Friday, January 20, 2012

Learning Composition -- Questioning & Visualization

This Picture is an Elk Painting Animated by Angular Light
Elk Photos are Elk in Context -- That is the next level
I got a note the other day I have not answered, mostly because I don't have a simple answer. The questioner wanted to know how I get the elk pictures I get, what advice I could offer. I have been thinking about it from two perspectives. First, how do I take elk pictures. Second, how did I teach myself to take elk pictures (or anything else for that matter).

Anyone who reads what I write knows that in my mind, composition is the point of photography. Everything else is secondary. Good composition transcends equipment, bad composition is indifferent to great equipment. Composition is the key. It is composition that communicates.

So, how do you take pictures of a new subject? I know my basic approach is to deconstruct the subject, then look at composition of the "chunks", then reconstruct the subject combining the chunks. I break the subject into parts that move, and parts that don't move. I also look at context, the setting, the time of day.

I spend a lot of time practicing composition through visualization away from the camera. Careful thought can equip you with "virtual experience" that you can draw on when opportunities arise.  Research supports visualization as real practice.

Sounds pretty simple eh? Let's look at elk composition as an example:

Driving Legs and Counterpointing Antlers Make This Post-Rut
Sparring Pretty Good -- Better Than Statues Tapping Antlers
Deconstructing the Animal For many years now when I see a subject I see a collection of shapes that combine to make the whole animal. The head looks like a triangle, the body like a rough rectangle, the legs like sticks, straight, crossing or bent, the neck like a strip, the haunches like ovals superimposed over the body, antlers like hoops, unique shadows, and so on. Static shapes.

Movement moves these shapes in relation to one another. Is the elk twisting, or head up or down, or is the head folded over the body? Is the body straight on or angled? Are its lines resonating with other lines in the composition? Is its movement counterpointed with another elk? And how? How do they counterpoint? Dynamic movements.

There is a larger message in this madness (if you haven't walked away). Good composition hinges on great questions. It is the quality of your questions that will drive your understanding. Tip: When you are stuck, try to dig out the question you are answering. You probably need to ask a better question to get to the next level. This applies to just about everything I have learned in life. Experts ask great questions. Figure out the questions and you will learn very fast. Do not shop answers. Questions matter most.

Deconstructing the Context  Animal photography occurs in a natural setting. That context includes light of all sorts and angles, contour, geology, fence lines, tree lines, tree trunks, curves like streams and swails, buildings, roads, etc.  And so on. It seems impossible, you need a great combination of the animal and its context to get a killer photo.

Putting it Back Together -- Reconstruction and Synthesis
Now we return to visualization. This is where what seems hopelessly complex comes together. In your mind's eye, assemble your subject, elk in this case, into a context you know. Visualize what you consider to be ideal images based on these elements. Because you are visualizing, words fall away and reconstruction now becomes easier.

Trust the Unconventional, Juxtapose the Unexpected
I Chased this Photo for Years After Pre-visulalizing It
I have used this analogy a few times, but it fits. Athletes deconstruct their movements, learn new ones, then drill incessantly until they instinctively do the right thing. This discipline never ends.

When you take your photography to another level, you need to take apart what you do, take apart your subject and the context, ask great questions about combinations, then, and only then, visualize what you seek away from the camera. This visualization will inform your compositional voice. It will also sharpen your anticipation in the field.

Creative expression is a blissful, but focused practice. The pathway to an unending stairway of improvement is focus, questioning, deconstruction, reconstruction, and visualization. You need to do this for every new subject. While much is the same about different subjects, much is different. You will never get the final picture of any subject,  but you will be on an unfolding path to deeper engagement and mastery of your subjects and art.

My gift to any student is to help them become excellent questioners and self-learners.  A great philosopher Exupery said education is not a forcing in (answers), but rather a leading out (questions). I hold to this.  Ask me a question, and I will ask you to question. You have gifts that I can see in you that you need to trust. You don't need my answers.


  1. I know nothing of photography or Elk's for that matter but what you say has an incredible message regardless of its content. It's amazing how you applied exupery's wisdom to your field in which prior to reading this I would have found very difficult to comprehend. You didn't lose me, you brought a big smile across my face. Keep pressing on ask many many questions! There is not enough time for either of us for everything we want to know, feel and understand.

    All the Best!

    1. Thanks so much. When you write as I do, you never know if you are reaching anyone. If you learn nothing else, remember questions are the key. Great questions are the pathway to learning.

      Our culture is organized around answers (often spelled authority), so questioners are not welcomed. Until any one's answer is explained to me in the context of the question(s) that framed it, I question the answer.

      Constructive discontent has as its goal finding better answers. I believe we all have that responsibility to participate rather than just blindly conform to furnished anwers. It is the artist's way.



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