The Clearest and Strongest Way of Seeing (Part I)

I don’t know a thing about the rules of composition. I make my own. The subject is very difficult to write about, and perhaps can never be explained in words, since it is so involved in personal experience and growth. Words, “art criticism,” and explanations are the curse of today so far as art is concerned. To me, composition is the clearest and strongest way of seeing a subject.

—Edward Weston

If you are a photographer who aspires to be creative and expressive in your work, my first bit of advice for you is this: once you become proficient enough in operating your camera and using your processing software as to produce acceptably good photographs, shift your attention to composition. Certainly, you may still gain from learning and improving your technical skills, but this should become a secondary concern. Once you understand technical basics—proper exposure, depth of field, how to adjust color and contrast in your images to your liking—you already have most of what you need to express yourself visually. Further improvement in technical skills beyond this point will come inevitably from practice and experimentation, from learning as you go, from encountering specific questions and challenges and looking up solutions for them.

If you spend too much time striving for technical mastery before shifting your attention to creative expression (by way of visual compositions) you may unwittingly cheat yourself out of opportunities to engage with the world with an artistic mindset, in conscious and deliberate pursuit of elevated experiences worthy of artistic expression. The accounting is simple: such elevated experiences, even if you fail to photograph them on occasion, are considerably more rewarding than any quantifiable measure of quality you may accomplish in your photographs. Don’t let the temptation of instant gratification or the disappointment of missing an occasional photograph distract you from worthier goals, or lead you to confuse means with ends.

Technical proficiency to an artist, to put it plainly, is not the goal; it is a necessary imposition you’ll want to get out of the way as early as possible so you can move on to making art. Think of acquiring technical skills as the tilling and weeding of your expressive garden—the grunt work you have to put in so you may later enjoy, as early as possible, the bounty of fruit, the delicacy of herbal fragrances, the beauty of flowers, the joys of tending to living plants, seeing them thriving in gratitude for your efforts.

Regrettably, photographers wishing to learn about visual composition soon find themselves in a minefield of confusing, contradicting, and plain wrong advice. Such advice sometimes comes in the form of “rules” of composition, tips for “better” compositions, compositional templates, or pseudo-scientific claims about some “golden” this or “magic” that. In this multi-part article I hope to help you navigate your way among the mines and to dispel some myths that may lead you astray.

If you have made the choice to pursue composition seriously, my second bit of advice for you is this: when you come upon any resources suggesting that photographic composition can be reduced to rules, tips, or formulas, examine them for signs of danger and tread carefully. Better yet, avoid them altogether. Most often, such advice is not just futile, but outright harmful in the sense that it may hinder your creativity and limit your expressive vocabulary for no good reason. To accept such advice as gospel may also rob you of profoundly satisfying states of mind such as flow and discovery. Flow doesn’t come from taking shortcuts and applying easy solutions, it requires investing prolonged time paying focused attention to a challenging task. Likewise, the satisfaction of making meaningful discoveries requires trial and error, mystery and risk, arriving at solutions by exploration and imaginative thinking, not by following directions.

Certainly, following simple rules or easy formulas may gain you some beautiful trophies. But consider the difference between earning a trophy as reward for some difficult endeavor, and purchasing someone else’s second-hand trophy at a pawn shop. Both trophies may be beautiful, and an outsider may never know the difference, but in terms of inner reward the two are—by a long shot—not the same. Perhaps less obvious, no matter how beautiful the trophy, and even if you won it by some impressive feat, it would never again reward you to the same degree as what you felt when running the race, when crossing the finish line, when learning something, when standing on the podium. The only kind of trophy that rewards more than the experience of earning it, is a trophy whose earning did not involve any meaningful accomplishment.

Any useful thing we know, or can know, about visual composition comes from only two reliable sources: intuition and science. Being that, at this time, science can tell us very little about how human brains make meaning from visual information (and this knowledge so far is almost entirely within the realm of how we recognize and respond to obvious stimuli, and not about how we experience art), intuition should be your primary focus. Keep in mind that, while we are all born with some intuitions, intuition can also be trained and improved with practice and learning.

The turbulent history of visual art and the nascency of our scientific understanding of visual perception suggest that, when it comes to artistic expression, we are nowhere near the limits of human creativity, and a very long way from a complete understanding (if that is even possible) of how art “works.” Therefore, your intuitions about what makes for a good composition may evolve over your entire lifetime. Indeed, based on how little we know today about how people experience art, it is likely that artistic visual expression will continue to evolve in new and unexpected ways long beyond our lifetimes. In this light it’s also easy to see the futility of seeking easy answers about what makes for a good composition. Any attempt to distill even a tiny bit of what we know (let alone what we don’t yet know) about visual expression into the scope of a book, a video, or a list of tips or rules for composition, is on its face ridiculous.

No doubt, if you researched composition, you likely came across such tropes as the “rule of thirds,” or some reference to such things as the “golden ratio.” Most people stop there and proceed to attempt to implement these so-called rules in their work rather than to research them further. Dig a little deeper and you will find that things are not quite as simple and straightforward as some authors want you to believe (or worse, that these authors themselves believe, having not done the research, leading them to perpetuate the mistakes of others).

In 1509, Luca Pacioli—a mathematician, friend of Leonardo da Vinci—published a book titled Divina proportione (divine proportion) discussing the relationship between mathematics and arts. In the book, Pacioli describes in mathematical terms the so-called “golden ratio.” To his credit, Pacioli never suggested that the golden ratio had any special power to improve the aesthetics of architecture or art, although some assumed it to be the case, anyway. While the golden ratio indeed makes for beautiful mathematics, there is no evidence that it has anything at all to do with visual aesthetics. In his analysis of the golden ratio, Mario Livio concluded:

The history of art has nevertheless shown that artists who have produced works of truly lasting value are precisely those who have departed from any formal canon for aesthetics. In spite of the Golden Ratio’s truly amazing mathematical properties, and its propensity to pop up where least expected in natural phenomena, I believe that we should abandon its application as some sort of universal standard for “beauty,” either in the human face or in the arts.

Similarly, there is no evidence to suggest that such things as the rule of thirds or the rule of odds or any other so-called “rule of composition,” point to any universal aesthetic ideal. To the degree that such “rules” are useful, it is only in prompting artists to think beyond the obvious function of representing subjects, and toward considering visual creations in terms of relationships—deliberate arrangements of elements (lines, shapes, colors, textures, patterns, tonal transitions) having a collective, synergetic, meaning. In this sense, so-called “rules of composition” may be considered useful, not as templates to design photographs by, but in demonstrating that images become more expressive when they break away from what John Szarkowski termed, “habitual seeing.” (In Szarkowski’s words: “Photography, if practiced with high seriousness, is a contest between a photographer and the presumptions of approximate and habitual seeing.”)

In their early attempts, most photographers aim to represent appearances, rather than to express meanings (in fairness, the idea that photography can express meaning beyond representing appearances rarely even occurs to those who take up photography as a hobby in their early years). When our goal is to represent the appearance of some object, we naturally tend to portray this object in the center of the frame, to make it disproportionally more prominent than other elements in the frame, etc. (generally, to direct as much of the viewer’s attention toward that object, and away from anything else in the frame). This is a good approach for such purposes as identification of birds or setting the expectations of travelers headed to some tourist attractions, but its handicap when expression is concerned, is oversimplification. As Edgar Degas put it, “When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people.”

When our goal is to express meaning, rather than appearances, it’s not enough to portray things that may have meaning; we must also signal to our viewers that they should not stop once they recognize some object or scene and think they are done. When we depart from composing photographs in the same way that a random person may see an object or scene, we create the effect of visual tension. We throw the brains of our viewers a visual curve ball: we show them something they are not used to seeing, surprise them, prompt them to explore further. This may seem like a good argument for applying compositional templates that are by design different from “habitual seeing,” but in fact it is not.

Templates by their nature are repetitive, and in time become habitual even if they were not so to begin with. For example, it used to be that fisheye or ultra-wide lenses were rare and expensive and their effects offered an easy way to create tension in a composition. Today, when most people have seen a plethora of such images, nobody finds these effect especially jarring. Photographs of the night sky also used to be rare and difficult to make, but today making photographs of the Milky Way requires little more than traveling to a dark place at some “right time,” and dialing in some camera settings, and so night sky images have become common too. This is the danger of templates, gimmicks, and other ephemeral novelties: they get less and less impressive the easier and the more common they become. Also, they rely on viewers being surprised or impressed by some visual effect, rather than by a photographers’ ability to express moods and feelings visually, by way of deliberate composition.

In terms of artistic value, a better way of thinking about photographs is not just as means of impressing viewers momentarily, but as means of arranging visual elements with an expressive intent—composing photographs based on what we wish to express rather than what we wish to portray.

Practically speaking, there are many more (perhaps infinite) ways to create expressive photographs than any list of templates can hope to encompass, or that any person can hope to memorize. Giving too much credence to such lists may therefore become a limiting handicap, rather than a recipe for creative success.

With emphasis on intuition as the primary tool for artistic composition, I believe that becoming a good visual composer has everything to do with attitude, and little to do with following any process or guidelines. I will explain what I mean in the next installment.


Just a note before you go…

Although you may know me as a “professional photographer,” most of my income in fact doesn’t come from selling photographs or prints. Most of my income comes from writing and teaching.

Writing and teaching are not just means of earning income for me; they are also things I do because I consider them important and meaningful. This is why I offer these free (and advertising-free) writings with no expectation of payment. Still, if you wish to help support this effort, here are a few things you can do:

  • If you can spare as little as $2/month, please support me on Patreon.
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12 thoughts on “The Clearest and Strongest Way of Seeing (Part I)

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  1. Guy, this one really hit home for me! Thanks so much for your continuing insight and expressive clarity. Tom

  2. Thank you for a most enlightening article which has certainly opened new ways of thinking for me. I am trying to understand what you meant in the following two sentences, and I hope you can kindly elaborate if time permits:
    (a) “The only kind of trophy that rewards more than the experience of earning it, is a trophy whose earning did not involve any meaningful accomplishment” – What does this mean? Satisfaction can be derived from doing something very well and achieving the intended results. In this case, wouldn’t this ‘accomplishment’ be ‘meaningful’?.

    (b) “…to compose photographs based on what we wish to express rather than what we wish to portray.” – Not quite sure I understand this sentence. I take it that ‘Express’ means to convey/communicate, while ‘portray’ is to paint or depict. One is about ‘telling’ (a story) through the image, the other is about replicating what one sees in the form of an image.

    Thank you once again.

    1. Thank you!

      A) I was referring to the trophy example I used earlier in the same section. If you buy a trophy from someone else, you’ll probably get more satisfaction from the trophy than from the process of acquiring it. On the other hand, if you performed some notable act that earned you a trophy, odds are the experience/memory of performing the act will reward you more than just the aesthetic appeal of the trophy.

      B) Yes, you’re on the right track. I was talking about the difference between an ulterior meaning created and expressed by the photographer/artist vs. objective meaning inherent and portrayed in the thing photographed.

  3. Beautiful image and excellent article. Great quote from Mario Livio. Van Gogh was one of the artists who prevailed over motif and emotion over technical issues. That’s why his painting was revolutionary. I am looking forward to reading the second part

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