11 Thoughts: An Introduction to Photographic Composition

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Welcome to the wonderful world of photographic composition! In its most general terms, photographic composition is the art of composing an image through framing. And there exists the problem. How is it that one thing that almost everyone agrees is critical to the success of a photograph is completely subjective—an art unto itself—and is sculpted by rules that everyone agrees should and can be broken regularly, with great success?

There is no way I can answer that question, but instead of giving you the same old, predictable introduction to composition as others, permit me to share some meandering thoughts about the subject.

1. The Non-Blank Canvas

Other visual arts start with a blank “canvas”… in photography, the canvas is preëxisting; it is our job to frame and eliminate elements. The other visual arts (painting, drawing, graphic design, and sculpture), the performing arts (dance, acting, music), and the written arts (prose and poetry), all allow artists to start, more or less, with a blank slate or canvas. There are no notes on the sheet music, there are no marks on the stretched canvas, and there are no words on the page. The artist adds them deliberately and methodically.

In photography, the only time you start with a blank canvas is in the studio, where you can control what is in the frame, the lighting, and the subject matter itself. Otherwise, outside the studio, the “canvas” has already been created. It is what is in front of you. It is the photographer’s job to choose what is eliminated from the canvas or added to it.

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