The Art of Composition Part I - Dynamic Balance
Updated: Nov 18, 2021
Of the many aspects to photography, the art of composition has most intrigued me over the years. I learned my photographic skills many years ago photographing ‘inner landscapes’, pointing the camera downwards and constructing images quite literally out of the patterns that exist in the ground beneath my feet. I still love the sense of challenge and satisfaction that comes from making a compelling inner landscape composition. In my early days I spent a long time studying the images of photographers and artists I admire and some of their best work seemed to radiate a combined sense of balance, order, harmony and energy. The viewer’s eye seems to be held in the image in an almost hypnotic way, dancing around the picture. This characteristic is what I came to call ‘dynamic balance’ and it has become a key goal of my photographic approach. But how is this achieved? This article examines ideas for how to construct or ‘compose’ dynamic balance in pictures.
Patterns in Music and Photography
It has often been remarked that there seems to be a similarity or parallel between the twin art forms of photography and music. In the best images, the elements of the picture have an internal harmony that seems to work on the brain like music. Ansel Adams remarked on this similarity when writing about some of his pictures, especially the inner landscapes, though he stopped short of arguing for a parallel between the art forms. Virtually all effective composition, in photography and in music, is about creating patterns that make the brain sing. Any image can be reduced to the underlying structure of the relationship between its main elements – its inherent pattern.
Patterns have a strange impact on the human brain - once a pattern is understood or learnt, the brain is remarkably adept at spotting the same pattern in what otherwise might be a chaotic scene. It matters not how complex the world really is, we seem to ‘see’ the pattern. For humans it is an evolutionary result of our days dodging lions, tigers and bears and is very powerful and well developed. For example, chess masters are particularly adept at recognising patterns on the chess board - it gives them the instinct to spot moves which strengthen their position and reduce the number of positions they need to calculate. The latest advances in computer Artificial Intelligence using Neural Nets emulate this capability. For example Deepmind’s Alpha Zero experiment (proved and then further developed by the open source Leela Chess Zero development team) created a computer that learned patterns on a chess board by playing millions of self play games against itself and teaching itself patterns of positions and moves that lead to wins. The result is a self taught chess neural net that is capable of beating human grandmasters even when the calculation or search capability is completely switched off. It plays extraordinary high quality positional chess by instinct.
Are the rules of composition useful?
Columns and pages are taken up in photographic magazines and books advising us on the so call ‘rules of composition’. It is a slightly absurd thought that one can make art simply by ‘painting by numbers’, however there is a grain of truth to the advice that is given. Let me explain.
Composition in painting and photography seems to work a little like the fundamentals of harmony in music. There are many strong harmonic chord progressions and sequences in music and a composer can take the sequence from one piece of music and build an alternative melody around the same basic sequence of chords. A photographer can do the same by transposing a
similar compositional pattern from one image to another. I think that in reality, this is almost totally subconscious. When I spent time analysing the compositional structures of a number of photographers I admire, similar patterns cropped up in their work over and over again. Very different images with different content, even different moods had basically the same compositional structure. The point about the so called compositional rules is not that they are intrinsically wrong. It is simply that it is so limiting to build a set of ‘rules’ on regurgitating one or two chords or chord sequences - there is so much more potential. It is possible to construct thousands of unique patterns that have those characteristics of harmony, balance, energy I mentioned earlier. As a lover of many genres of music - jazz, opera, classical music, and rock music - I can appreciate that it is possible to compose a wide variety of brilliant music ranging from the most simple, beautiful melody and chord structure to the most complex music and still make a human brain ‘sing’ so to speak. So just as the potential for harmonic variety seems to have no end, so the potential for finding compositional patterns underpinning images that have dynamic balance must be similarly almost infinite.
Balance through resolution
Many techniques are used by the photographer to create dynamic balance, for example simplification helps a lot - reducing the clutter and making sure that there is clear separation between different objects in the frame. However, to extend the musical analogy, there are some musical ideas that seem to be very significant when it comes to the art of composition. One of these ideas is that of ‘tension and release’ and it is key to creating balance in picture making.
A tension in music is a note or chord that creates a perceived need for resolution, relaxation or release. It creates an expectation that it will at some point be 'released' with a complimentary chord. The concepts have a photographic parallel in the idea of ‘resolution’. A shape, colour or tone can create a tension by its mere presence, position and relationship to the frame around it and the rest of the image. How the photographer releases that tension by relating it to similar or ‘complementary’ shapes, tones and colours has a significant subconscious impact on how a viewer perceives the image. A photographer can construct the image in such a way that several or even numerous points of tension resolve themselves throughout the rest of the image. Hence it is possible to render even the most complex of subject matter into a sense of balance. It is important to realise that compositional balance does not just refer to the objects in the frame their form and the relationship between them. It also refers to tonal balance – the relationship between dark and light areas - and colour balance. The practical consequence of this is that any object can be placed anywhere in the frame and by carefully arranging other objects around it the composer can construct a picture that has balance.
Most partially or fully deconstructed abstract art when you look at it closely is beautifully balanced. For example look at the work of Kandinsky, Miro or Picasso - it is almost always balanced. Abstraction brings composition centre stage. Deliberately or accidentally unbalanced images rarely work in my experience.
Dynamism through energy flow
A second idea – energy flow – is crucial to dynamic balance for what also matters in composition is how the elements are related to each other. These relationships can create an energy which causes the eye to move around the image. A skilled composer can control this movement to slow it down – the use of curves are important here – and to ensure that the energy is not dissipated by exiting the frame. This is where another musical concept or cadence comes in. The idea of ‘cadence' is a progression of chords that signals a definite ending or conclusion to the phrase or piece of music. If after a journey around the picture, the movement in the image returns the eye back to the point of origin or to a point of balance, an almost hypnotic state of mind can be generated.
Taming the complex
It is the conscious execution of these two big ideas that goes a long way to creating the sense of ‘dynamic balance’ I described earlier. The notion of a photographer being able to ‘tame the complex’ fascinates me. I remember staring for hours at an image Peter Dombrovskis made of a Tasmanian rain forest. It was an immensely complex place, with trees and branches heading off in all directions. Yet it was in perfect balance. Everything seemed to be resolved – remove one tiny thing and the whole coherence of the image would have fallen apart. I was surprised to see this same balance from art work over 1500 years old on a visit to the British Museum. I was wondering around the
museum when I came across a room housing images and art from the Mayan civilisation. Putting aside the actual content of the art, which was pretty distasteful, the carved scenes were intricate, detailed and complex; and yet the pictures and writing were rendered together in perfect balance. It was magnificent and it was repeated in scene after scene.
To compose an picture is a proactive, positive action. The real world is massively complex and the camera captures this complexity in minute detail. A photographer faces an artistic challenge that a painter never has to face; he or she is limited by what is actually there physically in front of the camera. The photographer is unable to create that sense of perfect compositional balance from thin air. The balance has to be found, to be constructed by moving the camera to that single place at the precise moment that makes the image work. Ideas of balance, simplification, separation, resolution, energy flow; these are all intrinsic to finding where that place is and I think finding it is combination of both conscious and unconscious thought. One can eliminate elements in the picture to simplify and to make it easier to create that sense of dynamic balance. Or, one can embrace the complexity and find a way of making it work, to tame it so to speak. Either way, when dynamic balance happens in an image, it is magical, it is like music.
(c) Jon Brock 2011 and 2021. This is an adapted and updated version of an article written in 2011 for a chapter in my book 'Vision and Craft' and was originally entitled 'Taming the Complex'.