At 17 years old, standing in the Associated Press office of Portland, Ore., I met Jack Smith, a Northwest journalism legend. He asking me a question that refined my vision as a photographer: “What is the purpose of this image?”
And from there, I launched into the classic journalistic speak about changing the world, making a difference and creating a call to action. And then he said something that I’ll always remember: None of the aforementioned things will happen if the photo isn’t strong enough to prevent the reader from turning the page. Compositon had to be strong, content had to be powerful, and the moment had to be right. All three things had to work so the image will have the staying power that lands in on the front page, in the portfolio, or framed on your mother’s wall.
So, lets jump into composition.
There are some basics of composition that will help make your images stronger, more visually powerful, and ultimately reluctant to “turn the page”.
The basics of composition include the rule of thirds, changing your perspective, cleaning up the clutter, and filling the frame.
There are dozens of other tips, but these few will get you started in the quest for stronger, more powerful images.
To put it simply, the rule of thirds states one should never put the interesting aspect of the image dead center in the middle of the picture. When you frame and compose your shot, think of your viewfinder as being divided into nine small squares, and the premise of the thirds is that your center of interest is on one of those lines.
Changing your perspective: My dry cleaner smiles every time I show up with a story about “changing my perspective”. I have ruined suits and tuxedos simply striving for a better image and changing my perspective. Once I shot a preview for a county fair in a pig pen, and standing up just didn’t make for a good image, but a pig’s-eye view (i.e., on the ground with the swines) was the winning shot. I have been in the ocean, climbing up a tree, or standing on something less than stable, all in search of a better image. Call it what you want, but 99 percent of the images you shoot are shot while standing up. To make a more interesting image, change your point of view. A guy whom I admire greatly says that good photographers “bend their knees.”
Cleaning up clutter: Paying attention to what is happening behind or off to the side of your subject, and removing the “clutter” will lead to stronger images. My pet peeve is power lines showing up in photos; unless I am shooting for FPL, I don’t see why I should have power lines in my photos. Cleaning up also includes paying attention to anything protruding from your subject: trees, telephone poles, and such. Make sure the backgrounds are clean, and thus the subject pops a little better in the image.
Filling the frame: Robert Capa, one of the pioneers of wartime photography, said,“If your pictures are good enough, your not close enough.” This can be interpreted many ways, but compositionally, make your subject prevalent in your image. Do not ever photograph your mom and the Eiffel tower while she is standing at the base and you are so far back, trying to get the entire tower (from top to bottom) in the image. This is bad. Bring dear ol’ mom close to you, while you are still far enough away to capture the whole tower, and then she will be dominant in the frame, and the tower will be a detail in a different third of the image. Filling the frame with your subject is one of the easiest ways to make your pictures more dynamic. I am a fan portraits that show only two-thirds of a face, focusing in on the eyes and smile make for striking images.
Another important aspect of making a dynamic photo is waiting for “the moment”.
There is always a moment when everything happens and offers the best image possible.
Recognizing it, catching it, pushing the shutter button at that moment will lead to images that you will cherish forever.
It is best explained by the master himself, Henri Cartier-Bresson, who revolutionized photography by capturing what he called “the decisive moment.”
“Photography is not like painting,” he told The Washington Post in 1957. “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative,” he said. “Oops! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”
Stay focused and wait for the moment.
THE LAST TWO PARAGRAPHS WERE EDITED FROM THE CARTIER-BRESSON’S OBIT THAT APPEARED IN THE WASHINGTON POST ON AUGUST 5, 2004.