Find­ing shapes in a scene brings a layer of or­ga­ni­za­tion

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Most things to do with com­po­si­tion, if you ap­ply them well and in­ter­est­ingly, have a boost­ing ef­fect on creativ­ity. The rea­son is that by mak­ing the com­po­si­tion work harder – which gen­er­ally means find­ing vis­ual, graphic con­nec­tions be­tween things in your frame – you’re adding an ex­tra layer to the im­age. In this sense, ‘layer’ doesn’t mean quite the same thing as the phys­i­cal, depth lay­ers that we looked at in is­sue 70.

Here, lay­ered means an ex­tra way of look­ing at the same sub­ject. A graphic struc­ture is one solid way of do­ing this – choos­ing a view­point or mo­ment so that what’s in frame is or­ga­nized into a rec­og­niz­able shape. How­ever, it can’t be too ob­vi­ous and due just to the way the sub­ject was de­lib­er­ately made. We’re look­ing here at vir­tual shapes that hap­pen in the viewfinder, not ac­tual phys­i­cal ones.

To work, they have to be un­ex­pected or fleet­ing, and above all be­cause your eye was smart enough to spot the shape when other people might not have. There are no prizes for find­ing a rec­tan­gle in a door­way or win­dow! The ba­sic prin­ci­ple is that for this kind of shoot­ing, the more un­usual and co­in­ci­den­tal, the bet­ter it works.

Get­ting in shape

It’s a kind of co­in­ci­dence, and that’s po­ten­tially pow­er­ful in pho­tog­ra­phy be­cause it’s hard to con­trol and there­fore rarer. It means, as in this ex­am­ple of two young Viet­namese women dressed in the tra­di­tional and grace­ful ao dai, the pho­tog­ra­pher – you – saw a shape and made it work. In fact, as in so many sit­u­a­tions, the co­in­ci­dence here of a tri­an­gle and two cir­cles was not a ready­made gift, but be­gan as a pos­si­bil­ity. The con­i­cal hats were graphic to be­gin with, tri­an­gu­lar from the side or cir­cu­lar from the top; and the flow­ing white ao dais were curv­ing and fluid in shape. So, while there was no rea­son to pre­dict this ex­act co­in­ci­dence of shape, I was al­ready look­ing for some sort of com­bi­na­tion, which made me pre­pared.

The hats be­came these two cir­cles be­cause the girls shielded them­selves from the sun, while the tri­an­gle of their com­bined dresses was ap­par­ent for just a few sec­onds as the breeze lifted the lower cor­ner of fab­ric. Like the other pho­to­graphs in this fea­ture, the shape comes from the sub­ject, but is in a way separate and over­laid. It’s a se­cond layer of ob­ser­va­tion and in­ter­est.

The two el­bows add a locked zigzag pat­tern

A breeze lifts the left edge of the dress to make the tri­an­gle

Two clear and sep­a­rated cir­cles, but no ob­vi­ous shape to the dresses yet…

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).

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