The Mystery of Composition

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Japanese Magnolia blossoms, just opening. This is the first image I saw. Canon 50mm macro, 1/125th sec @f4, ISO 400. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

I’ve been struggling for the last couple of weeks to find a way to photograph the Japanese Magnolia trees(Magnolia soulangiana) on our property—they’ve been blossoming since late February and have been particularly beautiful this year. But approaching them on more than one occasion to ‘look’ for a photograph, I’ve come up empty. Nothing I could figure out seemed to capture the delicate beauty and fragility of their blossoms. It’s not that the beauty wasn’t there, I’ve just found the composition of compelling images was beyond me. Or so it’s felt.

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Japanese Magnolia, new buds. The twinkle light bokeh reminds me of multiple suns. 1/100th @f4, ISO 400. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Until yesterday! Arriving home during the rare light of early evening, the tree in our patio garden was positively glowing! My wife had been working in the garden during the afternoon and had plugged back in the tiny white Christmas lights that were still strung throughout its branches.  The result was mesmerizing! As the light of day faded, the warm glow of the tiny twinkle lights came on, mixing and balancing with the daylight and setting off the incredible purple and lavender colors in the blossoms to great effect.

Through my camera lens, the compositions were suddenly everywhere in front of me, the lights creating the most beautiful diffused glow and out-of-focus bokeh for me to explore.

I spent a happy, contented half hour working with the magic in front of me, shooting photo after photo.

Interesting, isn’t it? The tree had not changed. It was standing right where it’s been standing these past several weeks, me staring at it, seeing nothing. Then suddenly it all comes alive and photographs are everywhere. The key was in the light.

Japanese Magnolia, aging blossom, fully open. 1/100th @f4, ISO400. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Japanese Magnolia, aging blossom, fully open. 1/100th @f4, ISO400. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

I find composition, with a capital ‘C,’ to be the most mysterious element in photography. How do we go about composing great images? What do we look for? What approach works best? Should we even think about composition as something separate from light?

I find composition, with a capital ‘C,’ to be the most mysterious element in photography.

I know all about diagonals, the Rule of Thirds, negative space, tension within the frame, repeating shapes, blah, blah, blah. To me these are all armchair-quarterback, academic elements that get talked about when looking at photographs, but they have virtually nothing to do with my actual photographic method. At least not consciously.

Japanese Magnolia, single bud, just emerging. 1/200th @f2.5, ISO 400. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Japanese Magnolia, single bud, just emerging. 1/200th @f2.5, ISO 400. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Composition, for me, is the most intuitive of processes. I get caught up in something that feels very much like a dance—it’s a dance of joy, really. I’m working against time, because everything is so very, very dependent upon the light—which is the thing I have almost no control over (studio work excepted, of course).  So I’m trying to work quickly, to ‘see’ the photographs, shoot them, decide if I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve, then look some more….

Here's my little Japanese Magnolia tree, lit up for the evening, right at dusk, one of my favorite times to shoot. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Here's my little Japanese Magnolia tree, lit up for the evening, right at dusk, one of my favorite times to shoot. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

I think it’s the knowledge that I’m working with something fleeting, something slippery and beautiful, that makes the whole dance so incredible. And when I’m done, or more appropriately, when it’s done with me, I walk away with a sense of wonder at the magic of what we get to do, as photographers.

But composition? Not what I was thinking about. Hopefully, with a bit of luck, it happened and the photos are worthwhile….it really is a mystery, isn’t it?

Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Related articles on the web:

Rule of Thirds at Digital Photography School

Using Curves to Enhance Composition at Epic Edits

Mastering Photographic Composition (book review) at YourPhotoTips

Posted in: How To

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

6 Comments on "The Mystery of Composition"

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  1. I love your tree! It seems so sturdy and strong, yet, so fragile and shy (what with those pretty purple flowers among its branches).

    I agree that sticking to the so-called rules in photography should not be the sole gauge for classifying a good photo. Yes, those rules are there to provide a sort of foundation and guide — especially for photography newbies. But I think that once you develop your own style/identity, you could set yourself free and let your judgment, abilities and ideas guide you.

    I especially liked the third photo. 🙂

  2. Hey Sabrina. Thanks! That was a really fun shoot.

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