Content Trumps All

Is composition overrated? Whether that is the case or not; what is it that makes for a captivating photo—composition, something else or a combination of building blocks? The reason I am asking is a newsletter I received the other day written by the Canadian photographer David duChemin in which he asks how much composition really matters.

DuChemin himself was triggered by a photographer who accused him of paying too much attention to composition, arguing that moment is everything. DuChemin’s short answer was, that it’s too easy to put it all down to the moment. To that effect, I agree with duChemin. There is more to a captivating photo that just capturing the “right” moment.

But does it all come down to composition, then? I think many photographers do think so, maybe including light in the equation, too. However, in my world, composition, as well as light and moment, are only means to a goal, not the purpose itself. These are building blocks for as best as possible expressing what a photograph is about.

Yes, you can create a photo that is all about light. Or it’s all about some compelling composition of visually interesting objects. Or even a combination of the two. And the result can be captivating simply by surprising viewers with something they never saw themselves. But will those images stand the test of time?

Composition and light were in fact my stepping-stones to photography. In the beginning, that was what I was looking for. I read everything I could about composition and about light and how to put it all together for compelling images. And I went out looking for strong compositions and/or enchanting light.

None of those images have survived my later critical sense. I did after some time, learn to include and look for the heightened moments in my photography, too. Still, something was lacking. At the time, I was happy with result, but as I look back today, my attempts were rather bleak and boring.

Are there more building blocks you need be able to handle in order to create strong images, and maybe even more important than moment, light or composition? First of all, I don’t believe duChemin means that composition is everything. Nevertheless, in the aforementioned newsletter he writes; “Arguing that some photographers pay too much attention to composition feels a little like arguing that some chefs just pay way too much attention to flavour”. This is of course a tabloid argument, nevertheless in my opinion, puts too much emphasis on composition.

I have come to realize that the most important building block in photography is content—or subject if you will. In fact, it’s more than just a building block, it’s what a photograph is about, or ought to be about. It can be a story, it can be an emotion, it can be a statement, but a photograph has to be about something more than just visual appealing elements. The equivalent goes for writing, for instance. You can write the most beautiful sentences imaginable, but if they don’t tell the reader anything, nobody is ever gonna care.

If you want to improve your photography, my best advice is to look for stronger content. You may ask what, then, is stronger content? Unfortunately, there is not a magical answer to that question. Strong content is everywhere, but you will have to see it. The best way to find an answer is to look to yourself. What triggers you? What makes you happy or even furious? That’s where you—not me and not anybody else—will find strong content and consequently be able to create strong photos. When you have found strong content, you then use your knowledge about the other building blocks, such as composition, light and moment, to express the content in the most captivating way.

Fact is content trumps the other building blocks. If you capture strong enough content, you may still be able to create something extraordinary, even if you screw up the composition, the light sucks and there is no moment at all.

You don’t believe me? Look at photographs at least 50 years or older that have survived in our collective memory. What is the common denominator? Strong content. Yes, most of these classical photos are beautifully composed, lit brilliantly and may have captured either heightened or subtle moments, but you will also find examples of the opposite. The photographs taken by Robert Capa during D-day are a grand case in point. Technically, they got completely screwed up, nevertheless still stand strong to this day.

There is one more point I would like to add. It goes back to how to find strong content. In addition to content, composition, light and moment, there is a fifth building block. That’s you and your personality. In order to create strong images, you need to find a way to express yourself, your emotions and your passions through the other building blocks. You can’t necessarily do much about or change your personality, like you can change the other building blocks, but by learning more about yourself and becoming more self-aware, you can use this fifth building block as much as the others.

In this post, I have referred to David duCheming a couple of times. If you are interested in topics about creating strong photographic imagery, I recommend following duChemin’s blog.


57 thoughts on “Content Trumps All

  1. I don’t think he’d disagree with you. I got that email too, and am doing the Making the Image course. He’s a good teacher, I’m not such a good student though!

  2. Personally, I think it depends upon the context and story you want to tell with your image.

    It the image is merely a picture to support, or reflect the story, in your written words, perhaps you can get away with a less-than-perfect image.

    If the image has to stand alone and ‘tell the story’ then it has to be more compelling and light/exposure, focus, background (or lack thereof), contrast etc might have to be more perfect and draw the eye into the frame with the subject as the main feature. If your image is hanging in a gallery or exhibition it has to grab the attention of a wider audience. If the image is abstract, then composition and creativity might be more important. An abstract image might also be about the emotion the photographer wants you to feel as the viewer.

    If the image is standing alone on a blog (on the internet)for example, perhaps the title in your subject line is just as important as the image in that particular post i.e. the title and image have equal importance and ‘share, or tell the story’.

    Different photographic styles and genre appeal to different people too, so ‘the viewer’ can be part of the story.

    I really do think the viewer has a part to play in any creative art.

    1. I believe the same, that the viewer is part of the experience and the creation of art. And, yes, different use will have to result in different ways of photographing. For some uses, the need for “perfection” or rather as good as possible, is less than for other uses. Still content is most important, in my view. Even when talking about abstract art, it has to touch the viewers, radiate some kind of feelings. Pure abstract design can be cool and interesting, but I, at least, will quickly lose interest.

      1. I’m convinced this is part of the reason I have trouble appreciating painters like Mark Rothko. The abstract expressionists certainly are revered in certain circles, and I’ve spent plenty of time in front of their canvases, but they leave me entirely unmoved, if not bored. In the same way, I’ve seen photos where the stated intent is to reduce the image to its “purest form,” but those photos often remind me of the Cheshire Cat: they’re in the process of fading away into nothingness.

        1. I think a lot of postmodern art will not survive the test of time. That is always how it’s been. What we now see as the masterpieces of earlier times, is what survived a lot of other art work at that time.

  3. i found this to be a very interesting read, Otto!! Thank you so much! It really got me thinking! I just posted a picture on my blog, and I thought about if it had all 5 🙂 to ME, it does….

  4. This man in your photo has seen things in his life. His eyes are compelling. As for composition, it’s like technique and everything else, when it’s there, everything’s great. When it isn’t there, the viewer is left displeased even if they don’t know why. As you said, it’s a “means to a goal”. Maturity with your craft is when you can juggle all those building blocks at the same time and capture the moment.

    1. I read somewhere that good composition is something you don’t notice. And, yes, you are right, being able to handle all building blocks simultaneously comes with practice and maturity.

  5. I agree about content being the most important block, however even the most unassuming content can become spectacular when there is a “connection” made between the photographer & the content.

    1. The ideal is of course to have all building blocks coming together for the strongest possible expression – which indeed happens when there is a connection between the photographer and what she or he is photographing.

  6. Another wonderful article, Otto, and there is some good stuff in the comments, too. I find myself wondering about the viewer’s part in the process. It almost never fails that a photograph I think expresses me best, or that I think is a good one, turns out to be almost ignored (or panned) by others. And photographs I think I botched turn out to be popular. It’s a strange phenomenon. Thanks for the link to David duChemin’s blog. I will check it out.

    1. It happens to all photographers, I think. I often see that in my assignments. Editors tend to pick what I conceive as the most boring photos. In the end, though, we have to be true to ourselves. What happens on the “other side”, is for the other side to decide.

  7. There is the image maker and the viewer. The image maker must be true to her intention and instincts. For me it’s the vision that makes a creative work worthy. Sometimes the most mundane can become an artistic work that wakes one up to the beauty in everyday meandering. And the viewer sees the world in a whole new way.

    1. Often the most mundane creates the most captivating image, simply because we are didn’t expect to see anything special in the commonplace. And I agree, the photographer can only be true to her or his vision.

  8. I’ve never given photography that much thought, when I look through the viewfinder I just find myself arranging it how it is in my head, kind of strange I guess, and take the shot for me first, and in that way I see it as art, but I do find that those looking at my work can and mostly do see the subject sometimes completely different than I do. I think if I think too much, it might ruin it for me?

    1. I am not sure thinking too much is a liability for anyone’s artistic work. The more you learn about for instance visual language, the more strings you have to play with. But thinking should be done before and after the moment of creating, not during.

  9. I think if you need to quickly catch the important moment then other elements can be dropped. If you have time then it would be good to try to get all of the elements as much as possible. Like your picture in this post, it has perfect composition!

    1. Getting it all right is all about practice. When things happens quickly you don’t have time for deliberate considerations. But if it’s all ingrained in your backbone, so to speak, you will automatically used it to make the best out of every situation.

  10. Saying the same thing about painting might discount decades of abstract, non-objective, and conceptual art. I wrote a post recently saying “It’s all about the edges.” I was speaking personally. For me, the edges are the last and often most important thing I consider when composing a photograph. I am not saying you are wrong, because I believe there is no right nor wrong in art. I am saying that your post, like mine, is subjective.

    1. You are right, my writing is subjective—and has never pretended to be otherwise. As to whether my thoughts expressed here discount abstract, non-objective and conceptual art, I don’t see it or mean to do so. I my opinion these art genres have more to them than pure form, colour and composition. For me at least, those artworks that I can relate to, still have some kind of content, but then rather an emotional layer or poignant connection than a literal story or intent.

  11. Robert Capa’s photos are particularly striking, especially his portraits of the soldiers. As you mentioned, they convey strong emotions. I agree with you. Content is key. I see it with my own photos. I usually prefer the ones that communicate an emotion and a story even if their composition and the light are not perfect. Very meaningful post Otto.

  12. it’s always interesting to see your point of view regarding photography, and its a very complex issue, because so many diverse opinions, but were the artist experience of years working, and tangle with the issues counts, and come to define who you are, and how do you choose to express it.
    Great post as usual, Otto. 🙂

  13. I agree wholeheartedly with the thoughts you express here Technical skills are important in so far as they enhance, enable and support the expression of the subject /idea. The content is the message.

  14. I think you emphasized your point very well when you suggested we recall photos that have endured in our memories. So many photos come to mind that are connected to historical events and continue to tell a story many years later. This was a very interesting and informative challenge, Otto.

  15. Wow. This post has kind of stood me on my head. My first response was Bah, of course composition matters! You forced me to question myself. I’m thinking of graphic art (and photography.) There is every opportunity to frame for great composition, but often, composition is not the driving force of the image. Sometimes it’s color, contrast, unexpected patterns. I need to ponder this idea a bit.

    I can tell you what I’m tired of, and that is what I see too much of thanks to everyone being a photog these days: images where the lighting is blown out or simply non existant, where the focus is missing simply because a person was too lazy to steady themselves against a wall or a table. (Maybe they’ve got cataracts and can’t see the blurry crap they produce.) Images with posts sticking out of people’s heads and crooked horizons that are just crooked enough to look sloppy. I’m on a rant. I need to go back to thinking about composition.

    How’s this? When composition, lighting, and content all come together to produce a top notch photo, then we have art. (or luck)

    1. I agree with you latter statement. But even, so sometimes art occur when all the above is absent. As for you rant, with so much images taken these days, it’s unavoidable that the majority of all photos will lack any interest for anybody but the person who took the photo, exactly for the reasons you point to. Only a very limited amount of today’s images will stand the test of time – as has always been the case. More so these days when everybody, as you state, is a “photographer”,

  16. hey Otto. For an not english speaking women it takes time read your post, reflect and answer.
    In art, you might use color circle, brush and of course oil, watercolor, coal. Three element which make someone into a master are – technique, content and colour.

    I think the same thinking prevail in photographing to create something worthwhile is to photo a image which you dont have to crop at all. Your composition is thoughtful when you click the button of the camera. It has happen to me twice.

    Also good to remember is Golden Rule and rule of Thirds.

    /with greeting barbro

    1. I used to be all in for capturing and using the full frame. Today I don’t care so much, but allow myself to crop at any time, if it enhances the expression. Thanks for the comment, Barbro.

  17. A good article about a complex topic!
    When I started to study, to learn how to read and evaluate a photograph I find an interesting idea in a book of Augusto Pieroni : consider three main elements in a photo: content, form, contest. They all concur in the “strength” of a photo.

    They can have different weight, one can be low, poor and in this case the other two must be stronger, much stronger to compensate the poor one. Your example of the Capa’s photo during the D-day is a demonstration of it, the contest is so strong (taking photo during the battle for a landing) that other elements (the technical form in this case) can be not perfect, but the photo is still powerful.

    On the other side if I take photos in the local market in my town, where I can easily go at least twice a week there is no excuse for a bad composition, I can go back next day and repeat it.

    Same thinking of a photo taken in not a special contest, without a special content: the form, the aesthetic must be so strong to compensate the other two low factors to be interesting: we have seen thousands of photos of flowers and many of them are nice but not special. So why are the photos of the flowers by Robert Mapplethorp so strong? The perfection of the form…

    I’m writing too much, I hope I managed to express my idea, thanks again for the interesting article Otto, I’ll think more about it !
    PS: I agree, David duChenin articles are interesting, worthwhile to read.

    1. You are not writing too much. On the contrary, you make a lot of good points. It’s a very poignant comment, Robert. As to the flower photos by Mapplethorp, I personally don’t think they are only about form and composition. They have a strong emotional aspect, which for me is pure content.

  18. I agree with your building blocks … they are all important … personality too. I am always harping about the self in self-expression. I think it is a crucial part of being an artist.

  19. I found myself nodding in agreement throughout this post. This caught me, especially: “You can write the most beautiful sentences imaginable, but if they don’t tell the reader anything, nobody is ever gonna care.” The statement brought to mind one of my most memorable days in a classroom. My professor, who was concerned with our writing, but even more with communication, stalked up to one of my classmate’s desks, planted both hands on that desk, and growled: “Your words are beautiful. Your words are elegant. But are they true?” In other words, do they have content — do they have the power to engage the reader or listener?

    I see a lot of photos that don’t engage me, and some that do. I ponder them both, and I’ve decided it’s the presence or absence of that content you refer to that makes the difference.

    1. I think you teacher was spot on and certainly talking about the same as I try to in this post. I often see the same as you, that images that don’t engage me lack content. Thanks for sharing your classroom memory, Linda.

  20. I am always looking for content. It may be simplistic, such as a portrait of a flower or complex as a landscape. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on making images and followed your lead by leaving my email address at David’s blog.I appreciate your ability to put your thoughts into words, something I find difficult. I’ve subscribed to your blog as well and look forward to more of your writing and images.

  21. Well now you’ve really opened up a can of lens cleaner. I think the light is a large part of it but an interesting subject can be shot in a variety of way in terrible light and still be worthwhile. I forget who but someone once said the subject is irrelevant. Of course he probably shot nudes in a studio and wanted to seem clever.

    1. I am not saying I have the only right approach to understanding photography. Of course, all comes together in a perfect photo. But saying that subject is irrelevant is far from my standpoint, and of course, very postmodern.

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