Every picture tells a story. So, in this blog post, I would invite to think back to your grade school days. Remember the short compositions you were assigned to write? What you did on your summer vacation, what makes your mom the best, why Abraham Lincoln was a great American president. These were (and remain) common themes in the stories written neatly in number-2 pencil in old school composition booklets. These stories can teach us something about photography.
Like a well-written story, a good photograph leads you on a journey. It takes you by the hand and walks with you from beginning to end. And at the end, there is a reward. How do you, the photographer, accomplish this? By employing good composition to take advantage of the natural lines in the subjects you photograph.
In the above image, your eye is drawn first to the lower-right corner by the strong contrast in color and brightness between the green junipers and the shadowed background. From there, your gaze follows the line of the ridge across the image. Near the left side you are redirected to follow Cedar Ridge toward O’Neill Butte. There lies the payoff, a tidal wave of light washes over the ridge and butte creating a dramatic mid-summer scene. By composing the image to play off the natural line of the ridges, I’ve taken you a journey through the photograph. Your eye follows this natural line from beginning to end. And where the line ends, a reward awaits.
This photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge also uses line and light to lead you on an adventure. The journey begins in the lower-left corner where the brightly-illuminated bridge emerges from out of frame. The large north tower grabs your attention and immediately identifies the iconic subject of the image. Your eye naturally follows the bright line of vehicle headlights across the bridge to the upper-right. Again, you are rewarded for taking this journey. The south tower, the sharp contrast of the bridge’s shadow against the glassy surface of the Pacific Ocean, and the hazy profile of San Francisco present a mysterious quality of this city by the bay.
By looking for and taking advantage of natural lines in the the scenes you photograph, you can lead your audience on a journey. Like all good journeys, yours should have a beginning and an end. And by delivering a reward to your audience at the end of the journey, you will transform the journey into a story, well-told. Use composition and line to allow your photography to tell great stories.
Get out and shoot!
Bill Ferris | September 2013