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Composition in Shooting the $2million image

Martin Turner (Martin Turner)

Keywords: martin_turner, studiophotography, concept, planning, composition, lighting, shooting, postprocessing, pro, professional_photography, human_factor, working_with_people, studio

This is the fifth part of the series Studio Photography: Shooting the $2million image - Composition.

The human eye interprets images in the following order: movement, colour, shape, content. If you wish to create images that sell products, change social behaviour, win election campaigns or merely persuade people to invest their evenings in watching a particular TV show, then you need to construct the image with these in mind.

Photographic images, of course, are static. You may have played with Flixels or other semi-moving images, or Apple’s Live View, which give the impression of being drawn from the world of Harry Potter, but, in most cases, images are static.

Or are they? The art of composition is very simply the art of creating movement in an entirely static object.

If you have studied cinematography or videography, then one of the early pieces of advice that you may have been given is that it’s about moving pictures, not about moving cameras. This has been relaxed a little over the last twenty years, but the basic principle of video and its ilk is that the camera remains stable, either fixed, or smoothly panning or tracking, while the action moves. What you may not have been told is that the way we watch a moving image is very different from the way we interpret a static picture. In viewing a moving image, our eyes follow the movement for 90% of the time, and only occasionally look at what else is happening. 

When we look at a still image, our eyes rove around the image, and they do so according to the principles we usually call the principles of composition.

Over the last thirty years I’ve been collecting principles which seem to be universal. Most books will offer you the rule of thirds and not much more. There’s no space here to explain all of them, but these are the principles on which I’ve been constructing large-scale advertising campaigns and major product rebrands. If you walk around an art gallery, you’ll see them in many great (and lesser) works of art.

Let’s take a problem in composition which has stymied many photographers: the CD cover. CD covers are square, which is the worst possible compositional form, as it creates no tension to direct the eye. This makes it ubiquitous for many kinds of images, but also gives you no help.


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John Hernlund (Tokyo_John) on July 19, 2018

Wow Martin, thanks a ton for taking the time to write this down for our benefit! Your chart shows very nicely how lighting and composition are inextricably linked together, which is important since it is easy to fall into the trap of emphasizing one at the expense of the other. Of course in a studio one has options to control both, which is why studios are often necessary to achieve the best results. And as you point out, what an individual might think is a good photo might not be appreciated by more general sets of eyes, and if the latter is a result one is trying to achieve then it is important to study basic principles of visual psychology.

Richard Luse (DaddySS) on July 13, 2018

Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for  his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Ribbon awarded for his generous contribution to the 2019 Fundraising campaign

Very interesting and informative, and very well explained. The chart is great and it was interesting to actually feel the tension as I was reading the sections of the chart describing which images cause tension. Thanks for sharing your insights.

Kent Lewis (nkcllewis) on July 9, 2018

Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017

Can't say enough how important composition is to any artwork. I've never seen 25 rules of composition all at once. Just having those 25 reminders, wow, it's made my day. Wonderfully well written, to the point article on the essence of a challenging shoot. Thank you for sharing this. Kent in VA

Gavin Duffy (Gaduf) on July 9, 2018

This is a very interesting post.I have learned more about composition in the simple table included here than in any other photography guide read previously. Congratulations. Gavin

Karen Gottschall (scenicshutterbug) on July 8, 2018

Great article. Clearly outlines factors to be considered to make any shot more powerful. Thank you, Martin.

David Summers (dm1dave) on July 7, 2018

Awarded for high level knowledge and skills in various areas, most notably in Wildlife and Landscape Writer Ribbon awarded for his excellent article contributions to the Nikonians community Donor Ribbon awarded for his very generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded as a member who has gone beyond technical knowledge to show mastery of the art a

Great article, thanks for sharing your insight!