Photographers Need to Fill the Frame
The camera's viewfinder is, for the photographer, what the canvas is for the painter. We need to fill the frame, but not just with clutter. Just as the color white requires memory to record it and pixels to describe it, space warrants attention within the photographic frame. It is no less important a design element than any other.
Composition in Photography
I have a slight problem with the value folks place on the word composition. It's actually only one of many elements that fall into the area of image design. But, as it's more important to be understood than it is to be pedantic, let's use the word composition to describe the whole range of design elements we're able to work with within the bounds of the photographic frame. But we're talking about much more than where to put the horizon. Line, shape, texture, space, balance, rhythm and repetition are just some of the other elements that should be considered when making a picture.
Photographers Create Reality
Just like painters I've long believed that we photographers need to be responsible for every part of the image. What lies within the viewfinder is akin to the painters canvas and we need to fill it with care.
What we exclude from the frame is as important as what we include. It is not only what's visible, but also what's suggested or hinted at that makes for a compelling image. What I'm referring to is that unique kind of reality or truth that exists within the bounds of the photographic frame.
Compose Your Photos With Care
Because of their potential to cause people to stop and look, still images need a different kind of consideration than the moving image. The above photo, made on beautiful Huangshan (i.e., Yellow Mountain) in Eastern China, took some time to compose. Using a tripod made the job easier as it slowed down the compositional process and encouraged me to consider framing, space, balance, line and shape.
The result is that the photo is not so much about an old, snow covered fence or a hillside or a tree. It's the relationship between these individual elements, their similarities and differences, and how they are arranged within the frame that makes for a compelling image. Notice how the individual lines of fence wire resemble the finer branches on the trees and those partly submerged beneath the snow.
Introducing Narrative Into Your Photos
The diagonal direction of the fence line divides the frame into the old 1:3 ratio, often seen in paintings or photos of more traditional landscapes. Yet the partly collapsed section of the fence suggests that it is not a barrier. The viewer can continue to move through the frame and up the hill, where the dense stand of trees prevents their eyes from leaving the frame.
Space: The Forgotten Element Of Composition
There is a world that exists within the frame. We need to pay attention to that world and allow it to fill the frame accordingly. Not just with subject matter, but also with space.
Let's look to music for an analogy. My favorite musicians understand the need for space between the notes they sing or play. Look at those 80's heavy metal guitarists who'd play hundreds of notes at breathtaking speeds. How many of you can hear what they're actually playing? I can't. It's all a blur and the attraction, for some, is the speed at which they're playing, rather than what they are actually playing. It's a bit like adolescent gossip: lots of words with little meaning.
Compare that to how B.B. King played Lucille, his favorite guitar. It's the space between the notes that best explores the relationship between each individual note. A more soulful sound follows and connects, in a meaning way, with the audience.
There's no co-incidence in the fact that some of history's greatest photographers were musicians or, at the very least, sort inspiration through music. And the best thing about inspiration is that it leads to transcendence.