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.

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.

43 thoughts on “The Compositional Dance

  1. A couple of years ago I attended a talk by Joel Meyerowitz in Reggio Emilia and he told us that he decided to become photographer after that he saw Robert Frank taking photos in the place where he was working. And he was so “fascinated” by seeing Robert moving around his subject like dancing that he decided to become a pgotographer.
    But I think it is important first to make a connection with your subject, specially if we speak of people otherwise it could be a little embarasing to start a dance around a stranger 🙂
    And for me this is somethiong I have to work more, thanks for reminding this important point.

    1. I think we all need to start working on the compositional dance. When engaging with people with the intent to photograph, the connection is always important. I think that can be part of the dance, but yes, sometime you do need to get a little acquainted before sticking a camera up in someone’s face.

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    Пт, 24 січ. 2020, 16:04 користувач In Flow with Otto пише:

    > Otto von Münchow posted: ” 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 mo” >

  3. I’ve never felt particularly confident in my compositions, and I think your advice is really helpful. I am someone who doesn’t like to intrude on anyone at all. I think I even feel uncomfortable if other people are around me when I’m out with my camera. I didn’t think about this much until just now reading your post, Otto. I feel eager to get out there and try to be a little mobile! I will “move around” my subject a lot more, and let’s see what happens. Thank you.

    1. I would love to hear (or read) about your experience with the dance. The thing is, if you have made the first connection with someone (if it’s people you photograph) and they haven’t objected to being photographed, in almost all cases they will allow you to “dance” with them as well.

  4. Instinctively, I began following this advice from the beginning of my time with a camera. Even though I was photographing flowers, I found that I constantly had to be moving: to find a way to keep the entire bloom in focus, to find an interesting composition, to choose a better background that didn’t compete with the subject. I still do that, and may take twenty photos of a single flower — sometimes, even more. When I come home after a few hours in the field, I can be more exhausted than when I’ve been varnishing. Holding a position, getting up, sitting down — even laying down to shoot up — takes more energy than I ever realized. On the other hand, time seems to disappear. Two or three hours can be gone in a flash, and sometimes I even bring home a good image!

    1. I bet when you practice your compositional dance with a flower – or whatever else you photograph – that you enter a state of deep flow. Time vanishes and it’s only you and your “dance partner”. No?

  5. Sometimes it’s two dances. One to work the scene, and one with the clock. It seems as often as not the clock sets the music. But then a lot of that is really my fault due to photography being the secondary reason for an excursion.

  6. Great advice. Sometimes even a slight change in vantage point or framing makes a big difference. I usually try to collect as many compositions as I can, then decide what I like best when I see them on my computer screen. For landscape photography I like to start out wide then move in closer or change lenses to focus on certain aspects of a scene.

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