In the aftermath of a recent still-life studio session, I experienced a mini-epiphany for me in regards to photo composition. Please don’t run away now – this will not be another regurgitation of the classic rules of composition. No dissertation on the rule of thirds, the golden spiral or golden ratio, leading lines, framing, balancing elements, Fibonaci’s number, or whatever. My point is is not that those classical elements of composition do not exist or do not matter, but rather that approaching photography as a slavish adherence to rules threatens to mask your photographic vision of what really stands before your lens and conveys impact and what you are trying to capture with your photo.
A useful rule ideally should guide and accentuate your vision of the image. Instead, I think we often exert considerable energy after the fact to create some rationale to force a successful image to comport to some rule, as if that gives it greater validity. How often have you see some example photo used to demonstrate adherence to rule of thirds, or some diagonal lines or spiral rule, frequently with the guiding lines and grids superimposed on the image to illustrate the principle? Is that what the photographer truly was thinking as they framed the image in the viewfinder, or what they subsequently found later? If you decide you want to take pictures of red cars, I believe you will find many red cars to shoot – you will have successfully followed the “red car” rule, but that does not mean they will make good pictures. Reminds me of a hammer seeing everything as a nail…
About a week ago, I conducted a still-life session using a Lie-Nielsen woodworking plane, employing light-painting techniques that I have previously discussed in this blog. This session entailed a total of 54 exposures, each between 20-30 seconds long, and trying five different compositions. I freely admit that I did not “pose” the subject with any composition rule in mind. I was most concerned initially in trying to capture interesting details of the plane that I thought would be emphasized by the lighting technique. The light-painting technique can cause the photographer to perhaps over-emphasize the technical steps followed to effect an image, how to direct the light, at what angles, for how long, etc., to the detriment of seeing the “big picture.”
It was only through exploring different shooting angles and perspectives that I came to see that what I wanted to achieve with light-painting the plane was best conveyed through a simple side profile of the tool. The other compositions, while they perhaps revealed more details of the plane, also exhibited awkward angles, or contributed distracting added elements. In my mind, they took away from the simplicity of the plane’s form as revealed by the light. Sometimes, the essence of something is achieved by removing that which is superfluous; Michelangeo’s approach to sculpture was visualizing the subject within the raw stone, and then removing all of the stone that was not the subject.
Does a classic rule of composition apply to the image I decided best portrayed the plane in my photo session? I am sure I can study it and make one apply – to be honest, perhaps I employ some elemental rule of composition with no conscious awareness. However, I think the final image ultimately works because it primarily captures what I perceived as the essence of the plane, and any compliance with a classic composition rule is simply coincidental or a happy accident.