Is Composition Something You Do or Something You See?
To get everything just so, I can sometimes spend considerable time setting up the composition. Other times, it's more a matter of noticing something cool and firing away. And there are compositions I didn't realize I'd even done until long after the fact.
The art of composition for outdoor photography can be challenging to master, given that mother nature holds the upper hand. With things constantly changing, you have a limited time until the light changes, or your subject does. When its good, I act almost instinctively, so lost in the moment that I come close to merging with it. There isn't space or time for a reflexive examination of the process when things are really happening. You just have to go with the flow and enjoy yourself.
But it's interesting to look at how this all works anyway, even if it may be after the fact, so we can learn to improve at this art form we all love. A certain satisfaction comes from taking a shot that impresses even you – one of those shots that makes you say "wow." So it makes sense you might want to learn how to more often.
Composition for photography is typically taught as an application of rules. The closer you could come to following all of them simultaneously, the better your results should be. It's not quite like rules for good driving where you can be fined for not following them all, but it can feel that way at times. In this model, good composition is clearly something you do. It's the reward one expects from doing what they are supposed to do .
But that seems all wrong to me. All those rules got their start long ago, back when painters were trying to convey the finer points of the art to their apprentices. Painters get to start from a blank canvass, so the rule of thirds can be helpful when deciding where to put things. We carried these same rules forward once photography hit the scene, since the end product remained similar. Both fit within the same rectangular frame, for one thing. But now, these rules serve best as descriptions of common traits shared by good photography rather than prescriptions for it.
More often than not, I find ideas for compositions out of the corner of my eye. While working on one thing, something else catches my attention. It might be because of what it is — a flower, a waterfall, or perhaps bigfoot (just checking if you're paying attention out there as you read this). But often, it's more fundamental than that. Its color, shape, or position may simply look appealing, and I'm drawn to see more. It's only then that I notice the potential leading lines and the alignment with the rule of thirds.
Once I do, I'm hooked. What variables control the relationship I had noticed? Can I tweak anything to emphasize that relationship even more? Often, it only takes a slight change of position or framing to create an even better image. It often happens so fast it helps to have a library of tricks up your sleeve.
So who gets credit for the composition? Mother nature created it, but it took you to notice it and make the most of it. With outdoor photography, seeing it plays a pivotal role. You can't move Mt. Rainier three inches to the right to put it where the rules say it belongs, but you can notice when it aligns or relates to other elements in some way. And it won't end up mattering at all unless you see it.
Sometimes, I take pictures of interesting arrangements even when I don't fully know why they interest me. When the light changes rapidly, you can lose the shot entirely if you wait too long. I may later realize that some of these images followed a particular composition rule that I hadn't noticed at the time. With practice, you find yourself drawn to some alignments. Often, I see such things even in images I thought I understood. It may just have looked right but I think we still get credit for this sort of "composition after the fact." It takes practice for something to become second nature. Perhaps all the doing happened long before you pressed the shutter, but that's cool. Ultimately, doing and seeing can merge into the flow of the moment.