Musings on Photography


Posted in process by Paul Butzi on November 24, 2009


In a comment on my post Visual Field, Bob Wong wrote “Finally some liberation from the dogma of composition.” Bob is touching on the heart of the matter.

Not long ago, I read a post on a blog, talking about things you can do to improve your photography. It was, in essence, a list of things you can do, at the time you make the exposure, with the goal of improving the photo you’re about to make. It was full of the conventional advice, such as “is this the strongest composition you can find?” and “pay attention to edges”. You know the list. It was an ‘Aesthetic Checklist’. I read it, and in my mind, I envisioned photographers, camera in hand, about to make a photograph but delaying releasing the shutter until they had run the checklist.

That led me to think that, perhaps, all we know about ‘composition’ is stuff that’s derived after the act. We look at a photo and we say “Oh, great composition, I love that strong diagonal element”. Or we might even look at a lot of photos (mine, for instance) and say “Oh, that Paul Butzi, he loves to compose photos with strong diagonals”. And this train of thought inevitably leads to thinking that someone might profitably think about such things at the time the exposure is made.

There’s a problem with this line of thinking, though. The problem is this: I have never, ever looked at a scene and thought “Oh, look, here’s a long log, I’ll use that to create a strong diagonal composition”. Ok, that’s not strictly true, because I have done it on occasion. What I have never done, though, is engage in that sort of thought and had the result be worth more than the little pile of dead flies that collects on my studio windowsill. Frankly put, I am just no damn good at all at making photos by assembling the composition from the available elements. I can only see the elements in a sort of post hoc examination.

Sure, I know. I can assemble photos that contain just a few discrete elements. I can arrange three circles on a plane, and I can arrange a line and a circle. I can arrange a single circle. Those are pretty limited skills. I am not a compositional dynamo.

Yet, despite this, I manage to make some photographs that I like where I know the photos exceed my meager ability to construct a composition. I can recognize the good ones and bad ones after I make them, but I can’t build them.

And that leads me to the conclusion that perhaps the ‘rules of composition’ are very vague and hard to articulate, or they’re very complicated and interdependent and thus hard to articulate. There are not very many books on composition, and the ones that exist always seem to lead me back to arranging discrete elements on a plane, and I already suspect that although this is a good way to post-analyze photographs it’s a cruddy way to make them. There’s a Weston quote in the back of my brain, the thrust of which was essentially this: if you’re thinking about the ‘rules of composition’ when you are making a photo, you have failed before you started. Following a checklist is not the path to strong compositional skills.

To me the good news here is that a) this explains why trying to read about composition does not seem to work for me, and b) despite the fact that humans are not very good at articulating things which are very fuzzy and vague, humans (me included) have a pretty good mechanism for dealing with things that are fuzzy and vague. In some sense we’re nothing more than a big fuzzy neural net. Dealing with fuzzy and vague is one of our strong points. The problem is not dealing with fuzzy and vague; it’s reducing our fuzzy and vague process to an unambiguous bit of language that’s the problem.

And at last I come to my point – articulating something is really important if you want to teach it, or if you want to have someone teach it to you, because in that case language serves as the intermediary between your thoughts and someone else’s. But this highly specific, unambiguous articulation is not needed if you’re just training yourself. You just learn it, and if the understand defies being expressed in language, well, that’s unfortunate but sometimes life is like that.

How do you train a fuzzy neural net? You present it with lots of inputs, and you tell it “this one is good” or “this one is bad”. How do you train your fuzzy neural net brain to make good (for any desired sort of ‘Good’)? You make a lot of photographs, and then you look at them and you tell your fuzzy neural net brain “This one is good. Make more like this. This one, though, that’s not so good. Don’t do that as often,” and you don’t waste time with trying to articulate why this one is good or that one is not so good.

Or at least, that’s my current working theory.

8 Responses

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  1. Ed Richards said, on November 24, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    I am with you on training the net. How about looking at photographs in general, not just your own? While I am not a fan of composition books, I love to look at books of good photographs. To be honest, I will even look at books of not so good photographs. I think this helps me see, perhaps in the way that reading good literature or seeing a play helps me understand life without having to make all the mistakes myself.

  2. Paul L. said, on November 24, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    And, the problem with the ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and why it is so difficult to convey, I think, is that it is subjective. We have different opinions about what works and what doesn’t. Composition theory, if I can call it that, tries to place boundaries, or provide a how-to, based lots of input but it doesn’t always work. Certainly, composition seems to be something that is very hard to teach.

  3. twwilliams said, on November 24, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    I do think there is value in talking about and even trying to teach composition, partly (primarily?) because in expressing rules it can show you things to consider that you might not otherwise notice. You mention paying attention to corners and edges, for example. There’s a good chance that someone who is just looking at his or other photos might not notice those for a long time. Once you do start looking at them, though, you can start making choices about what you do with them.

    Maybe it’s like wine. You try wines and there are some you like and some you don’t, but without someone to explain at least some basics to you, you have no idea that the thing you don’t like about that Chardonnay is called oak. But once you know that, you can now direct yourself towards Chardonnays that are aged in stainless steel or otherwise have less oak. *And* you can deliberately choose to try oaked Chardonnays sometimes just to confirm the distaste or to see what’s different, but at least it’s a conscious choice.

    Maybe you’re talking about composition and thinking at this point for people who already know the basic building blocks and are looking for more complicated and meaningful pictures.

    But I saw the aesthetic checklist you’re talking about and I do find it useful as something to look at while I’m sitting at the computer reviewing my pictures but as soon as I try to think consciously about those items, whatever I’m seeing in front of me just vanishes–the sense of a tower of blocks tumbling to the ground is so strong that I could swear I hear it.

    I’m very analytical by nature and so I have to operate from another part of my mind, in a way that isn’t as developed, and any hint of analysis, of conscious thinking and arranging and directing just takes over and I can no longer see pictures. Like you say above, I have to find my pictures. I can’t construct them.

  4. Jeff said, on November 24, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    I tend to agree that memorizing a set of rules and trying to apply them as a check list or ‘building blocks’ while shooting isn’t going to work very well. But I do think having a solid grasp of the underlying concepts and principles these ‘rules’ are based on can certainly be useful. The more you understand about composition, the better you will be able to understand _why_ some images work and others don’t, which I think leads to being better able to apply these principles at a sub-conscious level while shooting.

  5. Jeremy said, on November 25, 2009 at 1:41 am

    I agree with you to a large extent, for photographers who consider themselves photographers and who take photographs. There’s a different problem that I face, which is people who have cameras and who use them in their work to record images, which I then have to select among and work with. A lot of these people, it seems to me, don’t even really look at the image they are taking. and the photos, while a perfectly good souvenir or record for their purposes, are terrible for anyone who wasn’t there. And yet they are sometimes all we have to work with, when these researchers get back from their trips to the field.

    So I really would like them to run through a checklist. Not for strong diagonals, but for things like whether there is a lamppost or tree growing out of someone’s head, whether anyone is looking at the camera, whether the autofocus has selected the right part of the image, whether there is a strong backlight.

    Checklists can help people take photographs that are better from the point of view of people who weren’t at the scene.

  6. Carl Weese said, on November 25, 2009 at 8:41 am

    Paul, the Weston quote you’re thinking of is very close to, “[good]composition is simply the strongest way of seeing.”

    Rules of Composition are just tools of post-analysis of pictures, or so I decided for myself a long time ago as a kid in love with photography. Might be useful for a critic (but probably not), certainly not useful for creative photography. Now, rules *can* be helpful if someone just wants to “join a club” if you will. Make pictures that are sure to appeal to contest judges, for example, or specific commercial buyers.

    In a related vein, I recently saw someone recommending that to get good pictures you should “wait until you really know you’ve got something.” My immediate reaction was, no, definitely not. That way you’ll only get something you already know…

    In another related vein, I’ve seen lots of weird critical writing on photography where the writer analyzes, say, street shooting, as though the photographer had assembled the scene item by item, like a sculptor. The writer’s diction ignores the fact that instead the picture was snatched out of thin air in an uncontrolled environment. You know, something like, “In his book, The Americans, Mr. Frank consistently arranges his subjects to reflect the existential ennui at the heart of middle-class American life.”

  7. rvewong said, on November 27, 2009 at 8:34 am

    I like that training of a fuzzy net, look and learn.

    How about this for a rule of composition. Slow down and look, move around, when it strikes you take a photo, take photos even when it doesn’t strike you. Don’t leave it there, examine the resulting photos and decide what you like and don’t.

  8. arangodan said, on November 29, 2009 at 6:39 am

    This reminds me of my Aikido training. Articulating proper technique is quite difficult. We use many metaphors (imagine water flowing out of your fingertips) similes (just touch your nose while your partner grips your wrist) and spiritual terms (extend Ki from your center.)

    ‘m getting the feeling that photography is similar. We have to use words to describe technique, but the words aren’t enough.

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