What is composition?
Every year I survey 1000 photographers, and this year, most of the questions surrounded that ONE question.
What is composition. Here’s what I learned.
We need to spend far more time studying and learning composition. Most photographers, of the advanced amateur and professional ranks, are quick to mention the “rule of thirds” and almost as quick to get stumped after that. Yes, I think we’re collectively a little over-obsessed with the rule of thirds.
I asked “which of these TOOLS of composition have you used at least once in the last year?”
1. diagonal lines
2. negative space
4. leading lines
5. rule of thirds
…to which, almost universally people clicked “yes” on all of them. But we encouraged them to upload examples (and made it very easy) and the result (not shockingly) was 38% uploading something for “rule of thirds”….with no other tool of composition getting even a 5% representation.
Now, I should point out that this isn’t about shaming anyone, unless it’s me and all the other photography instructors/professors/authors and self-proclaimed experts out there. We dropped the ball. This year, last year…for the last 20 years, we’ve gone and dropped the ball.
We’ve let people get too focused on PHOTOSHOP. Too much emphasis on filters. We think too much about gear. We’re too invested in the SUBJECT and let’s be blunt, we’re just not as interested as we should be in the TOOLS of COMPOSITION.
And I think that word, “tool” is very very important. It’s never been the “rule of thirds.”
Putting the subject at the one third or two thirds mark often makes the image stronger. But not always. And if it’s not ALWAYS, it’s not a RULE. It’s simply a powerful tool for making our compositions stronger.
And there are so many more tools! Beyond the few that most of us know, there are a dozen that just some of us know. And beyond those there are dozens more that almost NONE of us know! Now, some of the tools of composition, though we can’t name them or even SPOT them without help, we might still use instinctively, because our INSTINCT for COMPOSITION is a valuable resource. But just think how much better we could be, tomorrow, if we had knowledge of the many different tools of composition.
What if we practiced them! What if we challenged ourselves to use them! What if we learned how to COMBINE THEM! Heck, what if we were discovering new ones, redefining old ones, and finding stronger ways to use them all.
What if we flipped the tables and made post-processing LESS important, and composition MORE important? What if we looked past the subject and low hanging fruit that is “tool of thirds” and pushed ourselves to try to employ more tools with every shot?
My definition of “composition” (the verb) probably differs from what most of us were taught. To me, it’s a collection of tools, and their use, that have the ability to raise the value or impact of an image. We start with a subject, like a lump of clay, and we adjust and we shift and we change and we adapt through technology and technique and style, to build that subject into a bigger world. A more crafted world. And sometimes we go the other direction, taking a subject in a complex and noisy world, chiseling away the extra and the un-necessary and distracting and the confusing to reveal a singular message.
How many tools of composition are there? Five……….ten? Are there twenty? I think I can safely say we’ll never find them all. Some are so subtle, working only on our subconscious, no one will ever clearly define them. For me, after 20 years of searching and scrutinizing and testing and analyzing and diagramming……I count SIXTY-ONE. In fact, several years ago when I got to 50 I wrote a book about it, but the search for tools is never-ending for me, and I’m sure, or at least I hope, that many years from now…….on a rare day….I’ll look at an image and still be amazed for a brand new reason.
In more practical terms, we can build our toolset. We can refine it, we can expand and sharpen it. I like to write down a tool of composition on a piece of paper and carry it around. I sometimes take a subject, and see how many different tools of composition I can apply to just one image of it. And I spend time looking at great images, even paintings and sketches and identifying and diagramming the tools.
I like to say “The five most important things in photography……….are composition.”
And I take that so seriously, I don’t ever intend to stop trying to be better at it.