Thursday, March 14, 2013

Composition Series: Part I - Flat Plane Arrangements

Before we begin analyzing the first elements of composition, a word of warning - much similar to what I mentioned in the introductory article. Photography is not about following rules and guidelines. The information found in this (and other) articles, is not meant as a field guide; a set of things you must follow (or even remember) every time you go out to take a photo. Like Edward Weston has said:

To consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk

And so, let's begin today with Flat Plane Arrangements. What does that mean? Well, it's the term I came up to describe the way elements on a scene are arranged in the frame - in terms of whether they occupy the center, the top, the bottom, or a side of the image. Nothing related to depth will concern us on this article (that is, nothing regarding foreground and background).

Perhaps the most (in)famous rule of composition is a flat plane arrangement rule. It's the Rule of Thirds, which argues that elements of importance should be placed in points where (imaginary) lines that separate the frame into three parts, both horizontally and vertically, cross. It is easier to understand with an example:

Rule of Thirds example. Notice also how the two important elements of the scene (i.e. the building and the tree) are parallel to each other - something that further enhances their compositional relation
On the example above, the building and the tree are associated with the bottom two crossing points.Two important points, in addition to the general warning in the beginning of this article:

a) Notice I used the word "associated", not "coincide", not "occupy". The spirit of this rule idea is not that the photographer is "forced" to have elements directly under a crossing point (let alone all of them!), but simply to arrange the elements in a way that is associated with them.

b) Obviously enough, elements in a frame can cover an area vastly greater than a simple point. It's all about relation here, not strict placement.

Another issue that I should have perhaps mentioned earlier (although it doesn't probably warrant its own article) is the notion of a subject in photography. In a nutshell, a photo must have a subject. If you cannot give a definite answer to the question "what is the subject of the photo I am about to take?", then you shouldn't take it! You must know what is your subject, because certain decisions have to be made* regarding its placement and hierarchy.

* again, only implicitly. The idea is not to start thinking about composition and rules every time you are about to press the shutter. Rather, you should know these things well enough beforehand so that they become an integral part of your photographic instinct.

Would you like to see a different crop of the image above as a counter example? Here it is. Notice how much weaker the following composition is:

A significantly weaker arrangement. The building now looks out of balance

The reason this is a significantly weaker composition is that there is a powerful element in the frame (the building corner, contrasting brightly against a dark background) that not only is not associated with a crossing point, but it's also pushed into the corner of the frame. The tree itself still works reasonably well - notice how much better the composition looks if we simply clone out the building:

Simply removing the building improves the situation.

As a conclusion to this first word about flat plane arrangements, I would underline once again that rules are meant to be broken. There are no rules in composition, and there are no rules in photography. The examples portrayed above are simply meant as something to show you how certain decisions of placement influence the outcome of a photo. If a certain outcome is something required to express a certain mood or to inspire a certain feeling, then obviously this overrides all "rules".

We will continue next time with relations between elements in a scene.

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