Improve Composition: Act Like A Child
Art is all around us. It's in the natural patterns of the water as it cascades down a rocky riverbed or in the branching structure of the various species of trees. It's in the unusual gait of an elderly man crossing a public street, or in the visible impatience painted across the face of the young woman on a Vespa waiting for him to cross. Are you prepared to see the art in its natural environment? Perhaps a better question: Are able to communicate your found art to your audience?
Photography is first and foremost a means of documentation. That's where it started, of course. But it has evolved into a much broader scope including more artistic applications. As a medium rooted in the capturing of scenes from the real world, it can be difficult for many to wrap their minds around the idea of turning something very real and tangible into an art using only your camera. Most will start to grasp the idea when they learn about a shallow depth of field; rest assured nearly every aspect of that person's portfolio will exhibit that tool for quite some time. But it is much more difficult to grasp the art that already exists around us at any given moment. Once you learn to see it, it will help you as a photographer.
A New Way To Look
During a drawing course I took in college, our instructor focused a lot of attention on looking at the world differently. I found that odd at the time because I was there to improve my drawing, not look at the world that I was already familiar with. As it turns out, that was really the problem with my drawing: I was looking at the world the same way that everyone does. Our brain is separated into two hemispheres. The right brain is the art brain and it is the source of our creativity. The left brain is the logic brain, and it focuses on patterns and symbols. Our society tends to favor left-brain thinkers and so we develop our left-brain through school, but many of us never get a chance to develop our right brains. By letting our left brain thrive, we look at the world as an array of symbols. That's a house, there's a horse, there is a car, and so on. If you were to ask any non-artistic adult to draw a car and a house, it would probably look like a child's drawing. The problem is that they're associating the subject with a pre-determined symbol in their head. An artist, on the other hand, may ask you questions about what kind of house it might be. Or they will simply start to draw something that they would call a house. But they aren't drawing a house. They are drawing the components that make up a house – they are drawing lines and shading certain areas so that you can see it's form.
The difference is not in what each person is drawing. The difference is in what each person saw in the first place. The non-artist saw a house and he drew a house, and probably didn't look at the house more than twice. The artist was looking at the lines and shapes that made up the house.
The same can be applied to photography. When we think about composition, we don't want to fixate on what the subject is. We don't want to try to balance an image by framing it up based on where the subjects are. Instead, we want to think about the lines and shapes that create the composition. In doing so, we will ultimately find balance in our compositions.
Seeing The Unseen
When I think about how I should frame a shot and create art from realism, I think back to a discussion with my mentor in landscape architecture, the late and great John F. Collins (unsung hero of Philadelphia's public spaces). Then a sophomore in college – which means we were formally accepted into the program – he began to speak of the broader picture of our field. One of his great nuggets of wisdom was that we should always try to see the world through a child's eyes. Turning to the class, he then asked us why that should be and the know-it-all raised her hand and mentioned a bunch of psychological points such as naiveté, innocence and so on. John cut her off: “Think like a child! It's because a child's eyes are closer to the ground.”
It really is that simple.
His point is truly that you can over-complicate things like an adult, or you can simplify. That wisdom can apply to nearly anything, and it applies to photography as well. The challenge of the medium is that we are working in an environment that people exist in and see very day. Some subjects are not going to be all that interesting unless you offer a different perspective. You can over-think it and introduce bizarre lighting schemes or try to color shift or what-have you. But the simplest thing you can ultimately do is change the angle. Make like a child and get closer to the ground and look up at things. When a child finds a worm on a ground, what does he do? He gets down on the ground with the worm and watches, he gets close, he takes the low angle because it's interesting. You should be doing the same. Play with your subjects and explore every angle available. If you are always operating from eye-level, you're not introducing a view that is unique. So move around, get into places not often occupied, climb a tree or dig a hole and offer a view that isn't so common.
Side note: John F. Collins was a major influence in my life. He not only helped me battle through a demanding career path, but he also helped me in many ways, including my artistic vision. He was a truly great man and one that I would rank up there with my parents as far as influence on my life as a whole. If you would like to learn more about John Collins, Temple University has a great tribute page about him.