Artist David Hockney once said that art, science and craft from outside your immediate world can bring infinite possibilities to your work.
At the Moulin Rouge” by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
I’ve always said that a photographer should study work not only by other photographers, but also by artists working in other media, and especially in painting. And the reason for this is to think about composition.
If we compare photography and painting, then clearly the way in which an image is put onto paper, or canvas, is completely different. The technical aspects of the two media don’t overlap at all. But the visual aspects do overlap in many ways – the use of light and colour within the image, and particularly the way in which it is composed.
While I’m not familiar with how easy or difficult it is to teach the techniques of painting, it’s comparatively easy to teach the techniques of photography. There are certain things that need to be understood – such as depth of field, exposure, focal lengths and how they behave – and these are things that can be explained and learned.
New Years Eve 2008 Unicorn Pub Oxfordshire
But composition is slightly more intangible. Put two photographers who both fully understand their photographic techniques in front of the same scene, and they will almost certainly produce two quite different images. Both will be excellent from a technical point of view. But it may be that even so, one will be much “better” than the other in the mind of most viewers. So why is this?
The answer can only be in the aesthetic qualities of the images. Perhaps one of the photographers has framed his photograph better, included or excluded something that makes a difference to the overall balance. Or maybe there is a more pleasing distribution of colour within the frame, or the balance of light and dark areas works better.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir Le Moulin de la Galette
These intangibles are not so easy to teach, as in every situation the composition has to be found using the elements that are present. The photographer will have to evaluate the subject matter and find a composition that works – in other words, one that gives a pleasing and harmonious balance within the frame of light, colour, and shape.
So it’s not possible to write a rule book which tells you how to compose a picture. There are various guidelines such as the rule of thirds, and the rule of space. But the only real way to improve your composition is to practice – and then to evaluate why some of your compositions work better than others. And as well as this, to evaluate other photographers’ work, and try to analyse what it is that makes the successful images work so well.
Venice Italy: Late Night Shopping
And this is where it is beneficial to study composition in paintings too – as all the same principles of balance and harmony of light, colour and shape apply in painting as in photography. It’s always worth studying composition in paintings – it all goes into your subconscious and probably helps when you’re composing a photograph of your own.
Putting aside considerations of which of the actual techniques of painting and photography are more difficult, I sometimes think that painters have it easier when it comes to composition – if they look at a scene and there is an element that spoils the balance of the composition, they can simply leave it out – whereas we photographers need to work with all the elements that are there!