When we create a photograph, there are things we can do to change it from being mundane to interesting. Here are some of the most important aspects of composition and the one unteachable factor that is exclusively yours to discover.
It has a lot of people confused. They don’t know what photographers mean by telling a story. Every photo has a story, but a more compelling picture says far more than a simple “this is X”: this is a bird. Add to that another meaning, so it becomes, “this is X, doing Y”: this is a bird taking off.
“This is a bird taking to the air because a cat is pouncing.”
"This is a couple dancing together because they are in love.”
"This is an Island in a calm sea.”
You can expand on this to include a secondary subject.
“This bird is taking to the air because the underfed cat is pouncing.”
“This older couple is dancing together because they are in love. But contrast them with the youngsters in the background.”
“The smoothness of the sea contrasts with the roughness of the island, and their natural forms contrast with the artificial straight lines of the lighthouse.”
That last group of stories is all about creating relationships, and those relationships are contrasts. This is using the word contrast in a broader sense than just the differences in tone we usually talk about in photography.
The opposite of contrast is uniformity. Uniformity is about subjects having similar characteristics, examples being soldiers in uniform, bridesmaids at a wedding, and birds in a flock. However, it can also be less obvious: contiguous colors (those that are adjacent to one another on the color wheel, e.g., blue and green, yellow and orange, etc.), the direction of travel, size, shape, and form.
Of course, there are times when you want the story to say nothing other than “this is X.” Some years ago, I was commissioned to take photos of different types of gravel for a business that supplied it to the building industry. They wanted uniform, no-nonsense images of their products to display on their website. So, I shot dozens of photos that were little more than an accurate description of the product. But most of the time, we are achieving more than that.
Uniformity in an image or in a collection of images can give a feeling of stability, calm, comfort, harmony, and agreeability. On the other hand, contrasts in images add discordancy. They make photographs more stimulating, bringing out feelings of excitement, disagreement, and negative emotions. As I showed in a previous article, negative emotions have a more powerful impact on a photograph than positive ones.
Virtually every adjective we can find to describe an object can have an antonym: large/small, wide/narrow, up/down, natural/artificial, near/far, smooth/rough, old/young, motion/stillness, etc. Colors have their opposites, too; these are complementary colors: red/green, yellow/purple, and blue/orange.
Photos often work best when uniformity and contrast go hand in hand. There are exceptions, but images with too much uniformity can be bland — that gravel I shot certainly wasn’t the most exciting subject I’ve ever photographed — while those with too many contrasts can appear too busy, confused, or lacking organization.
Making the best use of contrasting elements within a frame has much to do with their positioning in relation to one another. This is where awareness of the various compositional rules comes into play. There are many of these, from the often-misunderstood rule of thirds, which can be poorly applied and sometimes overused, to the golden ratio, rebatement, armature, and so forth. I wrote an article about that topic in March, so I won’t revisit them all here.
Positioning the subjects in the frame works best when we reinforce them. We often do that using leading and lead-in lines. Those lines run toward the point or points where we want our viewers’ eyes to rest. The lines don’t all need to come from the same direction. Think of the multiple radial lines on a spider’s web that all lead to the focal point in the center of the spiral. Neither do they need to be continuous; they can be implied too. The brain extends lines beyond their endpoints, so our eyes naturally follow the extension to where they would run.
The positioning of a subject within a scene has very much to do with the positioning of the camera. Experienced landscape photographers rarely stand in the first place they see on arriving at a location. They walk around, surveying the area and working out the best possible position and height to place the camera. Repositioning yourself changes perspective and point of view. If they have a particular photographic style they like to adopt, that may depend on how they place their camera.
A couple of colloquial phrases meaning the same thing come from different parts of England. One is “skew whiff,” which originated from the weaving trade in North England, not far from near where I live now. It means the weft is askew, so the fabric was uneven. The other is the lesser-known phrase “on the huh.” It is old English and is still used in the parts of the country where I originated. As a seascape photographer, getting the horizon straight and not on the huh is essential. The effect is jarring if tilted just half a degree to one side. However, there are some circumstances where the photographer may want to angle the camera. That imbalance can add tension and drama to what otherwise might be an uninteresting shot.
All these techniques and others, such as exposure control, depth of field, and stopping or showing movement, valuable though they are, are nothing on their own. When combined, they are more than a sum of their parts. Yet, even then, they add less than one essential element that will elevate your photo to a new level. That is embedding your personality into your photography. That is something only you can do. Nothing I or anyone else will write can teach you what that is.