Composition: Prescriptive or Descriptive?

If there is one question I get whenever I teach or discuss composition it is, “Yeah but do you shoot with all these compositional rules in mind or is it something you see afterwards?”  To put it another way, are these compositional rules prescriptive or descriptive? And the answer, of course, is a little of both.

Now, when I run a seminar or workshop and teach a load of compositional rules, I don’t expect my students to go out and start applying all of the rules right away when they are shooting. The fact is, when we go shooting, we are thinking about the subject almost to the point of becoming myopic. We become oblivious to everything else around us. Hopefully, we will try to think about a few of the basic rules of composition at the same time, such as thinking about where the subject falls in the frame, where the lines or elements in the frame are that we can use to draw the viewers eye to the subject. But there are a whole host of compositional elements that we never think to look for in a photo. And quite frankly, most of those would fall in the category I’d call descriptive.

While cropping, positioning the subject in the frame, the use of contrast and balance, being aware of the foreground, middle ground and background, rhythm or repetition and yes, even eye-lines can all be things  that we look for in the view finder there is so much more that will help us in zeroing in on that great image once we get it into Lightroom. These are the factors that help you select powerful images.

When I am in the field, I will often take 5 to 10 images of any one subject. I work the subject for different angles, light, expression and gesture. After I import the images into Lightroom, a lot of the other compositional elements come into play. It is now that the strong images rise to the surface. There’s a chance, and over the years it’s gotten a lot more than just a chance, that I know which image is going to be the strongest before ever importing them into Lightroom. But certainly, once the images are in there, a few images will stand out among the rest. It is now that I look for strong elements of design and composition, things that I might never have seen in the viewfinder. A good example is an image I shot of some farmers winnowing their barley harvest.

This image has some very strong repetition of triangles. I saw one maybe two of the triangles when I was shooting. But later when I look at the image in Lightroom I saw many, many more. I have marked a few above, but there are still more in the frame to be found.

Much of composition is learned and reinforced with practice and self-assignments. Then later, sometimes much later, it enters into the intuitive part of the brain. One day you realize that you are not thinking about diagonal lines curves and vectors, they just start showing up in the images. This is a lot like any art or sport. You learn technique so well that it becomes second nature. I fenced in college.  I was mediocre at best. But I fenced against some of the best. I can tell you they were not thinking, perry, repost, lunge, disengage.  It just magically happened. It was all second nature. Because we practiced the techniques over and over again. And so it is with composition. The more you practice, the more you critique your own images, the more it will become second nature.

About Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer.

In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.

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2 thoughts on “Composition: Prescriptive or Descriptive?

  1. Very interesting thread, Matt! Indeed, I try to get aware of the composition while shooting (and still have Zack's Photo Critique words in my mind eachtime I shoot some portraits 😀 ), but in the action, I usually forget most of the composition stuff… so thank your for the reminder!

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