Three Stages of Composition

Stage One: “Literal” Snapshot – making photographs to simply describe what you see. 

Typical Snapshot

Typical Snapshot

A snapshot is popularly defined as a photograph that is “shot” spontaneously and quickly, most often without artistic or journalistic intent. Snapshots are commonly considered to be technically “imperfect” or amateurish–out of focus or poorly framed or composed.

Snap shot – this time with an off camera flash at 45 degrees

We all start with the literal snapshot and often revisit this stage of photography. These literal snapshots are primarily taken for the photographer. These photos are “memory joggers.” They help you remember the moment.

Inside snap shot without flash
Inside snap shot with flash at 45 degrees

Believe it or not there are many “professional” photographers who never move beyond this point. Since the bride and groom were there with the photographer, the literal snapshots are like “memory joggers” for them as well.

Another place I see this is my church. After a team comes back from their mission trip they show their photos the team laughs because they get the “inside joke.” While not always a joke it is another memory jogger and not a photo that communicates to the audience.

When a photographer realizes that other photographers are getting better looking photos than they do, they often move to stage two.

Stage Two: “Artistic” Snapshot – making aesthetically pleasing pictures that enhance what you saw

Inside photo with flash at 45 degrees and the photographer simplified the background giving more attention to the subject.

In this stage the photographer is aware of visual composition, exposure and how to do things like control their depth-of-field and/or freezing a subject or blurring the background.

This is where a photographer thinks about being sure the subject is well composed.
Not everyone is able to see the difference in their own photos to get to stage two, but believe me most everyone can see the difference between a “literal snapshot” and an “artistic snapshot.”
I have written in previous newsletters about composition, lighting and framing and therefore encourage you to review those articles.

Stage Three: “Expressive” Images – images made for public, rather than private meanings. Expressive photography, like all art, offers universal, and often metaphorical, statements.

Ansel Adams said it best, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” Once you realize this and want the audience to feel about the subject as you do then you want to move beyond just the “rules of composition.”

Subject in her room. Main light off to the side out of the camera view to highlight the subject and draw you to her.

 Expressive photography interprets, rather than describes, what we see to others.

There are three aspects to Expressive Photography, see the diagram. All three need to be present for the photo to be more than a “artistic snapshot.”
Subject close to camera and her room around her. Light off to the right lighting her to draw more emphasis on her.
Abstraction removes literal, descriptive clutter and hones an image down to its essence and encourages unlimited thinking. In music this might be the difference of listening to music that has no words in the tune.

Your mind is free to explore your thoughts. However, if the music has words in the music then it is less abstract even if the words are not sung. Hearing Amazing Grace played even without the words will put a more literal thought and therefore is not unlimited as the abstract music.

If the photo moves too far into just abstraction then the other parts of the triangle become weakened and the photo becomes just an “artistic snapshot.”
Tension presents elements that seem to be at odds with their context and creates contrasts and juxtapositions that stimulate both the emotions and the imagination. This is where the photographer helps create a mood within the photo. They may use composition, lighting and exposure or in combination to help move the photo beyond just documenting the moment to an interpretation of the moment. Under expose a little and you create darkness or gloom. Over expose and you may create lightness and lighten the mood.

After photographing my daughter in different locations I started to write this newsletter. My wife called out to me “Stanley you’ve got to see Chelle.” Of course I had to add another photo after seeing her in a tree playing her guitar. Some of the best photos are when you catch the subject doing what they like best.

Human values convey the emotions, beliefs, traditions and knowledge that we understand and share as humans. Genuine smiles communicate across all language barriers, just as frowns and anger will. We often say this is one of the most critical factors of the portrait. What are the three most important things of a portrait?—1) Expression 2) Expression and 3) Expression.

To make expressive photos you must first, ask yourself what it is you want to express through your image(s). How do you feel about your subject?
I like to boil this down to “Why?” Why should anyone in your audience care about what you want them to see?
Journalists are trained to ask: Who, What, Where, When, How and Why. In my opinion the hook of the story often is resting on the Why.
If you failed to ask yourself why you are making this photograph—rest assured that your audience will not know either.
I would love for you to have a chance to comment on which photos you think above are your favorite photos and why? Do any of them work as “Expressive” images?