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Fundamentals of Photography III


In a sense, composition defines the image. Technical skills bring proper lighting and color to an image which are essential but fall considerably short of creating a great image. Yet a creative image, the artistry one brings into a frame to speak to the audience, stays outside of the realm of technical skills. That single element that makes an image unforgettable after meeting all the technical requirements of capturing a scene, is simply composition. Although, one at first may think of framing, the way image has been cropped, as composition, but in reality it goes beyond the boundaries of an image. It is the arrangement, the formation(s) that various elements within the frame have created, as in a diagonal or circular line, or a triangle, the way these secondary components impact each other, the tension or tranquility they may render.

If we divide the photography into two processes of technical prowess and the creative aspect, the prevailing belief is the former can be learned but for the latter one needs a talent that cannot be developed. The reality is the creative aspect also can be learned, albeit, through repetition, study, trial and error, and amount of time dedicated to the learning process.

Repeated pattern tends to guide the viewer’s eye into the image.

Field of View

One of the most important lessons helps any photographer to become better is the development of a sense in identifying the details of an object. As we look around, there is a wide spectrum of the objects we see within our fields of view. The reality is we do not see with our eyes only, our brain screens and eliminates many of those objects within the field of view based on the way we focus. The objects located in the center of our field of view, the area we have focused, grasp more details than the ones on the peripheral field. The main reason for such function is the anatomy of the retina, the inner layer of the eye sensitive to light. Directly behind the lens in the back of the eye there is a 5.5 mm area called macula, which has a center of 1.5 mm of diameter called fovea. This is the most sensitive part of the retina responsible to see details and color. Whatever falls outside of macula belongs to the peripheral vision. The concentration of cells in the macula is different from the rest of the retina, it has much more cone cells that are responsible for vision in good light. Rods are responsible for the peripheral and black and white vision.

Anatomy of the retina and location of the Macula and its center Fovea directly behind the lens.

I reviewed the short anatomy and physiology of the eye to arrive at what I mentioned at the beginning of the previous paragraph, that our eyes are not equal opportunity seeing organs, they select based on the commands the brain sends them. What essentially we need to do as a photographer is to train our brain to send different signals to our eyes, we should train our brain the peripheral vision needs to function better, not to sit idle, becomes involved in what we see, in short, broadens our vision.

There are practices for the training of our brains.

One exercise is drawing, for some reason if we focus to draw something for 10-15 minutes before going out for photography, it enhances our peripheral focus. Another practice is to try to identify the details of an object without bringing it to the center of our vision. As you walk on the street, pickup any object at some distance which is located in the peripheral field of vision, keep it there, and try to describe its details. Finally, stop and look at closely and see how accurate you were. Another practice is to look around the room you are sitting and name the objects you are seeing with wrong names, call the computer terminal, TV and the desk, chair and so on, for a few minutes, then stop and look at them again. You start seeing things at first you did not pay attention to. Lastly, for a few minutes name what you see around the room you are sitting, then close your eyes and try to see and name them again.

Point of View

One of the elements of composition is simply the angle one looks at an object. A chair will have a different look if we look at it from standing or sitting positions, or even lower than sitting position, near ground. Whether we capture it from distance, very close, or somewhere in between. The direction of light will have its impact, whether it has shadows around it, or it is lit by a diffuse light or just a shaft of light. These and many other elements I did not mention here influence the viewer. Finding the best angle in photography is called working up the shot. One just does not capture a chair from the position first it came to view. You walk around it and evaluate each position, you go down, even if possible you want to look at from a higher position, on another chair or steps. After several minutes examining the area, one can decide on the best point of view.

Leading line(s)are powerful compositional elements to guide and maintain the viewer's eye.

While we are working the shot, we should capture an image from that particular position. Often the image we see with our eyes is not what the camera sees; furthermore, working with the tones in post processing we could create a feeling we may not be able to see during the photography. Although, this could lead to examining hundreds of images on the monitor.

One of the principal components of composition is simplicity. We should eliminate all the unnecessary objects from an image. In this way, the viewer has no problem to focus on the part of an image we want. We guide the viewer's eye where to go within the frame. Clutter is probably the most common weakness of a novice photographer. By working the shot, the photographer is able to eliminate all the distracting elements. In a photography competition, distracting is probably the most common word used by judges to express their discontent.

At first, to better arrive at simplicity, to exclude all those unwanted elements is to photograph in black and white. B&W photography by eliminating colors reduces an image to forms and tones. It makes the evaluation of the composition of an image easier. Furthermore, in B&W one can manipulate the various tones of grey while colors are not so forgiving. There are certain limitations in processing any color, one can not darken or lighten a color beyond a certain threshold, the image will look unreal, the main potential of B&W is being unreal to begin with. In a sense B&W is an abstract photography, the advantage of it is we are so used to such abstract forms, do not feel it is not normal to see in B&W. The reality is the mere fact we are stripping an image of colors, making it unreal, which is one essential reason why B&W is more amenable to processing.

Compositional Elements

Although all the compositional elements we tend to use in B&W would work for a color image as well, eliminating the color brings certain weight to these elements. There are three main elements at the disposal of a photographer: Points, Lines and Shapes. Interaction of these three elements is the foundation of the composition. Lines can be straight or curved, that is how we could create secondary shapes by trying to find these lines from a particular point of view that produces our desired shapes. These shapes work as a magnet to bring the focus into the certain area of an image and guide it from that point to the next to create a path for the viewer’s eye.

Simplicity with a strong diagonal line creates a pleasing composition.

Repeated patterns often are strong enough to guide the audience eye from one point to another.

Furthermore, repeated patterns bring some kind of organization or order to the image enhancing its impact. There are a few things to consider when working with these repetition. The way we use the repetition may be altered considerably by the focal length of the lens. Longer focal length squeezes the pattern, brings the lines or points of shapes closer to each other, shorter ones function the other way, increasing the distance between repeated elements. The other factor is the number of visual elements, which will take me to another compositional discussion; the number of the various visual items helping to create a better composition.

The odd number rule suggests the viewer relates to an image better when the number of identical visual elements is odd. There are many theories trying to explain the logic of such a response. The reality is we do not know. The more common explanation is dividing the space equally splits the image to pieces with equal attraction, each segment undermines the other segment’s impact, creating a symmetry which is no longer appealing for the viewer. Odd numbers create tension to pull the viewer’s eye.

Although we see the tanager next to a beautiful flower, the flower, particularly because of its color and size competes for the viewer's attention. One possibly would see the flower even before the bird.

Balance is another important factor in composition. Balance is the relationship of one part of the image to another part. It may work geometrically, one shape against another shape, or can be tonal, one tone or color in relation to another tone or color. Dark tone against light often used by photographers to create a gradient within the image; or light geometric shape can be placed against a dark geometric item. Rule of third, in a sense, emphasizes the significance of balance. Placing the main object on the third of the frame inherently creates a balance with the remaining 2/3rd. As I have mentioned repeatedly, placing the main object in the middle of the frame is not desired, unless the symmetry it produces would enhance the impact. In landscape photography there are a few considerations to improve the composition. Placing the horizon line in the upper or lower third of the frame often creates the asymmetry that enhances the overall impact. Under certain circumstances one may opt to place the line in the middle, although, like placing the main object in the middle, there are not many situations demanding such composition.

Placing the horizon line in the lower third of the image. Placing the line in the middle works against the overall appeal of the image.

Furthermore, to have a sense of balance in the image, almost always, it is better to choose a section of a vast vista to photograph rather than the entire scene. The limitations that the lens imposes to capture an immense area is the biggest challenge for the photographer. Wide angle lenses, even the best ones, tend to squeeze the corners; the preferred method to capture such a wide range is to photograph, in a portrait position, holding the camera vertically, parts of the vista and using a software to produce a single image. The photographer should be aware that a wide angle lens makes the visual elements within the frame small, consequently reducing the sense of depth in the image. One other factor producing depth in the image is soft shadows; to produce soft shadow one invariably needs soft light of early morning or late afternoon.

The soft quality of light brings life to wildlife photography as well. The light helps to portray the details of plumage or fur of the animals. Again, often wildlife photography is limited to early morning or late afternoon; the only exception is overcast sky which eliminates the harsh light of midday and provides an excellent light to expose the animals. In terms of composition, you want to place the animal on about 1/3rd of the frame, particularly if the subject is looking to one direction. There should be enough space in front of the subject to provide a sense of movement. When the subject is looking directly at the camera, it can be placed in the center to have a sense of balance. It is a good habit after composing the frame and before pushing the shutter, to re-evaluate the periphery of the frame to make sure there is no unwanted element pushing through the frame. Rather than resorting to post processing to remove distracting elements, the photographer should try to capture the image very closed to the desired one. This is true about all aspects of photography, exposure, composition, white balance and so on.

The tumbleweed on the right and lower part of the image creates a balance against the mass of the sand stone; it anchors the image.

In portrait photography the photographer has to be very aware of where the subject’s joints are located. The principal rule is not to crop the image at the joints. The Line of crop should be between the joints, ie, between elbow and shoulder or elbow and wrist. Using a slightly telephoto lens, 85-120, creates a more pleasing face lacking the facial distortion one has with the shorter focal length. Another advantage of the telephoto lens for portrait is the blurring the background and bringing more attention to the subject.


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