Any search for advice on photographic composition results in a lot nonsensical information. The rule of thirds (which Michael Freeman describes as “probably the worst piece of compositional advice I can imagine”) is bad enough, but I doubt that any decent photographer is thinking about the golden mean, fibonacci spirals or armatures when creating photos.
So, what do good photographers think about? The two videos shared in this article provide some of the answers.
Bob Holmes on composition
Photographer Bob Holmes has worked on assignment for many prestigious magazines, among them National Geographic. In the videos he talks about the things he looks for when taking photos and the principles of composition he uses in the field. This is what works in the real world, so pay attention.
In the videos Bob describes himself as a documentary photography working in the National Geographic style, a “wannabe photojournalist without the war”.
I’ve picked out some of the most interesting points to discuss in more depth.
1. The National Geographic style
Bob explains what he means by the National Geographic style – the photos are about the subject, not the photographer. It’s not about clever technique, or how clever the photographer is, it’s about telling the subject’s story.
How does that relate to composition? For me it’s about mindset. It’s asking yourself what message are you trying to get across? What’s the best way to do it?
That’s a different mindset from one where you ask yourself what the rules of composition are, and how you should use them to take the photo.
A good example of this in the first video (7.30) is Bob’s photo of two men carrying heavy sacks. He wanted the viewer to see how far they had travelled, so he used a wide-angle lens to show the context. He wanted to show the weight of the sacks, so he placed one at the top of the frame, to give a visual sensation of weight.
The question of whether the men should be placed on a third or not never came into it. The only question was to how to tell the story.
The rules of photography (rule of thirds, golden mean etc.) may make pleasing photos, but often result in boring images. It’s the photographer’s job to focus on the story and find ways of injecting excitement and interest.
2. Take a zen approach to photography
Serendipity plays a role in photography, but only if the photographer is prepared and ready to see what presents itself to the camera. Images give themselves to you, but you have to be ready. That means knowing your camera well so you can use it without thinking.
It also means being there and giving 100% of your concentration. You need to be by yourself and totally in the zone – a photographer not a tourist. You have to put the time in, and hang around until everything aligns for the perfect photo.
This is demonstrated in Bob’s photo of four women wearing crossing a wooden bridge in Burma (0.50, second video). He stood in the same spot taking photos of people as they passed by, until the perfect moment presented itself to him. As he says, the photo wasn’t made in 1/60 second, but the half hour he stood there taking photos.
As Ansel Adams said – “Chance favours the prepared photographer”.
3. Educate your eye
Bob speaks of composition being an instinctive action. He can see, and compose photos very quickly. The key is to develop an educated eye. Take an interest in photography, and analyse the work of other photographers to see how they use composition. You can also study other media, such as paintings. Immerse yourself in photography.
He also talks about working with conscious intuition, that is consciously putting the things you have learned by educating your eye into practise. It’s about being intentional and thoughtful, as well as instinctive.
4. Look beyond the obvious
It’s easy to get so caught up an interesting subject that you forget to look beyond it.
The example Bob gives of this is of his photos of ballet dancers in Cuba (1.35, first video). The dancers were so interesting that it would have been easy to concentrate on taking photos of them. But he was also interested in their environment, and taking photos to show them in the old building they practiced in. He wanted to show them in context, in the beautiful and interesting environment they practice in.
5. Punctuation and gesture
Punctuation and gesture are two important elements in many photos.
Composition often needs a punctuation point, an extra little thing to make the photo sing. That is usually a person or an animal, placed strategically in the frame (4.51, second video).
The gesture of that person or animal is equally important – the stance, pose or attitude has to be readable by the viewer. Details are critical.
Gesture and punctuation go together – a figure in a photo may provide punctuation, and gesture is required to lift the photo above the ordinary.
6. Scan the edges of the frame
The photographer is responsible for everything (5.50, first video). If there is something in the frame that shouldn’t be there, then it’s your fault. It’s up to the photographer to continually look round the frame and make sure that there is nothing there that shouldn’t be.
7. Geometry, symmetry and colour
As Bob talks about his work it becomes clear that geometry, symmetry and colour play large parts in the composition of his images. Let’s explore these ideas one by one.
Geometry. The use of strong shapes and other geometrical patterns. You are more likely to see these with man-made objects and buildings than you are in the natural world.
Once you are aware of geometry, you can incorporate it into the composition of your photos. This is part of learning to see – recognising the visual elements that can be used in photos. You can only use them once you are aware of them.
Symmetry. Bob mentions that he uses symmetry a lot, and a good example is his photo of a boxer in a Cuban gym (2.33, second video). The interesting thing about symmetry is that it can be used to create strong, graphic images with the subject placed centrally in the frame. Focusing on the rule of thirds, rather than what the scene presents you with, may stop you from seeing the possibilities offered by symmetry.
Colour. Bob mentions this several times throughout the videos, and I find this interesting because I like to work so much in black and white. But Bob shoots mostly in colour, and he looks for way in which he can use strong colours in his photos. It probably helps that he works in places like Cuba and south-east Asia, with plenty of strong colours around.
The key here is that geometry, symmetry and colour are often linked. Geometry leads to symmetry, and colour can emphasise both geometry and symmetry.
8. Use diagonal lines to give the image vitality
Line is a major compositional element and all photographers should learn to see lines and then use them in their photos (part of learning to see again).
Diagonal lines give the image vitality. There also needs to lots of interesting content for the viewer to look at. Lines pull the viewer’s eye through the frame and takes it to the interesting content.
9. Find the most suitable viewpoint
This comes back to the point of asking yourself what story you want to tell, and what the best way is to achieve that.
Bob makes the point that we make most of our photos from eye level, and that sometimes we need to get up high or down low for an alternative viewpoint that tells the story better.
In the example he gives (7.46, second video) he stood on a bench to take a photo looking down on two monks in Myanmar eating breakfast. The high viewpoint places the emphasis on the bowls of breakfast food (31, I counted them), rather than the monks.
Too many photographers expect to pick up a good camera and start taking good photos right away. That doesn’t happen. You need to practice constantly, and work on putting the concepts discussed in the videos into action.
Bob says a chimpanzee can take a good photo with a modern camera if he pushes the button often enough, but to do it consistently takes expertise only gained through experience and practice.
A big thanks to Marc Silber of the Advancing Your Photography YouTube channel for permission to use the videos. Please go check out his other videos and subscribe to his channel.
Further composition resources
Read these articles to learn more about the art of photographic composition.
You can learn more about composition in my ebook Mastering Composition: A Photographer’s Guide to Seeing.