“I Don’t Do Composition”

Today’s Rant by Joe Farace

“I Don’t Do Composition.” These words were spoken by a young photographer while a friend of mine was trying to offer them constructive criticism about their work. I hate to be the one to break it to that guy but the moment you place a viewfinder to your eye or look at the EVF, every choice you make affects the photograph’s composition. Of course, they may be bad choices but there you have it.

Artists have always made conscious choices affecting the composition of their work. I’m sure Jackson Pollack was aware of the composition of his abstract expressionist paintings. As was Picasso or Salvador Dali with their surrealist art, let alone photographers like Ansel Adams. Any ennui that this young photographer exhibited, I believe, was caused by that fact that throughout photography’s history, there has been so much written about the “rules of composition.”

In my opinion, one of the best books about photographic composition is The Command to Look by William Mortensen that was published in 1937. A recent reprint is available and affordable ($15.82) and I think belongs in the library of everyone who is really serious about their photography. Bargain hunters will note that used copies are a little more than ten bucks, as I write this.

In the pages of The Command to Look you won’t find anything like the ‘rule of thirds’ that divides an image into three slices and dictates specific intersection points where subjects should be placed for maximum impact. Nope, Mortensen applies a psychological approach to photography and as I’m reading it for the third time I find that some of his comments have a subliminal “if you want your pictures to look like mine” component to them. Nevertheless this is a fascinating way of approaching the subject. It’s a hard slog and the reprint includes a bizarre Afterward, so please read my review before jumping onto Amazon’s website and ordering a copy.

My personal philosophy of composition is based on how when looking at a photograph, your eyes sees the various components of the image in the following order: sharpness, brightness, and warmth. On the simplest level if the photograph’s subject is the sharpest, brightest, warmest object in the image, you’ve got a winner but if the subject is not sharp—tilt! The same thing happens when a sharp, bright object is placed near a similarly, sharp bright and warm object; you’re eyes are gonna go to the warmest object, whether it’s sharp or not.

Surprisingly I find some of this same approach is also buried inside some of Mortensen’s writings even though most of his work is monochromatic.

So waddaya do? You can’t say, “I don’t do composition…” because like it or not the second you press the shutter you are doing just that.