Thursday, July 28, 2011

Lighting Versus Composition

There’s a lot of “versus” in photography. We can talk about one brand of gear versus another, one type of software application versus another, and even point to discussions about one genre of photography versus another. Canon versus Nikon, Photoshop versus Aperture, architecture versus landscape. it’s a never-ending onslaught of discussion points. Truthfully, it’s often tough to keep up with all of the different elements (for lack of a better phrase) associated with the craft.

We always seem drawn to discussions and pieces that talk about one element versus another. The ones that I always find most engaging are discussions that look at one subjective feature versus another. When we start looking inward and asking ourselves “why” we take images, “how” to capture images, and all this sort-of esoteric stuff, I think that’s when we finally have incorporated all the technical sundry stuff into our brains

At this point, we’re ready to be inspired! The “versus” questions here really start to become staggering though, so rather than tackle the minutia of various psychologies of photography, one of the most fundamental ones to ask as you venture toward introspection is that of lighting versus composition. While it’s arguable that each is of such critical importance in the success of a photo, and that each could stand on its own as the “element of success”, both can be powerful factors that contribute to the overall impact in photographs. So, which one should you put your attention to? Better yet, which one comes more naturally? It’s an interesting question, and one that I’ve teased a little in various outlets, including the blog, and the podcast.

The fundamental principle behind this discussion is that something has to draw your eye or catch your attention; thus inspiring you to capture the moment. The question then is - Which was it that inspired you, the lighting or the composition? Clearly, depending on the shot, it could be one or the other, and sometimes it can even be a combination of both. The laugh of a girl in the afternoon “golden hours” can be a perfect example of an instance where both elements factor into what is catching your eye.

Often, the driving motivation behind an image could simply be the light. In the garage scene displayed above, I walked into the building and instantly saw the rays of light (I even ended up titling the image that way). Once I saw the light, it was then up to me to decide how to compose it. Nevertheless, the light itself was the point of inspiration.

The other instance I recall was a sunrise on Bull Island in South Carolina. The scene is a landscape and was created after several scouting trips, using something often referred to as pre-visualization, and then a ton of research. I saw a scene, was moved to capture it, then took the time to both decide how I wanted it lit, and then doing the legwork to ensure the lighting matched what I wanted to get in my own minds eye.

So initially, the whole versus idea is kind of turned on its head here because the answer is clearly one of “it depends,” right? Well, yes and no. Sure, inspiration can come from one area and we can then mentally work our way through the other element of the image, but this presumes two important things:
  1. We are aware of these two fundamental characteristics of photography: lighting and composition. They are not (nor should they be) interpreted as being mutually exclusive.
  2. We are equally capable of approaching the craft from either tactic, and then filling in the remainder.
The simple fact of the matter is, even when you think you are stating something so obvious that everyone should know about it, sometimes that just is not the case. Stating that lighting and composition are the two cornerstones of good photography is a logical thing to say, but as you explore it further one can see that there is much more to it than a simple statement of fact. I’ve often found myself after reading inspirational works saying, “Well, that made sense. Why didn’t I think of that before?”

On the second point, the other notion we have to come to terms with is that different people think in different ways. We take for granted that people can “see” things our way. But the truth of the matter is that each vision is unique, and no two sets of eyes will always see things identically. Some will be more attuned to the lighting, while others will be more attuned to the composition. Whichever is your forte, great! Run with that! But it also means that you will need to be cognizant that the other (since it’s not a forte) is something you will have to work at if you want to get better.

So, getting back to the original thrust; that of lighting and composition in imagery. Believe it or not, some subjects are more prone to one end of the spectrum, while others lead you in the opposite direction. If it’s tough for you to visualize which way you “lean” by these abstract terms, take a look at these categories:

People – When push comes to shove, capturing people (portraiture) is really about more than the face or how you have them positioned. The composition is not nearly
as impactful as the lighting is in portraits. Take a look at a few photos of people in both good and bad light, then at photos of people that are well composed versus some that aren’t the best in the world. By and large, the well-lit ones will be dramatically different from the poorly lit ones. Good lighting can bring out the personality in ways that composition can’t even come close to, whereas lack of composition in photos can be compensated for if you’ve got the light perfect. This assumes of course that the other elements of the photo are there – you can see the face, eyes are in focus, etc.

Places - Places, on the other hand, are far more dependent on composition. If you take a good landscape, you’ll notice certain things are always lined up in some way. Whether it’s the Rule of Thirds, the Golden Mean, Sunny 16, or other such compositional approaches are used, these exist simply because they work and it’s never more evident than in landscape photography. Does lighting help? Absolutely,but without the fundamentals of composition, all the good light in the world won’t make a badly composed image great.

Things – Surprise, with “things,” it gets a bit trickier because here you actually do need a better sense of both lighting and composition. If one is off, the image as
a whole is likely impacted. Underexposed images here can be dreadful, as can the wrong angle or composition. If you tend to enjoy taking pictures of things, be prepared to develop a keen sense of both lighting and composition.

So, what does this tell us? Firstly, if you tend to take good pictures of people, you likely have a natural knack for lighting. Alternatively, if you tend to take good pictures of locations, your compositional skills are probably more-easily grasped. Finally, “things” (think product photography and studio work) require the most
breadth and depth of skills; you need to have a pretty good sense of both.

No matter how you slice it, the bottom line of all of this is that both lighting and composition are skills that evolve with practice. It’s only with practice that you can develop both a sense of the light needed in a scene, and the scene needed to give relevance to the light. So, without further ado – get out and practice!

by: Jason Anderson
PhotographyBB 41

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