Travelin’, Man.

21 10 2010

Now that I’ve finally shaken off the jet lag after a fabulous workshop in London, it’s time to settle back into my photographic life and log some words here on PhotoDino.

So, yes, I’ve been travelin’, man….but that’s not what this blog post is about. I want to talk about composition, which all generally boils down to how the eye travels through an image. (Summer, thanks very much for your note—for some reason it hadn’t occurred to me to blog about this until I read your message the other day.)

Most of us have had compositional “rules” drilled into our heads along with some theoretical reasons why they should be followed. I’m sure you can recite them with me: the rules of thirds, eyes should be in the upper third of the frame, don’t crop at the joint, if it bends bend it, use diagonals, don’t put the horizon line through the subject’s head, etc. There are dozens of them. What it comes down to, though, is creating emotional impact and keeping the viewers attention.

Rather than learning, relying on, and consciously breaking those rules, I prefer to think of composition in terms of how the viewer’s eye moves through the image. The best way to explain this is with examples.

Mama and the twins

Mama and the twins

It would be a little difficult to add a lot of the traditional rules of composition to this image. It’s pretty geometric, and yet it manages to stay dynamic. In this image, my eye is first attracted to Mama’s face and the great expression. Then my eye is drawn up her arm, up the girl’s arm to her hair. It then follows the line of her body over to her sister (and that impish grin), then down her body, which brings me back to Mama’s body line and back up to her face. Because the lines lead me through the image, I’ve spent more time looking at it than I would have otherwise.

cat girl

cat girl

Even though this image is pretty close up, the eye still needs to travel to prevent it from being forgettable. (Pardon the scan; it’s an older image.) My attention is grabbed first by those amazing eyes, which is exactly as it should be. I then follow the line of her hair on the right down to her hand, down her arm, around the cat and up the arm to the shoulder, and right back around to the eyes, where we started. Because of the lines created by this composition, I’ve inadvertently adhered to some basic portrait rules (eyes in the upper third, eyes positioned on a third, bent arms, etc). Although I’ve cropped into her hand, I’ve kept enough of it to keep the eye moving, which makes it much less of an issue than it would have been otherwise.


Bumblebee and the Dictator

Meet my friend Bumblebee and his daughter, the Dictator. They have a great relationship, and it shows here. My eye goes immediately to her face, then travels up her arm to his face, down her other arm, down his arm to her shirt, then right back up to her face. To illustrate my point, here’s a tighter crop, where all the major elements are left, but the line of Bumblebee’s arm is interrupted. It allows the viewer’s eye to wander straight out of the frame, never coming full circle.

bad crop

bad crop

Now, as with all compositional guidelines, this doesn’t mean that an image that doesn’t follow suit is necessarily weak. The composition, like all the other elements of photographic technique, has to support the mood and the message of the image. Just remember that the goal is to create an image that keep the viewer’s attention and sticks in their memory.

– CJ




15 responses

21 10 2010
Lou Janelle

Great stuff! They’ve forgotten the camera and are really enjoying themselves.

21 10 2010

Glad to hear you’ve shaken off the jet lag, and with such a great blog post. I’ll be paying all sorts of attention to the arms in my frames tomorrow.

21 10 2010

Yes yes yes. Composition isn’t just about rules; it’s about understanding how the eye moves, and using that to create good images. This is a great post; I’m sending it to a few of my photog friends. 🙂

23 10 2010

Hope you enjoyed your spare time in London after the great workshop. I suppose the viewers eye goes first to the place of highest contrast or emotional connection (eg eyes or a face), and then follows the lines & the contrast…. How about a blog post on light fall off, if there isn’t one already?

25 10 2010

Nice write on composition, I always like to hear what others think about composition, as I never seem to have a clue 🙂

31 10 2010
Doug Brewer

I’m more of a “balance” guy, myself, but I appreciate and watch the internal movement. Something that tends to be forgotten when talking about building a photo it that it’s always a good idea to fit the composition to the subject, rather than forcing a subject into a template.

3 11 2010
Sandra Marek

Hi Cheryl

3 11 2010
Sandra Marek

Sorry about the previous post. . .
A blogger friend of mine suggested I read your blog and I wanted to say that I have returned day after day and I am reading all of your older post. I look at the pictures and I’m trying to practice some of the practicle advise you give. I want to thank you for your openess and your candor. I was at a point that I had forgotten why I picked up the camera in the first place. I feel like reading your entries you have inspired and motivated me. It’s like having an old friend who has your best interest at heart. I have so much more to say but I’ll leave it at this: Thank you! You are an inspiration! Your art ROCKS! Your words motivate!

28 12 2010

Gotta love those freckles! Great shot! Love the b&w! 🙂

21 03 2011
Cullen Crest

Nice photos ! Love them very much! (especially Bumblebee and Dictator!)

Thanks for sharing!

26 04 2011
Nikon Price

Wel… thats what i call great b&w images !! wonderfull photos. thanks

7 06 2012
Life with Kaishon

I love the post you shared today at Deb Schweldhelm’s page. Thank you for sharing that information. Your pictures are beautiful. I look forward to learning from you.

13 07 2012
Glenn Bravo

These are amazing black and white photos and the “candid effect” of your photos added a lot of drama. The photograph of “Mama and the twins” has a lot of emotions. Great Work!

16 11 2012
John Channing

AH…so that is what is meant by composition. Clear, concise, informative. Now there’s a bell ringing in my head 🙂

4 05 2013
Nikhil Ramkarran

Coming up to 3 years since your last blog post. I still recommend your blog to all new photographers I come across. It isn’t hard to understand that other priorities come before blogging, but it would be nice to have the benefit of your thoughts again.

Best. 🙂

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