White Sands After Sunset - White Sands National Monument, NM
Composition isn’t that difficult if you understand a few rules. I mention a few of them in an article I wrote a while back - here. Still, if you only follow those rules you might not ever quite understand why they work. What is it about the rules that make composition a bit easier to do when you’re out shooting?
First, lets talk about something really deeply. Hopefully I won’t lose any of you guys when we go there.
Let’s ask something really simple. What is it about an image, a composition, anything you like really, that makes it something, well, you might like. I mean the reason you like an image is not because the image is blue. It’s not because it’s bright. It’s not because it’s got light. It’s not because it’s got any particular physical characteristic. Oh, you might be someone that likes blue, bright, light images but that’s not what I’m talking about. None of those details will explain to the lowest level, the most base level, why you might like an image. There is a word that represents something real and tangible as the color blue that explains why you like your image.
That word is Quality.
If any of you have read the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance you’ll understand very deeply what I’m talking about--stay with me because you’ll see how this connects with today’s subject. In that book, the author goes to great depth describing to the most basic level how there are things like art. How there are things like beautiful sunsets. How there are things like amazing birds. How there are things like incredible acts of nature. It is this word, the word Quality. This word is the beginning. It is the base thing from which subjective terms like beautiful, amazing, and incredible flow. Without Quality none of those words have meaning.
Quality is the base description of the goodness of something. You know when it’s there. You know when it’s gone. For things to be in high quality, you don’t have a predefined set of items. Sure, there are lots of common traits between images determined as being high in Quality. But, that list of traits is fleeting. You may review image after image that all are high in Quality and just when you figure out each of these images all have these specific traits, you encounter an image that just rings with you--i.e. has high Quality--but doesn’t have the prerequisite set of traits you saw in the previous images. Why is that? That’s because that list is fleeting. The list is not universal. The list is not the bottom-line.
Okay, so you’re thinking to yourself “great, you’re telling me it all depends. You’re telling me if I see it I’ll know it. It being Quality.” You’re telling me a set of tips are unreliable. A set of rules will not work all the time.
That is exactly what I’m telling you.
If you think this through you’ll find training, workshops, and instructors that teach a cook-book approach to photography will get it wrong eventually. They might get it wrong at the very beginning. Cookbook ways of training assume the cookbook is right all the time. Or they assume the cookbook has all the answers. I’m telling you both are false. If you look at a bunch of images you’ll find some have a certain style while another have another style. They all have different traits. In fact, you might find an infinite amount of traits and styles if you had enough time.
If you had enough time, you might be able to find a infinite number of cookbooks each with an amazing and unlimited number of tips to teach the budding photographer the basics of good photography. If your head is spinning from the impossibility of such a thing, a library of infinite cookbooks with amazing amounts of tips, that is exactly my goal. If you never realize the most basic tenant of good photography--i.e. Quality--you will never understand how to make great images regardless of how many tips you know... how many workshops to take.
The challenge here is being in-touch with what’s in all of us--i.e. Quality. Okay, that’s a leap. It is a leap to assume Quality is known to all of us. I’ll run a simple exercise to see if people know whether Quality is in each of you. Here it is, the test. Are you ready? The test is, “do you like something?” If you answer yes to that question Quality is in you. “Like” is an assessment of quality.
If you “like” something, sometimes the difficult thing is to find that “thing”. That happens to me all the time when I’m out searching for an image. I’ll drive by a field and stop. Some “thing” catches my eye which made me stop. The challenge becomes what was that “thing”.
Now, the other way of looking at this, whether Quality is in us or not, is answer this question; “is there anything you dislike?” This question is the opposite of the first question. Of course there are things you dislike. By disliking things means you are finding the negative of liking something. You are assessing Quality doing either--like or dislike. They are opposite ends of the same thing.
The only way Quality can not reside in you is if you have neither likes or dislikes. You will have no simple appreciations. Nothing will bother you. You will be a bump in the road and it won’t matter to you. In fact, nothing will matter to you. Kind of makes you wonder if you can live a life without Quality. I won’t talk about that here, it’s well beyond the scope of this website let alone this article.
Okay, Quality is the key. We got that figured out. I’m saying if you have a keen sense of Quality, finding that thing in the field will be that much easier. When you’re in the field, searching high, low, up, down, using all your techniques for visualizing, you’re just using tools to get in-touch with that Quality that already resides in you.
One day while I was teaching a workshop, we stopped at a relatively beautiful stop with rushing water... frost... trees... lots of elements, lots of individual ingredients used in high quality imagery but nothing really sang out “shoot me, here’s the image”. So, we’re standing there when one of the participants who was a particularly good wildlife photographer says “so, teach me landscape photography”. While I am a relatively accomplished landscape photographer I had never been asked that question, certainly not by another photographer that already knew all the rules.
After being stunned by his question and then spouting out some lame techniques he already had in his clue bag, I knew I didn’t know how to teach landscape photography. It was a complete demonstration of how specific tips and techniques just do not cut the mustard, certainly not with someone that already knows all those tips and techniques.
So began the question, how to teach landscape photography. Then arrived the answer, Quality.
What does the answer mean? It means if you are in touch with Quality that’s already in you, then you can create fantastic landscape photography. Once you already know all the techniques, you have all the requisite skills, when you have a keen sense of what you like and what you don’t, then you are on the road to learning landscape photography. That keen sense of what you like and what you don’t, that’s when you’re in touch with Quality.
The best way I know to connect to Quality is exposure. With that exposure, find images you like and find out exactly why you like them. Find images you don’t like, then find out exactly why you don’t like them. Do this time, after time, after time. Then you will get clear about what’s in you in terms of Quality. Looking at images, think of it as your practice for being in touch with Quality.
All of this makes that tiny difference between only doing the rules--as noted here--and an average image to something truly stupendous.