The Human Form Divine
“For Mercy has a human heart, Pity, a human face, And Love, the human form divine, And Peace, the human dress” William Blake
There is a principle of composition that is so strong it could be called a law. A law, not in the form of man made limitations, but in the sense of the undeniable , like the law of gravity. The kind of law that may very well be unbreakable. It is what I call, “the law of the the human figure.” It states that in composition the human form trumps all else for visual weight. Meaning that if you have a human form in your photo the viewers eyes will be draw to it first over anything else in that frame. Notice I am not using the word “human” by itself, because it isn’t the “human” part alone that does the drawing, it is the human form. So a manikin or a stick figure might just as easily draw the viewers eye.
There is something about the human form that attracts other humans. I think in its simplest form this rule plays off of another compositional principle. This principle states that things that are recognizable draw the viewers attention over things that are unrecognizable. The human form, of course, is the most recognizable of all things. For we see it everyday around us. Even if we are alone we see our own form in the mirror, our reflection in a window. If the light is right we even see our own face staring back up at us in our morning coffee. The second factor at work here is that human beings are social creatures. As such we are drawn to other human beings. I think, this is one of the most powerful aspects of the rule. By understanding we are social creatures and the human form is the strongest draw visually, then we can create photos that relate to people and touch something primal.
But there is a catch here. Just because the human form is the strongest visual form and trumps all other items in a photo for visual weight, it still needs to be placed properly within the frame. A poorly compost photo with a person in it is just a poorly composed photo. Compositional elements all work together to form a strong image. Once the eye is drawn to the human form where does it from there? That’s the responsibility of the rest of the composition. This is why compositional elements and visual weight are so important for a photographer to understand. When you understand that the eye of the viewer is moving around looking for something of interest in a photograph and you can deliver that, you have a good photo. Having a person in your photo is just a visual starting block for the viewer. After that the viewer’s eyes wanders the frame looking for the next bit of visual interest.
“There is a road from the eye to heart that does not go through the intellect.” G. K. Chesterton
What if your human form has a face? Don’t laugh, there are plenty of photos of people with their backs turned to the photographer, so photographically speaking, they have no face. But what if they do? If the human form is the strongest visual form, then the face is it’s bull’s eye. The face and with it the eyes are the most powerful. Everyone has heard the old saying, “the eyes are the window to the soul”. There is something about people’s eyes that are magical and almost magnetic. We are drawn to people’s faces, held there by their eyes. This is exactly why I want my subjects eyes to be sharp and in focus. Whether anything else in the photograph is in focus, I insist that the subject’s eyes be sharp and clear. But beyond being sharp and clear, it’s incredibly important to have what is called, “catch light” in the subject’s eyes. Catch light is nothing more than sky or other highlights in front of the subject’s face reflecting in their eyes. I believe this has a lot to do with giving life to the subject in the photograph. Portraits of people without catch light in their eyes seemed dull and lifeless at times. It’s not difficult to find catch light. You might simply have to move yourself, thus the subject’s face follows the camera until you see highlights reflecting in their eyes. Of course, many people use fill flash to achieve this. To me, this doesn’t look nearly as good. It merely shows up as a small spot of light on their eyes. But I guess that is better than nothing.
All this to say, when making a photo use the human form to intentionally create visual movement. If done right, not only will your photo be more dynamic, it will resonate with humanity.