Some thoughts on graphic elements within a photographic composition.
‘Interesting light’ is the most important thing I look for when making a photograph.
However, “light” is not the first thing I look for in a composition.
First, I search for lines, angles, shapes and other graphic elements. For me, these are the building blocks from which I can compose a photograph. I look for what Cartier-Bresson called, “the rhythm of surfaces“.
We are all different and we all build our photographs in different ways, from a different set of elements and with a different set of priorities to those elements.
My eye is very attuned to graphic shapes. These and interesting light is what drives much of my photography. It is probably why I am a landscape photographer and not a photojournalist.
“ For a subject to be strong enough to be worth photographing, the relationship of its forms must be rigorously established. Photography composition starts when you situate your camera in space in relation to the object. For me, photography is the exploration in reality of the rhythm of surfaces, lines, or values; the eye carves out its subject, and the camera has only to do its work. That work is simply to print the eye’s decision on film”
~ Henri Cartier-Bresson
For this blog post, I thought I would show you a range of different examples of what I mean by “lines, angles and graphic shapes” and share with you some thoughts on why they can be important elements in a photograph. Some of these examples are obvious. Others are less so. I hope these thoughts and examples help and encourage you in your own journey of photography.
These first two examples above, show clear use of lines. Lines can be straight or angled or they can be the curved parts of shapes and objects in the scene. Lines can be physical elements like a hand rail, a horizon or a curved battlement as in the above examples. They can also be areas of positive or negative space, caused by the balancing, positioning or spacing of elements in a scene.
It is worth noting, I believe there are no rules. Which perhaps is why I like the term “rhythm of surfaces”. As photographers we need to develop a feel for the ‘rhythm’ and this requires us to be flexible in our vision. Each scene we encounter will be different, so we need to be agile and fluid in how we move with our camera in composing our photograph. We need to be open and flexible to the many possible ways that one particular scene might be composed. We need to look for lines, angles, shapes and other graphic elements and let those things play in our mind and viewfinder while we consider each possible composition.
Lines, angles and other graphic elements can also be made from, or enhanced by, the use of contrasting light. The values of light, can in-itself, be a very graphic element in a photograph. Light and contrast can create lines and angles where they did not exist previously in the scene.
The photograph above makes good use of the physical line between the water and the snow, yet it also makes very good use of the contrast in light values between the two.
Whereas the photograph below makes less obvious use of physical lines and angles. However, to my eye, lines and angles are still very much in use. The contrast between the left and right sides of this scene creates a ‘contrast angle’ of light which makes for a very graphic photograph.
Personally, I like a photograph to be ‘active’ and not ‘static’. By that I mean, I like a photograph which pulls the eye ‘in’ and through the composition; the eye is drawn and encouraged to flow. It is as if the photograph is alive and beckoning you forward and through the scene. Your eye is encouraged to move.
Lines and angles can play an important role in helping to achieve this.
Both these photographs below use lines and angles to move your eye through their respective scenes.
Often graphic elements are inherent in the subject itself. However, in addition, the angle at which we can hold our camera, both vertically and horizontally, can also add an angled perspective to our photographs for a more graphic effect. Both these photographs below show a strong use of both physical lines and camera angle.
The composition of lines, angles and other graphics are important to a photograph. They are often the framework upon which everything else sits and works together. Their elemental relationships with each other give a sense of place and structure that provide visual pleasure, direction, geometry and balance within a photograph. They are very fundamental to its form, design and layout.
However, such elements can also go beyond just issues of functional structure. They can also add purpose and enhance the meaning behind the photograph. In fact, such structural elements can form the bases of the subject in the photograph. These two photographs below of snowboards and skis are good examples. I have always been mesmerised by the shapes, angles and lines which they form and I like to photograph them as a subject in itself.
For me, there is a certain poetry of motion in all angles and shapes.
I have always liked photographs which are strong and simple. I like the feel of a definite ‘sense of subject’ and I like that the subject has space in which to resonate. I find this works very well with my graphic style.
A graphic approach can have a disruptive and engaging effect within our photographs. It can help to get the viewers attention. Not only can it help focus the eye to a particular place in the photograph, it can also help to focus their thoughts and feelings on what we might be trying to communicate with our photography.
With these two photographs below, it is clear where I would like the viewer to look and focus their attention. The core subjects are simple with space, focus, perspective, light and tone used to pull the viewers eye in.
Contrasting colour is also a very graphic element which we can use. This example below of flags, in front of a white lighthouse and blown out sky, is very graphic. This photograph not only makes less obvious use of lines and curves it also uses contrast to good effect. To my eye there is a graphic rhythm to this photograph which I find very pleasing.
I hope my sharing of these few thoughts on the nature of some graphic elements in photography have been of interest or help to you.
This is by no means a full exploration of this topic. I would need to write a book to do that. However I hope you have found it of interest.
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Here are some other posts I have written which may be of interest to you here:
- What makes a photograph great?: here
- Why photography? here
- Becoming a photographer ~ the struggle to see part 1: here
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