Composition – thoughts on how to use it
As I mentioned in the introduction on the Back to Basics 1 page, my approach to composition is not quite conventional. I start with two questions in mind – what do I want to show my viewer? And how do I do that best? I may not even consciously think, but the itch to shoot a subject takes hold, and I set to work! ;o)
Exactly what to shoot will depend on both internal and external factors. I can’t shoot towns and cities as I live in a small village. I can’t travel to interesting and exotic places – indeed my health and energy keep me close to home and demand I work with small bursts of energy. That takes out Long Exposure (LE), night shooting and also shooting people – all can make demands I cannot meet. So I shoot mainly indoor ‘still life’, home and garden, and the few locations I can reach, as and when weather and energy permit.
Those are all external factors – but what about the internal factors? What do I want to photograph? That is where the Daily Practice routine comes in. As you go about your daily life, just seeing and snapping helps you build up ideas of what interests and intrigues you.
I’ve chosen two subjects that I have struggled with over the years, as I’ve had to think about them a lot when trying to compose my shots. The first is trees and the second is still life. Both have demanded a lot of time and effort, and I am still working on both areas!
I shoot the landscape around me in rural Aberdeenshire. That means cultivated farmland, the sea and coastal areas, and the castles or stately homes (mostly their grounds). As a passenger I also shoot the landscape and the road as we drive along – there are pitifully few stopping places for the avid photographer!
I visit the same locations in different seasons, and with different cameras and lenses, which gives me more variations, along with the light and weather conditions. Over time you become familiar with the cameras and lenses you have, and you can choose which ones you think will suit the location, or the subject you have in mind. And often you will be taken by surprise, and find yourself experimenting with a scene before you that isn’t what you had in mind!
So – what’s the problem with trees in the landscape? Well, when I see a wonderful tree with an elegant shape or a gnarled trunk, it is usually surrounded or obscured by a whole lot of other trees, bushes or undergrowth. Or maybe it is just too big to fit into the frame without losing the details that so fascinate me. The idea I use most is to incorporate the trees, or part of them, into a bigger composition idea.
Here the first shot brings Spring bluebells together with the shadows cast across the path by the trees. This allows me to indicate the full splendour of the spring greenery of the woodland full of trees, while cutting them down to a few trunks. And the second shot uses the trees to frame the winding path leading to a bench in the distance. I can cut and crop the trees while still using the entire image to indicate just how the trees dominate the entire scene.
And here the third shot not only uses the cropped trees as a frame for the winding path, but it can show the lovely play of light through the trees. And in the fourth shot it is using a part to indicate the whole at work. The foreground sweep of branches speak of the whole tree, and of autumn; while the background water and reflections show the far shoreline of trees, and a good idea of their height too.
So, although my main interest and purpose was to shoot the trees in all four images, I found a way to do that by composing the shots to include other elements. Looking back to the page about the Frame you can also look at the 4 images in terms of how they use the dynamic edges of the frame to close in or open out the composition.
If you’d like to see more, I have a Flickr Album of tree shots I’ve taken over the years, with different lenses Here
And so on to Still Life – the second area of composition that I have struggled with over the years. Simply taking a few objects, and putting them together and photographing them should be so easy! What’s the problem?
It might seem odd to start with 3 pictures of fruit, but they all illustrate an important lesson I’ve learned – it may be called Still Life, but there has to be movement. Yes – ‘dynamic’ is the word I use … the composition has to be dynamic.
Looking at these three compositions, they all take a starting point of fruit in a container. And all three use the placing of part of the fruit outside the container. In each case it encourages the eye to move around the picture – creating that sense of the dynamic. There’s more, of course.
Looking the oranges first – what attracted me was that the oranges had leaves (unusual where I live) so I wanted to show the leaves as well as the oranges. I bought a box of a dozen but only used four in the shot. Why? Less is more, as the saying goes – and that is often true in photography. Here three oranges fitted nicely into the small glass container, allowing the eye to take in the shapes and colours, and conjure up the taste and smell of fresh oranges. The container itself elevates the oranges. It is glass and almost transparent, so the oranges seem to be floating. And the one outside the container makes the eye travel down to the ground, and take in the upright stalk, and two horizontal leaves. The composition takes the eye on a gentle curve down the left hand side of the picture, and then the eye follows the leaf round and into the empty negative space on the right of the image. Placing the subject off-centre is another way to create a dynamic composition. Imagine the image that might have been there – a dozen oranges placed in the centre of the frame. A static composition at best – and nowhere for the eye to move, and appreciate those oranges!
Moving on to the second composition, the cherries. Here the background plays a much stronger role, with the ceramic kitchen tiles placing the solid white container firmly on the work surface. The container is close to the corner of the work surface, which helps to close in the space/frame. The eye has quite a lot of the background to explore, with the lines and the design on one tile. There’s a design on the container too. So how to create some dynamism and interest in the cherries? My solution was to use the stalks to create a vertical, slight diagonal, hide the top cherries, and bring the eye down to rest on the one complete cherry. So the background takes the eye round, and the cherries take the eye up and down. For it to work it needed a more central placing of the cherries … but again not in the middle!
And finally the redcurrants. This needed a different approach, as the berries are too small for just two or three to suffice – it needed to be a good handful! I found that they looked great in a champagne coupe. This time the glass itself was a major part of the composition, so it stands on a very visible wooden surface. But how to create movement between the fruit, high off the ground, and the solid surface? Scattering some berries helped, but the red ribbon did the trick! It joined the berries in the glass to those on the surface, and it has a lovely curl which gives the dynamic movement to the composition! So the eye starts high up with the berries in the coupe, then slides down to the berries at the base, and then travels along the wooden bench. The background is very plain, with just a hint of blue up the left-hand side of the frame.
So there are three images that are both very still and also very dynamic at the same time!
As I said at the beginning of this page, I may not always be consciously thinking about what I am doing – I’m more likely to be playing around with some of the assorted things I have collected as photo props. I have a few places around the house where I like to shoot – and especially if the sun shines through the big bay window I’ll grab a camera and get playing with what is to hand. Playing, enjoying the process and not worrying about what emerges is always at the heart of my approach. And thanks to digital photography I can take many shots, ‘messing about’ and then look at them later and sift through them sorting what ‘works’ from what doesn’t! It’s only afterwards that I might analyse why this shot works for me, and another from the same shoot doesn’t.
This an example of ‘messing around’ or playing. I brought some fallen leaves back from a walk, and liked how they curled and turned a light brown. Shooting them in the bay window I thought they were about the same colour as my latest Kokeshi doll. So I put them together and tried to make them ‘play’ together. This shot really worked, as the leaves seemed to be dancing round her. Afterwards I added some brightness with the green lights behind (yes – post-processing is always part of a finished image!) At the time I didn’t really notice the triangular shape the leaves and doll made, or the gentle curve of the tabletop behind that seems to hold it all safely together.
If you’d like to see more, I have a Flickr Album of Still Life compositions Here
Flickr holds Elisa’s online Photo Gallery
© 2019 Elisa Liddell