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Roger Rex View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Roger Rex Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Topic: Composition
    Posted: 28 May 2021 at 09:05
Perhaps my favorite teacher of photography (and one of my favorite photographers) is Harold Feinstein. Included in a dvd of his are some original lecture notes. Below are some notes about composition. I thought you might be interested in this quite different view of the subject, a viewpoint I share.

“Ok, the name of this class is composition. And in 27 years of involvement in photography and painting and the major part of my life has been focusing on it, passionately involved in it. I don’t know what the word means – composition. I know how art schools generally think about it – they’re talking about the organization of shapes on a page, relationships, what-have-you. But as soon as you begin to define what composition is or what art is or indeed what you are, the opposite will come along and be truer than what you first thought. It doesn’t want to be defined. See, I don’t have in mind how each of you should paint or photograph or sculpt or write or indeed live.”

A related idea is offered by photographer Robert Adams: “Can photography be taught? If this means the history and techniques of the medium, I think it can …. If, however, teaching photography means bringing students to find their own individual photographic visions, I think it is impossible.”

And, lastly, also related, my general artist statement: "My images reflect all of life’s experiences, every image a self-portrait. For the viewer, you, every image a mirror. You bring your unique experiences, your special history, your loves, and doubts, your grief, your laughter. I cannot expect that what an image means to me will mean the same for you. Would that not be immensely unfortunate – if we all saw things the same way?"

All of these sentiments reflect the idea that we are unique individuals. Thus, when it comes to art, in this case the photographic art, how to make a picture is so highly personalized, so unique, that rules and guidelines are hindrances to the expression of individual creativity.



Edited by Roger Rex - 29 May 2021 at 13:41
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owenn01 View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Quote owenn01 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28 May 2021 at 10:16
Hi Roger,

That's a very thoughtful and insightful piece and I wish those that are seen to be 'influential' would take note of it sometimes; I see it from a Camera Club perspective far too often (Judges especially) where there seems to be a mantra over composition and image creation - "move this here; make this more like that; you should have moved over there" etc. What is often lost is what of the photographers own personality and thoughts of that moment that they are bringing to the image - 'the mirror' as it were.

I'm currently struggling with my own Club as they have decided we are not, collectively, 'creative enough' (whatever that really means?) and so image selection for external inter club or inter region competitions are being filtered with that viewpoint in mind. For those in the UK, we are seeing our 'competition' as clubs like Smethwick, Wigan 10* etc. as the the target for this. However, I can't help but feel that is loosing sight of the Why people put images before the Club.

Is it going to 'force' composition rules onto people? Possibly. Will we see images all looking similar in terms of processing, composition and, quite possibly, subject matter? Almost certainly I feel.

I think there is a danger that this will indeed push the personality of the photographer (and of the image?) out of the process; we will loose that spark, that insight into what drives the photographer to take and do with an image what they do. As we have discussed before, never more is the phrase 'Rules are there to be broken' an apt and accurate statement.

Oh - and one last thing. We have running on the BBC here in the UK a weekly 'Photographic Competition' along the lines of many of the cookery based ones (at least no-one goes home after each assignment though). It is being mentored by Rankin and, whilst it looks okay so far (One episode!), I was a little dismayed to hear in the first program's intro that he wanted to 'teach people creativity'. An interesting concept; I believe you can help to develop inherent creativity in a person through support and guidance, but to 'teach' is a different thing?

Keep up the thought provoking comments, Roger - we all need to have gentle reminders and 'nudges' as we go through our lives!

Take care all and best regards, Neil.

*For those unfamiliar with this 'Club', it is made of photographers who are invited to join rathe than being a typical Club we all recognize; "Names" as it were. I think it's great to have a target to aim for, but sometimes that also has to be reasonable?
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Roger Rex Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28 May 2021 at 12:57
Neil,

One of the best approaches to critiquing/judging images I have seen is when the judge asks something like the following: "What is your (the photographer's) intent with this image?" Answers could be: to present something beautiful, to shock, to provide social commentary, to let the viewer interpret entirely (e.g., an abstract image), to report an event, to interpret an event, etc., etc. To suggest that all such purposes subscribe to a set of compositional rules is absurd in my opinion.

“Under the charmed light of scholars, surrounded by abstract and learned discussions, his own vision and reality grew dim.” Ben Shahn
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Post Options Post Options   Quote LAbernethy Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28 May 2021 at 12:58
Originally posted by Roger Rex Roger Rex wrote:



“Ok, the name of this class is composition. And in 27 years of involvement in photography and painting and the major part of my life has been focusing on it, passionately involved in it. I don’t know what the word means – composition. I know how art schools generally think about it – they’re talking about the organization of shapes on a page, relationships, what-have-you. But as soon as you begin to define what composition is or what art is or indeed what you are, the opposite will come along and be truer than what you first thought. It doesn’t want to be defined. See, I don’t have in mind how each of you should paint or photograph or sculpt or write or indeed live.”



As an art school graduate, and more than 30 years experience, I find that statement disingenuous.
Much like a "gift" is in the eye of the receiver and not the giver; Composition is in the "eye" of the viewer not the producer. That tension between viewer and producer makes drama, and a successful composition or a less than successful composition.
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Post Options Post Options   Quote waldo_posth Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28 May 2021 at 13:32
Thank you, Roger, for the food for thought.

You seem to plead for creative freedom - as if you lived in a state of suppression. Apart from the strange criminal justice system of British photo clubs (those judges that can never be impartial and interpret all rules much too literally) that Neil is describing I wonder how and where such suppression is really exerted.

In philosophy there is a distinction between two uses of rules: regulative and constitutive. Think of card games, e.g., Poker, and you see the difference: the rules allow for judging a move - playing a card - as correct, i.e., as part of the game - their regulative use. That's important because we use them that way to identify a wrong move. On the other hand it's the rules that create the game, all its possible moves, its particular reality - their constitutive use.

The rules of composition are not only regulative, they are also constitutive. Whether you want/know it or not: You have mastered them due to a learning process (don't you think your photography has improved over the years?). These are not the rules of Poker, of course. You have much more wiggle room for "interpreting" the rules and for deviating from them - which I think is at the ground of creativity: Make your own rules! If your individual rules are good others may try to follow them (and there is no police to stop them). We learn a lot by copying the outstanding work of others, e.g., to leave them behind us.

I still would like to learn more rules of composition - to see what kind of use I could make of them.


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Post Options Post Options   Quote Jozioau Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28 May 2021 at 13:46
A very interesting and thought-provoking discussion.

I'm generally more on favour of the instinctive when it comes to composition. But that is of course informed by trial and error experience as well as having seen lots of images that are aesthetically pleasing and being inspired by them either consciously or sub-consciously, going way back through the visual arts pre-dating photography.

I don't think it's harmful to become aware of various tried and tested approaches, but they certainly shouldn't become sets of rules by which images are judged.

"Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst" - Henri Cartier-Bresson
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Post Options Post Options   Quote 4paul Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28 May 2021 at 17:03
There is the admonition from Master to Apprentice : You can't break the rules until you prove that you know the rules.

That's the building-blocks theory, that knowledge is taught, and it is provided a little at a time, and after some time, "apprenticeship" is over. This applies to the "consumer" as well as the "producer", if there are different rules (or someone not using rules, like me LOL) then there isn't any basis for agreement.

The viewer brings their own baggage, or lack of baggage. When I find something I like, there is usually a "tickle", the tension Lee mentioned. This week Harald posted the personal volcano photo which has a chair on the edge; at first I was annoyed that such a great composition had a chair in the way. But that chair is the reason I like the photo as "art" more than a "snapshot", because although it breaks the rule (no extraneous objects on the edge of the frame), it causes me to think about the world outside the frame, which makes it more than a pretty picture to me. We're on the same forum so I can ask the Artist his intent, but ultimately my baggage is what drives my interpretation, and that makes it Art. My baggage is knowing The Rules; I wish I didn't know the "rules", because, in my experience, rules usually inhibit more than inspire. I wish I didn't know the rule (no extraneous objects on the edge of the frame), because I would enjoy more photos if I didn't. But then I get to the chair on the edge of the frame, and the tension of my dislike for it (since it breaks the rules) is what makes me appreciate the photo more.

As much as I lothe rules (since society uses rules to force outsiders into compliance), I don't know that "society", or a world with eight billion people, can exist without rules.   

- - -
*Note that originally I typed "8 billion", but the rule is single-digit numbers should be spelled out so I changed it LOLOL

There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks. - Schrödinger
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Post Options Post Options   Quote addy landzaat Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28 May 2021 at 17:47
There are to many composition rules. There are not enough composition rules. Let me explain.

The rules of composition are nothing more then rules of thumb: a short cut to pleasing pictures. As soon as you apply them as strict rules, there are too many rules. When somebody says: the horizon of your picture should be at a third because of the rule-of-thirds - he is applying something that is not a real rule.

I almost always set the horizon in the middle of my picture because it is more pleasing to me. I often find horizons at a third a bit unnatural. YMMV. My composition is influenced by the painters of the Dutch Golden Age, especially Johannes Vermeer and Frans Hals. To me the composition of Marriage Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen by Frans Hals is great. The bride is in the middle of the picture, the view into the distance is at a 1/4th of the picture and the face of the groom is at 1/6th of the picture. All over the place, isn't it? But it clearly is deliberately. If you compare the composition of Vermeer to that of Hals, they clearly have different rules for their compositions. Vermeer's View of Delft has the horizon at 1/3rd and the church tower as well. But not all Vermeer's pictures use 1/3rds. The Little Street is split in two in the middle of the picture. On the right woman sitting in the door is about 2/9th of the picture. And the top line of the big windows are again in the middle of the picture. All of it is clearly intentional. There are more rules then the rule of thirds.

The street brings me to HCB, Henri Cartier-Bresson, master of composition. He seems not to have one set of compositional rules. Sometimes it meets rule-of-thirds, other times it is rule-of-fourths, leading lines, central composition, Golden Mean - but sometimes there seems not to be an identifiable "rule". But we know that HCB did crop his pictures, so, all these compositions are intentional. And they are wonderful.

What does this mean? If anybody tells you that you must use any rule of composition, tell them to study the classics.

Edited by addy landzaat - 28 May 2021 at 17:52
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Post Options Post Options   Quote addy landzaat Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28 May 2021 at 17:50
Totally off topic:
Originally posted by 4paul 4paul wrote:

*Note that originally I typed "8 billion", but the rule is single-digit numbers should be spelled out so I changed it
Well, the rules for writing on the European B1 level say that you should write the number itself especially with single numbers..... confusion be damned.

Edit: it seems my organisation is the odd one out. Since we are known for unintelligible texts, it does not surprise me

Edited by addy landzaat - 28 May 2021 at 18:58
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Post Options Post Options   Quote 4paul Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 30 May 2021 at 16:00
hee hee! - different rules for different organizations, no confusion there!

The Rule of Thirds is an approximation of an approximation - the Rule is supposed to be the Golden Mean, but for simplicity we call it Thirds. The lines for Golden Mean are approximately 62.5% of the horizontal/vertical width/height, not 66.7% of Thirds. To understand that you have to derive the math from Classical Antiquity and Aesthetics, and divine "the lesser is to the greater as the whole is to the greater", and who wants to do that??!!?? LOL

In video (at least in the US where I work) the same concept was explained differently, as: Lead Room, Nose Room, Head Room, Chin Room, Breathing Space, Centered objects you can't tell which way they're going, etc. Only in recent years with the proliferation of internet information about photographic rules have people in video started using the term Rule of Thirds.

So can rules for standardization aid in creativity, or is it always a hindrance? Or is there some building-blocks level that after completely building a knowledge base, it can be torn down, destroying the rules is when creativity is possible? The painter Dali was an amazing technician in his youth, then after mastering the old styles he went in a completely different direction. Picasso went through several periods, with seemingly fewer rules each period.

Did I need to learn rules to find out I like blurry shapes and colors, or could I have just picked up a camera and started swinging it around?
There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks. - Schrödinger
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Roger Rex Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 03 June 2021 at 10:31
Great discussion with this firm and absolute conclusion - the rules are absurd and they hinder creativity!    Actually, the use or lack of use or even disdain of the rules of composition is entirely a personal decision. I was a rebellious kid, always march to a different drummer sort, and I suspect that is where my artistic disdain for the rules comes from. We all have led different lives with different experiences and the result, especially in art, are different preferences.

owenn01 - Maybe this well help: "All critics do is psycho-analyze themselves." Edward Weston.

LAbernathy - You offered nearly the identical response to Feinstein's words as did Tony Sweet when I sent Feinstein's comments to him. I have attended many of Tony Sweet's workshops, the first pro I was ever exposed to. He is a wonderful teacher and I have great respect for him.

waldo-posth - "You seem to plead for creative freedom - as if you lived in a state of suppression." Was my whining that loud?    Actually, I thought it might be useful to encourage folks to break away from the rules and for judges not to apply them. I have never felt constrained by the rules, especially in my early days of shooting when I had never heard of them. I admit to being a bit miffed when I would hear a comment like this: "A nice picture, but it doesn't comply with the Rule of Thirds, too bad" whether applied to one of my images or to anyone else's. Such a comment, to me, means the author is the one living in "a state of suppression."

jozioau - "I don't think it's harmful to become aware of various tried and tested approaches, but they certainly shouldn't become sets of rules by which images are judged." I think it can become harmful to know the rules if you are unable as an artist to cast them aside and go your own way, your own creative way.

addy lantzaat - "What does this mean? If anybody tells you that you must use any rule of composition, tell them to study the classics." My first trip to Europe was with my wife on our 40th anniversary. We chose Paris and we visited many of the incredible art museums. My personal favorite was the Orsay. That was the first time I became aware of how foolish the "rules" were. Why? Because so many of the classics did not follow any of the rules.

4 paul - I had the same reaction about the edge of the chair showing - it dominates the image to my eye, causes the viewer to do more than glance at the image. "Did I need to learn rules to find out I like blurry shapes and colors, or could I have just picked up a camera and started swinging it around?" And that is the question, isn't it?   My answer - I don't think so.







Edited by Roger Rex - 03 June 2021 at 10:34
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Miranda F View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Miranda F Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 03 June 2021 at 13:40
So much depends on the viewing format. Taking colour prints with the Rollei 35 (40mm lens, 35mm film) I very quickly learned that distant landscape views simply don't work in 5x7" size, and don't work that well in 10x8" either.
If you want to make a distant view look nice enough for people to spend more than 1 second viewing it in a clutch of prints, it absolutely has to have foreground interest. No foreground - no interest.
(Except of course there will always be exceptions - for example carefully framed sunsets and things...)

One of the reasons for this is that when you are in a landscape it can look impressive, but when you see it in a small picture that occupies only a part of your field of view, it just looks tiny and unimpressive, and the wider the lens FL the less impressive it usually is (which is of course why many here use a tele lens for landscapes!)

But in general, something to frame the picture, whether trees or flowers, can grab the viewer's interest and make him/her look at the scenic background.

However two things upset this nice arrangement:
1. After you've rigorously put foregrounds into every view, they start too look a bit twee and same-y.
2. Doesn't seem to apply to images on a TV or computer monitor.
3. Lots of 'rules' work, but when they're over-used you long for something different ...
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Post Options Post Options   Quote 4paul Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16 November 2021 at 14:25
Here is a photo from almost 30 years ago that I recognize, not only that I took it, but as a photo I would totally make today. Exactly the same framing, same subject. This was before I "got serious", or "studied" .... Certainly by this time I had seem thousands of hours of movies, and tv shows, and seen magazines and photo spreads, and coffee table books ... I had a Minolta 5000 and 50/1.7 which I occasionally used ... but somehow, before I knew anything, I had "a style", or understood intuitively what I later would practice and think about for years ... how did I do it???


from the same set as https://www.dyxum.com/dforum/topic140438_post1672686.html#1672686
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Post Options Post Options   Quote owenn01 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16 November 2021 at 17:32
Paul - you'll never make it with images lie that ( ). Why:
- The woman - the focal point - is too high in the frame
- She is way off 'The Third'
- She is looking out of the image - it takes the viewer out of the frame with her
- Too much foliage. Way too much.
- Highlights in said foliage need toning down
- Have you thought about adding a vignette to the image? That would bring the focus back into the centre of the frame
- There's nothing in the centre of the frame for the eye to lock onto
- Looks overexposed to ne - bring it down half or a full stop perhaps?
- That leaf - upper RHS - is very bright; you could clone that out to bring some interest into the upper RHS
- Did you consider moving to the left so more could be made of the stairs as a lead-in? A lead-in to the image would have worked well here.
- I can't see a catch light in the eyes......
- It's not a great hairstyle - she should have arranged her hair in such a way it doesn't fall over her one eye.

I'm hoping this doesn't jeopardize my position as an AE on here....

Thanks for sharing the image and your continued view on this shot!

Take care and best regards, Neil.
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