Saturday, August 10, 2013

Composition, Then and Now

As I continue to read older texts on composition and painting, I am struck by just how completely different they are from modern books on photography. It occurs to me that what is lacking in the modern photography book's discussion of composition is systematization.

A modern reference on photography will happily give you a system for exposure (e.g. Expose To The Right) with a very thorough set of instructions. It's a complete system, based on a model of how digital sensors work. You start from some ideas about How Things Work, and some ideas about what kinds of results you want (e.g. As much tonal range as possible, with as little noise as possible) and then you build a set of procedures that will produce that result. It's pretty straightforward.

Composition enjoys no such system, in the modern world of photography. You get instead, a disconnected and self-contradictory set of tips and tricks. You get endless rules for where to stick the subject which, when taken all together, mean to not stick the subject in the middle. You get a jumble of material on leading the eye, with some vague hints about where you might lead the eye. There is sometimes some dubious material about How Things Work in the form of some generally bogus discussion of how our brains or eyes work, which may or may not eventually be connected to a tip or a trick. Usually something about leading lines, or something silly, akin to "how purple triangles make us feel cold."

Older texts do give a complete system of composition, based on a model. They generally start out with a pretty thorough, albeit dated, discussion of aesthetics, what is beautiful, what is sublime, and so on. They proceed from there to break these down into more specific bits and pieces that might work together to produce, for instance, beauty. They work through a large number of what we might call worked examples -- well known paintings, generally. The whole produces a method, or a set of interacting methods, which produce pleasing compositions. The trouble, from the perspective of the amateur photographer, is that at some point in these systems taste comes in to play. You cannot simply look at some numbers and charts, turn the dial until the needle touches the widget and press the shutter button. You have to have taste, and you have to use it. Which means that you have to have developed taste. Which means that some people simply aren't ever going to be as good at it as other people. Which means you cannot guarantee that you will become excellent at it simply by practicing.

Composition isn't HDR, or focus stacking, or macro photography, or star trails, or a collection of photoshop skills. It isn't exposure. It isn't any of these technical skills which can simply be taught to, and fully mastered by, anyone with enough will, enough time, and a minimum of intellectual horsepower.

There is no royal road to compositional skill. You've got to slug it out with other people's pictures, and there's no denying that you might never be terribly good at it. Almost anyone can become passably good at it, though. We can't all be concert pianists, but almost anyone can learn to play passably.

1 comment:

  1. Andrew, you may be interested in looking at "a primer of visual literacy" by Donis A Dondis.