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How-to's

Putting Our Subject in its Place

Connie Cassinetto (Via the Lens)


Keywords: composition, art, mastery

What is that "something else" we take photographs of?

Most of us simply love to take photographs and often feel the most comfortable with a camera in our hand.  Often we take photographs of just about anything that we can, from people to buildings and objects.  Some of us do eventually settle into taking photographs of mostly one subject or another since it appeals to us personally for some almost indefinable reason.  But are we taking photographs of specific subjects as we shoot or are we taking photographs of something more?  I think the answer to this question depends upon the point of view of the photographer to some degree, but in general, unknown to some photographers, I believe that we are actually taking photographs of something else, and our subject just happens to be in that “something else.”

This is my transition into the artistic side of photography and how photography is affected by compositional rules or guidelines as well as by other artistic elements.  It is these things that separate a simple snapshot from a more well-defined and focused work leaning toward art. 

We probably are well aware of compositional guidelines and what the majority of them mean, so line, color, form, texture, rule of thirds, balance, symmetry, pattern, point of view, and framing are familiar to us.  When we first start out at photographing we learn these rules and other rules or guidelines and most of us attempt to remember and use them when we find a desirable subject to shoot. Many people advocate that we “throw away the rules,” or use them “with a grain of salt.”  But it is my belief that if you are a photographer, like me, who wants to go that step above the mundane or ordinary it is imperative to learn all of these compositional rules and to know them so well that they can be used without conscious thought. Then, and only then, can you forget about the rules and toss them to the wind. 

I recently went to an exhibition of photographs taken by Werner Bischof, who took photographs around the world in the 1940’s and 1950’s.  He worked for many important and well-known magazines of the day, including Life, and was the first photographer to join with the founding members of Magnum in 1949.  One of the exhibition rooms held a large collection of his proof sheets and the one thing I could instantly see in each and every photograph of every proof sheet was a basic element of composition.  It amazed me that it was so evident in all of the proof sheets and there were many, perhaps 50 or so, all around the sides of the room.  He photographed many subjects, people, buildings, famine and war, plus the Winter Olympics in 1948.  He used the elements of design even while shooting documentary and photojournalism images.  Bischof’s basic education was in art, not photography, so he brought the elements of art into each photograph, it was instinctual for him.   

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I was standing at the top of a hill of sand that went down to the beach below and I instantly saw all these lines with the sun setting behind them, creating a wonderful array of colors on the sand and water. The human element creates mystery and emotion in the photo and gives the viewer a place to start from when viewing the image.
Nikon D500, Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VR, 0EV, spot meter, ISO 640, 127mm focal length, 1/640 sec at f/8, aperture priority, hand-held.

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6 comments

NATHAN FRISBY (natpat) on December 23, 2017

Very good release of your feeling about photography can be felt just from reading your article. We should learn from your words and I know that in my own efforts to improve that I sometimes get lost with just taking a series of photos that I later realize " I should of put my focus on the total scene".

Assad Omer (jacquet) on December 18, 2017

Thank you for this informative and inspiring article. I am going to read it again!

John D. Roach (jdroach) on December 16, 2017

Fellow Ribbon awarded. John exhibits true Nikonian spirit by frequently posting images and requesting comments and critique, which he graciously accepts. He is an inspiration to all of us through constant improvement in his own work, keen observations and excellent commentary on images posted by others. Donor Ribbon. Awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Donor Ribbon awarded for his most generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017

Fine article, Connie, and very good for all of us to be reminded about the elements of fine compositions.

Bonnie Christensen (BChrisRad) on December 16, 2017

Donor ribbon awarded for her most generous contribution to the 2017 campaign.

Connie, thank you for your very nice article. I feel like this is what I am trying to work on, but still have a long way to go.

Connie Cassinetto (Via the Lens) on December 16, 2017

Ribbon awarded for her valuable contributions to the Articles Section.

Robert, you just have to keep trying if that is your goal. You will get better and better and on occasion you might even get an "aha" moment and break through to a new level of understanding. I just keep reading, listening, looking, learning and taking photos. I, too, keep on trying to find that artist within.

Robert Irwin (robtirwin) on December 15, 2017

Your article gives me hope that someday Iwill find the artist hidden within me.

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