Composing Photos Using the Building Blocks of Design

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If photography was entirely a science of tweaking settings and understanding all the technical aspects of your camera, it wouldn’t be considered an art form.  Like all forms of art, photography requires a great deal of creative thought and development.  Eventually, you will develop an eye and a talent for creating great compositions.  But developing that skill requires lots of practice and a  number of failed attempts.  To help new students understand basic design concepts, instructors will introduce them to the basic elements of design – or as I like to call them:  Building Blocks of Design.

The Building Blocks of Design are:  Line, Shape, Form, Texture, Pattern and Color.  I won’t dwell on defining each in detail at this time, suffice to say that I feel that they are all self explanatory.  Many instructors teach these elements in terms of a hierarchy where Line is the simplest form and Color is the most prestigious element.  In fact, this is how I learned.  My instructor taught us to look for color first and try to form a shot around that.  While this isn’t necessarily a bad approach (it worked for me for a time), it’s not the easiest method to comprehend.  Fortunately, it’s not the only approach.  Here are a few approaches for using the building blocks to compose great photographs:

The Simple Approach – Simplicity is a misleading concept – we’re not talking about the amount of skill level involved.  In fact, achieving simplicity in a photograph is perhaps the most difficult of these approaches.  As you will find, our entire world is a composition of several building blocks.  To achieve simplicity, you need to limit yourself to only one or two building blocks.  You will need to get in close to the subject in order to isolate these elements.  The shot shown here, which is appropriately titled “Zen”, exhibits only shape and color.

The Large Combination Approach – The name of the game is to represent as many building blocks as possible.  This isn’t the best approach – and I wouldn’t recommend it except for honing your skills.  It does, however, provide a great challenge and some of the shots may turn out well.  But much in the same way several colored paints turn the pallette brown, you can really muddy your compositions by utilizing too many building blocks at once.  Again, I would reserve this approach for practice and experimentations.

Oblique Strategies Approach – Ever heard of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies?  It is essentially a deck of cards with a bunch of non-specific instructions on them to help you think creatively.  You would shuffle the cards and pick one of them at a time and try to accomplish what’s written on the card.  The same can be done with the building blocks.  Write their names on the face of some cards and carry the stack around in your pocket.  When you’re stumped, pull out a card and try to create a shot exhibiting that specific building block.

Subtractive Approach (Drill Down) – This approach is designed to help you improve your compositions.  For example, if you have a composition that you like but the shot just isn’t ringing out when you review it, try to remove a specific building block from the shot.  The goal is to improve a composition by simplifying as much as possible (see The Simple Approach above). This can be used while on site, but it can also be used in post processing.  You can crop out elements or adjust tonal qualities of the image to mask elements of the shot to eliminate specific buildng blocks.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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