The Dogs

Friday Foto Flaunt: Composition

See what I did there? That's not how you spell photo! Ah fun with alliteration.  Ahem, well anyway it's Friday again and I barely remembered to post another photo group. Thanks Didactic Pirate. Arrrrrr. Click the images to see the full resolution sample. Also go check out my latest mad photoshoppery at Beta Dad. It's basically the coolest thing that ever happened to his blog. Beside getting made "of note" and adding like a million followers. Whatev.

Self Portrait with The Bubs.
The thing that hit me hard and stuck throughout my growth as an artist was something my photo professor told me my freshman year in college. "The thing that makes an image powerful or dramatic or interesting, is never what you see, but what you don't see. We create photos by adding a border to life and deciding what to cut out of the frame." Here is a real example of this theory. I set up a tripod and a remote trigger to shoot self portraits in my studio. But my partner in crime, Bubba hates his picture taken. Point a camera at him and he turns his head away every time. This made it virtually impossible to to get a picture with both of us in the shot. On top of that this was captured in 35mm so I had no way of telling what was in the frame. When I processed the images I found that my favorite shots were the ones where not everything was in the shot.
If you want to go from taking okay photos to taking great photos it helps to understand a bit about the foundational concepts  of composing an image. (This applies whether you are shooting bikini models or your 2 year old at Disneyland.) Usually the most exciting images are the ones that break rules. Fortunately, the little "phase" between age 13 and, well now, taught me that if you want to break the rules good and proper, you need to learn them first. The same applies if you want to take exciting photos. This is true of almost any art form in fact. Picasso said "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child". The theory behind this is simple: learning the rules is the first step, breaking them in the right way is a lifelong process.

Earlier this week I got an email from a "fiber" artist (she makes amazing fabric mixed media pieces and painted silk Check it out here). She wanted to expand her range and start taking more professional photos. So of course she bought a high end camera and went on safari in Africa and shot some amazing work (like ya do) However she had trouble breaking down and understanding the mechanics of composition.

There are generally accepted rules or guidelines for creating an image that is comfortable or pleasing to the eye. For the sake of this post I'll assume that almost everyone who reads this is primarily an English reader and therefore is conditioned to process all visual content in a similar way. That is to say the eye will enter an image at the upper left corner and generally scan down and right across the photo. Whereas someone who was raised reading Japanese text would enter the image at the upper right corner and proceed in the opposite direction. 

 Here's an example of eye entrance direction. Generally people who read left to right will find the first image more pleasing because the focal point begins closest to the left side and continues off to the right, as does the progression from dark to light. We're trained for this because we usually read dark leters on white paper.

This of course happens in the span of mere seconds as we view process an image and decide if we like it or not. Generally speaking the layout of a shot will heavily impact if someone enjoys looking at it, but it's the hidden parts you refuse to give the audience that bring someone back to look at it again and again. Maybe it has something to do with our obsession with secrets. We're driven mad by the tease of being denied to see that one little part that's hidden. What is going on over there? That's why so many fashion portraits use subjects staring off camera instead of making eye contact. We are usually more fascinated by what they might be looking at than the face itself.

Another cornerstone of "correct" (see also: status quo, boring, popular) composition is the rule of thirds. You may have heard this term before. This is described as a canvas being broken in three equal parts by two sets of lines bisecting the page both vertically and horizontally. This is most often used in cinema because using a composition based on thirds helps make images comfortable for a viewer to look at and easy for the eye to process the image quickly and efficiently. An image based on the rule of thirds is most likely to be easy and comfortable to look at. With that in mind, breaking this rule can be an effective way to throw the audience off or make the viewer uncomfortable about the image. Hitchcock used this effect notoriously to create a sense of unease in moviegoers. He said that every film should in some way "visit violence upon it's audience." The rule of thirds is mostly a general area and not a hard line. a way of breaking up the layout of subjects. 

This photo from Africa is a perfect example. It's a great photo. And depending on the mood you want to cast, sometimes you want to throw the balance off. But given the expressions on the faces and the soft glow of the exposure I'm assuming it was going for a somewhat tranquil and peaceful moment. The exposure is interesting, the gradient colors are beautiful, but the way the image is just a little bit "off" is in composition. Because of the amount of headroom it becomes neither a wide shot (head to toe subjects) or a portrait size. You'll notice that the headroom is roughly 1/2 the canvas size. (the amount of space from the top of the subjects head to the top edge of the canvas.) This makes the eye assume that the two figures might not be the focal point of the image, although they obviously are. This can be confusing as the eye searches for an explanation of focus. The amount of headroom can sometimes also create a feeling of heaviness, as if the sky is weighing down on a subject, making them appear small and timid. But these are not small and timid faces. These are proud and strong faces. Shot from eye level. So, by cropping down we can place the subjects in the right third of the frame and reduce the headroom to roughly 1/3 of the vertical length of the canvas. Although we may have lost some information the image would be considered more "comfortable" or traditional.

Whether or not this is better is a matter of taste and personal aesthetic. Sometimes images rely on an awkward composition by breaking the rule of thirds. I shot this image several years ago on a 35mm Nikon and scanned the negative.

I wanted to try doing some surreal images that played on the feeling of old antique portraits I'd seen from the 60's. You could make an argument that this image is a conglomerate of imperfections. The exposure is too hot, the frame is composed oddly, the house is neither centered nor in the left third, the boy is too centered and the most heinously cut off at the knees. Every time I look at the image I hear all the rules that were bashed into my head by my photography professor. And yet, I find myself intrigued and strangely happy with it. There's something so wrong about it that it becomes right in some way. It is a perfect representation of posed shot as unposed image. Many people would probably find the image to be an accident, which is why I don't use it in my portfolio, and it could be because I grew up in the background farmhouse, but I find the image somewhat comforting in it's unbalanced (or too balanced) nature. Further proof that aesthetics are primarily about personal taste.

Here are some images that address issues of composition, in both the law abiding and rebellious nature.

This is a classic portrait structure. Starting on the left and moving off-frame to the right.

This is another example of the same rule of thirds. Because the eye enters the shot at the left it runs straight into the subject. Notice that the through-line (the middle of the subject) is roughly drawn along the 1/3 of the right of the frame. For whatever reason when i tried this image flipped it felt totally wrong.

This image rejects the rule of thirds entirely, however it embraces the idea that what is OFF screen is what makes an image intriguing. Were this a photo of the whole face (as I also shot) and centered it could become boring, we would understand too much upon initial viewing to want to know anything more. cutting out the eyes (what everyone always looks for first to bond with a subject) makes the image strange and changes the direction of our interest.

I'm a huge fan of body shots. And not just involving tequila. These types of shots are great for creating curiosity and making the viewer want to know more. Who is holding this sword? Why? Why the glove? And so on. create 30% of a narrative and the audience will fill in the rest with their own wild imaginations.

Looking off screen is a classic way to transfer the narrative off an over-average subject. Standing next to a window: boring. Looking longingly out a window: tell me more! What's the story?

 I shot this while on location in Jamaica shooting a documentary film. This is Denny, who I love. He is the shit, pure and simple. The guy was a tour manager for Michael fuckin Jackson! He's a god. We'd been traveling for 34 hours and I somehow got this shot off. It's better than any full face portrait I got of him all week. Remember, it's what you don't see that counts.

This was back in the day when I was taking a photo course from that professor who etched the preceding quote in my brain. I spent most of my first years in college avoiding course reading and  running an underground tattoo parlor out of my apartment. (One eyed Pete's Tattoos) I got my ink for free and a cut of the profits raked off freshman getting butterflies just North of their butt cracks. Ah, the good ol' days. 

Years late this is still one of my favorite (and most popular) images I ever shot. This was against a jenky wall in my LA studio around 2007. No one knows why they find the image so interesting, but I think it's because of how little you see. The curves and outline are just enough to suggest but they don't give anything away. It's the perfect narrative tease. The addition of a sword just makes the whole scenario harder to decipher.

The truth is, composition is something that almost everyone struggles to understand, professionals and amateurs alike. It's a tricky subject to quantify. It's more like psychology than science. Exposure levels, apertures, ISO qualities all have quantitative strutcture, numbers and ranges that can be recorded and recreated. If a photo is too dark you can increase the exposure. But what makes a composition good or bad? This is a much less definable subject. What makes a picture "look good"? What is that IT factor that makes an image pleasing to the eye. It's impossible to answer these questions with any absolute certainty. These are questions of aesthetics which are deeply personal and vary greatly from person to person as well as between generations.


  1. Great post! Also, I checked out the banner on BetaDad's blog. Very awesome! You have MAD skills, man! MAD, I say!

  2. Great photos and a really interesting photography lecture. I have given up on taking really good photos, but my wife is a natural. I should post some photos she took out of a moving car in the countryside of Vietnam with a crappy digital point and shoot.

    Thanks again for the banner!

  3. Spud: moochoes grassy ass for the kind words. If anyone has photo topics they are interested in, let me know.

    Beta: It was my pleasure, I haven't done something that fun in a while, and dude, it was mutually beneficial, I already got emails asking about my rates. Bloggers ask for rates, massive corporations ask for favors! It's ridiculous. Shoot those twin pics, (or maybe have your actually talented wife shoot them) and I'll throw together some more silliness.

  4. Great post and pictures. Love BD's banner that you did.


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