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Dispelling the Myths around Photographic Composition and Style

Or: Why It's Good To Break The Rules


Photographic composition and style are essential aspects of creating visually appealing and meaningful images. However, there are many myths and misconceptions about what constitutes good composition and style, and how to achieve them. In this essay, I will explore the fundaments of photographic composition and style, and debunk some of the typical tropes that are often presented as rules.


What is Photographic Composition?

Photographic composition is the arrangement of visual elements within a frame. It involves deciding what to include or exclude, where to place the main subject and other objects, how to balance the different parts of the image, and how to create a sense of depth, movement, and harmony. Photographic composition is not a matter of following fixed rules, but rather a matter of applying principles of design, aesthetics, and communication. Photographic composition is influenced by the purpose, context, and audience of the image, as well as by the personal preferences and style of the photographer. Photographic composition is a creative process that requires experimentation, practice, and feedback.

There are many compositional elements that can be used to enhance an image, such as lines, shapes, space, colour, texture, symmetry, contrast, and framing. There are also many compositional techniques that can help guide the viewer’s eye and attention, such as the rule of thirds, the golden ratio, the rule of space, leading lines, patterns, and negative space. However, these elements and techniques are not fixed rules that must be followed in every situation. They are rather guidelines that can be adapted, modified, or broken depending on the context and intention of the image.


What is Photographic Style?

Photographic style is the expression of the photographer's personal vision, mood, and message. It involves choosing the colour, tone, contrast, lighting, angle, perspective, and editing of the image. Photographic style is not a matter of copying or imitating others, but rather a matter of developing one's own voice, identity, and signature. Photographic style is influenced by the inspiration, emotion, and intention of the image, as well as by the influences and references of the photographer. Photographic style is an artistic process that requires exploration, discovery, and refinement.


Some Style and Composition Myths Dispelled


Rule of Thirds

This technique involves dividing the frame into nine equal parts by two horizontal and two vertical lines, and placing the main subject or points of interest along these lines or at their intersections. The idea is that this creates a balanced and dynamic composition that avoids placing the subject in the center of the frame.


A black and white shot of the hustle and bustle in St Pancras station with an elderly couple in focus approaching the camera.
In this shot in St. Pancras Station, the subjects are placed on the right hand vertical third. The swoop of passengers perpendicular to the elderly couple walking towards the camera draws the eye towards them.

A black and white photograph of two people taking photographs in the colonnades at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich.
Getting the Shot: friends taking fashion shots in the colonnades at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. While not quite on the thirds lines, the subjects are off-centre and the image has a balance that leads the eye from the colonnade through to the subjects.

But by placing the subject in the centre, you can create a powerful or symmetrical image that draws attention to the subject. Sometimes, placing the subject off-center can create a sense of tension or imbalance that conveys a certain mood or message.


A colour photograph of a person reflected in a mirror queuing outside a restaurant in London. There is another person in front of the camera cut off by the mirror; the effect is of one person divided in two.
The Divided Self: using the mirror to capture the person in the queue behind the camera, this image creates a sense of strong division with the dividing line just off centre; the subject sits in the centre. The eye is drawn to the subject and then moves from there through the division to the alternate subject: the back of the person in the queue in front of the camera.

The rule of thirds is a useful tool to start with, but dispense with it quickly and broaden your mind as you go further into developing your style and voice.


 

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The Horizon Must Be Straight

You must always align the horizon line with the edge of the frame to create a level and stable image. This avoids tilting or distorting the image and making it look unnatural or unprofessional.


A black and white photo of the colonnade at Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich.
Perfectly centred, perfectly balanced: The colonnade at the Old Royal Naval College offers manifold photographic opportunities. The light filtering through, and shade cast by the columns creates different atmospheres depending on the time of day. This image shows the strong symmetry of the colonnade as it disappears into the distance.

However, sometimes, tilting the camera to make the horizon diagonal can create a dynamic and exciting image that conveys a sense of action or movement. Sometimes, distorting the image can create a creative or artistic effect that enhances the style or message of the image.


A black and white photograph looking up at Portland House in Victoria, London.
Taking the eye off balance and leaning back to capture the vertiginous height of Portland House in Victoria, London, this image has no straight horizon reference whatsoever. It unbalances you, and forces you to consider the magnitude of the buildings represented.

Black and white photograph of tower blocks in Victoria, London.
Slightly less vertiginous, but no less off-kilter: this architectural image is captured diagonally to provide a dynamic, emphasising the bulk of the buildings as they approach the camera.

Keeping the horizon straight is a good practice to follow in general, but experimenting with different angles and perspectives creates different possibilities for creative expression.


Certain Focal Lengths for Certain Applications

Certain types of photography demand certain focal lengths. You should choose a lens with a specific angle of view and magnification to suit the subject matter and style of photography. For example, wide-angle lenses are often used for landscapes, architecture, or environmental portraits; telephoto lenses are often used for wildlife, sports, or close-up portraits; macro lenses are often used for insects, flowers, or details; etc. The idea is that this optimizes the quality and clarity of the image and avoids distortion or aberration.


A colour photograph of a server in a Lola's Cupcakes shop in Covent Garden, London.
Street photography on a wide angle lens. As Capa said, "if your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." - using a wide angle lens forces you to get up close to your subject otherwise they disappear in the morass of the surroundings. This was shot on a 65mm lens on 6x9 format, which equates to a 28mm lens on 35mm format.

A colour photograph of the Greenwich Foreshore with Greenwich Power Station as the subject.
Landscape photography on wide angle - capturing the broad sweep of the Greenwich riverfront by the power station.

In contrast, using an unconventional focal length can create a unique or interesting image that challenges the expectations or conventions of photography. Sometimes, using a different focal length can offer a different perspective or story that reveals something new or surprising about the subject.



A colour photograph portrait of a boathand on the Thames Clippers in London.
A portrait shot with a portrait length lens (85mm) but in candid street style. Crossing genres and mixing up lenses makes for some useful opportunities.


Using certain focal lengths for certain types of photography is a helpful suggestion to consider, but don't let it discourage you from exploring different possibilities and combinations.


The Subject Must Always Be Sharp

You must make sure that the subject is sharp. Focus on the subject: use a fast shutter speed and/or a small aperture to ensure that it is in focus and free from motion blur. This makes the subject stand out from the background and captures it clearly and accurately.


A black and white photo of a busker from behind, through some ironwork.
Here the busker is in sharp focus, despite the wide aperture needed with the film I was using at the time (Pan-X, ISO 32) - the importance of making sure the subject is sharp in this context cannot be overestimated; if he were blurry, the shot would be a writeoff.

A black and white photograph of people queuing for coffee in Greenwich Market.
In Greenwich Market it's not often that you have enough light, regardless of the film speed chosen, to stop down that far, however here I managed around f/8 or f/11. Therefore, pretty much everything is in sharp focus.

Counterpoint: making the subject blurry can create a soft or dreamy image that evokes a certain emotion or atmosphere. Making the subject blurry can create a sense of motion or speed that implies action or movement. And making the subject blurry can create an abstract or artistic image that invites interpretation or imagination.


A black and white photograph of leaf-fall on the ground and trees with heavy contrast and soft focus.
Here, the subject is unclear. It could be the leaves on the ground, or it could be the trees. The image, however, focuses on neither of these (and on nothing at all), because none of these things needs to be sharp to create an atmosphere and mood. The image works precisely because it's not sharply focused; a sharply focused image would be a mundane representation of some greenery (albeit in black and white). There is an element of abstractionism in this image.

A colour photograph of a moped rushing through traffic in Greenwich, London.
As the moped rushed by through the traffic I lifted my camera to my eye and panned with the moped to get the shot. It's not perfectly sharp as the shutter speed was around 1/40s, but it conveys the sense of movement I wanted it to.

Making sure that the subject is sharp is a good technique to use in most cases, but experimenting with different levels of focus and blur is a valid technique and tool to have in your repertoire.


Always fill the frame with your subject

You must ensure that the subject fills as much of the frame as possible. Crop or zoom in to eliminate any empty or distracting space around your subject. This makes your subject more prominent and impactful.


By contrast, leaving some space around your subject can create a sense of context, scale, or isolation that enhances the meaning or mood of the image. Often, including some elements around your subject can create a sense of connection, interaction, or contrast that adds interest or complexity to the image.


Filling the frame with your subject is a good technique to use in some cases, but don't ignore the potential of negative space.


Always use natural light

You must use the light that is available and avoid flash at all costs. Avoid artificial light sources such as flash or lamps and rely on natural light sources such as sun or moon. This creates a more realistic and flattering image that preserves the colours and shadows of the scene.


A colour photograph directly into the sun, which is shaped like a star, with a path of light illuminating the water underneath and picking out a small boat making its way across the water.
Natural light can be a glorious subject in and of itself. The sun filtered through a heavily stopped down aperture becomes a star shape; the shadows disappear to black and the highlights remain, perfectly illuminating the water below. While not particularly representative of the true colour of the sky, the impact is immediate.

A colour photograph of sunset across water in Sozopol, Bulgaria, with the island of Sveti Kirik cast in silhouette.
Sunsets are a great time to capture the beauty of natural light. With the sun low in the sky and filtering through more of the atmosphere, more blue light is scattered and the red light becomes much more prominent.

In practice, using artificial light can create a more dramatic or creative image that emphasizes or modifies the features or mood of the scene. In fact, using artificial light can create a more controlled or consistent image that compensates or corrects the limitations or variations of natural light.


A black and white memento mori-style photograph depicting wine, fruit, a candle, a wine glass, books, a glove and a skull.
An LED panel to the front and to the right hand side casts the necessary light to bring the shape and form of the elements of this memento mori to life.

A black and white photograph of a skull.
LED panels to the left and right of the skull pick out the contours, textures and shapes wonderfully dramatically here.

Using natural light is a good practice to follow in general; don't forget though the possibilities of artificial light.


Conclusion

Photographic composition and style are important aspects of creating visually appealing and meaningful images. There are many associated myths and misconceptions about what constitutes good composition and style, and how to achieve them. Some of the typical tropes that are often presented as rules are the rule of thirds, keeping the horizon straight, using certain focal lengths for certain types of photography, and making sure that the subject is sharp. All are tropes and none are fixed rules that must be followed in every situation. They are rather guidelines that can be adapted, modified, or broken depending on the context and intention of the image.


Photographers should not be limited by these tropes, but rather use them as tools to explore their own creativity and expression. At some point, when you develop your photographic voice, you are going to find situations where none of the rules matter because the image you have in your mind, and in front of your camera, doesn't fit in some neat box.


Go for it. Take the shot.


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