Forget the rule of thirds and leading lines. This is not an article that will give recipes or magic bullets for composing images. Instead, we will talk about methods and broad approaches I used to go beyond the cliché techniques and create unique imagery
I will be the first to admit that I compose by eye and not by rule. This is exactly why I don’t believe in rules when it comes to composition. There is simply no rule that you can apply 100% of the time and expect it to work.
Shapes and Patches of Color
Photography, in its most basic form, is the art of filling in a blank frame. In a very basic way, all we have to do as photographers is create a shape inside a blank rectangle. The camera sensor is a rectangle, and so is your picture. What you put in that rectangle will dictate how successful your image is.
For me, the shape and color of the objects matter a lot, which is why I often prefer the look of strong shapes and extreme colors in my own images. It might not necessarily even be about color photography. It can be black and white, but as long as the colors and shapes are extreme, I am happy. Perhaps this is due to the fact that my eyesight is not the strongest, and I see the world in a slightly blurred, obscured way. It is almost not so much about the detail as it is about the broad pictures. For this reason, the below image is one of my favorite photographs.
My methods of composition draw a lot of inspiration from graphic design. If there is anyone who knows how to fill a frame with content, it is graphic designers. Posters from the Bauhaus era are especially good at this, as they are able to combine font, color, and shape. A combination of strong lines, round shapes, and contrasting colors all play a vital role in creating compelling artwork. While up close, it won’t make much sense, if you look at it from a distance, you might see shapes that remind you of familiar objects or people.
A parallel to the work of Van Gogh has to be drawn here. His technique, known as impasto, is not hugely recognizable up close, but take a step back, and you see a peisage or a portrait.
The same can be applied to photography. Utilizing blur in composing your imagery will inevitably lead to a loss of detail, but it will create a shape that you can use to fill your frame. Without going too much into the technicalities of lighting, let me explain how I do it in the studio with some flash.
How to Achieve Blur in Camera
Blur can be easily achieved by combining constant light and flash. It is as easy as exposing the ambient (constant) and flash at the same time. Constant light will be responsible for blur, while the flash will freeze the motion. The settings you use will matter a lot here. The ISO will be responsible for the overall exposure of the image: the higher the ISO, the more ambient light you will see, but also the more flash you will see. I tend to set my ISO for flash exposure and keep it around 100-200, depending on the conditions. This might change if the equipment I am using doesn’t allow for high power (for example, a speedlight). The second big player is shutter speed. In a pitch-black room, a flash will work the same way, regardless of your shutter speed. Introduce constant light, and the longer your exposure becomes, the more blur and the more “ambient exposure” you will get. The third factor is the aperture. I keep mine at f/8-f/11 to maximize the lens sharpness and depth of field. I set my lights in a way such that constant and flash are lighting up different parts of the image. Flags, grids, and other light control devices come helpful. I often light the background with constant light and the model with flash, all while using a few flags to reduce light spillage on the background. Lastly, asking the model to move and not stay in the same spot will work wonders in creating the desired effect.
Combine Combine Combine
Another composition technique I started experimenting with is combining several images in series. As photographers, we are often told that we need to create a story in one single frame. Yet, I somehow found that there is rarely a story behind my work. It’s an image I like, it’s my view of the world, but I can’t tell you the big story behind it.
This is where the world of cinema has it easier than we do, as they can use moving pictures to tell a story. Let’s take the best of two worlds and create artwork that is categorized as a photograph but actually consists of several pictures — a photo strip of sorts.
There is something very attractive about a photo strip format. You may have very well done this with your friends or partners by going into a photo booth and shooting a series of three or four images. I love looking at these from a storytelling perspective. They show the motion, emotion, and mood of the picture. Perhaps the individual photographs are not successful, but combined together they form a storyline. This is exactly why I like creating combinations of several pictures when one image alone won’t work. This can be done with any number of images that you wish, and you can even experiment with adding text to the images. For example, I added the German word for “photo booth” to the following picture in Futura font, which is reminiscent of Barbara Krueger’s work. The subject of the images is known best as a glam model who is commonly photographed in a very sexy style. I wanted to show her from a perspective of a photo booth: a girl who doesn’t want to always be seen, a girl who is sexy and wild, but also wants privacy.
As you can see, the composition is so much more than lines and rules of the third. Advanced composition techniques draw from something personal to you — in my case, bad eyesight and a love for graphic design. At the same time, these techniques are not unique to people such as me. Experimenting with creating just shape and color can be a new direction you may take with your own image-making. Creating stories with a series of images instead of one single photograph might just become a solution to storytelling in your photography.