is my firm belief that aethetic ability and creativity
can indeed be developed. The goal of this series of
articles is to share some of the methods that I have
found useful in developing my creative abilities, and
to provide a beginning/intermediate photographer with
some useful and practical things that they can do in
order to improve their images.
I have always felt that the technical
part of photography - viz, exposure, focus and depth
of field - are the easy bits. Automation has reached
the point where the typical evaluative meter in most
cameras does a very good job with the vast majority
of scenes; that, combined with instant review on the
LCD makes it such that even a complete beginner can
indeed produce technically proficient images most of
And with a little bit of effort, some
committed practice and perhaps a good book or three
on photography (see my Recommended Reading),
it is quite easy to build up one's grasp of the technical
aspects of photography to the point that "most
of the time" becomes "virtually all the time."
However, mastery of the aesthetic
elements is a completely different ballgame.
For starters, this is because it is
very hard to define - or even universally agree upon
- good aesthetics. However, we know it when we see it
(it is sort of like porn, in that respect): take a look
at the work of folks like Ansel Adams, Art Wolfe, Jim
Brandenburg, Franz Lanting and other great artists,
and the images jump out and grab your attention and
make you go "wow".
Capturing the essence of a place,
a moment or a mood in this manner is what photography
is all about - and this transcends the mundane aspects
of selecting focus, exposure, depth of field and even
simple rules of composition. More than any single aspect
of the image, it is geshtalt, the way all the various
elements fit in, that makes an image outstanding and
creates the "wow" factor.
A single photograph can often achieve
the "wow" factor through sheer serendipity.
For example, the photo below, which got me hooked on
to photography, was essentially blind luck - I happened
to be in a good position, the light happened to be just
right and while I did select the composition below,
I didn't previsualize the image or have any strong passion
for this particular composition. In fact, I didn't realize
what I had until I got the results. So I chalk this
one down to luck.
image was shot on generic 200 ASA print film, and photographeed
with a 28-105/3.5-4.5 lens that costs < $200. The
copy above is actually a flatbed scan of a print - I
really do need to get around to getting a high-quality
drum scan of this, in order to reveal all the tonalities
of the image.
However, in order to continually get
high quality images, one cannot rely on luck. A photographer
needs to develop an ability to recognize the various
elements which, when combined, surpass the sum of their
parts. This is aesthetic vision/ability and achieving
it involves more than just following the so-called rules
(or more appropriately, guidelines) of photography.
Sure, these rules help, but how often have we seen an
image that has rule of thirds placement, leading curves
and what-have-you, and yet lacks any impact?
So, how does one develop aesthetic
ability? Is this something that we are born with? A
lot of people seem to feel this to be the case - that
some people have creative instincts and others don't.
For the longest time, I believed this
as well. I had taken up photography as a way of recording
the beauty I experienced when outdoors and for quite a long time, my results
were pure, unadulterated crap that lacked any
kind of impact. My background was in "hard disciplines"
(sciences, engineering and finance) and I had no prior
exposure to the "soft disciplines" like art.
As such, while I found it quite easy to get the hang
of things like exposure, focus, etc., I was quite certain
that artistic excellence was going to be out of my reach.
But I hung with it, reading as much as I could, shooting
as much as I could, and following all the advice I encountered.
And along the way, I noticed that I could occasionally
take photos that didn't suck. Wonder of wonders, with time, my keepers actually started to increase.
Over time, I have come to the conclusion
that artistic ability and creativity are definitely
skills that can be acquired by anyone. Innate ability
only affects the ease with which you get there - some
people acquire those skills very easily, while others
have to work harder. But eventually, one reaches a point
where one stops thinking about composition as a set
of rules to be applied; instead, the photographer instincitvely analyzes the elements of an image and decides how to arrange them for maximum benefit.
Think of photography as a language. When you start out, you painstakingly learn the rules of grammar and conjugation. As you gain fluency, you know what to say and structure your sentences automatically. You may even break the rules and use slang in order to achieve a desired impact. During the course of these 2 articles, I am going to cover some ways in which you can improve your fluency in photography.
BASIC ELEMENTS OF BETTER COMPOSITION
- A REVIEW
Let's start with some of the common
guidelines (not rules!) of photographic composition. As I mentioned
earlier, there is more to aesthetics than simply applying
a few rules, but it is useful to be aware of these guidelines,
nonetheless. These are the easiest to absorb and follow,
and for a beginner photographer, they provide a useful
first step in improving the aesthetic quality of the
A detailed explanation of these guidelines,
along with lots of examples, can be found at various
places on the web, or better yet, in a good book on
photography, and my goal is not to duplicate all that
information. I'm listing some of them here just to
- Rule of
Imagine your image has 2 vertical and 2 horizontal
lines running through it, splitting it into an equal-sized
3x3 grid (sort of like a tic-tac-toe board).
The rule of thirds states that the main subject
of the image is best placed where these lines intersect
or along one of these lines - as opposed to dead
center in the middle of the image. Indeed, if you
examine most works of art, both photographs and
paintings, you'll see that this guideline is very
commonly used, and with good effect.
The image below shows how even a small subject can
have a powerful impact if it is places on one of
the "power points" as per the rule of
thirds. The key point here is off-center placement
- you don't have to be a slave to getting the subject
exactly on the 1/3rd point, mind you.
- Use leading
Leading lines work on the theory that an interesting
photo grabs the users attention and forces him or
her to look at all the various parts of the image.
The longer we spend looking at and absorbing an image,
the more it engages our mind.
A leading line is often used to guide how the viewer
sees the image - for example, the line of a driveway
or a fence make excellent leading lines which can
be used to guide the viewer's eye across the frame
to the subject, which may be an old manor house or
In this manner, the user's eye traverses the entire
image, subconsciously affected by the photographer's
use and placement of the lines.
For example, in the image above, the main subject
is the cluster of buildings that make up Diskit Monastery,
in the Nubra Valley of Ladakh. Had I just taken a
shot of the buildings, it would have lacked any kind
of imact - the eye would have rested on the building,
and the brain would have said "ok, building. Good.
By using the lines, the eye starts with the steps
and moved up, absoring the nature of the rough-hewn
stones. Then it comes to the buildings, at the far
end. The feeling is as of one who is about to walk
up to the monastery - so the degree of involvement
has increased and hopefully, so has the impact of
- Look for
lines, shapes, patterns and texture:
Sometimes, the most compelling image is one that highlights
patterns and shapes, as opposed to a more literal
interpretation. The simplest form of this is a study
of lines, such as the example below, which consists
entirely of straight lines. You can also expand it
into a study of shape, forms and patterns - the most
commonly used example of this last being the silhouette.
You can also work your composition to include geometric
shapes, such as squares, triangles and circles . S-curves,
such as the curve of a river, are also very effective
composition tools, adding impact to an image. Combining
one or more geometric shapes often makes for an attention-grabing
image; use a short to medium telephots to zero in
on shapes, and exclude distracting elements. Texture
is the final component - highlighting the texture
of a subject introduces a three-dimensional aspect
to an otherwise 2d representation.
Good graphics design - a key component of effective
photography - is based on a thorough knowledge of
the impact of lines, shapes and form. In fact, you
may already be familiar with some concepts: the use
of horizontal lines to represent stability, diagonals
to represent tension or action, curves to show serenity
and so on. However, there is a lot of additional information
to be had here, and a good book on graphics design
is a invaluable reference for all photographers.
- Use colors
for moods and emphasis:
We are all familiar with the use of colors to denote
feelings - red is power, rage, heat; green is envy,
fertility; blue is calm, cool, serene; white is pure;
black is profound; brown is earthy and so on. These
colors or hues can be used to transfer the same feeling
to an image.
Various colors also have differing impacts, and so
can be used to change the emphasis given to a particular
element. One effective way to do so is to use complementary
colors. The three primary colors are red, blue and
green. When you combine any 2 colors, the third color
is its complement. Thus, green is the complement of
magenta (red + blue), red is the complement of cyan
(blue and green) and blue is the complement of yellow
(red and green). The most effective images, from a
color point of view, are those which combine complementary
colors - such as a yellow foreground against a blue
background, as in the sunflower below.
Colors are also perceived differently - for example,
red stands out a lot more than other colors, in terms
of grabbing attention. Thus, a red subject in an otherwise
predominantly blue image will stand out more than,
say, a brown colored subject.
The opportunities with colors are endless, and color
theory is a whole book in itself - suffice to say,
be aware of the colors in your image and use them
to highlight or underplay the various elements.
- Use diagonals,
rather than straight vertical and horizontal lines:
Vertical and horizontal
lines are good when you are talking about buildings
and horizons, respectively, or when you are simply
doing a study of lines. However, in a lot of other
cases, they tend to make images appear static. On
the other hand, diagonal lines imply action and make
an image more dynamic. As long as the subject is not
something we associate with a horizontal or vertical
line, try composing it diagonally - all it takes is
a simple rotation of the camera. Things like flowers
on branches, fences and strong lines all have the
most impact when inclined.
For example, in the shot below, I tilted the camera
a little bit and also changed my shooting angle in
order to get a diagonal angle. Note
how this really heightens the sense of action - the
gemsbok appear to be thundering towards the camera.
The same shot, taken in a completely horizontal orientation,
would not have appeared nearly as dynamic.
- Use the
Just as a quarterback is reliant on his O-line, the
success of a given subject is dependant on the background.
We all know the basics of proper background use -
avoid cutting off people's heads and feet, watch out
for the telephone pole growing out of someone's head,
etc. But proper use of the background goes beyond
merely avoiding errors - it an be used to enhance
the impact of the subject as well. An example that
you may be aware: allowing space in front a subject
associated with movement (such as a car) implies movement
and can add an extra dimension to an otherwise static
The goal of the background is to either highlight
your subject (by providing contrast, for example),
or to add depth to the story conveyed by it (for example,
by adding a secondary story or point of interest,
or expanding upon the story told by the subject).
The composition below is an extremely simple one -
it simply has a main pebble as the subject, surrounded
by a lot of empty space to set it off. But note the
various touches that have gone into it. The smaller
pebble on the opposite side of the image balances
the composition. Without it, the rest of the image
would have been too bland and lacking in any kind
of interest. Having two opposing elements draws the
eye from one to the other. Also note the off-center
placement of both the pebbles and the use of diagonals
as well as curves. Lastly, note the emphasis on the
texture of the sand. Each element in the image has
been chosen in order to add a layer of depth to the
on the eyes:
The eyes are the window to the soul - and an image
where the eyes are sharp is going to have greater
visual impact . This holds true whether your subject
is a tiny bug, a huge tiger or a human being. We tend
to connect more with images where the eyes are sharp
and looking directly at the viewer.
close and change your shooting angle:
These two are probably the most useful things beginners
can do in terms of improving their photos right away.
The typical photo tries to fit in too much of everything
- and the result is that the subject gets lost amidst
a clutter of distracting elements. Unless you have a very good reason for doing so, I would suggest trying to avoid sweeping photos which include everything. That is probably the single biggest thing beginners can do to improve their images.
The other common mistake is to shoot a subject head-on,
while standing up. This is a boring view - try shooting
from a different angle (a low "shooting up"
angle works really well for subjects such as children
and pets). Shooting upwards increases the impact of your subject.
This list is
not exhaustive, and nor is it meant to be - as I mentioned,
a good book on composition will have all this information
and more, in great detail and accompanied by
Having told you all of this, let me tell you why I think simply following the above rules is NOT the way to go. Don't get me wrong - it isn't as if the suggestions above are wrong; quite the contrary, in fact. My problem with them is that they
are too "tactical" in nature - they tell us
what to do with various components of an image, without
referring to the overall goal ("strategy")
of the image. That, to me, is a bass-ackwards way of
looking at things. It doesn't make any sense to decide
how to arrange the little pieces unless you have an
idea of what the big picture looks like.
To me, developing creative ability
and an eye for aesthetics means starting with a vision
of what you want to achieve. Passively going out there
and hoping to make the best of what you see makes you
too reliant on luck - by developing your vision, you
will have a target that you want to achieve. THEN you
can figure out when to apply some of the above guidelines,
and when to break them (and yes, you most certainly
can break them).
So let's figure out how you can develop
this creative vision - this is covered in Part