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Thoughts & Theory
Two Thoughts on Composition
Think of composition as how you arrange elements within the frame to tell the most compelling story possible, or to bring what is within the frame as close as possible to your original vision.
They say the camera doesn’t lie. I don’t know who they are but they don’t for a minute know what they’re talking about. The camera says exactly what you tell it to say, it’s unreliable and easily bought. The decisions you make will determine exactly what spin the camera will put on the reality you saw, and will bring in it’s wake a great image or one that falls short of its potential.
In broad strokes a great image contains strong foreground (FRG) and background (BKG). That background may be strong based on it’s total lack of focus; having rendered a busy scene into a gentle blur of colour and texture you free the viewer to focus on the foreground. Or the FRG and BKG may be equally sharp – but you’re placed them in such a way that one is prominent. However you do it, managing the relationship between the FRG and the BKG is key. Here are a couple means to that end.
- Depth of Field. Choosing a large aperture (f/1.2, f/1.8, f/2.0 etc) will give you very shallow depth of field. Your focus point will be in focus, little else will. That which is not in focus will be rendered blurry and will guide your viewer to concentrate on what you want him to. It is the job of the storyteller in any medium to guide the audience. Distractions must either be placed intentionally or eliminated intentionally. Of course the inverse is also true – using a small aperture (f/8.0, f/16, f/22) will increase the depth of your field of focus. This can be used as powerfully as a narrow DOF but you must use it intentionally, and it’s harder to tell a strong story this way because you’ve got more elements to control.
- Point of View. Where you stand relative to your subject is vital. Think of the three elements at work here: Camera, Foreground Subject, Background Subject. If the FRG and BKG do not move – if they remain static and only the camera moves, then the relationship between the FRG and BKG changes. Move one way and the elements are perceived to move apart. Move the other and they converge. This is helpful when you want to create an implied relationship – if you want the objects to seem close, then move accordingly. If you want some distance, move the other way.
- Lens Choice. Amateurs make the mistake of thinking that big lenses are for making stuff big and wide lenses are for getting more stuff into the image. While this is not untrue it’s a simplistic way to look at things. A 200mm lens has several properties, only one of which is the ability to make a duck really, really big. What lenses do is manipulate our perception of space and the implied relationship between objects caught in that space. That 200mm lens in the the hands of a professional may never be used to make a duck really big. More often than not it will be chosen because it forces FRG and BKG together – it compresses them, making them appear closer to each other. The 17mm will do quite the opposite. So if your intention was an intimate portrait with a soft background, a longer lens would be perfect. If you wanted a sense of isolation, the shorter lens would be a good choice. Begin thinking in terms of compression or expansion when you think about your lens. Remember too that this applies to faces. Shoot a face at 17mm and it will have an expansive, comic effect. Shoot a face at 85-135mm and it will compress beautifully. Shoot a chubby person with a 200mm lens and the effect will be less than flattering.
My second thought has less to do with the relationship between foreground and background, but everything to do with composition.
Time itself is rarely mentionned in discussions about composition. But time is one of our raw materials and the difference between a good shot, a great shot, and the one that got away, is time. Our selection of shutter speed determines how wide or thin that slice of time captured will be, and it will have aesthetic consequences on the image. What I want to touch on is the captured moment itself.
If you are shooting stills or architecture this is less relevant than if you are shooting people or wildlife. The look, gesture, or emotion of your subject is captured in very thin slices with a camera. Which exact moment you chose to capture determines how powerfully your story is told. Henri Cartier Bresson talked about this in terms of the "decisive moment". It’s the moment that in one fraction of a second best expresses the sum of the moments that together make the scene unfolding before you. These moments don’t often repeat themselves, so learn to anticipate. Study your subjects – what makes people laugh, what are the signs that they are going to laugh, or smile, or cry. Anticipation keeps you a step ahead.