Light, subject or composition?

Shot at mid-morning on a blue-sky day in winter.

In the latest issue of the excellent online magazine, ‘Landscape GB’, Tim Parkin does a thorough job of analysing what goes into making a good photograph. Light, subject and composition are the fundamental elements under discussion and, of these, much weight has, traditionally, been placed on the importance of light, yet comparatively little on composition. We are constantly being told by the photographic literature to go out at twilight or in the golden hours just after sunrise and immediately before sunset yet religiously following this advice would have us putting our cameras away for the remainder of the daylight hours (up to 12 in mid-summer)! Why? Why ignore so much time that could be used for photography simply because the light during the rest of the day is considered by some to be sub-optimal?

The advice is given in good faith, of course, and I’m not here to argue against the notion that twilight and golden-hour light can make for some fantastic images. But you have to ask why magazines aren’t telling us to go out and make images whatever the weather or time of day? Surely they are there to foster an enthusiasm for photography (and thereby sell more advertising space)? Well, yes. But they also want to offer useful advice that has an immediate payback (so you’ll keep coming back for more) and they want to offer advice which can be summed up in a pithy way when space for editorial content is at a premium. Hence endless features on Photoshop, filters, how to shoot seascapes in golden light, etc., etc.

Early evening on a blue-sky day in August

What is a lot harder to do is to provide practical advice on making strong images whatever the weather. It’s harder because if you take obviously spectacular lighting out of the equation, what are you left with? Quite simply, subject and composition. Arguably, a strong enough subject can be photographed well in most conditions (recognition of that subject will usually be enough to carry the image) but what if we want to make images of the other 99.99999% of the broader landscape that doesn’t consist of immediately recognisable features? Well, that’s where composition comes in. What the magazines don’t say, because they haven’t got the space or because it’s not an easy solution, is that good composition trumps considerations of light and subject. You only need to spend some time with the images of the masters to reach this conclusion. As Tim concludes in his article, it’s the only thing the photographer can bring to the equation: the light is already there, so is the landscape. Composition is what turns a mere record of a scene into a personal statement.

So what is good composition? Well, you can forget leading-lines, rule-of-thirds, don’t-place-the-subject-in-the-centre, etc. Or at least, don’t forget them entirely as they are all useful tools for building a successful composition but, like a great chef creating a symphony of flavours from the simplest of ingredients, they should be used with care and, ideally, in combination with other compositional tools. Composition is not just about the static placement of objects in a frame, either. It’s about the dynamic flow of an image; it’s about energy; it’s about narrative; it’s about evoking an emotion. Above all, it’s about communication. Communication? What’s composition trying to communicate? Surely it’s the subject that communicates? Well, yes, but not entirely. Composition is the framework which underpins the subject – subtly informing the viewer as to what is important and what can be glossed over. It takes the viewer by the hand and leads him through the part of landscape the photographer has chosen to place a frame around, pointing out objects of interest along the way. It says, “look at this! Isn’t it important/beautiful/ugly/intriguing/strange?”

Ultimately, there’s no such thing as bad light. Just light that’s inappropriate for your chosen subject. And I’ll be going into that next time, when I talk about an ‘improvisational’ approach to landscape photography.

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2 Responses to Light, subject or composition?

  1. Mike Green says:

    Great article, Julian: well written and convincing (though I precisely share all those views, so I’m a little biased of course!). The point about the nature of what magazines (at least printed magazines) publish is a pertinent and, to me, rather sad one; and it applies to all activities and genres of magazine. Most ‘special interest’ magazines have, for me, a life of a few months before the content inevitably becomes repetitious and trite. GBL is so far a notable exception to that rule.


  2. Gary Eason says:

    Excellent commentary. I think “Composition is what turns a mere record of a scene into a personal statement” makes a great masthead!

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