As with every skill, be it conscious or instinctive, your ability to choose composition for any given moment you wish to capture improves with time, practice and experience. And it’s not just composition, of course, but the sense of light, peak moment, emotion. I strongly believe our photography, from a certain point, represents us not just as artists (especially because not all photographers are inherently artists, which is in no way a bad thing), but also as personalities. Our choice of light, mood, subject and/or object, environment, color and message mirrors that which we like, do not like, how we see, how we live, how we feel. It mirrors our character, for we imprint ourselves in our work, leave a signature made not with ink or light, but with our very essence. And so it is with composition. If you are a calmer person, prefer simple, few things and like your environment tidy, it is likely these personality traits will reflect in your photography and you will seek simple, minimalistic, tidy, static, calm composition choices. If, on the other hand, you are an active, emotional person, there’s a good chance you will take a more dynamic approach to composition with more subjects and perhaps even chaotic arrangement of elements within your work.
Now, if we are to take this assumption to heart and see the photographers within us as an inseparable part from the everyday people that we are (and, yes, there’s always the other side of the coin, the other opinion, which, too, has plenty of arguments to be properly supported), it stands to reason that everything affecting our character and personality also affects the choices we make as photographers. Thus, it affects composition of more or less any photograph that we take with at least some thought or feeling. As we grow, our photography grows with us. Having said that, leaving the improvement to such a natural process alone is perhaps a little… lazy. If we can do something to deliberately grow as photographers, why not do it?
Grow as a Person
I will not pretend to be a master of composition, light or photography in general. I’m not really a master of anything, in fact. But after several years that I’ve enjoyed photography, there is one advice I can give you with certainty. It holds true for all types of photographers, be it landscape, bird, wildlife, portrait or artistic. Actually, it holds true for any sort of work you may do, or at least it should hold true. And this advice may sound very, very strange, but bear with me as I believe this to be the most important advice I give you in this article: go and watch a good movie. Read a good novel. Then read “Dieter Rams: As Little Design as Possible”. Or find a philosophical one that you might like (Roland Barthes, perhaps?). Listen to good music. Listen to music while you photograph. Get up early in the morning for no reason at all and go take a walk. The next morning, before anyone is even thinking of being awake, before some people even go to sleep, get in your car and go for a drive. No destination is necessary, just get in the car and drive. Just for the hell of it. Spend some time with your family, spend some time with your friends. Watch a good movie with them. Have some pop corn. Laugh, joke, talk, cry, be quiet and still for an hour. And as you do all that, step out of yourself and look at that scene, at that experience from a side. Then jump back in there and keep laughing. Do something spontaneous, go fishing if you’ve never done it before. Buy a book. You know what? Buy several. In paper, not electronic. Clean up your apartment, cook something for your sweetheart, lie down on a sofa and listen to some more music, watch your children sleep, make breakfast for them.
The next time you do all of this, have your camera with you. Photograph. Be mindful of what you’re feeling, listen to the noises, look at other people, observe them, notice the smallest movements, smallest details about them. Next time you set off to photograph birds, spend the whole day there. Make yourself some sandwiches, bring a tent with you, and enjoy the time. Next time you set off to photograph landscapes, bring a book with you and don’t take a single picture. Look, but don’t capture.
You may wonder, how does reading a book about a designer or listening to music help your photography? And that’s the thing, everything helps you and, by extension, your photography. It’s the core ideas that you will find in those books that will change your thinking, the way you look at photography and everything else in life.
You don’t know what or who will influence you and your work. Take it all in, then. Find joy, be moved, find something meaningful, spiritual in every single thing you do. And I swear, I promise – you will grow. As a person and as a photographer.
Wait for the Right Mood
As a writer and as a photographer, I noticed how much my mood can influence my writing and my ability to see what’s going on around me. And it’s not just a matter of “good” versus “bad” mood, it’s much more subtle than that. Without going into too much detail on this – don’t want to stray that far from photography – I can only say that you can’t force yourself to do something to your absolute best ability if your mind is not ready for it, if your psychological, emotional condition is hampering your photographic vision in all senses of that word.
Doing professional work is one thing, of course. You just do it no matter what. I would never tell my clients I can’t shoot their wedding because I am in a bad mood, that would be ridiculous. In fact, my clients never, ever see me in a bad mood. I will do my job no matter what, as well as I can possibly manage. But my best ability depends a lot on the state of my mind and my ability to put myself into the necessary mood, it’s human nature. Let’s say my clients like the photographs that I made without giving all of my feelings and thoughts to it, but will I like those photographs? Or will I find there’s something missing? In this case, it is very important to know how to trick yourself into the necessary state. Music can help, or a book, or anything that moves you.
With personal projects, you don’t have a deadline. There’s no set date when you have to take the photographs. And that means you should keep trying to achieve your goal, realize your project to the fullest and only accept photographs that are not just well composed and technically sound, but also have that last, most important bit – feeling.
When showcasing your work, you are not only showcasing the picture itself, you are showing the viewer yourself. Your ability to show those feelings grows as you grow as a photographer, but only as long as there’s something to be shown in the first place. So don’t rush into anything, unless rushing into it feels like the most natural thing to do, like something you need as much as the air you breathe. Otherwise, take a moment to settle down and direct all your thoughts and feelings into what you are about to photograph. All the other choices will come naturally.
Learn and Follow the Rules
I’ve heard these words so many times “break rules!”. I am now inclined to do the very opposite every time I photograph. The problem is not with the idea itself. The problem is that many photographers rush to “break rules” without even taking the time to learn and apply them in the first place. But if you’re going to break rules, why apply them, right? Wrong. There is an enormous difference between applying a rule and then subtly shifting away from it, and not bothering to apply it at all. In the latter case, you just get chaos, and not the good sort.
“Breaking” the guides of composition, such as the golden mean or central composition, is not the same as not following them at all. They are considered to be guides for a good reason – people much smarter than you and I figured them out by studying the effect they have on a person. So in order to break any of them successfully, one must first learn, then apply them to the scene, and then find a very subtle, unexpected way to add some intrigue to the photograph by placing an element or two in such a way that does not follow the said rules.
To some people this comes naturally, while others have to spend quite a bit of time and effort first (I am one of those unlucky people!). Before it does become natural, composing photographs according to various guides and rules is always a very deliberate process that requires a lot of concentration. So here is my advice: before you take a photograph – any photograph, even that of your cat, a cupcake for Instagram or a flower you just got from a friend – stop and look at the scene. See what elements are there and how to arrange them, see what’s necessary, what adds to the image and what does not. See where to best place your main subject, see if anything in the background or foreground is distorting it. Sometimes lowering your camera by even a few centimeters can make all the difference in the world. See if, perhaps, the scene itself is dictating your choice of composition, be it central, one according to the rule of thirds or symmetrical. And please, please make sure your horizon is straight, unless you deliberately need it at an angle (this is something I often have trouble with myself). Only then take the photograph.
For me, this process has been both exhausting and fun. Exhausting for understandable reasons, because you always, always have to think and consider and reconsider your composition, and it does take its toll eventually – you can get tired. But also fun, because it’s something of a challenge, a game of sorts that you play with yourself whilst trying to find a better, more appealing way of showing your subject.
Having said all that, I cannot but also encourage you to break rules of composition eventually. Only after you learn to apply them, of course. And yet it is quite necessary. You see, if you always compose according to the rule of thirds, for example, your images may become slightly… boring? Perhaps “predictable” is a better word. Also, effortlessly appealing. Whether that’s good or not is an arguable point, what’s certainly good is that following rules opens the path into breaking them, into making your images intriguing. Naturally, a well chosen subject, light and environment, the whole story of the image adds to that dramatically, but composition plays a big role, too.
Let’s say you are composing a landscape image. You have a beautiful seaside scene with a gorgeous sunset and the most obvious way to place your elements within the frame is perhaps to use the rule of thirds. Instead, why not place the horizon at the very bottom of the frame and emphasize the vastness of the subtle sky? Or, on the contrary, place the horizon almost at the very top of the image thus concentrating the viewer’s attention on the ripples in the water and the reflection of the sky in all its majesty. You could also wait for a seagull to enter the frame somewhere to ruin the overly static calmness of the image and add some needed intrigue to catch the viewer’s eye.
This is, of course, a very classic example, but then landscapes are really not my strongest suit. I do, however, experiment this way with portraits. And let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like that feeling when you try something and realize – darn, it works!
As you can see, there is no simple trick that you can learn to improve your photography, no “read this article and shoot like a pro in five minutes”. It takes longer than five minutes to grow and “shooting like a pro” doesn’t really mean much. If anything, it sounds negative, as if you should learn to photograph the same way someone else does, the way you are expected to. But as no two people are really the same, no two photographers can be, either. What I hope you understood after reading this article is that you-the-photographer is an inseparable part of you-the-person, and the two grow and change together. Guides and rules and tricks can be learned, new equipment can be bought and new locations visited, but if you want to imprint yourself in your work, if you want your photographs to say – “this is me”, that is where you ought to start first of all: with yourself. The rest of it, well, it’s much further down the list of importance.