One of the most frustrating aspects of trying to explain and learn about composition in art generally and photography specifically is that, when it’s all said and done, it’s a subjective matter. Compositional principles can be discussed, but ultimately whether something “works” is in the eye of the beholder. There’s no right or wrong. I can tell you whether I think an image succeeds or fails; I can even tell you why. But in both instances, I’m giving you my opinion. I can’t tell you that someone who disagrees with me is wrong; it’s just a difference of opinion. There are—again, in my opinion—no objective absolutes in art.
And with that said, here’s a compositional point that I think is apt the vast majority of the time: images need a center of interest to succeed. Now, what that center of interest is can vary dramatically. It can be a tangible object; it can be a pattern; it can be an emotional ambiance. But—again, the vast majority of the time—it has to be something and if what that “something” is isn’t immediately apparent to the viewer, he/she is likely to move on very quickly, without giving the image in question a second thought.
In my experience, the single most frequent reason for the failure of an image on “center of interest” grounds is excess complexity. In other words, there are too many elements in the frame to make identifying a center of interest anything but difficult or impossible. In such cases, the best course of action is usually to simplify the shot—reduce the number of competing elements thereby making it easier to identify the center of interest.
Simplifying an image can be done in a number of ways. One is to simply tighten the shot—make it more “intimate” by narrowing the frame of view which can be done by increasing focal length and/or moving closer to the subject.
Another approach is to simply change your position, thereby changing the proximity of elements in the frame to one another. Moving might, for instance, hide something that you want to exclude behind a tree trunk; or movement on your part might render a flower close-up in a more pleasing, less distracting way.
A third possibility is to use atmospheric or environmental elements to your advantage in emphasizing a center of interest. While these are obviously less robust than the approaches mentioned above which are mostly, if not entirely, under your control, they can still be a big, big help. The use of fog or mist to obscure or entirely eliminate distracting backgrounds, or to help render mood (which itself can be a center of interest) is something you can utilize to your benefit. A fresh coating of winter snow can do wonders as well, by covering all sorts of potential distractions on the ground.
I hasten to point out that it is possible to take the idea of simplification too far. Taken to its logical extreme, one could simplify to the point of effectively removing every element in the frame, thus making the center of interest difficult to identify because it has been omitted entirely. The goal of the exercise is to simplify the composition to the point where the center of interest is best enhanced. That may involve removing most of the elements, or just a few. (Sometimes, after all, additional elements in the frame complement the center of interest, making it more rather than less apparent.)
To echo the introduction to this entry, there are no absolutes and no objective truths connected to any of this. The only way to know whether you’ve simplified too much…or not enough…or just enough is to go through the exercise and ask yourself—not someone else—if you like the end result. How can you be sure that you’ve got it right? You’ll know when you see it.
Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.