Composition – “The Strongest Way of Seeing”

One of the greatest advantages of film cameras was cost (you are probably rolling your eyes but please stay with me). The roll of film, 24 or 36, provided the photographer with limitations and forced her/him to operate within those limits. As a result, each scene was evaluated quite carefully before the shutter button was pressed. In fact, many of us didn’t press the button at all, if an attentive examination of a subject, frame and light didn’t warrant a strong outcome.

Digital photography changed everything. Sure, for those who subscribe to strong discipline and constraint, the immediate feedback could be a superb learning tool. Unfortunately, the ease of pressing the shutter button associated with the “it doesn’t cost me anything” notion has created a huge mass of thoughtless, poorly made photographs or rather snapshots.

Recently, I showed a set of photographs to a group of people. Some of the images were very carefully crafted but the majority were snapshots taken without much thought. Interestingly enough, most of those images were viewed at a very fast pace, while those taken with thought and effort caused viewers to pause and stare at them a little bit longer than the others. Why? What drew people to those few images?

They all had one thing in common: everything in the photo was organized in a way that was somehow pleasing to the eye. Each element in the photo served a purpose. There was no waste, no unnecessary clutter. In other words, those images had a very strong composition.

Bruce Barnbaum in his excellent book, “The Art of Photography,” defines composition as “an arrangement of the parts of a work or art so as to form a unified, harmonious whole.” Indeed, very often we see a really simple image, which at first sight appears to be easy to capture, but that’s far from the truth. In fact, the simplest images are the most difficult to make!

I always think about composition as a type of puzzle but with a catch. You must fit all the elements in but you cannot move them around. The only way to arrange available pieces into one harmonious whole is to reposition yourself. By moving around the subject, getting closer or further away, higher or lower, you are able to arrange the elements and solve the puzzle. The fewer elements you use in the picture, the stronger the composition becomes.

Indeed, it is a very difficult task. It not only requires concentration but also intense intellectual and artistic effort. Many times when I speak about composing and framing I hear, “Come on, I’m just taking snapshots.” That’s fine with me but if you are already operating a camera, why not put at least minimal effort in arranging elements in the frame to get the most impact.

While viewing images, fine art photographs or a birthday party snapshot, I can immediately tell whether or not the photographer paid attention to composition.

After each trip or a photo session, Kasia and I sit down and discuss our work. We point out our failures (and there are many) and underline our successful compositions. I find this self-assessment is a great exercise.

The subject of composition is one of the most important in the art of photography. Therefore, this year we will write extensively about it, share with you our thoughts and provide you with relevant examples. Stay tuned.

Here are a few images I took during my recent morning drive along highway 7 from Coquitlam to Hope, BC, Canada. It is a very pleasant drive mostly through rural scenery, with the type of vistas that require very careful arrangement in order to produce a strong photograph. I have taken this route many times and each time I see new opportunities.

All images were captured with the Fuji X-T1, XF 14mm F2.8, XF 56mm F1.2 and Fuji X100s.

©osztaba_hwy_7_20140412__DSF0505-Edit

Chawathil First Nation Sacred Heart Church – I have photographed this church on several occasions but I have never been satisfied with the results. While it is beautifully located, the landscape is quite busy with buildings, poles and other elements, which makes composition difficult. The most recent photo is my favourite. I arrived at the location quite early in the morning and just after heavy rain. I immediately noticed a small puddle of water in the front of the church, creating a reflection. With the church positioned in the middle of the photograph with slightly darkened corners, I was able to put emphasis on the church and minimize the clutter. While positioning your subject in the middle of the frame is not usually recommended, here it works wonders. Also please note the choice of 1:1 format. This way I was able to keep the composition intact and eliminate unnecessary elements on the right and left.

 

©osztaba_hwy_7_20140412__DSF0486-Edit-2

Photographed from the side, this bridge seemed boring. Going below it and shooting a wide-angle lens facing up made this composition much more exciting. I had to watch both corners to make sure I didn’t include any unnecessary elements. I placed the main pillar at the bottom of the photograph to emphasise the structure. Stormy skies also helped.

 

©osztaba_hwy_7_20140412__DSF0500_2-Edit

Many farms in the area contain a large number of elements and therefore pose the danger of clutter (we never ever remove anything from photos in Photoshop – it’s our rule!). The curved path caught my eye and I had to choose only a few elements on the right and on the left to complete the composition. 

 

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There were a few houses on the left and on the right. I focused on the red structure and groups of three. It works well with the blue sky and green grass.

 

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2014 © Olaf Sztaba Photography. All rights reserved.

5 thoughts on “Composition – “The Strongest Way of Seeing”

  1. Hi
    Those b&w look very good as usuall – but those colour ones – quite artificial – blue – and aspecially green looks auwfull – would you agree?
    Do you change anything (or intend to later?) in colour profiles on top of using chrome velvia etc?
    regards
    Thomas

    • Thomas,

      Agree! However, technicalities such as colour profiles, technical specifications etc. is the least interesting aspect of photography, at least for me. We can discuss the look of Velvia film simulation forever. In short: (digital) Velvia sometimes works, sometimes it doesn’t. The purpose of this post was to discuss composition – therefore our choice of imagery.

      Thank you for sharing your observations.

      Olaf

  2. Hi Olaf – I’ve only recently discovered your blog and (as a convert from 15kg of Nikon kit) have become a regular and appreciative visitor. It was the X100 that first turned my head and I now delight in a X-T1, 10-24 and 23. I’ve been around cameras and photography for the best part of 60 years – but I find myself more and more drawn back to the media I began with: black and white. I wonder if you’d consider blogging about your black and white work flow? Are you using RAF alone, or RAF+F? LR and/or PS, Nik’s Silver Efex? Thanks.

    • Hello,

      Interestingly enough, we are also being drawn to B&W photography. There is something pure and special about B&W photographs.

      Yes, we are going to have an entire post about our B&W work flow. Please stay tuned.

      In short:

      1 Iridient Developer (sharpening).
      2. Export to Lightroom 5.
      3. NIK Silver Pro (split toning – copper)
      4. Final touches in Lightroom 5 (mostly contrast)

      Thank you for visiting.

      Olaf

      • Thanks – I look forward to the posting. The four brief points you’ve listed are fairly much what I’ve been doing – but have been using Photo Ninja in place of Iridient. But like you, Silver Efex Pro has been my mainstay – occasionally wandering over to OnOne’s Perfect B&W (the Suite 8.0 version). My greatest disappointment is that Google appears to have “parked” any further development of Nik. Sadly, I guess it was what many of expected when the buy-out took place.

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