Golden Chain Tree

Composition is both art and technique

How do you compose a photograph? There are various rules you can use—golden rectangle, Fibonacci series, rule of thirds (and fifths and sixths), etc. I have no idea how to use those rules, and I’m going to explain my method. It’s ridiculously non-technical.

My problem with the various rules and methods is that I can’t possibly carry all t

hose around in my pocket. I do not have any kind of mental or artistic agility that would let me sort those out and apply them to a photograph. There are too many, they are all different.

It is far, far easier to look at a pleasing photograph composition and say, “Oh, that’s clearly a <your composition rule here>” than to fit what you are looking at into a rule on the fly, in the moment.

There has to be a better way.

I don’t know if my method will work for anyone else, but it doesn’t require remembering any rules.

The very first thing I do when I squint into the eyepiece of my camera, or look at the little screen, is to take advantage of how small that view is. (I know; some photographers work in a studio with big old TV monitor; that’s not me.)

I deliberately do not look at focus, or details, or small shapes. I take in the entire image at the very coarsest level of details. Here’s a small, blurred version of the above image:

As blurry as that is, it’s not enough. I can still see small-scale structure in the image; it has not yet been boiled down to its essence. The image in the viewfinder, or on the back of the camera, is small, but I can also back away a bit and see even less of the image. In my imagination, I let the image details fall away until I see just the essential forms, sort of like this:

This level of detail avoidance gives me a true feeling for the composition. This is a trick of seeing; the image does not look like this, I do not make a blurred version of it somehow; it is like what an artist will do when making a sketch: put some bold shapes on the paper and see how they feel.

The ‘feel’ can be anything you want: tense, relaxed, bold, reserved, balanced, unbalanced—you can consider the composition in any way that you want. It takes some practice at this to figure out what you want, of course.

So what do I see in the bare-bones version of the image: I see the green on the sides, the yellow in the middle, and the flash of reds and oranges along the baseline. What do I feel? I feel that the green are wings, the the yellow color with the dark heart is soaring, and the baseline feels strong, anchoring.

Sometimes, I won't even take it apart like that, I will just think it feels right somehow, not worrying about why, and I will then address the technical issues of the image.

It also might be that the image feel like the composition isn’t working, and if that’s the case, if I have a feeling why I will take specifics steps to address that. If don’t know why it’s not feeling good, I’ll change the framing and look again. Sometimes, there is no good composition and I’ll pull up stakes and shots something else entirely.

Now, details do play a huge role in composition, so sometimes I will take the shot and when I get to digital development, I’ll realized that it didn’t work out as well as I had hoped. But the more I have done this, the better my gut feeling has become over time.

There are additional steps I take to composition once I’ve settle on the ‘big picture’:

  1. In setting up the shot, I look for little things that might be a problem, or that might add something I like to the photo. In the case of the golden chain tree, there was a irrigation faucet at bottom left, and it was in the frame. (I could have reframed, or decided to crop in digital development.) Coming back to shoot a second time when the sky worked better is another example.

  2. In a picture that did not work, I had missed a tractor that was not a good fit for the picture. (Yeah, big-picture along is never going to be all one needs for composition.) I had to reset the camera position. At that point, my problem was that it totally changed the angle I had on the tree, and the tree’s went from being kind of wildly erratic to more balanced, like lowered arms that had the opposite angle to the framing greenery—a more settle, less energetic photo.

  3. In digital development, I look for anything I might have missed. In my first attempt at this shot, I had a really boring gray sky. I didn’t think it would matter, but it did. I expected that the details of the chains would actually be better without the distraction of a busy sky, but the value of the chains and the value (brightness) of the sky was so similar that it really failed badly.

Composition isn’t over until I’ve both made adjustments in the field, and in digital development.

But the key step for me is that first glance at the composition. Does it feel energetic (or, for that matter, elegantly composed)? More simply, does it work in some way?

Sometimes, if there is a lot of action in what you are shooting, you have to make extremely fast decisions about framing. Practicing on static subjects as I’ve outlined here can be a great foundation; when you have moving subjects or complex situations, you can quickly scan around and find something that catches your eye.

You can use anything—color changes, lighting differences, shapes, groupings—to be the dominant force in the composition. That’s right; composition is not just one thing. You might set yourself some homework: use light and dark to set up a composition. Use contrasting colors to set it up. Use the flow of the objects in a photo; use whatever it is that catches your attention—try to find it’s antithesis int he photo. For example, in a photo of several people, maybe someone’s eyes are very strong. Where is the alternative to that in the composition? (It might be a dark shadow, a sparkling highlight, some hair out of place—where are you going to put those two things in the photo?

For example, if the eye feels to you like it is expansive, moving forward into the camera, what is static, receptive, empty to serve as a counterpoint?

Gradually, as you labor through that sort of investigation, it starts to settle into a language that is part of your own style. It becomes something that you can use more and more fluidly. But without the hard work of learning to see, you won’t notice.

Now, the golden chain tree composition isn’t actually anything dramatically wow. My purpose where was to point out that even the most casual photograph can gain some meaning by you taking the time to understand your intentions about it. Never settle; search until you grasp the language, feelings, visuals, and the balancing strengths and weakness of your composition. The more you do that, the more you discover what you love, and what you love always makes the best composition out of any photograph.