How do we learn to compose?
We learn to compose by taking lots of pictures. It seems simple enough, the more you do the better you get but we need to realize it comes with a caveat. Simply taking lots of pictures is not good enough. We need to take pictures and constantly evaluate them. Taking lots of pictures will be of little use if you keep making the same mistake.
Why do we take lots of pictures?
Because you will fail and you will fail a lot. A lot of your shots will be terrible. There is no nice way to put this but you are going to do a horrible job of it. Being a failure at photography is actually a great thing. Once you learn to accept you are going to fail then you can begin to think as a photographer.
SO WHAT?!?!?! Consider a magazine cover shoot. We could shoot 100 photos and how many photos do we need for a magazine cover? 1. Think about it for a moment. We shoot 100 photos and only use 1 that would mean we have a 99% failure rate. Despite a 99% failure rate our shoot would be a success because we got our magazine cover. I do not think that most people would jump out of an airplane with a parachute that had a 99% failure rate yet we gladly accept only using 1% of the photos.
I think that on average the average photographer will only show about 1% of the total photos they have ever shot. That means we need to accept failure as a part of the process. Even the world’s best photographers take photos that go horribly wrong. The secret is they do not show them so we never know about them.
Knowing that we will fail means that when we do fail we need to know why we did fail. Sometimes we know what we did wrong and other times we do not. We learn photography to reduce our failure rate and also so that when we do fail we know what we did wrong. We need to learn from our failures. So many times we are told to go out and take pictures without a clear idea of why we are doing it.
Your composition can only improve if you are honest with yourself as a photographer. One of the hardest things to do as a photographer is take a photograph you are proud of and reject it because it fails on its technical merits. That also means being open to criticism. I see it all the time where a new photographer shows a photograph and invites criticism and when they get a comment they disagree with their retort is “I don’t follow the rules.”
If you read my previous introduction then you will remember that the rules of photography ultimately exist to enhance our ability to tell a visual story by helping our brains to interpret the photograph. If you are a photographer who is out to “break all the rules” without learning the rules and mastering them then you are a failure as a photographer and your photography will suffer a 100% failure rate.
Remember a 99% failure rate is acceptable however we can and should do better then 99%.
How do you work knowing 99% of your photos will fail?
You only show your best work. Many new photographers tend to take lots of shots and show them all and the problem is that your good shots get mixed in with your bad shots and then your work will suffer as a result. If you take 100 shots then just pick one and show that. The less you show the better off you are. The reason is that picking just that one photograph will force you to be super critical of your work and you will find mistakes and flaws you can use to learn from.
Why go to all this time and trouble?
Learning photographic composition will help you in so many ways such as firstly it will allow you to take better pictures. Photography is like a two sided coin. On one side we have photographic composition and the other we have photo editing. Knowing how to compose a photograph will help you with editing your photos. When I say edit your photos I mean look through all your photos and decide what to keep and what to throw out.
As well knowing photographic composition will allow you to evaluate other’s work. If you are capable of editing your own work then you can edit others as well. I would encourage you to look at the photography that surrounds us and when you see a photo take a look at it and decide what you like about it and what you do not like about it.
Finally knowing photographic composition will allow you to express yourself to other visual artists. As your photography develops hopefully you will be able to take on a collaborative project with another visual artist and you can use your knowledge of composition to communicate your ideas as well as understand what is being communicated with you.
Where can we learn photographic composition?
We can learn it from the Internet, books and other photographers works. It is all out there waiting to be learned. Learning it will take some time but once you start to learn it and you notice the improvements that will motivate you to want to shoot more and do more.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE GEAR?
You may of noticed that I have spent a lot of time talking photography without referencing any photographic gear or technical terms. Why am I not talking gear? For one simple reason. We don’t need it! When you talk about photographic composition with the aim of using to develop a photographic vision we need to understand that photographic gear is simply the tools we use to recognize our vision.
A vision that is defined by gear is not a vision or even photography! Stop worrying about the gear you do not own and worry about the gear you do own and how you are going to use it to learn photographic composition.
When we talk composition we need to understand that there are two parts:
Visual. This involves elements such as lines, shapes and colours.
Technical. This is things like exposure, lighting, white balance.
The remainder of this discussion will focus on understanding visual composition.