A place to think about composition in photography

Archive for March, 2011

Urban landscapes: Isolating details and playing with perceptions

Breaking the “rules”

It is impossible to separate your own work from influences by others because we are immersed by so much visual imagery. Occasionally I find other people’s work challenging and inspiring.

I try to avoid talking about hard rules of composition because the danger is that we conform to them and stop thinking for ourselves.  The pictures everyone takes tend to become similar and rather uninspiring.

For me good photography captures our attention and provokes an emotional or instinctive  response.  Such was the case when I looked at the pictures an acquaintance had taken they were urban landscapes taken at striking angles and I stopped and looked hard at them.

On reflection I realised they were attention grabbing because they were different, and it made me wonder if we all follow standard rules of composition we will end with a rule of thirds world surrounded by perfectly aligned verticals and horizontals and actually rather dull…

So I had another go at isolating details in a landscape, an urban one this time, and produced three pictures for this blog.

My favourite is this photograph, I like the unease created by the tension between the familiarity of the building and the unfamiliarity of the view.

  • What makes this picture different is the way the white stripes capture the eye and become the dominant vector in the picture.
  • I use the term vector to mean a compositional element that has both magnitude and direction
  • We tend to read pictures from left to right (see earlier post on this) and this makes us perceive the white stripes descending
  • This creates the perception that the building is falling and instills a vague sense of unease that holds the attention.
  • Dont believe me?  have a look at the other pictures
Urban Landscape leaning building 1

Urban Landscape leaning building inspired by Sarah

Another arresting picture below, same building,

  • This time we read the white stripes as ascending from left to right and the sense that the building is falling is lessened.
  • Including the sky gives more of a reference for the picture and lessens the sense of oppression
  • The overall effect is the perception of less unease when the lines lead the eye upwards:
Urban landscape Leaning building 2

Urban landscape Leaning building 2

And the more obvious picture

Urban landscape standard view

Urban landscape building standard view

What do you think?


Square Composition: Rainbow and Stile

The square composition works well for this landscape.  In the alternative landscape format the dark clouds would dominate the picture too much and leave an unsatisfying empty foreground.

Rainbow and Stile above Burnsall in the Yorkshire Dales

Rainbow and Stile above Burnsall in the Yorkshire Dales

The picture works because it has a zig-zag composition

Rainbow and Stile Composition Vector Diagram

Rainbow and Stile Composition Vector Diagram

The vector diagram (the red arrows) give the impression this is the way we always read this picture’s composition.  After considering this for a while I have come to the view that we rationalise the composition after the fact.  This all happens in seconds:

  • The eye scans the picture, taking in the scene, darting from the rainbow stile and wall.
  • The eye then discovers the faint path leading to the style
  • The eye is then guided along the wall to the rainbow
  • Then up the rainbow to wander in the dark clouds
  • The eye repeats this process, gradually noticing details such as
  • The shape of the path echoes the shape of the rainbow.
  • The there is a post in the wall to slighty jolt the eye just before you get to the base of the rainbow

The simple zig-zag composition pattern is pleasing to the eye because it is easy to grasp and familiar. The eye is rapidly guided from aimless wandering to repeat the path through the picture again and again, rewarding the persistent viewer with new details that give a satisfying viewing experience

Isolating elements in a landscape

Again comparing two similar images

Burnsall in the Yorkshire Dales

Burnsall in the Yorkshire Dales

It struck me there was a better picture trying to get out of this one.

isolated image from Burnsall

isolated image from Burnsall

The isolated image concentrates the attention on the four figures walking through the three trees which makes for a better composition as there is less to distract the eye.

Note that there is no horizon in either picture, this composition doesn’t need one.