If you want to know what a photographer is– consider the photographer as an ‘arranging artist’. As a photographer, we decide how to arrange the building-blocks of visual reality. It is the arrangement (composition/framing) in which we make photographs which creates the meaning!
Matter is not created or destroyed
According to the ‘conservation of mass‘, we cannot create something from nothing.
This philosophy goes all the way back to the Greek Philsopher-Scientist Empedocles, who said:
“For it is impossible for anything to come to be from what is not, and it cannot be brought about or heard of that what should be utterly destroyed.”
Or according to the Greek philosopher Parmenides, “Nothing comes from nothing” (Latin: Ex nihilo nihil fit).
How do you arrange/compose your photos?
So applied in photography: we cannot create (or destroy) matter. Rather, we can re-arrange the visual atoms of the world, to create meaning through the arrangement of how we put together a frame.
Think about poetry: the meaning of poems doesn’t come from the words themselves (we have a limited vocabulary of words). Rather, the meaning of poems comes through the arrangement, sequence, and order of the words.
As a musician, you decide how to “compose” a song through the arrangement of notes. You have a limited number of tones and notes to use. It isn’t your duty to re-invent the scale of musical notes; it is your duty as a musician to re-arrange the notes themselves, to create a new and beautiful song/melody.
If you think about the art of chemistry, it isn’t the atoms which create the molecules/chemicals. Rather, it is how you arrange the atoms which creates the substance.
What is composition?
In photography, composition is the arrangement of visual elements in your frame.
Regardless of whatever camera you use, you have a frame. The frame can be your viewfinder (optical or electronic viewfinder), or it can be the LCD screen of your point-and-shoot camera, or it can be on the back of your smartphone/tablet.
The most important part of the frame: the FRAME itself. With a frame, you decide what to include, and more importantly — what to EXCLUDE from the frame. This is why including too much stuff in your photos isn’t interesting. If you shoot with a fisheye lens (and include everything in the frame), there is no point of interest. Thus the photograph is boring.
Therefore when you are framing/composing a scene, be very diligent what you put inside your frame, and what you EXCLUDE from the frame.
Photography as subtraction
If you want to make better photos, seek to SUBTRACT/REMOVE from the frame. When you’re shooting, look at the edges of your frame, and remove distracting elements. Seek to make the most minimalist frame possible, with the least amount of “noise” (distractions) and the maximum amount of “signal” (interesting content in the frame).
Richard Avedon was a genius in this respect: he was able to focus 100% on his subjects, by making the background a simple white background.
Even when it comes to sculpture, you create the meaning of the statue by SUBTRACTING or chipping away the excess/superfluous stone.
How are you going to arrange your frame?
When you are shooting portraits, ask yourself:
“Where am I going to place my subject — in the middle, left side, right side?”
And with the background — what elements do you see? How are you going to balance the frame with your subject?
Analyze pictures; don’t just look at them
Another good way to study arrangement in visual art is to study the abstract artists like Piet Mondrian. When I look at the works of Piet Mondrian, I ask myself:
“Why did he make some of the red squares bigger than the other yellow/blue ones? Where does he decide to place the colors red, yellow, and blue in his frame? Why did he place the visual elements/colors in that spot, instead of that other spot?”
By asking yourself, “why?” when analyzing the work of other artists, you will be able to become more discerning as a visual artist.
Or when you are looking at landscape pictures, ask yourself:
“What percentage of the frame is dedicated to the foreground vs the middle-ground, vs the background?”
Or for portrait photos,
“What percentage of the frame is filled by the face of the subject, versus their body, or their limbs?”
This is HOW YOU SEE as a photographer — you start to analyze photographs/pictures, instead of just “looking/glancing” at photos.
How to arrange better photographs
For more insight on how to arrange/compose better photos, here are some resources:
- Dynamic Composition Manual
- 10 Dynamic Photography Composition Tips
- Introduction to Dynamic Photography Composition
And see all of PHOTOGRAPHY COMPOSITION 101 for more inspiration.
Never stop shooting,