There are many ways to understand an image, today I will attempt to describe certain ones so you can begin to think critically when looking at a photograph. We will evaluate the choices made or not made by the photographer and figure out why certain images evoke more emotion than others. In short, the three ways you can understand an image is to look at what its subject is, the choices made in the exposure, and the overall composition.
Now that we’ve taken a look at the unique ability for a photograph to capture it’s subject in realistic ways. And explored how a certain kind of exposure can evoke specific feelings, let's dive into why composition is one of the most important aspects of a photograph. As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, composition is the nature of something’s ingredients or constituents; the way in which a whole or mixture is made up. In reference to photography, Study.com defines it as how things are placed in relationship to other objects in the image, and how well the subject matter is expressed.
© Esther J Kontny
Let’s start by breaking down several ways you can analyze a photograph’s composition by taking a look at the image above. This is a photo of the Seine River in Paris taken at sunset. The subject of the photo is the riverboat and the surrounding landscape of the river. The first thing I look at when understanding an image is the foreground, mid-ground, and background. Just like anything, you don’t always have all three present in an image and depending on what the photographer chooses to include can effect the tone or meaning of an image entirely.
In this example, we see a small ledge with a tree hanging off the side of it in the foreground which takes up almost the entire right edge of the frame. This helps draw your attention further into the frame towards the riverboat, which sits in the middle ground of the image along with other boats docked on the side of the river. Moving farther up the image we see a clear delineation of the buildings poking out above the tree line and the expansive sky. And lastly, the trees on either side of the image lead your eye into the hazy background where we see a couple more bridges and the horizon line. This can be described as leading lines, pointed out in Image 1.2. As you can see the use of foreground, mid-ground and background creates a path for the viewer to follow as they look into the photo.
A couple other ways to analyze a composition would be to look at the overall balance. There are several ways to achieve balance in an image including rule of thirds, pattern, symmetry/a-symmetry, and the use of negative space (not to mention the use of color & tone). In this example, we can see the use of negative space in the sky and the river to provide some balance to the darker areas of the landscape that could otherwise make the photo feel busy. Furthermore, the levelness of the horizon can also help achieve balance. hen a dutch angle (which skews the horizon dramatically) is used the image becomes unsettling. You can find this most often used in scary movies to help make you feel on edge.
The next way we can breakdown the composition is the rule of thirds. This rule is very important in creating interesting photos that don’t rely solely on the subject being centered. When a subject is centered there is a natural symmetry that occurs and gives the viewer a sense of ease and balance. However, when the subject is always centered the eye has less freedom to move throughout the image and thus becomes less interesting. In Image 1.3 I went ahead and divided up the landscape into 9 equal parts creating a 3x3 grid. Most noticeable, the overall subject lies in the bottom two thirds of the image with the exception of the tree on the right and the sky that drops momentarily into the middle portion. Balance is still achieved because the space each object takes up is fairly equal.
Secondly, we can see that there are four intersections that happen in this grid. By placing your subject on one or more of those four points your image becomes more visually pleasing. In this case the riverboat lies on the bottom right point and then carries across the bottom line, and the other boats in the photo tether on that same line.
Composition is a combination of using the rules and breaking them when trying to achieve a certain mood or feeling. Like I stated above, the photographers choice in all of these areas can give direction on how the viewer can experience the image. When looking at a photograph we can now start to understand why we like certain images and why we don’t like others. What makes up a mood or tone is not limited to the subject, but instead is a combination of several choices made by the photographer.
Head over to our gallery and start to see if you can begin to appreciate the decisions made by each artist through the use of composition, exposure and the subject matter!