Composition under the lens

Forums All About Photography Composition under the lens

This topic contains 3 replies, has 2 voices, and was last updated by  ajroyle 1 year, 5 months ago.

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    Ian McNab

    Cartier-Bresson adopted an approach to visual design derived from the Western tradition of easel painting, particularly with oil paint. Essentially, the painter imagines (or marks out) one or another of a small range of geometrical frameworks on the rectangle of the canvas, and uses this to position the elements of the picture in relation to each other and to the rectangular frame to create an orderly design. This is easy for a painter to do, as he or she has complete control over the placing of elements in the painting. But a photographer who wants to adopt this method has to do it by adjusting his view point and framing so that the objects being photographed align with a geometrical skeleton that the photographer can only visualise in the mind’s eye.

    Clearly, this approach to picture-making in photography is much easier to use if there are fewer objects to align. That’s why Cartier-Bresson preferred the 50mm lens: the field of view limits the amount of stuff that the photographer needs to position by adjusting his point of view and framing, and, if things are moving in the scene, by timing the shutter release to catch them in the right place to coincide with the intended geometrical pattern – the so-called ‘Decisive Moment’.

    This approach – arranging the picture elements according to a pre-conceived geometrical pattern – is much harder to use with wide-angle lenses. Describing this problem with wider-angle lenses like the 35 mm, Cartier-Bresson says,
    “The 35 is splendid when needed, but extremely difficult to use if you want precision in composition. There are too many elements, and something is always in the wrong place.”  [Henri Cartier-Bresson: ‘There Are No Maybes’ – a recorded interview with Shiela Turner-Seed. ]

    Interestingly, in the same interview, Cartier-Bresson answers a question from Sheila Turner-Seed with an explanation of why he used a strictly geometrical approach to making photographs:

    [ST-S]: In some sense, you impose your own rules that are like disciplines for yourself, then.

    [HCB]: For myself — I’m not speaking for others. I take my pleasure that way. Freedom for me is a strict frame, and inside that frame are all the variations possible. Maybe I’m classical. The French are like that!”

    In other words, Cartier-Bresson used the 50mm lens because it suited the ‘discipline’ it pleased him to adopt for visual design. His pictures thus indicate that the focal length of the lens one uses implies its own particular solutions to the problems of visual design. As Cartier-Bresson’s comments about the 35mm lens suggest, making pictures according to the canons of visual design for painting may not always be the most suitable ‘discipline’ for the photographer to adopt.

    Garry Winogrand admired Cartier-Bresson’s pictures and held his skill in high regard. But he had no interest in making pictures like Cartier-Bresson’s. Instead, he chose to use the very wide angle 28mm, and spent most of his working life investigating and solving the visual design problems that this lens presents the photographer with. Other photographers also adopted the 28mm — William Klein, Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander perhaps the most famous along with Winogrand. Their work displays a range of solutions to the problems of visual design that are very different from the classic, painterly approach espoused by Cartier-Bresson. It is clear from their work that the camera and lens play a significant role in how photographs look, precisely because different focal lengths (and therefore angles of view) each present the photographer with a particular set of problems of visual design that require their own creative solutions, and not necessarily ones imported from painting that particularly suit the 50mm.

    This leads me to wonder whether the now-widespread use of zoom lenses cuts modern digital photographers off from the need to investigate and work creatively on the visual design of their pictures. Is it perhaps just too easy now to twist the zoom till what we see in the viewfinder looks the way we’re used to seeing pictures look, so that we never have to find different ways of making more interesting pictures?



    I’m sure you are right. The philosophy is to simplify, and the zoom is ideal for that, so you pick out your subject rather than try to anticipate arrangements. This approach was certainly encouraged by the notion of compositing your image – head against a pre-shot background – all the rage 10 – 15 years ago and still with us today. It leads us well away from the arranging of your photographs elements or looking for interest in the arrangement, in street photography that is. In landscape work the idea of arranging elements is more to the fore and the prime lens is still likely to be used. Otherwise I think the short zoom is very likely to be the tool of choice for the club photographer.


    Ian McNab

    Yes, ‘simplifying’ is the ultimate driver for visual design in club photography. How often do you hear judges say ‘It’s not clear what I should be focussing on’ or ‘There’s too much going on in this picture’ or ‘You don’t need all that space at the top’, etc. It’s as if they’d only ever looked at visual design in Rembrandt’s paintings, and never at Pieter Bruegel or Hieronymus Bosch.




    I was amused during Ron’s talk when he said how he had diberately framed his shots to cut through things on the edges of his shot. This was to remind us that we were looking at a selected view. You can imagine what a club judge would say!


    It is all about easily perceived imagery. Some of the ideas make perfect sense when you take the aim to be getting the viewer to get an instant perception of the meaning of the picture. You mention Bruegel, some of the elder Bruegel was meant to be a kind of puzzle which kept you engaged for hours – aren’t photos allowed to do that too?

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