Thoughts on composition (1)

Thoughts on...

People often ask me about composition: what makes a good image good and a not so good one bad. I always feel very uncomfortable being put into this rather unwarranted position of authority. Composition is a great mistery. A mistery with numerous well-defined rules, but nevertheless a mistery.

Great composition is tension, it’s excitement. Or it’s peace and harmony.

There’s one true test of great composition: everything in the image is where it is supposed to be. You can’t change anything. You do and you irrevocably ruin it.

When it comes to colour photography, one of my favourites is Saul Leiter.

saul leiter - new york 1950s 94

The image of the woman with the red umbrella is perfect. When something is perfect, you can analyse it. (Not that you have to.) You can talk about the rhythm of the grey slush and the white snow leading your eye to her, the curve of the road framing her, desaturated tones v. a highly saturated primary colour.

Or you can just cover the woman with your hand and look at the image. The magic is gone. It’s nothing.

This image has inspired many photographers. Inspiration is a double-edged sword. More often than not, the inspired photographer means to create something original but ends up with a sad display of far-from-perfect, secondary, derived content.

Without meaning to criticise their authors, have a look at some of these attempts.

All the elements are there: grey weather, snow, a path in the landscape, a woman and a red umbrella. But all these pictures are powerless, at best observational, at worst: ghastly kitsch.

This is not to discourage any of us. It’s just a warning: do not accept your images at their face value. Fight for good, strong composition.


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