Composition itself I love and have no problems with, but when it comes to describing it I struggle. So here goes….
I am experienced enough to know that there is no definition of composition that will prove to be universally true. Sometimes rules of thirds works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes negative space is incredible other times it is not appropriate. Square, rectangle, panoramic, circle… these are all fluid in their effect on an image. It all changes depending on what you are photographing, who is photographing and who is looking.
Nothing is universal.
Composition is very instinctive for me. I don’t think about composition I just go by feel. I envision and look at what I want to photograph then I position myself and then my camera until everything in the frame feels proper and it is all in the right place. It is hard to describe instincts to other people as something more than an abstract notion. At the same time, I stress that if something feels right to you as a photographer, trust those instincts, even if they are in disagreement with some text you just read about how composition should be done. Go with your gut, it is right there in the scene with you, it knows what is going on, even if you cannot always explain it.
I do encourage flexibility though when it comes to composition. Never take never for an answer from anybody (including me). If someone says you should never compose in a certain fashion, I suggest taking that advice with a huge grain of salt. A creative photographer can do largely whatever they want when it comes to composition. It is all just a matter of how powerful an imagination you have. Be careful about imprison yourself into mental corners by believing that one way is more proper or better than another.
Articles on composition arguing for the use of the rule of thirds generally tell you that you should never centre your composition. There is nothing wrong with centred, it is just all in how you put it to use.
Now if you have read this far, let me give you perhaps my best piece of advice. When it comes to composition, Composition is not the C-word you should be thinking primarily about. That C-word is Content, otherwise known as subject.
It is the thought, idea, emotion, mood, that moment in time in which you are building an image. It is your message. It is what you are trying to say. Your content is the most important element. Your composition is simply there to support it, to let it make sense to the viewer. Concentrate more on your content and once you get good at that you will find that it drives your composition. Don’t try to squeeze ideas into a composition formula, rather let those ideas dictate the shape of the frame, the inclusion and placement of elements. Let the ideas guide your hands, feet and eyes.
Yet one last way perhaps to think about composition is that one good method of composing images is to figure out your subject and then eliminate everything from the composition that doesn’t pertain to the content, because if it is not supporting it, it is weakening it through distraction.
I make images like this because I am on what will be an eternally unsuccessful quest to capture, in a photograph, how much I love moments like this. It won’t ever be possible to do, not in its entirety for that entirety is just too vast and deep, but success in this endeavour is not necessary to the pursuit. Thankfully.
And there you have it, a summary of sorts.