3 Composition Skills That Every Photographer Needs To Develop
I’ve generously talked about composition in the past, and there is a reason why. This is because I truly believe that composition is where the soul of any photograph resides. Learning how to expose with a camera is just as meritorious as learning how to drive or even to write. Anyone can take photographs, but not all photographs are meaningful.
Composition is a huge asset in photography, and there has been a lot said about rules and even recipes about composition. But there is something that goes beyond rules and universal laws, and we are talking about composition skills.
After a huge debate, we have concluded that there are three fundamental and key skills when it comes to “the act of composing”. These skills should concern every photographer, no matter the years of experience. They can (and should) be developed in order to get closer to that desired goal of being a photographer that is able to create meaningful and compelling photographs. And of course, I’m talking about those images have the power of sticking in people’s mind for long periods of time, and in some cases, forever.
These three skills are pre-visualization, anticipation and timing. But they sound like synonyms you might be thinking, but I’ll discuss them further. The first thing that you need to understand is that these skills are embedded within every single frame that you make and greater or lower scales. By being aware of them you’ll be able to exercise in order to develop or fine tune them. The great thing about these abilities is that it they are very well suited in all photographic genres.
Several iconic photographs have “seen the light” thanks to the ability their authors have had in terms of pre-visualizing a particular scene. This particular activity requires at first, observation and patience. Sumed to that, photographers need to develop a specific ability in order to anticipate to a diversity of lighting scenarios.
Observation allows us as photographers to recognize shapes, space and certain graphic elements that nurtures a scene in terms of aesthetics. And light anticipation will respond particularly to the intention (or the message) that we as photographers wish to convey in a photograph.
For illustration purposes I will narrate a bit how the image above occurred. I was walking near a blind people specialized learning center. Then I noticed the beautiful Ray Charles graffiti on a wall, and I intuited that after a while, someone with visual disabilities was going to walk by. I waited patiently and suddenly a man approached the scene. I wasn’t that able to step back too much. First because I was carrying my Fuji X100T which has a fixed 23mm (35mm equivalent) lens, and secondly because it was pretty close to a street. That means that if I positioned myself too far away, I was going to put myself in danger due to crossing vehicles. I had measured the light previously and the composition, so I simply waited for this image to happen. I would love to have a wider crop, but that was the widest I could get thanks to the aforementioned context.
This is just a simple example of countless situations that can present to you. Try hard to pre-visualize the elements that will compose the scene and the light, and you’ll get interesting photos that will go beyond mere snapshots.
Pro-tip: If you work with a fixed lens for long periods of time, for example a year, you’ll eventually reach a point in which the lens becomes an extension of your mind.
Anticipating is different to pre-visualizing because it implies a certain level of “habit” or “custom”. For example, if you are documenting a certain topic, you’ll be able to anticipate to some actions that could surprise the unprepared average photographer. This requires high levels of constancy and practice, but after a while any photographer could be able to anticipate certain actions that are expected to happen under specific circumstances.
For example, if I get hired to shoot a wedding, it will be hard for me to capture certainly expected shots since I haven’t shot a wedding in years. I would definitely limit myself to the traditional shots and some random improvisations. In the other hand, if I get to attend several weddings, I will surpass that moments of wonder and I’ll be able to anticipate certain common things that happen in weddings.
After you have created the scene in your mind, you need to be able to shoot the frame of the moment you are willing to capture. As a street photographer I must confess, this is really hard because sometimes adrenaline gets in the way. This interferes and make us press the shutter button way before or after the moment happens. This could respond to the famously commercial statement endorsed to Henri Cartier-Bresson (which wasn’t that popular on his mind) about the Decisive Moment. If you are able to see the scene with your own eyes, it has fled away from your camera. You need to practice anticipating to the moments before you are able to see them.
But don’t get discouraged so quickly, you can always use burst mode in your cameras in order to avoid missing the moments you wish to capture. Some photographers like to use it, some don’t. Personally I don’t like using it but hey, engineers have put a lot of effort into those features in your expensive camera, used them!
These three skills are not something you’ll learn from books by following steps. These are skills that need to be developed at individual levels, and only after conscientious and disciplined practice, you’ll start to handle them right.
How to know that you are handling the right? Easy, You’ll be able to control your nerves and you’ll be able to surpass the adrenaline rushes. This doesn’t mean photography will become boring or unthrilling, this only means that you’ll be able to capture things as (or almost as) you are wishing them to be in your camera.