The Compositional Dance

Danseforestilling i Habana Café

When I teach workshops or talk about photography in other arenas, one of the most frequent advises I give is to keep shooting a scene. Most photographers – professionals and recreational photographers alike – tend to not work their subject enough. They move on to the next scene or the next idea or the next subject far too soon. Often it’s partly due to impatience and partly because we don’t want to impose ourselves on the subject – we feel we are intruding or disturbing the subject’s private sphere when we photograph. But it’s when you give yourself and your subject time to get used to each other things start to happen. It’s also by spending time with the subject that you give yourself a chance to work out the best composition, wait for the best moment and organize the space of whatever you are photographing.

This process is a bit like dancing. In this compositional dance you make yourself move around the space trying to find new angels to see what they look like, all while relating to and interacting with the subject. It’s an intuitive dance, in which you lose a bit control and just let yourself flow with the energy from the encounter with the subject. And it’s not just you, the photographer, moving, changing the composition and awaiting the best moment. The subject and the world are moving around you as well; the world is your dancing partner. You are two who dance together – without knowing the steps beforehand – even when you are photographing a stationary or static subject. The world is always moving and so should you when you are photographing.

In this world that is always moving and changing, the specific moment captured by the photographer has a huge impact on the final image. And so does the vantage point. A gesture or a look may be all it takes. This can differ from one frame to next, and this slight shift can have a dramatic impact on the success of the image. You move till you and your subject are in synch and the space is lined up to emphasize your purpose of the photo. Bend your knees and change perspective. Alter the juxtaposition of the foreground with the background and the horizon. Move high or low. Dancing with the subject.

It’s all about subtlety. It’s about trying to frame the picture by arranging visual elements for maximum impact and communication. And it’s about finding that moment when you and your dance partner are completely coordinated and in balance (or even off-balanced and by that finding a whole new expression in your photography), when the instant of the move reaches its highlight. The compositional dance is also about tweaking the technique. The subtle difference in depth of field from one stop to the next can perfect and sharpen the final photograph, as can the proper blur-inducing of life-stopping shutter speed.

As Steve Simon writes in his book The Passionate Photographer: «Show viewers of your work a new view of a common scene. Explore different points of view by getting down, up high, in close, or some other unexpected camera position. This is where the dance should take you. You can’t be timid when determining your camera position. Find the best place to shoot by boldly exploring the scene.»

So when you feel like you have worked the subject enough, keep photographing. Don’t stop. Keep dancing. Because the dance doesn’t stop before you do. Work the scene. Work, work, work. Doing so helps us see the world in different ways while forcing us out of that comfort zone we often tend to curl up in.


89 thoughts on “The Compositional Dance

  1. An excellent article Otto. Even as a photographer who spends his time taking landscapes, I find myself moving constantly, sometimes all aound and then back to the same place, retracting and then extending the tripod legs over and over to the point of irritation that the things aren’t easier to control. I hadn’t thought of it as a dance before, I certainly will in future. I should imagine anyone watching me on my last shoot would probably have thought me quite mad. A timelapse of my movements would probably have been quite amusing. Perhaps that’s why I choose to go out so early when nobody else is about. 😉

    1. Being regarded as mad when shooting I would take as a complement. It only shows you are totally devoted and passionate about the process. Thanks for your comment, Adrian.

  2. Great information Otto. Like you said not wanting to make the subject uncomfortable can stand in he way. Missing the better angle happens a lot.

    1. Of course there is always a balance between getting the photograph and making the subject uncomfortable, but yes, sometimes we might be too preoccupied with what others might think. Thanks for reblogging, Robert.

  3. Love the photo. So much energy and light! I’ll try to remember your advice when I have to take photos of an event this summer. As an artist, I work in quiet in my studio, but maybe it will be a good thing for me to mix with people with a camera in my hands. I’ll try to remember to keep shooting and not worry about imposing on people. Thanks for the wise words!

    1. If I can’t dance myself, at least I can take pictures of people dancing. But, yes, generally most people with a camera (professionals or non-professionals) have a tendency to stop way to early when photographing in a given situation.

    1. That happens for quite a few photographs. But sometimes the last one is the best – and you never know before you have kept shooting yourself empty.

    1. Since I know your project – and we have talked about this lately, I think it’s definitely something you can benefit from. Thanks for the very nice feedback, Melissa.

    1. You are right, there is no reason to stop when there isn’t any costs to it like in the old days of film, when every frame had a price. Thanks for the comment, Ron.

  4. Herlig bilde, passer perfekt til teksten – selvfølgelig! ; )
    Takk for inspirerende lesning og gode råd! Virkelig nyttig!
    Jeg vet jeg bruker alt for lite tid på komposisjon. Det “enkleste” for meg er å ta spontane portretter av folk jeg møter… trenger å komme meg ut av komfortsonen – å jeg liker å danse ; )

    (Fantastiske bilder fra Cuba i din reportasje i VG – Skal helt klart besøke stedet den gangen jeg reiser til Cuba)

    1. Takk for flott tilbakemelding, Anita. Selv når du tar spontane portrett, kan du helt sikkert bruker mye lengre tid enn du tror for å fange det beste øyeblikket – og danse.

  5. Otto, you made an apt analogy. It’s what John Berger calls the way of seeing. The creative process is circular and not static. And so the dance is evergreen. Wonderful post.

  6. Likening photography to dancing is brilliant. I have always felt it was like a dance and the music will always effect the outcome. Sometimes a slow moving waltz and sometimes just a rambunctious polka. They all have their own rhythm and they all make outstanding photos.

    1. Yes, different music will make a different expression, whether dancing or taking photographs. It’s indeed all about rhythm. Thanks, Michelle.

  7. Work it, work it, work it; and practice, practice, practice. I’m having fun recently using a setting on my camera intended for sports, it snaps rapid fire up to eight times. I’m finding this fun in other areas because the subject matter can change in a second.

    1. Practice makes perfect, no? And yes shooting with the camera set on continues shooting can sometimes be very useful, but at other times you might actually lose the picture between two captures. Then it’s still better to try to get it right yourself.

  8. Excellent photo, informative post and sound advice. I can hear my wife now, ‘how many more photos do you need to take?’. There is always one more that I should have taken.

  9. Great post, Otto!! I like how you have compared dancing and photography. I think any art form needs patience; and most of unfortunately find it difficult to wait for that perfect moment patiently when the creativity in us takes the perfect shape. Thanks for the reminder, to wait until the job is done perfectly.

    1. I think it’s the same with writing, isn’t it Arindam? Sometimes you need to rewrite and keep rewriting until the words come together perfectly. Thanks for the comment.

  10. This is very true. It takes a lot of patience to frame the right split second frame that would capture not just the image but the emotional hook that comes with taking the right moment and preserving it forever on a screen or on photo paper. For animate subjects, it’s takes building that connection too. Great post, as always, Otto.

    But, isn’t it the same for any endeavor in life? Raising a child, having a longterm relationship, working through a project or one’s profession, doing what we are passionate about?

    1. You know, the hallmark of a good photographer isn’t that she or he always shoots excellent pictures, but know how to select the few good ones, and then only shows those.

  11. Wonderful post, Otto! This is a great reminder, and I think this is something that we all need to work on. Many thanks!

  12. Very good advice. I will try to remember that. Not too long ago at a spring festival in town I tried to take pics of the starring band. I got nothing because I felt awkward walking in through the crowd up front.

    1. Yes, we all do that, but that’s when we need to push ourselves to do it despite feeling awkward, because it’s the only way to get good images.

  13. I really enjoy this advice, Otto. I think I definitely could try different angles more than I do. I probably get a little self-conscious when I linger too long over any one subject. You’ve given me something to really think about and to try differently. I am always glad to learn from you. Thank you.

    1. I hope you will enjoy the “dance” while photographing. And, yes, self-consciousness can sometimes get in the way of the shooting process…

  14. This is one of the liberating things with using a digital camera, the ability to shoot a scene, then shoot it again, and then again if needed. There is of course the danger though of ‘machine gunning’ a scene without much care, and rely on the editting process to uncover the optimal photo. I’ve found when I’m shooting my film cameras that I will take fewer and maybe get to the best composition quicker as I’m paying for every shot! I’ve found that the best mindset is somewhere in the middle – work the scene, but in a conscious, intelligent manner, reviewing as you go (and the screens on digital cameras now are better than they were 5-10 years ago), until you get the feeling inside you that you’ve nailed it!

    1. You are so right with both points, Andy, that using digital camera is liberating, but may also become a drag when you shoot too much. I found when I changes from a camera that was able to firer very rapidly to one that was somewhat slower, that at first it felt uncomfortable and even annoying, but eventually the result was much better. It actually changed my way of shooting.

  15. so many good points…from “dancing with the subject…to boldly exploring the scene…” and so wonderful the world is our “dancing partner!” ♥

  16. I love this blog, Along with wonderful advice I could feel the emotion in your words that come from being lost in the dance and knowing the feeling. One could not right about it unless you felt it. This blog touch a place in me with a new feeling for photography. I love to get lost when I truly dance with my partner, so to now get lost with dancing with what I am photographing is an experience I am looking forward to. But mostly to see my results. Thank you for the wonderful blog.

    1. I am glad that this made sense for you and touches you in place where in feels right. May you enjoy the new “dance”. Thanks for the lovely words, Carrie!

  17. Your photo is such a great example of the three E’s you talked about in a previous post…it is energetic, enthusiastic and definitely emotional. I’ve never been a good “dancer” in public situations because of self-consciousness but have to admit that it’s getting easier as I get older. Thanks for another great tutorial.

    1. I am not a good dancer either – I mean dancing for real, but the compositional dance is a different story. Sometimes I get self-conscious, too, but I try to let go of it as much as I can. Thanks for commenting, Karen Ann.

  18. I love the idea of the world as my dance partner. Another great article, Otto. Thank you. 🙂 (And one last note: I’ve noticed that I get a great workout when I’m out photographing nature. All that dancing. lol!)

  19. The dancing I can do, the photography not so much! I always seem to miss the critical moment by pausing too long- and then it’s gone! Movement I find impossible, but I love yours. Thanks for all the encouragement. 🙂

    1. Well, judging by your blog, it seems to me that you are very capable of combining dancing and photography. 🙂 Thanks for the comment, Jo.

  20. I love this quote: “You can’t be timid when determining your camera position. Find the best place to shoot by boldly exploring the scene.” “Don’t be timid, be bold” – definitely something I need to learn, Otto.

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