A transcript of the text follows below.
Many new photographers, especially those that don’t have some artistic background, have trouble with composition. In this video, I’ll do my best to distill the idea of composition to its core, discuss how our minds process visual information in a way that could sabotage a casual approach to compositions and share a few techniques for working around these psychological impediments to creating pleasing photos. Let’s begin.
What is composition?
In her book, The Art of Composition: A Simple Application of Dynamic Symmetry, Michel Jacobs writes,
Composition is one of the means to express to others the thought that is in the artist’s mind. We can do this with colour, with line, mass, form, or with the light and shade—all of which should be combined to bring out more forcibly the idea of the artist.
In other words, photographic composition is the way you arrange the placement and scale of your subject within the confines of your canvas. The subject is the person, place, or thing you want to photograph, and the canvas is simply everything within your visible frame. Side note: I know many photographers take photos intending to crop them later; however, at this stage, and for the sake of simplicity, just assume “frame” refers to what you see in the viewfinder or on the camera’s screen.
Creating a pleasing composition starts with understanding your subject, and then finding an effective way of translating that understanding into a photograph. Beginners often have trouble with both parts of the process. They take pictures haphazardly, without taking the time to consider their intentions. They happen upon something interesting, point their camera, and take a picture assuming the result will look as good as what they experienced. But unless they’re lucky, this isn’t often the case.
The disconnects between what you see and how you photograph
The way our minds process visual information creates discrepancies between what we see and how we photography. We may look with our eyes, but we see with our minds. Let’s delve into the basic psychology of sight.
The Gestalt school of psychology offers hints at how people organize visual inputs. It proposes there are two types of visual stimuli, distal and proximal. Distal stimuli are those that lie in the distance, outside your body; they’re the objects you’re looking at. Light from distal stimuli enters our eyes and creates proximal stimuli, which are the projections of light stimulating your retinas.
Their distinction is important because an object’s true shape may vary from the shapes dancing across your retinas. In vision, the proximal stimuli are distorted, two-dimensional projections of their true forms. For example, if you lay a square sheet of paper (the distal stimuli) on a table and observe it from directly overhead, its image (the proximal stimuli) will look like a square; however, if you sit down and look at the square from an angle, it will appear trapezoidal, because the top of the square is further from you than the bottom. Despite its trapezoidal appearance, we understand that we’re seeing a square. How?
Our minds are constantly bridging the gap between distal and proximal stimuli by forming hypotheses about the nature of the real world. A perceptual hypothesis is an inference about the nature of a distal stimulus based on its proximal characteristics. Our minds process visual information and making guesses about what real-world forms are responsible for the patterns we perceive.
Guessing true shapes from incomplete or skewed visual information works against casual photographers by creating a bias in favour of a form’s true shape instead of its visual shape. In essence, what we know competes with what we see.
We can observe this in photos featuring horizons and architectural forms. Intuitively, we understand that a flat horizon should be level—that is, perpendicular to the pull of gravity—but this understanding can impede our ability to notice when a composition lists to one side. Furthermore, our eyes stay level with the horizon by rolling within their sockets. You can observe this in a mirror by slightly tilting your head from left to right—notice how your eyes roll in the opposite direction of your head’s movement.
In architecture, forms commonly feature straight lines, right angles, and great height relative to your ground-level perspective. Angling the camera upwards to capture a building’s facade converges its vertical lines towards a vanishing point. This is called the keystone effect, and it’s commonly avoided by professional architectural photographers. Keystoning is easy to spot in photos taken with wide-angle lenses, but it’s not something we’re mindful of because we intuitively understand the form’s true shape, and that its lines aren’t converging but receding into the distance, which we understand thanks to depth perception.
There are two types of depth perception in human vision: binocular and monocular. Binocular depth cues are distance clues derived from the differing views of the two eyes—they provide that distinct sensation of an object’s position in three-dimensional space. Monocular depth cues are distance clues derived from each eye alone, such as motion parallax and pictorial depth cues, which are distance clues that can be expressed in a flat picture, such as a photo!
Binocular depth perception allows us to see a subject, sense its distance in space, and isolate its form from its surroundings. This lets us overlook visually distracting elements that would otherwise be more conspicuous in two-dimensional renditions. This brings us to the concept of attention.
Visual attention and perceptual blindness
Attention is a cognitive process that lets you concentrate on a discrete selection of sensory inputs from many competing ones. When directing your visual attention towards your subject, you become less aware of its surroundings. It can lead to a phenomenon called inattention blindness, which is a failure to notice an unexpected occurrence within your visual field because your concentration is elsewhere.
The limits of attention create a problem for beginner and experienced photographers alike. You could be taking a portrait, concentrating on your subject’s pose, and completely miss that their shirt is coming untucked and their zipper is down. Oops!
Visual perception has no borders
Unlike an artist’s canvas, our visual experience of the world has no defined boundaries. There’s a central area of attention, and there’s a periphery, and beyond that periphery lies…an absence of visual perception. When we look around, we discover the views beyond that periphery. And yet, when our eyes cross something interesting—something we deem picture-worthy—we must consider it within defined compositional boundaries.
Casual shooters simply point their camera at the subject, ensuring that it’s all-in, and take a shot. They look with their eyes, see with their minds, and assume that’s all it takes. What they don’t consider is how our minds process that information to “fix” their perception of that view, a view that often doesn’t translate into a well-composed photograph.
How to think compositionally and achieve great results
How can you move beyond absentminded photos to achieve more pleasing compositions that work within a two-dimensional medium constrained to a canvas? The following tips should help you organize your thoughts towards thinking compositionally in the context of the psychological processes I’ve outlined earlier. Just remember: these aren’t rules.
Define your subject
In my opinion, the first step towards creating a pleasing composition is clearly defining your subject. Think like a reporter: understand what you want to show and why it’s caught your interest. Understanding the answers to both will inform your subsequent decisions.
Find your perspective
It’s time to explore how you’ll take the picture, and this starts with perspective. In photography, perspective refers to your camera’s point of view and it’s determined exclusively by the position from which a photo is taken. Ask yourself: what’s the best angle from which to capture this photo?
Your body is a great asset for manipulating perspective. You can crouch down, walk around, lean out, look straight up, lay down, get close…and then closer, or take a step—or fifty—backwards. Depending on what you’re photographing, you can walk around or through your subject to find interesting perspectives.
Generally, photographers seek perspectives that emphasize the subject’s physical geometry, the quality of light, and its visual placement relative to background and foreground elements. Altering your perspective can make the difference between a photo that looks flat versus one that has a distant background and a sense of depth.
Perspective also adds an emotional aspect to portraits. High-angle shots, where the camera looks down at a person, can convey a sense of vulnerability, meekness, and insignificance. These are contrasted by low-angle shots, where the camera looks up at a person and signifies strength, confidence, and authority.
Perspective can also inform the scale of your picture.
Choose your subject’s scale and prominence
Scale and prominence are interrelated concepts with subtle differences. Scale refers to the apparent size of your compositional elements. You can change the scale by moving closer or farther, and by zooming in or out. Prominence refers to the share of your viewers’ attention each compositional element holds. Generally, as scale increases, so does prominence; they have a positive correlation.
Nevertheless, there are situations where a small-scale element can have great prominence. Think of a spotlit singer against the backdrop of a dark theatre, a spring flower blooming through the snow, or a person wearing a colourful outfit in a sea of people wearing grey suits. Such compositions manipulate our attention using contrast, texture, and colour.
Find leading lines
You can also manipulate prominence by leading the viewer’s eyes through the composition towards the subject. Leading lines are real or implied straight or curved lines that terminate on or point towards your primary subject. They’re a useful compositional tool for achieving prominence when contrast, texture, and colour aren’t working in your favour.
Use the viewfinder
Use your camera’s viewfinder instead of the rear LCD screen, if you have the option. Thinking compositionally is much easier when your visual field is limited to the photographic frame. The viewfinder separates your view of the frame from the extraneous distractions of your surroundings or the reflections on your LCD and allows you to concentrate on the harmony of the visual elements.
Try to minimize distractions. Distractions are any intrusive elements that compete for visual attention with your primary subject. They can manifest as textures, shapes, and colours. Given what we now know about visual attention and depth perception, the first step towards minimizing distracting elements is to look at your subject with one eye or through your camera. This immediately compresses the 3D world into one plane, and lets you look for background and foreground elements that would otherwise detract from your subject. Next, check the visible outline of your subject for intersecting lines and shapes that could be confused for being a part of it. A common example would be scraggly branches or street lamps erupting from your subject’s head. Additionally, you can minimize fore- and background distractions with selective focus of your lens.
In general, you should try to keep your photos level unless there’s a good reason not to. A subtle slant can look like a mistake, and most often is. Gridlines in your camera’s viewfinder or screen can help you achieve level horizons. You can also level a crooked photo after the fact using popular editing apps. By the way, a canted-angle or Dutch angle describes a photo that’s intentionally set off-level.
Be mindful of headroom and lead room
When you look at someone and make eye contact, their eyes are centred in your visual field and occupy your attention. When casual shooters take this life-long habit and apply it to their photography, their results feature too much headroom, which is the distance between your subject’s head and the top of the frame. Portraits where eyes and noses are in the centre of the frame often look sloppy or incomplete because most of our attention is at or below the centre line. Next time you’re about to take a portrait, assess whether the space above your subject’s head is adding or subtracting from the shot.
When looking at photos, it’s common for us to expect space in front of a moving subject or the direction of their gaze. Lead room, sometimes called active space, refers to the distance between the implied direction of your subject’s motion or gaze and the edge of the corresponding frame. Dead space refers to the space behind the active subject. There’s no consensus for what constitutes a good amount of lead room, but it becomes obvious when there isn’t enough. A photo can have a lack of balance when the direction of a subject’s gaze or motion is immediately impeded by the frame. It creates a sense of confinement.
Watch your edges
Inattention blindness can lead to distractions in your photos, and some of the most noticeable ones occur at the boundaries of your frame. You can guard against these by scanning your eyes along the edges of the frame to ensure distracting elements aren’t intruding into your composition. If you notice a distraction, adjust your composition, and repeat the scan.
You should also watch the edges of your frame for unintentional or awkward cropping of your subject, especially when taking portraits. A composition can look sloppy when the frame’s edge crops off a small part of your subject, such as half a foot, a sliver of the shoulder, or an ear. Look along the edges to make sure that small bits of your subject aren’t inadvertently cut by the frame. And when you must crop your subjects, such as in close-up or medium-scale portraits, make sure the crop reads as intentional.
And there you have it, a rule-free introduction to thinking compositionally while avoiding some of the cognitive traps that can lead beginners to take poor photos. If you have requests for future topics, let me know in the comments, and I’ll address them in future videos.