Essential Photography Skills

Essential Photography Skills: Composition and Narrative

Of all the essential photography skills you should learn, composition is probably the most important, swiftly followed by narrative. In this article I’m going to try to convey how this works in real life and why it is not to be confused with narrative.

Composition and Narrative

When you first pick up a camera, having read a few articles and watched a couple of videos about photography, it can be very confusing. Where does the rule of thirds apply? If my picture tells a story does it also need to comply with compositional rules? What about depth? Is there a rule of 9, a kind of three dimensional matrix that we should look for? What the actual **** is the golden ratio about! Damn it! should I just leave it to AI?

Overthinking

Composition and story can be and often are terribly overthought. Most good photographers instinctively recognise when a frame feels right. Back in the studio we might then observe some of the things that caused that frame to feel right. Leading lines, symmetry, layers, depth and so on. In analysing and observing these things we don’t set out to tick every box in the field, but we can increase the odds of an average picture turning out to be a great picture by doing what we can to compose the elements in such a way that some of these boxes are ticked. Awareness is helpful.

This article tries to unravel some of the apparently contradictory elements in a way that hopefully makes sense!

Narrative

Every picture tells a thousand stories, but we, as photographers are responsible for which story is dominant.

YouTube

A story that is often used, for obvious reasons, because it is topical and involves people is the story told by placing people or man made things into a photograph. We can all empathise with a person in a photograph, slightly harder is the effect of man made things in a photograph – to my mind, seeing a man made object in nature has a slightly jarring effect and so it makes me think a little. What are these people doing so far away from the city? What is the dome for?

In the picture above, the story is all about the dome and the people surrounding it. Without the dome it would be an unremarkable composition, even a poor composition because the story shifts to the rolling hills which take up less than a third of the frame. In this picture though the hills emphasise that we are in the wilderness as well as giving the image depth.

Composition

Location Scouting for Landscape Photography
Natural Arches, Santa Cruz

Composition rules exist for a reason. I’ve talked about this before and no doubt I will talk about it again, but photographs exist in two dimensions. They portray a three dimensional scene, so photographers use composition rules to help the viewer to navigate the picture. In landscape photography the challenge is to make sense of what essentially is a chaotic mess created by random events in nature. Creating a pleasing composition is often a case of moving the camera in order to make objects line cup in a way that is visually appealing.

In this scene, I consciously set the camera low to get the reflection of the natural arch, ideally I’d have liked a little bit more space between the three people on the right and the arch, but that would have upset the balance on the left and people are unpredictable at best. The three figures appear on the vertical third of the picture and although it’s unconventional, I think the space to their right works because it emphasises the sense of scale and therefore depth in the image. The happy accident here was the little girl pointing at the rock and the pose of the mother who is makes the base of a triangle linking her to the little girl. None of this was thought about at the time, I framed the rock and took about 15 frames on burst, hoping for the happy accident. This was the only frame that worked.

Symmetry

Symmetry
IBM, Somers, New York

Symmetry is a subset of composition, arranging objects around symmetrical shapes and lines.

This is a big part of architectural photography and a big part of what architects do. I often think architectural photography is in fact a time separated collaboration between photographer and architect because what the architect does is so closely related to composition.

The photograph above uses both symmetry and the rule of thirds to emphasise the formal lines of the structure created by the architect – I. M. Pei. The individual walking away on the right hand side was a happy accident. The lines made up by the shadows of the lights point him out precisely. Also a happy accident.

Space or “Room to Breath”

Low Tide Brighton Canon G1X Manual mode
Low Tide Brighton Canon G1X Manual mode

This is largely about giving the viewer’s eye somewhere to rest, inside the frame. As photographers, we don’t want the eye to wander off, we want the viewer to keep looking at the photo! So a key compositional skill involves removing distractions from the edges of the photo. This extends into post processing as well and although I think you should do as much as possible to “get it right in camera” there are some things that are just as effectively dealt with in post processing.

In this composition, I’m breaking all the rules. The figure is walking out of the frame. I think the rock acts as a stopper to send the eye back to the centre, but that’s a classic example of overthinking after the fact. What makes this image work is the color and tones, and the fact there is ample space. In actual fact, the whole image is an inverted reflection, had I shot the scene straight ahead of me, the pier and about a hundred other people would have been in shot. Again, this was the good shot from a burst. the foot poised above the sand makes it perfect.

Happy Accidents

Two of the pictures in this article are the result of a happy accident forming the cream on top of a moderately well constructed shot. You make your own luck by being there to begin with and being in control of your camera so that the odds are in your favour. I’m sure shooting bursts is frowned upon by purist street photographers but I don’t care, I anticipated there might be movement and prepared accordingly.

Video

Essential Photography Skills

Composition is an essential skill, to progress beyond snapshots you need to actively make decisions about what is in the frame and what is omitted. Don’t confuse composition with narrative, they are different things entirely. Narrative without composition is not an interesting story. Composition on its own is a craft, narrative is where art happens.

Breaking the Rules

We break the rules when we please. If my gut tells me a picture is good and my head tells me it’s not, my gut is almost always right. Learn the rules, then you are equipped to take the next step. I think this is a gradual process and in honesty, these images were not taken in a single day, I usually get one or two good landscape images out of fifty shots or more. Not including the bursts or the brackets.

Also Read

Why Narrative in Photography is Not Dead

How to Approach Composition Creatively

You Tube @chriswrightphotographs

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