Beyond the ‘Rules’ by Stephen Lewis A.R.P.S.

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Impressions of Punakiaki.  New Zealand.

My local photographic society had a competition recently the theme of which was “Impressions”.  There are, of course, many different interpretations of this but many entrants, myself included, chose to enter images made in the impressionist style. Unfortunately, the judge had a very different interpretation of what constitutes ‘impressionist’, insisting that an image should have a focal point; that the lack of a focal point meant his eyes could not come to rest within the frame, and that a focal point was one of the golden rules of composition.

I’m not one for rules. They are made for obedience by fools and the guidance of wise men, and whilst it’s good to have an understanding of and be able to use the so-called rules of composition, it doesn’t mean they have to be utilised in every image.  However, once you have them in your skills set you often find yourself using them subconsciously, and they are good when you’re starting out in photography as they form a solid structure on which to base your images. However, as you progress and your ability grows you realise that other factors play an important role in composition.

This was first brought home to me when I started using a large format camera, where the image on the glass screen is both upside down and laterally reversed.  It takes a little getting used to but eventually your brain stops trying to make sense of the image on the screen and this allows you to see the underlying structure of the image. This is not just the compositional elements within the frame e.g. a building or a person or a car or a rock, but also how the colours, tones, shapes, highlights and shadows interact with one another. You stop seeing the individual elements for what they are and are better able to perceive how they interact with one another.

The image above is one of my favourites, and one of my most popular, but the only compositional ‘rule’ apparent in the image is that it is broadly split into three, which was done subconsciously rather than deliberately, as it just felt right.  Otherwise, the image doesn’t have any compositional structure to its elements as such and actually breaks a few of the rules.  However, other factors are at work in the composition contributing to the overall look and feel of the image.

First there is the contrasting textures and shapes within the sand and water.  The vertical patterns in the bottom of the frame contrast with the random marled effect in the shallow water and the strong linear shapes of the deeper water through the middle.  Then there is the slash of warmth in an otherwise cool colour pallet to provide a contrast in the colour tones.  Warm tones advance and cool tones recede so the warm light has an effect on the colour balance within the frame disproportionate to its size.

So this image (which was not entered in the competition, but is being used as an example) does not have a focal point, or lead in lines, has a dark line running through the centre, and has bright areas running out of the frame, but they don’t matter.  It’s all about the contrasts; contrasts in shapes, textures and colours, and it is the way these elements are balanced within frame and add up to something greater than the sum of their parts, rather than any of the composition rules, which create an impression of Punakiaki.

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