Zombie Response Kit: Composition

Last week I opened a big can of worms with my article about the current state of online critique. The worms were so big you could probably catch a world record bass. Mmmmmm, BASS! If you missed “The Plague of the Digital High Five”, please read it here before continuing: http://www.chriskayler.com/photographers-focus/the-plague-of-the-digital-high-five

All done? Feeling depressed? I understand. It’s a complex subject without an easy fix. The current state of online critique can best be summarized as a “Digital High Five”. The pursuit of quick likes, favs, and meaningless comments is stunting the growth of the entire photography community. Don’t fret, though. I’m not here to depress everyone with my tales of woe. I want to help! I offered a solution in my previous article. We must do our best to comment on other’s images in a productive and thoughtful manner. This helps the person giving the critique as well as the person receiving the critique. In the pursuit of this solution, let’s discuss the first essential component of a constructive critique. Let’s retrieve our zombie response kit and fight the plague of the Digital High Five.

Our first weapon against the plague is to talk about composition. Compositional choice makes or breaks an image. Simple as that! One could argue that an image with god-tier epic light taken deep in the Patagonian backcountry might become popular even though the composition is utter garbage. I would argue, however, that an image that relies solely on the crutch of wow factor light and location lacks any lasting appeal or message. Like a gimmick, it will attract likes and favs. And like a gimmick, it will lack depth.

What is composition, then? The composition of an image is the arrangement of every visual element within the frame. I believe that everyone is born with their own sense of composition, and that we also learn it through the process of photographing, viewing other artwork, thinking critically, and through critiquing other’s work. When I give thoughtful critiques to other’s work, I am forced to think about what works and what doesn’t work within a composition. By bringing these thoughts to the forefront of my mind, I make them available to use on my own photographs.

When critiquing composition, keep the following key words in mind to help jump start your brain.

  • Shapes – What broad shapes do the elements in the frame create? Triangles, circles, squares, it’s all fair game. How do these shapes lead the eye around the frame, and what visual weight do the shapes carry?
  • Lines – Lines are similar to shapes, but I consider them more organic in nature. When thinking about lines within the composition, think about the broad path that your eye takes through the image.
  • Color – What colors are present within the image, and how do they interact with each other? Are there color contrasts? Complimentary colors? How do the colors lead your eye around the frame?
  • Brightness – In the same vein as color, how do dark and light areas of the frame compliment, offset, or otherwise influence each other?
  • Power points – Think about where important elements are placed within the frame. Is the horizon of a landscape image in the dead center? Is a bird placed in the top right? Talk about how these decisions effect your experience of viewing the photograph.

Now that you have some key words to keep in mind, let’s jump into some sample critiques that focus solely on composition.

"Losing Control" - A great blue heron standing next to wild whitewater along the Potomac River, Great Falls National Park, Virginia. 

“Wow! Sweet image, Chris. You really are a master! I love the composition in this image. The way the water begins its long and winding flow from the upper right, darts back to the left, and exits to the right creates a series of diagonals that really lead my eye fluidly through the frame. All the while the heron is tucked into one of the corners of these diagonals, anchoring the whole thing. The dark bits of rock serve to further anchor the image and provide a nice contrast to the immense swath of bright water. The shutter speed chosen gives the water some texture, which is nice, as otherwise it might overpower the rest of the image with negative space if the water was too smooth and featureless. Nicely done.”

There you have it! I talked about lines and how my eye moved along with the flow of water, about the brightness when I mentioned that the dark rocks anchored the image, and how the bright water benefited from having texture, and about power points with the heron tucked away in the upper third and along a diagonal. Typing this up took maybe 3 minutes. In those 3 minutes I am able to provide a depth of insight greater than the photographer has probably ever received before. In those 3 minutes I am also able to add to my compositional vocabulary which I can later pull from when I am creating my own images. Now tell me, is it better to spend 30 seconds and gain nothing, or spend an additional 2 and a half minutes to gain everything?

Let’s look at another example.

"Fire Lizard" - A lizard on sandstone in a remote slot canyon, Arizona.

“Wow! You’re at it again … another masterful image, Chris! The composition is just stunning with the sweeping lines in the sandstone stretching across the frame diagonally. I particularly like the way the lines curve downwards at the bottom, and sweep upwards towards the top. It makes the image feel much less stagnant than if they were perfectly straight and parallel. It almost has a kind of warped look to it that sucks my eye right into the frame like a black hole. I love the subtle gradients of color going from ever so slightly cooler in the bottom left to warmer as you progress up the image. The slight shadows along the bottom right, left middle, and top right also act as a bit of a vignette to really focus the eye on the lizard, which, by the way, is placed perfectly in the bottom left third to anchor the image and keep it from being completely abstract. Even the curve of the lizards tail keeps my eye moving back into the frame and bouncing around the image. Killer!”

Again, this was a simple 3 minute effort that I just spewed forth onto my keyboard. With practice, you too can accomplish simple but thoughtful critiques like this that will help the photography community as a whole. Notice that I utilized my keywords again. I talked about line by mentioning the sweeping sandstone grooves. I talked about color when speaking to the subtle transition from cool to warm. I mentioned brightness when I spoke about the vignette and how the lizard is highlighted. Finally, I talked about power points when pointing out that the lizard occupied the lower left third of the frame.

Now that you know how to write a constructive critique that can talk successfully about composition, l challenge you to spend those extra 2 and a half minutes on your critiques. Utilizing our weapon of compositional knowledge is the only way we can fight back against the Plague of the Digital High Five. Let's do this, for ourselves, and for our community!

The Plague of the Digital High Five

We live in a difficult time. A time of superfluous likes and favs. A time of shallow critiques. A time of stifled growth and innovation. A time of the Digital High Five.  Like a plague of undead zombies, the Digital High Five is slowly but surely spreading its virus into every crack and crevice of the internet. It cannot continue. We must fight back.      

You see, back in my day I had to walk five miles uphill just to get to my sunrise location. Wait… that's not right. You see, I come from a better time. I come from a time when in-depth discussion of images occurred regularly. It was just the way things were. As I posted images to various online forums, I received thoughtful critiques. In turn, I made a point of giving back to the community by giving my two cents. It did not matter that I was relatively inexperienced, it only mattered that I formed an opinion and wrote it down for others to read. Things operate quite differently now. Quick “likes”, “favs”, and short comments such as “Nice contrast.” are the norm. They are the dreaded Digital High Five, and ultimately, shallow and useless.

Just like high fives alone don’t foster deep relationships, likes, favs, and brainless comments don’t foster growth for an artist. Whether on the receiving or giving end of the Digital High Five, nobody wins. When we succumb to the Digital High Five we are nothing more than junkies looking for the next quick fix without a single thought towards our future. We post and post away. We boost our saturation and contrast to eke out a few more likes. We hope to reach the front page of 500px for a few hours of fame, only to be forgotten the next day when a new set of images take the top spots. And all for what? Nothing. The race to online popularity is, in my opinion, the greatest hindrance to growth in the photography community today. Like a horse with blinders on, we focus only on the finish line and lose track of everything and everyone around us.

“But, Chris!” you say, “Why not just embrace the new way of doing things?” To which I must reply, “I’m sorry, Kathy, but my old soul just refuses to believe that the new way of doing things is any good for the photography community, or our attention spans, for that matter.” In fact, I wonder where I would be as a photographer if I had to begin my career in today’s environment. Would I have become, excuse my French, yet another attention whore? Would my images be created solely for others instead of for myself? Would their saturation be turned up to 11? I’d like to think not, but it’s an interesting, if scary, idea.

So what can we do? Is it hopeless? Are we all just traveling towards our own version of Terminus? If I’m honest (Momma didn’t raise no liar), it’s an unbelievably, impossibly, crushingly difficult task to change the way the system works. The sharing of media and how we connect with others is going to continue down the path that it has already forged. But, there may be a way. All you need to do is help yourself, which in turn, helps others. Here’s the plan, so listen up, alright? Put some effort into commenting on other’s images. The more effort you put in, the more you learn yourself. Think about what you like and dislike about an image. Think about the composition. Visualize how the lines, patterns, and shapes within the image interact with each other. Take note of the color, contrast, sharpness, and exposure. Think about how it makes you feel, and what it must have felt like to be there. Whatever you do, think! That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now, type it out so that others can view it and benefit from your unique point of view.

In the end, we may not be able to “break the internet” Kim Kardashian style, but if even a small change comes from this article, that feels good enough to me. Photographers have enough road blocks to deal with as it is, so let’s not hamper ourselves any more than we have to. For yourself, for the photography community, and for all who get to view our inspiring images, let’s all summon our inner Rick Grimes and do our part to defeat the plague that is the Digital High Five. We owe it ourselves.