Why composition matters: aesthetics and photographic intent

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” Ansel Adams

composition is a supremely cost-effective way of improving our images

composition is a supremely cost-effective way of improving our images

For the next 5 months as I make the final run-in to an end-of-May 2014 publishing date for my new book Winning Images with any Underwater Camera, I’m going to set out a few of the big ideas in the hope that I might gain your interest in it.  This could be the first underwater photography book that has tried to weave together ideas from traditional theory and contemporary science. I aspire that it will add something to the corporate body of knowledge and advance our mutual quest to more consistently produce images that win the minds of our friends, family, peer photographers, judges of competitions or editors of magazines and books. The emphasis in this book will most definitely be on any camera, because its thesis is that composition (and not technology) is the supremely cost-effective way of improving our images.

Although underwater photography can be functional and therefore a craft, for example in journalism to tell environmental stories or in marketing to advertise scuba equipment, most people interested in this book will be pursuing underwater photography for its pure enjoyment and therefore more closely associate their images with creative or fine art. Your photographic intent is generally to draw attention to some of the finer things in life, for example the sleek lines of dolphins and sharks or the exquisite geometry, shapes and symmetry in a big fish school. Your images are communicating extraordinary things and good photographers develop this clear intention to communicate. To portray something rather than just record what they see. The difference is subtle, but vital. To communicate, you need to understand a little about aesthetics, which people define differently, but which I like to think of as perceiving and feeling. I always feel the undercurrents of emotion when I see certain spectacular things underwater, but also when I see some of those beautiful images that successfully capture it.  It is easier to remember this idea of perceiving and feeling if you think of anaesthetic, which is something to stop you feeling.

This emotional response from a viewer is what you’re looking for; a genuine appreciation of your work in the eye of the beholder. But here’s our first problem, because I deliberately avoid the word beauty, which is so often associated with aesthetics. Unfortunately, beauty has been a contested concept since the time of Plato, who demonstrated that it was paradoxical, illusive and complex. And many successful underwater images can depict quite ugly things, albeit in a way that still holds the attention of a viewer. So this will be how the book starts: a little bit of philosophy to understand why aesthetics are so important. But the book will then draw on contemporary scientific research to understand exactly how people look at and think about images. From these starting points, it will develop a new model of composition specifically for underwater photographers.

If this subject interests you, please follow this blog to see the story of winning images unfold and to learn more about the book launches in London.  For those that I have not already greeted in 2014, I hope that it is not too late to say Happy New Year to you and the very best of fortune with your own photography!

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