Is Composition Over-rated?

In The Craft, Thoughts & Theory, Vision Is Better by David15 Comments

Sometimes the strangest things show up like unexpected gifts on the doorstep – like the comment I got just yesterday that told me (I’m paraphrasing) that all my talk about composition and storytelling was nonsense. The less-paraphrased version was that scenes are what they are and they compose themselves. I’m not going to lie: I would have laughed if it didn’t seem so surreal to me, but it gave me something to blog about, so I’m grateful.

Arguing that some photographers pay too much attention to composition feels a little like arguing that some chefs just pay way too much attention to flavour; that the dodgy leftover stuff in the fridge is what it is and will cook itself.

 

When I stopped long enough to give his ideas a fair shake (it didn’t take long) I did begin to wonder how many photographers would never in a million years express this kind of thinking, but might be subconsciously infected by the idea.

I’ve hinted before that I’m knees deep in making a training resource that is about creative composition and the elements and decisions that make a compelling photograph (spoiler: it’s called The Compelling Frame). So this is all very much on my mind. And the more I work on it, the more I learn and the more galvanized my belief is that composition is everything and it’s so much more than is conventionally taught.

The well-meaning photographer who accused me of paying too much attention to composition also said moment is everything. That’s too easy. 10 points for sincerity and for the focus on spontaneity and intuition. But an F for practicality. Let’s say you have a great moment, that all moments are not equal, and you’ve just photographed a deeply human, profoundly touching moment. Does that make it a deeply human, profoundly touching photograph? Not likely. What if that moment occupies so little of the scene that those of us who were not there can’t really interpret the moment for what it is? What if your crop is so tight you miss key visual clues that help up makes sense of it or feel it’s impact. What if the subjects that make up that moment are so surrounded by clutter that there’s no separation from the background and I can’t make out the moment at all? What if your angle implies something about that moment that you didn’t intend? What if other elements draw my eye so much more? And what about things like balance and tension? What about the way my eye reads a photograph? Does that not matter?

Moment is everything only once you’ve used composition to make it so. It no more translates into a photograph without our help than anything else does: story, mood, emotion. A great moment is rare and wonderful. A photograph that gives that great moment its best expression requires so much more than pointing and shooting and clinging to the idea that this lazy approach is noble and “instinctive.”

 

Nothing about photography is instinctive. It only feels that way once we’ve  put in the time being intentional about identifying what makes a compelling photograph and learning how to use the tools of the visual language. This applies to every great thing at which we direct our lens. The “greatness” of that thing. The beauty. The mood. The grandeur. The intimacy. It only comes through in the photograph because of the decisions we make.

As more and more photographers join our ranks, it is not the “instinctive” photograph that will grab our attention, or hook our emotion. It is the intentional photograph that will do so. The one that intentionally goes deeper, that uses all the tools we have with purpose. It will be the photographer who master not only her tools (the camera, the lens) but her materials (line, light, and moments, among others) and used them in service of creating something that is the best expression of the wonder we see before us – it will be the photographs of that photographer to whom people respond. And only with that intentionality will it all one day come so naturally that it feels (or looks to others) that it’s instinctive.

Take your time out there, friends. Look at the scene from all angles. And be ruthless about what you include and exclude. Do it playfully, do it with joy, but don’t let it be accidental. I wish great light and moments and stories just leapt onto my photographs with no help from me, but wishing doesn’t make it so.

Because this stuff isn’t just instinctive and our cameras still really have no idea how to give a scene it’s best expression or to say what we want to say, that’s up to us. What do you think? Questions? The comments are open.

I won’t be posting next week, I’m spending time at the cottage with family and unplugging as best I can. If you need a fix, I’ve just posted Episode 64 of the Vision Is Better Show on YouTube – How to Choose Camera Gear. And Also Tequila. Enjoy!

PS – If you want articles like this emailed to you, I have a sometimes-weekly newsletter called the Contact Sheet and though once in a while I’ll send a blog post when I think it’s important, it’s almost always exclusive articles and inspiration you can only get by being on my mailing list. I won’t spam you. You can always unsubscribe. But it’s good stuff, I promise. Subscribe to the Contact Sheet here. Want a sample? Here are the last two – Choosing The Best Camera Settings (It’s Not What You Think) and Better Compositions with Stronger POV.

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Comments

  1. I would say the opposite (I think): Composition is everything.
    An incredible scene (or moment) can be ruined by poor composition. But a boring moment or subject can be given impact through a strong composition.

    At least that’s what I think I think, for now.

  2. People who dismiss composition aren’t interested in photography; they’re interested in some random shutter-clicking in the hope of getting good photos. And they often – as I see with street photography – try to explain why some of their photos are good, because of the “moment,” as if it were the only thing that matters. The thing is, if you look at the great documentary/street photographers, you’ll see that their composition is either perfect, or rule-breaking, but it’s never absent. And they probably shot 100 photos for every one they kept, unlike people who shoot rapid fire and post all their work on social media.

    Dismissing composition is a way of rationalizing laziness.

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  4. Absolutely composition must be intentional. The hardest thing for me to do is to look through the viewfinder and SEE everything that’s there… to avoid anything that would distract or take away from what I want my viewer to experience when looking at the final image. Did I chop off a hand or a paw… did I include enough… or maybe too much? All of this goes into crafting a truly excellent image. And what separates the professional from the amateur.

  5. Thank you for the email version of your teachings. Always a delight to find your post, waiting in the in basket when I wake up. The Contact Sheet had been a great resource for me.

  6. There are famous photos which are not composed at all.
    But I have to admit they are the exception, when I look through my Magnum Contact Sheets book.

  7. Good words, David. You can apply this to many of the great photographers of the past. Being a former newspaper photographer, I tend to admire the works of many of the great photojournalists of the past and present. In Cartier-Bresson’s “A PROPOS DE PARIS”, I have found several images that make no sense to me and make me wonder what am I missing. In Peter Turnley’s “FRENCH KISS”, I also have several images that make me wonder why he included them in his book. But I look at the reasons I admire both of these photographers and it is their approach to composition especially HCB.

  8. I remember listening to a director’s commentary about a great film. How’s that for specific? He was talking about the composition of a famous shot and mentioned how moving the camera two inches to the left and you saw a liquor store and two inches to the right was a pile of trash. He’d found the perfect composition by cutting out and keep in what was needed. Gesture and emotion and the moment are essential so long as we compose that in the shot. I think the difference between intuitive shooting and intentional is that one is for the audience and the other is for the clicker. Intentional composition is for the audience.

  9. I took a color photography class a few years back. We were using color slide film and at each class we’d project the week’s best work. I had taken a photo of my yellow lab, shaking after being in the pool. I caught the water droplets spraying off her body, the movement in her jowls, the lighting was perfect, the exposure spot on. However, I also managed to capture a tiny bit of white in a lower corner, that belonged to the edge of the pool. I recall the oooos and ahhhs of my classmates when my photo was on screen, but then I heard the instructor’s voice, “what do we think about that piece of white? too much too little?” and in that moment I understood the importance of composition.

  10. My feeling is, get the shot first, then worry about composition in follow-up shots. I much prefer shots that are well composed — obviously — but, if you’re shooting in a combat zone or under similar circumstances ( a street demonstration that’s turned suddenly violent, a fire in a highrise apartment complex, etc.), it’s imperative that you get something useful, for the public record, that you can work with later, no matter how little time you had. That said, the most memorable images — your Pulitzer winners — are almost always those with a little thinking behind them. I always try to make sure I get that first image in focus (don’t laugh; focus can be the toughest thing to nail down, if you’re working fast and adrenaline has kicked in) and then worry about glorious composition once I know I have that first shot in the can, so to speak.

  11. I’m on board with Alex. The sketch images might kick butt end up to be the keepers. I believe that on one hand, know your craft, know what the dials do on that camera, know your “rules” of composition, but on the other hand don’t discount the out-of-focus, precariously lit, poorly composed photos… some are AMAZING.

  12. Overrated? No way. It’s visual art, you have to compose!

    It’s subjective, as is anything in the art world. Some people compose haphazardly as their way of seeing the world. BUT, it’s still intentional, and it’s still important because it supports their “story”.

    Most of my favorite images have been shot intuitively on a whim actually haha. But I didn’t just get lucky – the composition was still intentional, I just did it by feel (that I developed by studying the work of others and practicing certain techniques until they became subconscious like you described).

    It’s a photographic fundamental, much like learning how to dribble a basketball is important if you want to become a good player. But you learn it so you don’t have to spend all your mental efforts in the middle of the game thinking consciously about your dribbling technique.

  13. I guess one has to differentiate between process and product. I fully agree that compelling images – the product – need some kind of visual arrangement in order to be compelling. But there’s also value in free experimentation without paying too much attention to composition and/or the end result – the process. As Dave said previously, the results of such haphazard pictures can be amazing, and probably would not have been obtained if too much (or any) attention was paid to composition while taking the picture. While I for instance always do pay attention to composition, I have to admit that my pictures always tend to look same-ish as a result. My compositional vocabulary has its limits, so to speak, and one way to expand it is not to bother too much, shoot away and see what comes out of it.

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