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By Vandit Kalia
October 2006

It 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 the time.

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.

This 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.


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 images.

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 re-cap:

  • Rule of thirds:
    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 lines:
    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 a bar

    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. Next"

    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 the image.
  • 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 background effectively:
    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 image.

    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 image.

  • Focus 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.

  • Get 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 pretty photos.

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 2.



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