One of the first things I was asked to do as a student at Leeds college of Art & Design was purchase a book called ‘Ways of seeing‘ by John Berger. This was a book that taught me how to really look at and appreciate art with a critical eye, even those big boring paintings you whiz past in art galleries because it’s just a picture of a guy on a horse or a farm or a load of fat babies with wings. This book, and the 1972 TV series based on it, opened my mind to all art, not just the stuff I thought I was interested in. One of the things I took away most was the importance of context and, to a slightly lesser degree, composition of an image (unlike the book and TV series I have referenced here, this post will be more about composition than context). A sculptures framing and composition can be decided after the creation by whatever angle you decide to view it in most cases, but a painting or photograph is a fixed view decided by the artist themselves; the viewer has no choice and is a powerless bystander. This is a critical choice an artist has to make secondary only to subject matter.
The artist has control of the context of an image as well as the vertical and the horizontal composition.
However, John Berger shows how this control has been broken in a way, with such things as modern reprints that are sometimes a cropped version of a famous photograph or a painting on a postcard sold in an art gallery for example. You are now seeing an entirely new composition born of the same image.
The cropping of images to create new images is prevalent in every industry that uses illustrated or photographic imagery, we use many cropped images for these blog posts for instance; scroll to the top of this article and you will see one. This is essentially a composition within a composition because it’s never the entire original image, it has to be cropped down to a specific set of dimensions to fit that space.
But what about composition of an image itself?
You only need to look at Facebook and Instagram to see a general disregard of composition as people seem to just point and shoot at anything they find interesting and there’s nothing inherently wrong with this (I do it too sometimes) but good composition can make an average photo into a great one that you may spend more than a couple of seconds looking at or even put on your wall, regardless of subject.
How many times do you take hundreds of pictures on holiday or a night out and literally never look at them again, ever? This is because subconsciously you know exactly what you’re going to see because you have seen it many times before. How many of these pictures do you have in a frame on a desk or a shelf? There seems to be a thought process which is if you don’t take pictures of everything then these moments will be lost, hence the current trend of half the audience in a music gig holding their phones up and recording videos for the entire thing. The reality is that your memory is much better than you think it is. Don’t forget, if something is worth remembering, your brain will capture it and remember it for you.
But I digress, good composition can be achieved in many different ways, the most simple is the framing of a picture. In the case of a smart phone camera for example, the frame is the rectangular edge of your screen. Anything in this rectangle is part of the composition, this is the boundary of the world your creation inhabits.
Here’s a simple example of a more interesting composition. Take a look at the image below:
A standard birds eye view shot of some coffee beans in the shape of the SteadyGo logo, perfectly fine but just standard. We don’t want standard, we want something a bit more unique and stand out. If we can’t change the subject (the logo) then we can change the frame by moving the camera around like in the picture below:
We still have the same subject but the view is vastly different, including some more background details giving more situational context, texture and tone. A much more interesting image is produced just by moving the camera, nothing else changed from the top picture to the bottom. With the logo placed within the frame in the left half and the angle of the stone windowsill being diagonal, flowing toward the right half, we have created a dynamic which gives the picture depth. Again this is all achieved with placement of the frame.
Here’s another example:
Subject in the middle, solid background. Gets the job done but is a bit uninteresting. Lets try again.
A frame shift to a lower angle and the introduction of background elements. We have the subject in the foreground positioned to the left of the frame, the curve of the table creates a middle ground and the plant/partition creates a background. This 3 tier’d effect creates an interesting composition and adds depth to the image, engaging the viewer much more.
These are just basic examples but next time you are taking that picture on a night out, on holiday, of your lunch etc have a bit of a think on how you can make it more interesting as an image regardless of the subject and you might find your photography skills leveling up pretty fast.
In the next part, we will look at portrait photography/painting and the dramatic effects of lighting
I decided to add the Ways of Seeing TV program to the end here as its a really interesting watch. It’s an old one for sure but I don’t think there is anything in there that doesn’t apply now, it’s probably even more relevant in these days of the internet and smart phones. Also, check out that shirt!