Assignment 4: Composition


The composition of a photograph, apart from being a potential ‘subject’ itself – has the power to make or break your photograph, more than any other aspect. It can be a complex topic to address and involves almost every aspect of the making of a photograph.

We will use primarily only black-and-white images in this discussion for two reasons; the first is that the issue of composition becomes a much simpler topic in black and white – as the black and white image tends to be more dependent on composition for it’s success (the color photograph also relies on the same factors of course but can distract from these issues). The second reason is that we will be carrying out this assignment in monochrome (that is to say, ‘black and white’). Please set your camera on your monochrome setting for this assignment. It is usually located under the main menu setting under ‘color settings’ or equivalent. If you don’t have a black and white setting then ‘sepia’ will do also.


Using Negative Space
Notice the dramatic nature of the following image. By using an unusually large amount of ‘negative space’ (a fancy term for ‘background’ or ‘featureless’ space). It is sometimes surprising to see how dramatic an image can be when using such a technique. This is something to keep in mind and try out on your own when the opportunity presents itself.


Ray K Metzker, Philadelphia 1963

Ray K Metzker, Philadelphia 1963

Exercise: Try making three photographs using shadow (or light) in this manner. Think of this ‘negative space’ almost like a window matte over a framed photograph. You may use a large expanse of shadow or light (it can be a wall for example – in shadow or bright light) – the idea is to use only a small part of the frame to draw attention to the subject and make that seem more significant.


A politician once said ‘Repeat a lie often enough and people will start to believe it.’ This strikes me as relevant when looking at the topic of repetition in images – perhaps it’s simply the insistence of a particular form repeating itself – or perhaps it has to do with our fascination with patterns and systems. Whatever the reason, repetition of a single element throughout the frame can make for a powerful image. the design of such images are usually MORE successful when they are based on a diagonal motif (which is to say- that straight grids are not usually as successful as diagonally based ones, such as the image below).


Margaret Bourke-White, Delman Shoes, 1933.

Margaret Bourke-White, Delman Shoes, 1933.

Exercise: try this with whatever subjects are available for you. Try to make three (at least one at a minimum) images that are based on repetition in this manner. Try to make one based on a ‘straight up’ vs ‘diagonal grid.


Gesture and Line
Look at the following image by Lewis Hine. Note the way that each motif (arc,circle, other shapes) compliment eachother. This is a classic example of good design in a photograph. It is not necessary to ‘pre design’ or ‘calculate’ such an image. It’s simply a matter of ‘moving things around’ until you find a composition that you find pleasing to the eye.


Lewis Hine, (Powerhouse Mechanic), 1920

Lewis Hine, (Powerhouse Mechanic), 1920

Exercise: Using common objects – or, like the above, using a friend as a subject – attempt to integrate the subject of your photograph into the background. This shouldn’t be daunting – it can be something as simple as a doorway – or the space between two other people… a form behind them (perhaps a statue or sculpture). Learn to stop seeing the world in terms of ‘good and bad’ subjects. Start thinking of everything in terms of it’s surface and ‘photographic’ qualities (shape, tone, reflectivity, texture, etc)


Shadow and Light
Both shadow and light can be strong design elements in any image, and any photograph that has ‘beautiful light’ in it contains an element of this. The quality of light in a photograph is one of the most underrated aspects of photography by newcomers. Try to pay attention to what is going on with the lighting in the scene of any photograph you make. Being more conscious of this will make you a better photographer than most other aspects of photography will.


Paul Strand. Porch Shadows, 1916

Paul Strand. Porch Shadows, 1916

Exercise: Find a subject that has a pattern of shadow (or any shadow of an interesting nature to you) falling on it. Make the shadow say something interesting. That is to say – compose the image so that the shadow almost seems like the subject. It’s not as hard as it sounds. You should also try this with a swath of light passing through an opening like a window or partly open door. Think about the shadows cast by things and let the shadows take on a life of their own… consider them part of the object that’s casting the shadow…


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