Photography for beginners

Part 3 - composition

The human eye works like a combination of a telephoto, a standard and a wide angle lens all rolled into one.  It is not like a zoom where we can chose a focal length that is applied to everything we see.  Instead all three work at the same time.  Our overall vision is like a wide angle view, but with no great detail.  Our peripheral vision is very good for detecting movement, hence the expression "catch something out of the corner of your eye".  The central part of the eye, called the Macula is like a standard lens and gives good colour rendition in reasonable detail.  In the middle of the macula is a tiny portion called the fovea, this has masses of individual receptors packed into a small area and it is this part of our eye that we use to see fine detail, working like a telephoto lens; but it is limited to what we are looking directly at, where our gaze is fixed, which we control by moving our head and our eyes.

There is a link between our eye muscles and our brain, so that as we scan a scene and take in the detail, the brain accumulates it and remembers it so we perceive the whole scene in detail.  When we come to the camera taking a photo it is different story.  The camera records the image as seen by the lens as it is at the time the shutter is pressed.  If we take a wide angle shot with a wide angle lens, we get an approximation of the view that we see, but as we look at the photo and move our eyes from item to item in the image we do not see any extra detail in what we are looking at, as we would in real life.  If we instead take a telephoto shot we can see detail in what the camera is pointing at, but we can not see the overall scene any more.  If there is a sudden movement to the side, the camera will not see it, but we could pick it up on our peripheral vision, swing round to get it within our macular, and then using that to home in and center our fovea on it.

For this reason we need to compromise and use composition techniques to direct the viewer to what we thought was interesting in the picture.   In real life the human eye/brain combination will quickly latch on to the important interest in a scene, but it is not so easy in a flat photograph for the above reasons.   So we use guidelines to help us tell the story.   If we are showing some one a photograph in an album, or a slide show we can use language to direct their attention and tell the story of the image.   If it is displayed in an exhibition, or an entry in a competition we need to replace this spoken language with a visual language that will achieve the same thing; tell the story of the image.   The syntax and grammar of this visual language is embodied in a set of rules or guidelines.   They are not rules that must be slavishly followed in order like a recipe, but things to consider and apply when appropriate.   Initially you should follow the guidelines more often than not, but as you gain experience you will discover when to ignore the guidelines or even go contrary to them to achieve a special dramatic effect.   The story is what matters and if something improves the story/image, then do it.

So let's get started.

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