Composition

We launched our SiPgoesTT challenge for twenty-twenty last week and asked you to take a leap of faith and select three of the works that spoke to you. The initial response was overwhelming and if you haven’t explored your fellow toy photographers, you should. If you were on the brick of joining and haven’t done that, don’t worry. You can still do that now or later.
We are just getting started.
With composition.
And a new challenge for you to complete.

Back to basics

The very first technique (or should we say: topic?) we want to explore in twenty-twenty is going back to basics.
Start with the beginning of creating a photo.
Composing an image in front of the viewfinder.
Or in your mind or Moleskin scrapbook especially if you are a big believer in pre-visualizing images before you get them in front of the camera and on to the digital canvas (just like Julien likes to plot out his stories in a LEGO notebook).
Get the ingredients or elements lined up to help us tell the story of the subject.
Help us convey the message we want to tell.
Understand our common language and grammar we use day in day out, when snapping pictures. 
Whether we think about it or not. 

Composition – a definition

Composition is basically the organization of elements of the visual arts according to the principles of said art (in our case toy photography).
So here we are, the first word of twenty-twenty is composition.

And so let us decompose that one for a second (pun intended).
The organization of the elements of toy photography according to the principles of toy photography (a visual art form). 

ABC – The elements of composition

The elements are like the elements of the alphabet.
The ABC with which we can make words.
And the principles are the words and sentences we make with those letters.
To tell the story of our subject.

Run Forrest, Run…

And don’t run away just yet if you think this all sounds like Latin or advanced mathematics (no offense to the mathematicians under us).
We will talk about the classic composition “rules” like rules of thirds and the “golden ratio” later on. We promise.
And we won’t shy away from tapping into the mainstream photographic truisms, but composition is so much more than just rules of thirds or leading lines and the value of Phi that makes up the golden ratio.

(Phi or Φ = 1.618… which is not to be mistaken with its sibling Pi or π = 3,14 … which played a small role in us calling this creative challenge SiPgoesTT but that is a completely different topic for another day)

So what are these elements and principles?

Lines, points, shape and form, texture and pattern, color and value make up the common elements of visual art and design and these elements do apply to photography (a visual art form) as well.
Depending on what book or course you follow, there may be some variations to the theme here, but we go with these for now. And we made add gut to the equation as well.

The guiding principles are often grouped into the following domains: harmony and rhythm, balance, emphasis and contrast, dominance and movement.

Don’t worry, we won’t go all scholarly on you here and we included at the end a variety of interesting (or not) links you can pursue on your own and we are working on a simple cheat sheet, but we do want to take a deeper look at some of those key elements that make up the composition of the image you just posted on IG, Facebook or Flickr, and we hope to get you thinking a little bit more about these elements and guiding principles that steer composition and we all use day in and out knowingly or not.
And that is part of playing our little creative challenge.

The ABC first. 

L as in Line.

We all know what a line is, and as a kid, it was one of the first things we mastered to draw on a piece of paper. Scribbling lines and sometimes aggressive points. But first lines. Scribbles. Stripes. Elements that are wired in our brain and tell a story on their own. A continuous line, a horizontal straight line, a broken line.
A seemingly inconsistent pattern screaming for attention.
A tagline like graffiti or that first doodle you woke up to as a parent when your young one had proudly decorated the living room wall.

A special line: the golden spiral

Probably the most famous line in photography and composition is the golden spiral. You will find it back in your favorite post-processing photography tool as a graphical aid to cropping along the golden ratio, diagonals and thirds. But in essence, the golden spiral is still just a line.
A most interesting line with some magic properties that can also find back in nature and science but it is “just” a line.

With a starting point. 

The golden spiral and the Fibonacci spiral are very similar and provide us with a guiding line. Just like the rule of thirds that gives us comfort and harmony.

And so the question ultimately will pop up if you actively work with this line or not.
Do you crop to align the main subject of the image with the guiding lines or not.
Are you actively composing the image along the guiding line, or not.
And do you compose with all of this in mind?
Or do you just follow your gut?

Cropping along the golden spiral. Or not.

Lines, one of the most basic elements, and a key element to later on help us understand the lines of thirds, the leading lines, perspective (and forced perspective in toy photography) and help us to better understand why the golden ratio and its guiding spiral are a classic amongst photographers. 

P as in Points. 

The beginning of a line.
The start of something.
The place where a line is about to begin.
Or end. (Ever thought why we end a sentence with a point?)
The point is the good buddy of the line and will play a key role in composing our images when we start talking about starting and endpoints.
Leading lines do lead up to a point.

And so you can see the dominant eye of your LEGO minifigure as the start or endpoint of your story.
Points are important.
It is after all where the golden spiral starts or ends the leading line.

SF as Shape and Form.

Once we mastered as a child to draw lines on the canvas and started to draw houses, sticky figures, and the sun, we learned how to color the sun (or the clouds) and make it stand out from the white canvas.
We articulated the shape of what mattered in the image.
And when by convention (a yellow circle-like round object in the top left corner) or by creative genius our aunt and uncles clapped their hands and called it a sun, we were delighted.
The shape had done its job and successfully articulated the message.
Shapes and forms are powerful words that can speak out. 

Texture.

Texture can take up a full book in photography.
From the visual texture achieved by cranking up the texture and clarity sliders in Lightroom (or your preferred photography editing suite) to the subtle texture in black or white backgrounds (full white and black is kind of boring) to the selection of photographic paper.
We will be touching texture throughout twenty-twenty in a variety of ways, but for now, I would call it one of those irregular verbs that take some time to appreciate and leads up to patterns, which we will park as well.
Remember, it should stay fun. 
And not turn into an academic lecture.

I hope I am not late to the party …

Think Pink.

Color is number five in the line, and we will be coming back on color throughout the year a few more times as it is a key element in composition, especially in photography.
From color harmony over contrast to color chaos.
Exploring white balances and gels on strobes.
From color saturation in sunsets to choosing not to use color and shoot on purpose B/W (covered in the last element of values).

Pink Powe …

Color, a most powerful element in composition. 

And color has a language of its own.
Take red.
At one end of the visible spectrum, it is highly visible and used in warning and stop signs for its physical attributes.
Yet it also conveys a message of love and war.
Color can help you strengthen the composition, and at the same time it can accidentally convey a completely different message. 

Red. A sign of love and passion or warning?

V as in Victory Value (or Shade)

The last element for today is Value.
I have to admit I am having difficulties with seeing value as an element. For me, it is more of an attribute, but when you take a step back you can see where it is coming from.
The element Value controls the lightness or darkness of tones or colors.
White is the lightest value.
Black is the darkest, and in the middle we find space grey. Fifty shades of grey, including space grey.
While you could argue it is a sub-element or an attribute of color, it is actually much more.
Whether you are post-processing your images on your iPhone or in a more advanced program like lightroom, the sliders that let you adjust the value of the different elements is key.


Maybe in a couple of years we will start calling this element slider instead of value now that post-processing of RAW images becomes the norm even on smartphones.  

Yet it does start at the time of composition.
What is the mood of the image we want to compose?
Is it light or eery, dark and grey, or full of energy and high contrast?
The element of value or shade holds the key to this. 
The sliders let us finetune the message.
You should actively seek in the composition what values and shades you want to use, and then finetune them with the sliders.

BGF as in Best Gut Feeling ever.

And then there is the gut. Gut feeling is not an official element in any of the scholarly books or articles out there. Yet more and more we start to recognize that it is not just data and rules that make up the right decision. You will see more and more in management books the advice to not ignore your gut. And the same goes for composition. People used to call it the “eye” before the “gut” become an alternative for the cognitive brain. Sometimes you just now it is right. Even if the elements and composition principles tell you differently.
And then you just have to go with your gut.

Time to take a break

So, point, line, shape or form, texture, color, and the value form the basic elements of composition. 

If you are playing along in our SiPgoesTT creative challenge as a toy photographer, then now is a good moment to take a coffee break, and get pen and paper out. 

Look at your three images individually and write down for yourself what elements you notice in each image that speaks out the loudest.
Don’t over-engineer it.
It is very well possible that for one image it is just color.
Or shape.
Maybe you selected that strong leading line you captured.
Or that focus point that keeps on grabbing your attention.
And its attributes. 

Of little green men – an example

My little green man …

So, if I take one of my images here I selected I would write down color with the attribute green.
And maybe lines (as there are some strong lines and rules of third in this image for me).
But mainly I would land on the element color and green as it’s the key attribute for this image.

That would be for me the element I select.

Your Images

When you look at your images, keep the elements in mind.
Line, Point, Color, Shape, Value, and Texture.
The gut is not allowed in this exercise.
See which one speaks to you when you look at your images as a viewer.
Not as the one that created them.
Maybe you selected these elements on purpose.
Or maybe they just happened to be.
It does not matter.
In both cases, they are the elements of your composition that speak to you as the viewer.
And looking at your images and understanding the elements will make you start to look different at them, and be more aware of the elements of composition.
The elements that influence you how you see the image.

Next week

Next week we will be taking a look at the principles of composition in photography and see how they combine these elements into one image.
One composition.
Start making full sentences of the elements we explored today.

We will start to explore how we use these elements to create harmony, balance, contrast, dominance, emphasis, and movement.
And we will be giving you a master challenge to complete this month around composition.
But that is for next week

This week’s Padawan Challenge

But first, we do have a small padawan challenge for you.

Getting ready for the Padawan challenge …

Write down the dominant element(s) of each image you selected when you joined #SiPgoesTT if you have not yet done yet so in the coffee break we suggested earlier.

Look for a pattern in the elements.
Maybe you have selected color in all your images.
Or lines. 

Or (focus) points.

See if there are one or two elements that dominate in your images.
A specific element and its attribute that comes back to you.
That feels like it belongs to you. 
That defines one of your strong characteristics.

If you happen to end up with all five elements equally distributed across your images, then let faith (or unconscious bias) decide for you and pick one of them. And don’t feel bad, it is OK, we actually do use all the elements all the time. 
Whether we know it or not.
Just don’t use gut for this padawan challenge.
That is cheating.

Now, create a new image where you focus on that one element in your image composition
Don’t make the element the subject. 
Use it as part of the composition of the image.

Shoot what you were planning to shoot, just very actively try to use your selected element in the composition.
Once you’re happy with the image and how you used the element, post it on IG with the tag #SiPgoesTT_composition
And don’t reveal the element you used.
Let the others guess what it was. 
Engage and discuss.

The SiPgoesTT behind the scene forum.

We also have a dedicated forum here on the blog, where you can post your image as well and discuss in greater detail which element you selected and how you used it in your image.

Looking at my five selected images, I know what I have to work with on this first padawan challenge and I will be sharing that with you in the forum.

B.

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DavidGrafika
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Oh gods.
4:30 in the morning, and I just read this.
I’ll need more than just a little break with coffee to get it all properly. ^^
Ok, where are my notebook and my pen?

Stefan Matthies
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Stefan Matthies

May I admit that most of my photos are based on gut feeling? I do appreciate playing along #SiPgoesTT. Starting to learn and train that knowledge with happy anticipation!