Composing Emotion

The rules of composition help us make conscious, technical decisions about placement of a subject within the frame and tell us how we can add emphasis to the subject by using various techniques such as line, shape, form, lighting, selective focus, depth of field, etc.  However, there is a less tangible element of composition, which when used effectively can be much stronger than any technique.

Composing the emotion of the moment is the result of our subconscious at work.  It grabs the viewer’s attention and transports them to the moment.  It introduces our feelings of the scene to the final images we create.  By way of example, think about the following great images:

  • Eddie Adams – Vietnam Police Chief
  • Dorothea Lange – Migrant Mother
  • Ansel Adams – Clearing Winter Storm

While each image is technically superb, it is the emotion that grabs our attention and takes us to a place in our imagination where we are left to wonder and think.

When we are learning our art we indulge ourselves in the technical.  We spend countless hours studying the work of other photographers, wondering what they did to create such remarkable images.  We rapidly fill our knowledge banks with instructions on how to perform certain techniques and learn all about the functions of our cameras.  This is what the magazines and photography books tell us we need to do – after all, instructing us on the technical is how they make their money.  Providing instruction on how to include emotions in our artwork is very personal.  We each react differently to a scene and bring to the scene very different emotions, some of which are stirred up through our life experiences.  Therefore, each of us requires a more personalized curriculum, which obviously cannot be achieved by a book designed for a wider audience.

The answer lies in practice.  The more we practice our image making the more automatic the technical becomes.  We will eventually spend less time thinking about what camera settings will create a certain look and the act of composing an image just becomes a part of what we do.  While we may never cease in our pursuit of technical excellence we arrive at an important point each time we master a technique.  We have the option to move on and learn a new technique or we can take advantage of this newly mastered technique and add depth and meaning to the images we create by focusing more on our thoughts, feelings and experiences.

I seek images that make me imagine.  Whenever an image grabs my attention, I wonder if it is the technique that caught my eye or is it an emotional reaction.  I recently heard an analogy that I think sums this up nicely.  If a photograph is grainy and you notice the grain then it is just a grainy image.

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  1. Crap, I think I have a LOT of grainy images…. 🙂

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