Composition - My Approach

A Study of Shapes - Rooftops, Melbourne

Have no doubt subject matter is an essential element of any photograph. But, when talking about composition, the subject of your photograph may well be composition itself.

Consider the above photo, made from a high rise car park looking down on some historical buildings in the city of Melbourne, Australia. While you could say the photo is of, and therefore, about buildings (or, more specifically, rooftops), it's really a study of one of the primary elements of composition: shape.

The photo was made under high contrast (dynamic range) conditions. I processed the image to further enhance the stark nature of the scene and, thereby, concentrate attention onto the shapes within the image.

Photographer Alex Webb

I remember back in 1986, as a first year student in a full-time photography course, being introduced to the work of photographer Alex Webb. He was famous for his ability to produce incredibly evocative images when photographing under extremely high contrast conditions. An amazing achievement given he was working with transparency (i.e. slide) film.

His secret seems to be that he composed his images around color and exposed them in such a way that retained important highlight detail (e.g. exposing for the highlights) and, as a consequence, allowed shadows to be recorded as black. My memories are that color and shape dominated his work (I think the series I saw was from the West Indies, possibly Haiti) and that, rather than surrendering to the conventional wisdom of abandoning photography under high contrast conditions, he embraced the chaos in such a way that gave birth to his own signature style of photography. Back then it was hard to imagine color and shape coming together outside of the oil painters canvas. The fact that it was achieved, in camera, through the genre of documentary photography was, to my mind, staggering.

I only saw a handful of images that day and, as far as I can remember have only seen his work once since, but you don't easily forget work by which you are so profoundly affected. Here, I've just found his website. I'm sure you'll agree it's well worth a look.

Next time you're out and about with your camera try making some photos where you concentrate your composition not on things like faces, buildings and rivers, but on the lines, shapes, textures and colors that define them. You'll likely find, as a consequence, that your composition will improve dramatically. It's not science, but it is one way to begin to free yourself from the constraints of the measurable, definable and logical world. 

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru