Sometimes the strangest things show up like unexpected gifts on the doorstep—like the (paraphrased) comment I recently received telling me that all my talk about composition and storytelling was nonsense. The less-paraphrased version was that scenes are what they are and they compose themselves. I would have laughed if it didn’t seem so surreal to me, but it gave me food for thought, so I’m grateful.
Arguing that some photographers pay too much attention to composition feels a little like arguing that some chefs just pay way too much attention to flavour; that the dodgy leftover stuff in the fridge is what it is and will cook itself.
When I stopped long enough to give his ideas a fair shake, I began to wonder how many photographers would never in a million years express this kind of thinking, but might be subconsciously infected by the idea.
I’ve been knee-deep for months making a training resource that is about creative composition and the elements and decisions that make a compelling photograph (spoiler: it’s called The Compelling Frame). So this is all very much on my mind. And the more I work on it, the more I learn and the more galvanized my belief is that composition is everything—and it’s so much more than is conventionally taught.
The well-meaning photographer who accused me of paying too much attention to composition also said moment is everything. That’s too easy. Ten points for sincerity and the focus on spontaneity and intuition, but an F for practicality. Let’s say you have a great moment, that all moments are not equal, and you’ve just photographed a deeply human and profoundly touching moment. Does that make it a deeply human and profoundly touching photograph? Not likely. What if that moment occupies so little of the scene that those of us who weren't there can’t really interpret the moment for what it is? What if your crop is so tight you miss key visual clues that help us makes sense of it or feel its impact? What if the subjects in that moment are so surrounded by clutter that there’s no separation from the background and I can’t make out the moment at all? What if your angle implies something about that moment that you didn’t intend? What if other elements draw my eye so much more? And what about things like balance and tension? What about the way my eye reads a photograph? Does that not matter?
Moment is everything only once you’ve used composition to make it so. It no more translates into a photograph without our help than anything else does: story, mood, emotion. A great moment is rare and wonderful. A photograph that gives that great moment its best expression requires so much more than pointing and shooting and clinging to the idea that this lazy approach is noble and “instinctive.”
Nothing about photography is instinctive. It only feels that way once we’ve put in the time being intentional about identifying what makes a compelling photograph and learning how to use the tools of the visual language. This applies to every great thing at which we direct our lens. The “greatness” of that thing. The beauty. The mood. The grandeur. The intimacy. It only comes through in the photograph because of the decisions we make.
As more and more photographers join our ranks, it is not the “instinctive” photograph that will grab our attention or hook our emotion; it's the intentional photograph that will do so. The one that intentionally goes deeper, that uses all the tools we have with purpose. It will be the photographer who masters not only her tools (the camera, the lens) but her materials (line, light, and moments, among others) and uses them in the service of creating something that is the best expression of the wonder we see before us—it will be the photographs of that photographer to which people respond. And only with that intentionality will it all one day come so naturally that it feels (or looks to others) that it’s instinctive.
Take your time out there. Look at the scene from all angles. And be ruthless about what you include and exclude. Do it playfully, do it with joy, but don’t let it be accidental. I wish great light and moments and stories just leapt onto my photographs with no help from me, but wishing doesn’t make it so.
Because this isn't necessarily instinctive and our cameras still really have no idea how to give a scene its best expression or to say what we want to say, that’s up to us.
Interested in improving your composition? David's online course, The Compelling Frame, is open for enrollment. But that enrollment is open for one week only (until September 20), so don't miss out!
David duChemin is the founder and Chief Executive Nomad of Craft & Vision. A world and humanitarian photographer, best-selling author, speaker, and adventurer, David can be found at DavidduChemin.com.