Lesson: Dynamic Composition I
An article in three parts, posted out of order so you can start at the top with Lesson 1 and move on down without the usual start-at-the-bottom nonsense.
In two weeks I leave for India with my colleague and Lumen Dei co-founder, Matt Brandon. Together we’ll be leading a group of young adults though Northern India as we teach them how to see and to shoot compelling images of people and culture. That’s the really broad strokes. Check out LUMEN-DEI.COM for more specifics.
One of the things I am most keen to teach is the stuff that goes on within a frame to tell the story. Photography is a visual language and deftness at any language requires more than a knowledge of the alphabet, some vocabulary, and a few rules of grammar. It requires an understanding of nuance and when to use which word over another. Part of the nuance in photography is the matter of balance within composition.
There are two ways to balance an image – one is static, the other dynamic. Both have their place, neither is universally “better” than another. But the bulk of photographers default to static balance because they are familiar with it and dynamic balance seems a little trickier to define.
Before I go any further I should acknowledge my debt to Raymond Aubin, whose excellent article La Composition Dynamique, which appeared in Photo Selection, Septembre 2005, introduced me to these concepts. I’ve transcribed the article into english and distilled it over the last year into my own thinking. So I’d like to introduce this to you, with a nod to Mr. Aubin for his excellent explanations – the spirit of which is contained here, if not the exact words.
First, think of an archer’s bow. It is balanced while at rest, and it is balanced when drawn back. But the balance is different and the sense one gets viewing it is different in each case. While it remains at rest the balance is static. While it is drawn, the balance is dynamic and implies the potential of motion and release.
An image, too, can be composed to yield a static or dynamic balance. Follow the basic Rule of Thirds model and your images will, for the most part, be balanced, but they will be static. This is not a “bad” thing – merely a statement of what is. But it is important when you want a dynamic image and not a static image. A photograph that is created to imply serenity, stability, calm, etc, would do well to be balanced statically. A photograph intended to imply motion, or the potential of motion, to imply energy – would do well to be balanced dynamically. The right tool for the right job. Or, to return to the language metaphor – the right words for the right occassion.
The rule of thirds can be helpful in beginning to explain dynamic composition as well. There are five poles of attraction within the frame. The centre, and the four corners. To the eye these poles give the impression of pulling towards themselves the visual elements of the photo. The centre exerts a greater attraction than the corners, so a visual element placed on the points specified by the rule of thirds is pulled strongly towards the centred but anchored by the corners. And so it remains balanced. But statically so.
So, how is that sense of dynamic balance achieved in an image? I am going to split this article into a short series, to keep the articles short and to give you time to absorb it all. For this lesson I want to introduce you to the important concept of mass.
Aubin uses the metaphor of mass, stating that different elements have different visual mass – meaning their pull is greater. The next lesson we’ll talk about gravity – in other words, how does the frame interact (gravity) with the elements in the image (mass) – for now it’s probably most helpful to you if you get your head around the notion of mass.
Some elements draw your eye more powerfully than others – they interact with the frame in such a way as to have greater pull. Here’s a list (where > means “has greater pull or visual mass than”) :
- Large Elements > Small Elements
- Bright Elements > Dark Elements
- Warm Colours > Cool Colours
- Elements in Perspective (3D) > Flat Elements (2D)
- High Contrast Elements > Low Contrast Elements
- Elements of High Interest > Elements of Low Interest
- Isolated Elements > Cluttered Elements
- Elements of Regular Shape > Elements of Irregular Shape
- Sharp Elements > Out of Focus Elements.
Of course, without the frame, and an understanding of how we read the frame – how we “listen” to this visual language – this is only a partial lesson, but a crucial first step in beginning to understand the process of creating images with a sense of balanced tension or dynamic composition.
Even without moving forward in this series, a knowledge of mass or visual attraction is important. If the task of the visual storyteller is to without words tell the viewer where to look and what is important, then knowing which elements have greater pull, is crucial. For example, knowing that light elements will pull the eye of the viewer more powerfully than darker areas will encourage you to make sure that unimportant background details are not brighter than your main subject. This is a simplification, but it’s generally true. So look around the frame and either shoot in such a way that you eliminate that bright piece of white paper behind your subject, or darken it later digitally so the eye doesn’t have to fight so hard to look where you’re pointing.