Composition: Transcribing Emotions

When I attended my first professional photo workshop last year, I described myself as “compositionally challenged.” It was true then, had been for decades, and it still is. Some photographers seem to naturally reveal the power in any scene they encounter. That ain’t me. 

At the Maui workshop [where I took the dragonfly picture above], I heard Gary Hart say loud and clear: “Check your borders.” I understood immediately what he meant, because I often noticed after processing images (film and digital) that my images were cluttered with junk—at the borders, and especially in the corners. As humans, we have the ability to look at a beautiful prospect like a sunrise, waterfall, mountain, or ocean and blissfully ignore the telephone lines, cars, gas stations, or whatever else might be in the way, while marveling at the beauty nonetheless. But when we preserve a scene to share with others, the imperfections are also preserved. And in my experience, they are magnified. The brain is looking at a picture at this point, and each of the elements of the picture tends to claim equal importance until the main theme of the picture gets digested. Out in the wild, we can look past a trash dump and see the beauty. But in the picture, the trash dump becomes part of the scene. 

When we take that picture, we can use a zoom lens to zoom out or in to control composition, or we can use the “podiatric zoom,” otherwise known as changing positions.  I don’t use zoom lenses, so I need to find my wide angle spot or my closeup using my eyes and my feet. Once we click the shutter, we’ve locked in our composition. Granted, we can use Photoshop and other software tools to remove objects and even skew perspective slightly. And we can use cropping to “zoom,” or isolate, while giving up pixels in the compromise bargain. But the bulk of the composition is set at that point. 

A word about cropping: cropping is a legitimate technical and artistic tool. Some scenes just look better with a subject re-centered, or asymmetrical, or some bit of uninteresting sky removed, or a rock in the foreground that you thought was cool looking not so cool on your monitor. Also, removing dust spots is important, and in some (long) exposures, birds in the sky can look like ugly blobs. All those are legit reasons to give up pixels in post-processing. But, you never want to give up any more pixels than you must. It cost a pretty penny to put that digital sensor on my back or around my neck, so I am loathe to give up any pixels. Two of my digital backs contain 101mpx sensors. I actually want all those pixels, and while their abundance makes cropping less painful and less injurious to the final image, that doesn’t mean I want to cut them because I was too lazy or rushed to compose an image in the best way possible. 

I like shooting medium format, because it is a slower, more deliberate process. It lends itself well to contemplative composition. Yes, with the Phase One bodies, backs, and AF lenses, one can shoot reasonably quickly. But these are not spray & pray cameras. And even though one can shoot dozens or scores of intervalometer or focus-stacked frames, re primary purpose is still to capture a single compositional image (moving, e.g., time lapse or still). Yes, one could shoot an event, such as an eclipse, and overlay a sequence of images onto a single frame, but there are plenty of DSLR cameras better suited to that purpose. And even if one did that with a MF camera, you would still be best rewarded for composing the best possible image. 

And composition represents that part of the picture that is the photographer’s choice, that, in theory, reveals how the scene spoke to the photographer. Its dynamism, its clarity, its lighting, its serenity, its power, its humility, its strength, are either there or not. One can restore or amplify some elements of those characteristics in post, but it is difficult to manufacture in a computer what nature provided but you squandered. Compose wisely. It’s how people see what we feel. I’ve learned the importance, but I suspect I will be practicing for the rest of my life.

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