I bet that you think that you are pretty good at composing your photos. You’ve been shooting for years, won some awards, nice client list. You got that part figured out. Guess what? Not only are you not “all that” but you really need to work on it. How am I so sure? Check this out.
Can you think of anything in photography that is as basic yet as continually challenging as composition? It’s essentially how we arrange things within the confines of our frame, right? I’m sure that you know a lot about compositional rules already: the rule of thirds, S-shapes, contrasting/complementing colors, visual rhythm, leading lines, and all that.
Or as my friend cartoonist Ron Ruelle breaks it down, “Hey man, it’s all just circles and lines”.
Think of this: as we go along building our craft as photographers, we assemble a mental tool kit of things, techniques, and approaches, that we learn and eventually find work for us in our pursuit. This is in one sense the process of building our style. On the other hand, because we usually end up using these tools repeatedly, it is also the process of learning to see and do things the same way. What begins as style can easily become formula.
You know what I’m talking about: the landscape guy who always shoots with the same overly wide lens placed low to the ground pointing up with a single flower or rock in the lower left third to lead your eye to something huge and epic in the background. Yawn! The portraitist whom always has her subject in the middle of the frame with only the subject’s collar to hairline showing, an 85mm lens wide open so that only the lashes are sharp, not to mention the necessary blank stare.
Ugh! Is that all you've got? Come on man. Reach. Strive! Treat each subject with its own unique expression of existence and you as an artist should be true to your subjects revealing something special about every one of them in a way that only you can. Look, if you can predict the composition before you have laid eyes on your subject, you may be needing to change it up a bit.
When I was a student my teacher Michelle Andonian gave the class one of the most brilliant, and insidious, compositional exercises to do. It daunted most of our class but I embraced it and it forever changed me.
Over the years I have had many young photographers ask to be my intern/student/assistant. After a brief interview and a look over their portfolio, given that I liked what I saw, I would send them home to do what has been dubbed “The Andonian Exercise”. I told them to take their time and when it was completed send me the results for grading. At last count, fourteen people were given the assignment but only two returned. Those two became my assistants.
Scared? You should be.
So how does it work? It’s very simple. The photographer picks a focal length, any focal length, but cannot change it. Fixed lens or zoom is fine but if you choose, say, 62mm on your favorite zoom lens you may not change that setting. Next the photographer picks a spot to stand. You cannot move away from that place. You can for instance tip-toe or squat, change your height, but your feet can’t move you to a different place. Then you put your subject somewhere but like the photographer, they can not move from that spot. A human is often a good subject but if you normally only photograph bunches of bananas, I suppose that will work too.
Got it? Good. Now following those rules give me 50 completely different compositions of your subject. No, really.
I’ll be honest with you: this is not easy at all. As I’ve said, it’s scared off several potential assistants of mine. I’m quite sure that it will illicit some unsavory language from many of you as you grind your way through. However, bear this in mind: it’s not really as bad as you think. Granted, the first dozen frames will come quickly: these are the frames that you are most familiar with making. These are your “go to” shots. After that you will most likely find a couple more and then completely hit a wall around frame 18 or so. You will only see the frames that you have already shot. You won’t see anything new or different. Go back through your “take” and make sure. Yep, nothing.
Ok then, now what?
Well don’t give up, keep going as this is where the magic happens. What you are trying to do here is get past your established notions of what “compositions” are. This is all about breaking out of your “style” and compositional habits. Over the years you have programed yourself into thinking “I shoot this sort of thing and this is how it’s supposed to look: this part goes here, this part goes there….” Nope, all wrong. Remember that there is no visual rule book to follow. Instead you are seeing the world based on what you have told yourself over the years what isn’t worth consideration let alone exploration.
When you are done frustratedly screaming to the heavens ask yourself “what do I take for granted about my subject right now and how do I feel required to show it?”. That’s the key. Really dig into that as it should lead to a jaw dropping set of realizations.
When you finally crawl over the mental wall you will start to see other, previously hidden to you, compositions. They will come. You will find that certain ways of composing may look good but feel odd. Heck, some will just be odd. You will however find things that you never would have considered. Some will prove to be useful to you and your work while others less so. Regardless, realize that you have opened a huge box of new and exciting visual options. When you get to that point you will find that there are limitless ways to compose a single subject even from a fixed position and angle of view. Yes, minds will be blown.
I revisit this exercise from time to time just to see what I’ve become overly accustomed to doing as we all become creatures of habit. I recommend you do an “Andonian” once a year. On your birthday would be appropriate as it hopefully will bring a new you.
You will note that I’m not showing the results of my last “Andonian” because it will bias you. It will also give away some of the very necessary concepts that will lead to your “Oh, wow!” moment. I can’t cheat you out of that, now can I?
By the way, there is no “grade” for this. If you get past “the wall” then you succeeded. So get off your backside and do this. It’s more than worth the 30 minutes that it takes.