When I started working at my photography, I found plenty of technical resources to learn of metering, depth of field and focal length selection. When I wanted to improve my composition and framing, it was a different story. There was plenty of lore, hand-waving, a nod to the “rule of thirds” and the advice to “look at a lot of good photos,” but little in practical tips I could use.
Moab-based photographer Bruce Hucko has a new book out chock full of photos I admire. Time Among the Ancients is his meditation on the mosaic of life as seen through the archeological sites of the Colorado Plateau. I know I like Bruce’s compositions, but why?
Perhaps the reason why there’s a dearth of resources on learning composition is that it is quite difficult to verbalize why a picture works. I found that if I got out a pen and scrap paper and sketched the image, I could break down their compositions into visual lessons. Images I thought “worked” generally had an underlying rhythm or order that even my sorrowful little drawings could trace out. (I am a photographer and not an illustrator for good reason. I tidied up this demonstration by stroking over paths in Photoshop.)
In Defiance House, I see a converging series of leading lines. They don’t point absolutely to the entry to the kiva, but as a whole, they subtly lead the eye to the unknown, the sacred element of the scene. The darker structure stops the eye, the second window aligns with the kiva entry, repeating the entry motif. Even the ridge of rock at the right, which could be a problem, has been turned into a feature, redirecting the eye back into the picture. Move the tripod 6 inches in either direction, and the composition would be radically different. Would Bruce agree with my analysis of his picture? Maybe, maybe not. Does it matter?
Once I see it, good composition is relatively easy to describe. No special skills are required to sketch images, you can even trace over them if you want. The trick is training the visual creative mind to stop describing the actual subject and to see the structure of the two dimensional image. A few pleasant hours with your favorite photography magazines, a pile of scrap paper and a pen can help you improve your ability to see composition in the field.
Thanks to Bruce for permission to use his image. The book is an absolute bargain at $7.95, and you can get Time Among the Ancients from the Canyonlands Natural History Association bookstore.