Together with two other photographers I was asked to contribute for an article in Digital Photography Magazine 189 about composition and refining the frame. DP Magazine asked us some questions and we tried to answer them as good as we could. It ended up being quite a nice long read and I suggest you get a copy of that issue. Here is my unabbreviated contribution as a whole for those of you who are interested.

Refining the frame and simplifying for success.

What are the main things that you consider when composing an image?

Often many decisions have been made early in the process, before I go out to shoot anything. Usually I have a shortlist of locations or subjects I want to photograph, sites I have been to before. I decide where to go based on the conditions, the season and how the weather is developing.

While composing an image I always ask myself questions; What’s the subject? Usually I have chosen a certain location because of the subject. In the composition I’ll try to make the subject stand out.

Secondly, I look at the light: how does it fall on the subject; what is the best angle? does the light complement or enhance the subject from this angle?

Then I go on the lookout for a good foreground. It can be anything, leading lines, patterns, flowers rocks, anything that leads the eye into the frame. The best foregrounds enhance the image; they have a relation to the story of an image, for example fallen leaves in a forest.

Finally I check the background: it is a lot easier to take one step to the side than to have to edit out a electricity pylon later in Photoshop.

After I have taken some shots and adjusted some of the decisions that did not work, I ask myself “What can I add or change to get the image to the next level; can I create movement in water or the sky or create a sunstar?” This is about refining the image.

Why can including less in the frame often be the best approach?

I live in the Netherlands which is a challenging place for a landscape photographer. The Dutch countryside is well-organized but completely flat; there are no big vistas, mountains, or rocks to include in the frame. One has to be creative and selective with the elements that are available. I believe this has trained my eye to see distracting elements and build a composition.

Anything that does not complement the subject takes the attention away from the subject and needs to be eliminated. Less is more. The more objects that are in the frame the more the viewer’s attention becomes divided, especially if the objects do not add to the composition/story. By framing a composition we try to create order in the image. Images that have fewer elements seem more ‘ordered’ and help the brain of the viewer interpret the image better. This way your message/subject/story will be better understood.

How important is it to keep bright elements or objects that will distract the eye, away from the edge of the frame?

The subject needs to be near or in the brightest or most contrasting part of the image. That is where the viewer will look first and mostly. If you know that the viewer’s eye is drawn to the brightest parts of an image, you can use this to your advantage. You can either place your subject in front of, or close to the brightest element in your frame. But now it becomes very important that you eliminate or hide all the other bright elements in the image because they will draw the attention away from your subject and out of the frame. It is all about guiding the eye to the subject.

“When I imagine a print of the composition balancing on my finger, somewhere there has to be a balance point”

How do you ensure that your images are balanced?

I try to use various rules for composition but they need to enhance the subject and the light that I’m capturing. Sometimes this means throwing all the rules overboard and just doing whatever works at that moment.

As a general rule of thumb I award ‘weight’ to the different elements in the frame. Also the distance of the subject to the edge of the image weighs in on the equation (the closer to the edge the more it impacts the balance). And when I imagine a print of the composition balancing on my finger, somewhere there has to be a balance point. If the scale keeps tipping over an image is not balanced to me. But the balance point does not necessarily have to be in the center of the frame.

I am a big fan of the principle that perfection is boring. With this I mean that most great compositions have a (small) unobtrusive dissonant element, something that is not completely totally perfectly ‘ordered’ or lined up. A happy accident if you will. This will subconsciously intrigue the viewer and add more interest. The image will have a more genuine, natural feel. If all is perfect the viewer will quickly be bored. A small flaw will also make it more personal, more ‘your image’. When you look at great artworks there are always some of these flaws to be found. They make the image feel natural, less fabricated. Have you ever looked closely at the background in the Mona Lisa? If you look left and right the background does not seem to match or form one coherent landscape. Another example is looking at a face, generally speaking the most symmetrical face is usually considered the most beautiful but perfect symmetrical faces look strange, discomforting and odd; it’s the small flaw that makes the face almost perfect and thus beautiful.

You cannot intentionally create a naturally looking flaw; what I mean is that you have to work hard to get an almost perfect image but do not over think or over-organise an image. You are bound to oversee some minor details, make small mistakes and flaws, embrace them, accept them for what they are. They make your image unique and special.

“With the absence of colour it all comes down to composition, shape and light – it is the ultimate less-is-more principle”

How important is it to keep colours balanced? Would you recommend simplifying the colour palette? Why?

Simplifying the colour palette really helps as colors can distract from the subject too. As with composition the eye gets drawn to colorful things in the frame. Especially red. Again you can use this knowledge to your advantage. Shooting your subject from a low perspective against a bright red sky right after sunset will make your subject stand out. If you are shooting pink flowers it helps to balance out the contrast if you have a pink sky too, This way you can use the colours to enhance or diminish the contrast in a composition. If the light is rather flat you can also use the colour contrast to improve the composition. For example in the blue hour the contrast is generally low but if you shoot a city scene the colour temperature of the streetlights turn orange against a dark blue sky. This will create a strong pleasing colour contrast in an otherwise flat image.

Why does black and white work so well for minimal landscapes/compositions?

Most minimal images work better if the subject and the concept conveyed become more abstract. Taking away the colour information is a great way to go one step from reality. One less thing for your brain to interpret. With the absence of colour it all comes down to composition, shape and light; you simply have left out more (possible) distractions. It is the ultimate less-is-more principle. A simple image (with few distractions) is very hard to achieve but it is far easier for the eye and brain of the viewer to process the information and thus more pleasing.

How can long exposures be used to simplify your imagery?

Creating a long exposure is another great way to move away from reality. It can eliminate certain distractions like moving objects and thus create more order and help to simplify the image. It is a tool that can be used creatively with any of the above tips to help your image get that little bit of extra something. It works great in black and white minimal compositions. I also use this to get a sense of movement in some of my images, cars passing by becoming light trails in city shots or blurring clouds that are passing by. I love the fact that it helps to convey a concept of the passing of time in the frame. The image contains more than just that one short ‘click’ but captures the memory of a period of time.

How can changing the aspect ratio (4:3/ square crop) be used to tighten/refine/simplify the frame?

I find a square crop usually more compelling as if the photographer is saying; ‘this is exactly what I want you to look at!’ Again it is about leaving out elements and objects and simplifying the story your image is trying to convey. I tend to use the crop mostly if I have planned it in advance, for instance I have set myself on taking a square black and white minimal architectural image… Sometimes a different aspect ratio will make the image better. You might have missed during shooting that the sky was rather boring; cropping a part of the sky will improve the image. Or you might have missed something distracting on the edge of the frame. A smart crop will easily get rid of that. I tend to always use the standard aspect ratios as guidelines for a crop since those usually are built around aspect ratios that are ‘pleasing’ to the eye.

That is it, I hope you can make some sense out of my thoughts.

Martijn van der Nat

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