Michael Freeman shares his advice for using alignment in a more imaginative way in your photos
Bringing some kind of personal order to a scene is one of the basic reasons for bothering at all with composition. Indeed, it’s composition’s primary purpose, but the emphasis is always on personal preference, because once you start saying that certain things must happen in the frame, it becomes formulaic and cuts out the possibility of creativity.
With this creative path – alignment – many people think you should have set, orderly rules. Well, no you shouldn’t automatically; only if you’re attracted to precision. As prolific American street photographer Garry Winogrand once said: “The world isn’t tidy; it’s a mess. I don’t try to make it neat.”
So, as with all of these creative paths, the following advice is not a prescription for excellence, just a tried and tested formula that you might like to try – occasionally, often, or whenever you feel like it.
In practice, alignment is possibly the most obvious compositional idea – most of us use it to at least some degree without even thinking, simply because it’s ingrained that the camera and view ought to, by default, appear level. That means a straight horizon whenever there is one in view, with ‘straight’ meaning parallel to the top and bottom edges of the frame. That, however, is the ingrained view, and it comes from a sense of what ought to be, not what could. We accept that even a slight misalignment of a horizon – or any level that stands in for it, such as the opposite pavement in an across-the-street view – catches attention, and not usually in a good way.
Avoid the obvious
Simply aligning something that we feel ought to be horizontal or vertical with a frame edge doesn’t score any credit points. It becomes interesting only when it seems a little difficult or unexpected to achieve – when there’s an element of precision and therefore skill involved – so naturally this kind of composition will appeal only to those who enjoy precision, and that’s not everyone, by any means.
In the example here, precise vertical alignment turns an already pleasant view into a photograph. The setting was already attractive; looking out toward Holy Island,
in Northumberland, from the side of a small dock, beautiful light, everything delicate. Even so, making a useful image hinged on adding something.
The fisherman getting his red rowing boat ready made for a good starting point, but it still seemed to need some extra graphic interest, and surely that was possible with the various boats dotted about? The rowing boat swung slowly left and right on its mooring, and that gave me the extra element I needed. The moment when prow and stern were vertical in the frame could provide the beginning of an alignment, and by stepping a little to the right, I could line this rowing boat up with one of the boats further out. The bonus was that the man stood up and faced out, which enhanced the vertical line.
The result, which is added to by the misty suggestion of the horizon, was a frame alignment that was fleeting, and for that reason worthwhile. Connoisseurs of the golden ratio (a symmetrical relationship between two proportions, which is widely considered very pleasing to the eye) might notice that the left-right division is very close to this ratio. That wasn’t intentional, or at least not calculated, and it underlines how cautious you need to be when you think about formulae like these. There is rarely a moment in framing where it all becomes magically harmonious.
Our globetrotting Contributor at Large, renowned photographer and prolific author Michael Freeman, presents a new month-by-month masterclass that’s exclusive to
N-Photo, in which he explores his tried and tested paths to more creative photography. Michael has published dozens of books on photography, including the bestselling PerfectExposure.
If you enjoy this article and want to learn more, there are 50 more paths to be discovered in Michael’s new book Fifty Paths to Creative Photography (NB: all 50 are different from those that will be featured here in the magazine).
In this shot of fishing boats and Holy Island, the alignment of the red rowing boat pointing towards a more distant boat gives the image structure. Three earlier shots lacked precision, but taking a couple of steps to the right set up the viewpoint for the boats to align.