We almost always discuss composition and framing in terms of putting things in to the frame: on further contemplation, I don’t think that’s correct or accurate at all. The act of composition is in fact the complete opposite. And embracing that can lead to some surprising shifts and improvements in one’s compositions.
There are three main ways of making a photograph: the majority of the population – I do not consider these people photographers in the true sense of the word – aim the camera at a subject, ensure that it is mostly contained within the frame, then press the button with no further consideration to anything else. The second stage is when the photographer starts with the subject and then frames accordingly to ensure the surrounding objects/ context/ other things are arranged around the primary subject in such a way as to be aesthetically pleasing. They may or may not take into consideration the relationship or implied relationship between the primary subject and whatever is left over. Finally, we have the method I personally use: a subtractive one. I too start with the main subject, but that’s where the similarity ends.
I examine the surrounding scene to see what can be removed. The intention is to have the absolute bare minimum secondary subjects/ objects that are required to tell the story or give the context I intend; reasons being twofold. Firstly, the fewer distractions there are from your main subject, the more attention your audience puts on your intended focus. If there’s nothing to distract you from your task at hand, you tend to not only get it done faster, but also with higher concentration: the same is true for a photograph. Secondly, precisely because aesthetic preferences and photographs are subjective, there’s a need for a controlled amount of ambiguity in an image: not so much that the general meaning isn’t clear, but enough that each viewer has sufficient latitude to interpret it to their own satisfaction*. This is especially important if the content is conceptual or artistic or is cueing the audience to think as opposed to being documentary or more ‘defined’.
*The easiest way to understand this is to consider a book vs a movie: the book is inevitably better, not just because some things were left out in the interests of production economics, but because the movie is a very rigid and defined interpretation according to the vision of a few people: it may or may not agree with our interpretation of that same situation. If I write ‘it was a cold dark night’ – each of you readers will imagine a different scene, and we haven’t even started on the method of presentation yet. It’s all about expectation: words are easy to meet the expectations of a wide range of people with because they aren’t concrete; images do not have the same latitude for interpretation. A tree may be a tree, but if I think of a maple in autumn, you may imagine a redwood, and our director has gone for a spruce – which can no longer be either of the former, and we’re left either surprised or disappointed.
I’ve often said that photography is more like a short speech than any other form of communication: it may be visual, but in the end the photographer is trying to communicate something to his or her audience. Except, being visual, they have to rely on the common human subconscious ‘visual memory’ do it (e.g. our ability to recognise the human form, cues for night/ day etc.), and the whole message is conveyed in seconds. There is also no possibility for the audience to interact with the photographer and receive clarification or a reply; you only have one chance to say everything you want.
Though the last two points appear to be in conflict – the necessity of some latitude for audience interpretation and the need for instant clarity and conveyance of meaning – they really aren’t. It means that a good photograph simply has no room for extraneous elements and distractions; it is in effect a study in minimalism. Often, the most impactful images – at least the ones that I’ve seen and have stuck with me or have produced and have stood the test of time in culling – have few elements and absolutely no distractions that are not critical for telling the story. This is true even if that single element or subject dominates the entire image; there are still no distractions. You may think the [Ultraprints] would appear to conflict with this objective because their very rasion d’être is to provide so much detail as to be immersive – but I’d disagree simply because the details and small elements are necessary to provide that experience keep the audience engaged.
Less is more: when there are subjects that aren’t that strongly isolated, it’s important to remove everything else. I’m not showing what was on the rest of the beach; it isn’t important – and you can use your imagination to fill in the blanks.
Distractions can take the form of edge intrusions, visual elements that break pattern thus unintentionally calling attention to themselves, or simply incongruous or discontinuous elements that do not belong in the story, or create some degree of confusion. Note this is not the same as ambiguity: ambiguity leaves room for the viewer to satisfy themselves through a personalised interpretation; confusion presents them with something that seems out of place and wasn’t part of the intended message.
Our job as photographers is therefore be excluders. The very act of framing is one of exclusion, not inclusion: the viewfinder cuts out the bits of the world we don’t want to see, and thus also don’t want to show our audience. By that logic, we find rangefinders useful because we can see outside the frame, and thus be able to decide if there may be elements that would serve to reinforce our message or improve the balance of our compositions if included; sub-100% finders are frustrating because we run the risk of including things we didn’t intend to, or even see at the time of capture.
This begs us to revisit the logic of cropping afterwards: I’ve always said I’m against it because it destroys your ability to previsualize a composition for a given focal length/ angle of view – thus weakening the use of perspective to emphasise subjects – in addition to the obvious problem of throwing away a lot of image quality. I think cropping is acceptable if you compose with the intention of doing so before capture. Hacking away at a mediocre frame bit by bit to try and make something acceptable is never going to yield a strong composition: you will simply be left with nothing because you did not define the elements that anchor the edges of your frame beforehand.
I’m going to leave you with one single, simple, closing thought: next thine you find yourself framing something, think of firstly what bare minimum elements are required to tell your story, and ask yourself not what you should include in the frame – but what you can afford to leave out without losing any of the meaning. MT
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