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Thread: Composition: Conscious Thought or Natural Tendency?

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    Composition: Conscious Thought or Natural Tendency?

    As we all know, composition is a very important element in a successful image.

    When looking at an image I just published, I analysed the composition.

    Firstly, here is the image:



    What I noticed about my image, when studying it retrospectively, is that:

    1. the subject is positioned near a 'third' in the frame;
    2. the horizon (if you could see it through the fog) is also positioned along a third; and
    3. the curve of the shoreline leads the viewer into the scene, sharply left and right at the main subject.


    This got me wondering about whether photographers consciously consider compositional devices when framing, or whether it comes naturally or instinctively.

    I shot this image over a year ago, so I cannot recall precisely what was going through my mind as I was framing this image, but I almost certainly wasn't consciously thinking about leading lines, balance and thirds. I may have, and probably did, purposefully position that ship where it is.

    The fact that the curve in this image leads the viewer around the scene and terminating at the subject, might be accidental.

    I almost always compose using the rule of thirds. I purposefully frame my images that way; ie, it's a conscious choice as opposed to a natural 'reflex' or habitual action. Sometimes, though, it might be instinctive, and the result of my experience and style.

    I don't often consciously think too much about composition from an analytical viewpoint; I just know what works and 'know' how to compose.

    The 'rules' of composition might perhaps be so entrenched that I'm on auto-pilot and just tend to compose my images the way I do without actually thinking about it.

    Do others do the same?

    When you're shooting, are you consciously looking for S-curves and leading lines, and positioning subjects and horizons as per the rule of thirds, or does it 'just happen' without too much thought?

    I'm curious.

    Please share your thoughts.

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    can't remember Tannin's Avatar
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    Good topic!

    I don't look for composition, in a very real sense I listen for it. I better explain what I mean ....

    To look for something is to be active, to have an idea of what that something's appearance is, and go searching high and low for it.

    To listen for something is to be still and silent, to wait for an event and only then respond to it.

    So, when I'm out doing photography, be that hunting for a subject or composing the shot, I mostly listen with my eyes. I move around, let the light change as the day passes and the shadows move, and all the time I'm listening for a scene that says "I'm worthwhile and significant, photograph me!"

    Once the subject is selected, the composition stage is similar - I'm trying to "hear" what that subject should look like, it should be telling me how it wants to be photographed. If it isn't, either it's not much of a subject after all, or else I'm not listening properly.

    I find it difficult to produce decent work with subjects I don't know and have an understanding of. Landscapes in particular - if I travel through a district and take some shots along the way to somewhere else, I get holiday snaps. Meaningless stuff. I have to spend some time there, get to know it in all its moods, understand it - only then can I hear what it is saying and do some justice to it with a camera. Once I've got to know some country, it's different: I might be just passing through briefly but I can hear it telling me how to photograph it.

    As for the mechanics of composition, no, I don't usually think about the "rules" of composition, certainly not rule of thirds! In general, I make a point of not thinking about those things. If the subject wants to be photographed with a ROT composition, that's fine. If it wants something else, so be it.

    I do tend to use two or three compositional themes quite a lot - ROT is one, and strong diagonals is another - but that's because the subject wants to work that way and my eye responds to it, not something I try to impose on it out of my own head.
    Tony

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    It`s probably just you creative side coming out. After reading and seeing all these aspects that make a good photo into a fantastic image it just comes natural. Time constraints seem for me to be the major problem....and I`m retired.... We have just been to France and Italy for a holiday, doing two Trafalgar tours, back to back and you just wish you had more time in one place whether early or late in the day to get the magic light and sus out shooting positions etc.
    Graeme
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    Shore Crawler Dylan & Marianne's Avatar
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    I think my answer to this is ' a bit of both '
    Usually, I don't go out to take an S or spiral composition but if that's what the lay of the land is doing, then I'll try to compose it with that in mind and then to see if the rule of thirds will fit it.
    Because I shoot alot with live view, the compositional elements of thirds is something that is quite easily done and I do tend to use that 'rule' alot.
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    For me it depends.....

    Sometimes my subconscious takes over and I simply frame and shoot. Or if I don't fill the frame the crop just comes naturally without trying.

    Sometimes I really have to try hard to frame a bird in a pleasing manor. Though some poses are always tricky to frame.

    I'll let you guess which of the two produce the "best/better" result.
    Chris

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    Account Closed Wayne's Avatar
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    I'm consciously thinking about it when I have the time to do so. If chasing birds that are fast moving, or with sports that are fast paced and action is not really predictable, then not so much.

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    can't remember Tannin's Avatar
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    One thing I forgot to mention ... there are two or three things that pass through my mind constantly when I'm framing a shot - rules after a fashion. I force myself to think of these things constantly the same way, when I played cricket, I used to force myself to say "watch the ball, watch the ball, watch the ball!" when I was having a bat - if I didn't, I'd usually not last out the over.
    • Fill the frame!
    • Get that horizon straight!
    • Hold the damn thing still!


    I mostly do #1 without thinking about it these days. #2 I am, if nothing else, consistent - 1.5 degrees left to right just about every time unless I consciously think about it, and quite often even when I do. (sob) And #3 .... well, you can never relax your vigilance, even with short lenses, and especially not if you are hand-holding 700mm.

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    Account Closed Wayne's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tannin View Post
    • Hold the damn thing still!

    And #3 .... well, you can never relax your vigilance, even with short lenses, and especially not if you are hand-holding 700mm.
    I can attest that it isn't easy to do that even at 400mm when it weighs 6kg+

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    Quote Originally Posted by Xenedis View Post
    The 'rules' of composition might perhaps be so entrenched that I'm on auto-pilot and just tend to compose my images the way I do without actually thinking about it.

    Do others do the same?.
    I think of it more this way, John - I trust my eye. Maybe you do too.

    I know about the ROT, sure, but I don't think about it when framing a shot; at least not consciously unless there is a good reason to do so. The Rule of Thirds is only a "rule" at all because most of us have found, through experience, that images composed by that rule will usually be pleasing to most eyes; so I frame in a way that's pleasing to my eye first!

    If I have trouble framing a shot, and the initial result ISN'T pleasing to my eye, I will try to see whether I've been forced to break the ROT or similar to get the subject in frame. If that's the case then I will try to re-compose in PP so the finished product is pleasing to my eye.

    Sometimes I will deliberately break the ROT or similar to achieve a different "feel" to an image. I expect that people will look at those images and they will confront or disturb them in some way. I hope they will then take a second look and ask themselves why that is so. If they do then the off-rule framing has achieved my purpose.

    I hope I've explained that adequately.
    Waz
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    Ausphotography Regular bobt's Avatar
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    I suspect that a lot of it is similar to other skills we acquire as we grow, whether it be walking, talking or taking photographs. We don't think about walking, but once it required a lot of thought. We often drive a car at great speed without consciously concentrating on the hundreds of decisions that are required each minute. We couldn't do that the first time we sat behind the wheel! Same deal with photography .... a lot of the earlier "paint by numbers" skills gradually become second nature. Of course for special occasions we still need to take ourselves off auto pilot.

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    http://steveaxford.smugmug.com/ Steve Axford's Avatar
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    It's worth remembering that art and science were once the same thing. You either thought about things, or you didn't (or believed in magic). Those "rules" were created by the ancient Greeks (and many others) and were used in many things, including the Parthenon. I use them when appropriate, and not when I can't. I will think about it at times, but often rules will conflict and artistic choices nee to be made. Usually it is obvious which way you want to go, but remember, not all will agree with you - but it is your photo. Unlike Tanin (sorry mate), I don't try to listen with my eyes. I watch with my eyes and listen with my ears. A photograph has the advantage and disadvantage that it is just a slice of time, with no sound and no past or future. That can be read in by the observer, often ambiguously, but that can be a great quality at times. Most of the photography I take has no past or future - it is just a capture of now, but some, we can see into the past or into the future as well. What's that got to do with composition? Not sure, but bad composition always grates. Good composition doesn't impinge and allows the rest to come out.

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    I find myself because I do a mix of genres is; If I'm shooting birds, I think what composition would Richard hall use. Sport, I think how would Kiwi do it. Landscapes, I think of dtoh or Arthurking. And portraiture, I wonder if I @ M uses this style, or how would he set up the lighting for this group.
    All the knowledge I have of photography comes from what I see on this forum. Often I'll be framing a image, and an image I've seen on here comes to mind, and I try to emulate it.
    I don't think I use the rules, I've never really thought about it.
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    Ausphotography Regular agb's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by dtoh View Post
    I think my answer to this is ' a bit of both '
    Usually, I don't go out to take an S or spiral composition but if that's what the lay of the land is doing, then I'll try to compose it with that in mind and then to see if the rule of thirds will fit it.
    Because I shoot alot with live view, the compositional elements of thirds is something that is quite easily done and I do tend to use that 'rule' alot.
    Interesting that you use live view so much. I have never even used it once on my camera. Perhaps I should give it a try, might be the missing ingredient in my photography.
    The age of entitlement isn't over, it's just over there where you can't get to it.
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    Great thread!! Especially for people who are learning.

    I am always conscious of the ROT, framing, seeing if there is anything in the outer frame that is a distraction etc etc. This is mainly because I am still learning and, just like Bob said, it will all become second nature after we have learnt and practiced alot. I think it may be instantly natural to some people but for many, many others it will be a conscious thing.

    I have started using live-view quite a bit, especially when I am framing a landscape on the tripod. I find it invaluable to see the picture as it would be taken, and it helps with focusing ( I can zoom 5x or 10x to a spot and focus on that). When I haven't used live-view and the 5x zoom, my images are definately not as good or properly focused than when I was in live-view.

    It's funny how Geoff said he thinks of others on this forum and how they would take the photo - me too! I think how they would frame the image; which means so much has come from this forum in helping us learners. It's invaluable.

    I can see where Tony is coming from too....I read that alot photography is waiting, listening and seeing to get that great image. In one of the magazines I just read, a guy waited for 6 WEEKS at a river to get the right shot. He camped on the shore and just waited and waited. (My hubby said he was a very strange man and must not have many friends!)....but thats the whole point; he was patient enough to wait for the magic moment. So, composition certainly is something we all need to do well, whether naturally or thought about, but patience certainly is a virtue in photography too. (Sorry if I went off the track )
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    I truely believe that if you find a genre that you are comfortable with, one that makes you want to get out of bed on cold mornings, or spend hours arranging models, MUAs, ensuring that there is water and feed for the whole cast, or tramping through the bush for seemingly hours to obtain that different view of a landmark, then the composition of the image is already there, in your subconscious. Sure there maybe some training and practice required to produce the best quality image your equipment is capable of, but this is true of any art form and I have found that even before I lift my beloved Nikon (couldn't help it) to my eye, the image I want is already there in my mind. Now I realise in the case of sport, and even some fashion (runway) you dont have the time to take in the scene, but once again you have most likely positioned yourself and set your equipment up in order to fulfil what you as artist has already realised will be the opportunity to capture a great image. These skills come from within and are only enhanced by technical knowledge.....I think !
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    With me I'ts hard to say, Bit of both also I guess, I dont have live view so all my comps are through the viefinder, I usually just see the scene, I do try and get lines running out of the corners of the shot , Just comes second nature now , I sometimes put the camera up to my eye and pan around for a nicer comp , Much like they do when checking scenes for a movie , in PP in LR I use the crop tool to check the ROT with the grid , But I'm always pretty close to what I want Out of Camera Mostly it just happens
    Last edited by William; 08-07-2011 at 9:52am.
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    I subconsciously seem to follow the rule of thirds, but one thing I do consciously check before I do the final "click", is to have a quick look around the edges of the frame for any "foreign object" that shouldn't be there, and that could be removed from the frame fairly easily with a slight change of angle / but would take me half an hour to clone out / delete later on in photoshop!
    Cheers,
    Terri



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    http://steveaxford.smugmug.com/ Steve Axford's Avatar
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    One thing to remember when composing a shot with a wide angle lens - and that is that the relative proportions of objects change with changing angles. Wide angle lenses always change the way we see things depending on where and at what angle it is taken from. The trick is - move from one position to another, change the angle, see what happens to the view.

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    I dont actively think about it anymore when im doing portraits anymore, but I used to struggle with it alot, but it becomes natural after you've been doing it for a while. Although if im doing another genre its something I actively think about when composing a shot.
    Cheers
    Emma

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    I generally don't think to a rule or a particular compositional technique, i'd say its more natural for me. The most that I would say I look for is a point of interest or something to define the image...my pet hate is images of a beautiful scene with no direction. After that I just let myself go and try to get a feel for how I want to compose the image...if that breaks some rule then I am not concerned. Quite often when I see a particular subject that interests me I will try a few different things until I get the image to feel how I want...whether that is naturally, or some idea of processing to be taken down the track. In saying that when I compose I generally like to make my viewer think, to distort reality or offer my introspection of a particular scene or feeling, and I guess subconciously I shoot to lead the eye somewhat. I generally find that many of the photos I take are on the fly, so normal compositional rules fade into the background while getting the viewer to see what I am seeing, thinking or feeling is my highest priority, with a small window you don't have time otherwise. If an image doesn't manage to do that for me generally its discarded, its probably somewhat perfectionist but I set myself high standards.
    Last edited by Xebadir; 08-07-2011 at 11:17am.
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