Cre­ative paths

Michael Free­man shares his ad­vice for us­ing align­ment in a more imag­i­na­tive way in your photos

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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.

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