Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Using Shape to Compose, Part 2

If you're struggling with how to compose your photographs, it may help to utilize shapes to give order to your images. In my prior post on learning to compose a photograph, I discussed three approaches to using shapes: primary structure, rhyme, and foil. Today I want to flesh out the ideas in that post with a few more examples. Often a basic geometric shape will provide an overall structural theme; in some images there will be re-iterations of the major shape which act to visually unify the image. The repetition of the major shape with minor variation is a rhyme. In some images, there may be a set of shapes or a single shape which runs counter to the overall theme. The introduction of variation in kind of shape on a lesser scale is a foil.


Manuel Alvarez Bravo


Let's start with a few images that have a clearly defined primary shape. The photograph above is by Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Obviously, the major shape is a triangle. As a shape, the triangle impacts the way this image is read. With the base at the bottom of the image, a triangle implies stability. Combined with the upward tilt of the camera, the girl in the image takes on the quality of being unexpectedly monumental. Also consider the two triangular shapes formed in the background on her left and right, and note the differences between them. If those upper triangles mirrored each other, the image would likely appear much more static.


Bill Brandt

Izima Kaoru

In the Bill Brandt (upper), and the Izima Kaoru (lower), it is easy to identify the primary geometric shape, and then note the various ways that triangles get repeated in the image -- the triangles within the image are rhyming. Rhyming can be explicit, as with the hat and the window in the Manuel Alvarez Bravo (below).


Manuel Alvarez Bravo

Or it can be implicit, as in the Irving Penn portrait of Anais Nin. In the Penn portrait, the rhyming is between the shape created by the light space from the sitter's eyebrows up to her hairline and the dark silhouette created by the pulled-up collar of her turtleneck. 


Irving Penn

Sometimes the way a major shape gets re-iterated within the image is implicit as well. In the Cartier-Bresson, the primary shape is an ellipse. Can you see how it is rhymed within the image? Hint: this one isn't quite like the others.


Henri Cartier-Bresson



Take a look at the orientation of the womens' faces. The woman on the far left is shown facing the camera. Moving counterclockwise, the next woman is in profile, the woman after that is turned three quarters away and the fourth woman is three quarters towards the camera. The aggregate effect is of a head rotated 360 degrees.

By now, the ideas of primary shape and rhyming of shape should be pretty clear. Let's take a look at a foil. In the portrait of Marlene Dietrich, the primary shape is the dark irregular triangle of the body, and its foil is the oval created by her head.


Irving Penn

This image illustrates the two important aspects of a foil: it is of a differing basic shape (round vs triangular) and it is significantly smaller than the primary shape. Let me anticipate an objection in the interest of gaining some clarity. Playing devil's advocate, why not argue that the negative space shape between Dietrich's hand, coat and the surface upon which she is sitting is also a foil? It is an interesting shape, and it fulfills the two requirements of what a foil should be -- different in nature and smaller in size. 

Intellectually, one could make that argument. But with images and perception, arguments are not settled through logic, but through observation. Just pay attention to what your eye is doing when looking at the image. For me, while I glance at that negative space shape, my eye is pulled towards her face, establishing its visual priority. 


Charles Harbutt

Here is another example underscoring the importance of letting your eye be the guide. I show the image above by Charles Harbutt in just about every introduction to composition lecture I give at school. The story behind the image is quite interesting: a blind boy responds to the streak of light on the wall through his sense of touch, feeling its warmth without being able to see it. I ask the class to identify the primary geometric shape and typically the first responses have to do with the repeating rectangles formed by the the ray of light and other elements in the room.




Of course, that structure is there, and it is reasonable to take note of it. But again, pay attention to where your eye feels pulled. Mine feels pulled upwards. Taking note of that, the way I would diagram the primary geometric shape is as a triangle.




That feels right to me. And it is supported by some key intersections on the right side of the triangle.




The left edge of the triangle comes from the dark edges of the items on the table, and the general shading on the wall. I also see the primary triangle rhymed within the figure of the boy.




And if you look carefully, you can see numerous ways of drawing triangles within his figure. So we've got the primary shape and its re-iteration. Is there a foil? Since it is September, and school is starting, let's consider that a bit of homework. And here is one more. Try diagramming the three images below with primary shape, rhyme and foil, as applicable. 


William Klein

Mario Testino

Irving Penn

It bears repeating that not every photograph is composed with shape in mind. This is just one way to think about structure among many. But I think you can see it is an effective form of organization, and it has the merit of being simple to apply. I also don't want to give the impression that one needs to be overly analytical when taking pictures. You can take that approach if it suits you, but you don't need to. Remember, this kind of analysis is simply a form of practice. When repeated often enough, it will facilitate your recognition of patterns and visual relationships, without needing to apply much conscious thought at the moment of looking through the viewfinder.

This is the fifth installment in a series of posts on composition. The entire series is archived on the "For Students" page, accessible at the top menu. Check there for the prior posts in the series, as well as for the following installments. Click here for the next installment, using color as an element of composition.

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