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.
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.
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.
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.
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.