Here is a fact: You will not find your creativity by following a rule, regardless of how many people believe it. In this series of articles, I aim to put this right. I’m on a mission to change how photography composition is taught — forever.
Composition has to be one of the most studied, researched, and worried about aspects of photography. If photography composition was taught so well, why are so many people still struggling with it? If it could all be explained by a few simple rules, then shouldn’t it be the easiest thing in the world to knock out a composition by numbers — nailing it every time, confidently, and without self-doubt?
In this article, which will form a series of tutorials accompanied by complementary YouTube videos, I aim to look at composition from a completely different direction. I believe now is the time for a paradigm, a new day, a new dawn, and a way for us to be creative, expressive, articulate, and more in touch with the world around us.
Being Brilliantly Human
Instead of learning rules, arrangements, compositional templates, and jargon, we just need to allow ourselves to do what we do best: see and feel. Those things come as naturally to us as breathing. We’re hard-wired for it, and we see and feel all day long, every day, for the entirety of our lives. We’re pretty good at it!
When you hear a piece of music for the first time, you don’t think to yourself: “do I like this?” You feel it, and it either makes you feel good or it doesn’t. The same is true when we walk into a kitchen and smell what’s for dinner. “Yuck, I think I’ll grab takeout” or the mouth-watering anticipation of sitting at the table to enjoy our favorite.
We do the same when we look at other people’s photographs: we make instant, snap evaluations, without thought. “I like that” or “no, that sucks!” We have no problem confidently deciding what we like or dislike, as long as it’s not something we’ve created ourselves. The psychology of that is best left for another article, but for now, let’s get to the main course of this one.
Telling me that I need to drive on a particular side of the road when in a country makes sense, that is a rule I can get on board with. Suggesting to me that the horizon of my photographs should be 33.3333% from the top of the frame is nonsense. I would lose all interest in photography if all I had to do was place subjects on key points around a frame to create some societally acceptable aesthetic.
I have had plenty of discussions with people who teach composition at a college level, and most of them state quite clearly that they believe the rules create a framework, a structure of convention that can be built upon. Rules are there to be broken, but you have to know the rules first. But, I would argue that they do the opposite. We get so good at what we do a lot, even if it’s wrong. Hence, everybody has loads of bad habits. We get conditioned to composing images in a certain way, and believe me when I say it takes a lot of effort to break those habits, especially if everyone is telling you what a wonderful eye you have! Most of the time, all that means is that your photograph complies in some way to the aesthetic that has been indoctrinated into the zeitgeist.
If you are following a rule, regardless of how acceptable, you are not being creative. I’ll write plenty more about the brainwashing harm of rules in future articles, but for now, let’s look at the alternative.
That one word is a game-changer. I’ve been making photographs for the last 20 years, and when I started working on this concept about four years ago, it not only changed my photography for the better, but it made me a happier person. How is that possible? Well, I suddenly became me, rather than a clone, a parody, a mocking repetitious machine. I was making photographs in the way I always had, and they were all the same. Templates, predictable and quite utterly soulless. I came quite close to quitting landscape photography, as I was bored with it, and didn’t feel it was delivering me what I got into it for, to be creative and free. This is not about popularity; it is about something far more important: authenticity and self-affirmation.
In the above before and after comparison, there is a consequence of the simple edit. I explain this fully in the accompanying video.
Instead of rules, what we need to appreciate, understand, feel, and learn is that every single thing we do, from how we arrange content within a frame, to the camera settings and subsequent processing, has consequences. Every little thing we do has an impact changes how the image feels, how accessible it is, how logical, how harmonious, how dissonant. In our photographs, we need to understand what it is that is making us point our cameras in the first place and then feel the consequences of every change we make.
This is harder initially than following something like: “Stick the horizon on the third line!” “Why?” “Just because, it’s the rules!” But, I can assure you that very, very quickly, you will build a relationship with your images that allows for growth, resonance, understanding, insight, and joy.
The Consequences of Graphics
If we strip a photograph down to its absolute basic parts, a single line, or a couple of lines, we create a simple emotional footprint. The image feels a certain way, not because of rules, but because of human perception, understanding, unconscious preference, and us being unique. I may love something that you hate, with complete passion on both sides. I want to be me. I want to feel something when I create. That’s why I do it.
If you have some time, look at the images on this page and try to describe in your mind how they feel. Try, if possible to rise above the basic judgment of like or don’t like. Do they make you feel relaxed, energized, calm, anxious, enthusiastic, inspired, angry? Think emotional words and try to ignore technical language.
In this series of articles and on the YouTube channel, I hope to build a body of learning that demonstrates the advantages of this method of creativity. In the first video on this page, I look at the consequences of graphics, geometry, and arrangement. Join me next week for more on this subject.