“Always seeing something, never seeing nothing, being photographer.” Walter De Mulder
I was re-reading a Bryan Peterson book on composition and he suggests that compelling photography is not about the content but about the arrangement of the content. I think that’s only partly true but he does have a point.
I went out for my usual newspaper and coffee and passed a wide variety of interesting but common things like huge pumpkin stands, Amish children of the corn and even a rare steam engine at the Strasburg Rail Road.
But I was looking for something different and a mile from home I stopped to check out some potatoes. They had three sizes and I noticed this old cash jar that said medium on it right next to the medium potatoes.
For some reason this fascinated me and I decided to photograph it featuring the jar as the main subject. Between the Amish woman that owned the stand and the potato junkies that kept pulling in it was distracting but I persevered.
Eventually I realized that I could move things around to get the composition I wanted and the last three images I took were the best. Despite the clouds and an umbrella blocking the light I got a shot I’m happy with.
Now is this the kind of thing I would hang on my wall? No, but my Psychiatrist has been asking me for a photo and I think if I had this printed and framed she would not only stop asking me but would probably give me better meds.
Dead Center is Deadly says photographer Rick Sammon, referring to obeying the rules of composition. He strongly (obviously) suggests you don’t put objects in the center of the frame because it’s boring, and because there are so many other ways to do it.
Its might seem simple enough to find a young sunflower in her prime and take a photo, but even though the light is fading fast you should consider these rules of composition: the rule of thirds, the golden ratio, the rule of odds, negative space, filling the frame, balance, leading lines and symmetry.
Maybe take one shot using each rule, then mix and match until it either gets too bright, too dark, it rains or you get kicked out of wherever you are. Then take the RAW files home and edit them according to the rules of editing: white balance, exposure, noise reduction, etc, etc, etc.
I’ve heard rumors in back alleys and pool halls that there are people who take photos with their compact camera or phone and upload them as shot, but I’m sure they’re just rumors. Of course this is not fight club and breaking the rules will not result in a beating. Unless Rick Sammon sees your photos, then you’re in trouble.
An interesting rule of composition is called the rule of odds, which suggests that an odd number of objects can work better than an even number. For example, a single flower framed correctly (yes, more rules), can appear to have better balance than two flowers together.
Others say that by using an odd number of objects, you’re actually encouraging the viewer to create their own balance. So the whole concept is either classic genius or nonsense.
So what happens if you see some gorgeous bulbs bulbing by the side of the road in good light? You grab your camera and fire off a few quick shots wide open to emphasize that ethereal quality of flowers. Looking at them later, you see that by some happy or unhappy accident you have only two of them in focus, or as much as is possible at f/1.8.
Now what? What will your friends and family say, your art teacher, the boys at the bar choking down chicken wings, the girls at the bowling alley missing the 7-10 splits? How can you possibly explain why you broke the rules?
You frantically think of something to say, something about rules, but all you can remember is the Fight Club thing. So take a deep breath and quote Ansel Adams: “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”
If that doesn’t cut it, mention the Fibonacci spiral and numbers, which of course you know like the back of your hand. That should be enough to confuse and yet impress almost anyone.