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.