Composition: Assessing the Subject

Panning with gull in flight

Panning. Entering or leaving? High or Low? This instant or wait?

Previous article in this series: What is ‘Composition’? 

Unless you are a dedicated ‘snapshooter’ (a grab-shottist?), photography is a mind game. While not all subjects give you time to go through a long process to determine the preferred composition, capturing these instantaneous moments with some sense of composition can still be refined by regular practice and by constantly exercising your visual literacy. However, let’s assume you have time. Before actually settling down to compose an image, a few preliminaries need to take place.

Assessing the subject

The first is most obvious, but perhaps not always thought through–what exactly is the subject? What first motivated you to consciously say, “I want to photograph this”? Once you are clear on the subject, you will need to look at which elements support the subject and which detract from it. Composing an image is one of the skills that help develop those supporting elements (which will be covered in a future post) and camera techniques (such as the discriminating use of exposure, sharpness, DOF, and blur plus lens choices and viewpoint) can both support the subject and help hide distracting elements.

Light illuminating a crucifix in the refectory. Quin Friary, County Clare, Ireland.

Daylight illuminating a crucifix in the refectory. Quin Friary, County Clare, Ireland.

For example, in the above image, I did not simply want to take a picture of the whole refectory. What struck me was the light on the crucifix and the shadows that were being created. I could have just zoomed in on the crucifix, but that would have taken away from the effect of light penetrating the darkness, and it would have weakened the symbolic value of the light on the cross. To support the subject I decided to include more of the dark portions of this room, yet exclude another window on the left wall which would have left a distracting element on the left side of the frame. Regarding camera technique, I needed sufficient depth of field to have the near walls through to the back wall in focus, so I chose f11 as the aperture. This is a low light situation with a wide dynamic range, therefore I took 3 images: one at average, one exposed for the shadows and one for the highlights. Even at ISO 1250, I was only achieving shutter speeds of 1/6 sec., 1/2 sec. and 1.5 sec.  The three photos were then combined through an HDR process (Nik HDR Effex Pro). Because of the low shutter speeds, and because tripods were not allowed, I supported the camera by pressing my right hand against the doorway frame. This position limited my choices for arranging the elements, so later I cropped the right and top sides slightly to improve the composition.

The more clearly you can define your attraction to the subject, the easier it is to imagine the appearance of your final photograph and the act of finding the frame and composing the supporting elements can begin.

Next: Finding the Frame

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