Learning Composition

Of the many things we need to learn as photographers, one that seems to play the most with the mind is composition. Many otherwise elegant images manage to get caught in the web of composition. Part of the reason for this is that composition is not an absolute, but rather a personal decision by the artist as to how they wish to present their image. While that is true, it is also true that nature has imposed upon us a structure that she herself appears to follow, and wires our brains to accept that structure as the foundation for how we view the world. The balance of the features of the human face, the spirals of a conch shell, and the structures of every object in nature follow some not-so-simple rules of balance that set up relationships. These make up positive and negative spaces and our brains naturally analyze these relationships and decide if we like what we see when someone puts a frame around an image.

While we somewhat naturally understand these relationships, we often find it difficult to make them come together in our own creations. The balance of spaces within an image can be confusing no matter how simple or complex the image itself. To compound the problem, each of us can see the same image differently, and therefore be at odds with each other as to how a particular image should be composed. Since the artist is the one who makes the decision, the viewer is then left to either accept or reject what the artist has created. We rather instinctively analyze the image for structure while the dominant half of our brain confidently proclaims recognizability. At the same time we judge the balance of the composition, looking for a resolution we can accept.

When we view an image we immediately set up a conflict within ourselves. That conflict is between the two halves of our brain, left and right. The left side of the brain cares more about the reality or recognizability of the image before us. The right side of the brain analyzes the structure of the image against the “rules of nature” and decides if the image is acceptable. The trained artist can better analyze the structure, “ignoring” the reality, in order to understand what is essentially the abstract form under the image. The less trained eye recognizes the reality and can wonder why an image is or is not satisfactory despite the ability to discern the content.

The five elements of design originated in ancient Greece; order, balance, contrast, unity, and harmony. Note that there is nothing about the content of the design being a recognizable object. This is why simple abstract images can be visually satisfying when the subject matter is either not recognizable or simply non-existent. Most images contain recognizable subject matter, but all images contain a structure which I refer to as the abstract foundation of the image. The right side of the brain will tell you if this abstract foundation works or not, providing you have trained yourself to listen.

Society educates and trains the left brain and pretty much ignores the right brain. Some people manage to get around this unfortunate circumstance and educate both sides. Very young children tend to be good at composition, if somewhat crude in their accuracy of visual representation. That usually gets buried rather quickly and needs to be relearned later, usually with great difficulty. The person who almost instinctively creates well-balanced compositions is to be admired. Most of us have to work to see that balance. The more you look at good images, the more you train yourself to see balance, essentially as you train yourself to listen to the right side of your brain.

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