaded into a different style of photographing just because you get a lot of comments saying you’re breaking rules or you’re wrong. Just stick with it. Experiment make images you hate, fail at projects, consider selling all your gear, be desperate and then pick-up your camera again. There will come a day where you realize by looking at a photograph you made that you have found your style. A solid foundation to work on and expand.

Now go out there and switch of that silly grid in your view finder and forget about megapixels, sharp lenses, rules of third and forum bullies, if you have a reason to shoot the frame you chose you’re half way shooting a picture you’re happy with.

You can hire me or browse my portfolio

Here’s another good post on composition