Essential Composition: Seeing Abstractly

One of the most valuable pieces of advice I can offer a beginning photographer to help see and create more compelling compositions is learning to let go of the literal elements of a scene and embracing the underlying abstract qualities instead. That doesn’t mean you should start making purely abstract images, although that’s not necessarily a bad idea for its own sake, but rather try to see through the literal elements to visualize the scene abstractly. For example, instead of seeing a scene’s obvious aesthetic beauty – the mountains, trees, rocks, clouds and river, you should train yourself to look deeper for interconnecting shapes, space, balance, lines, patterns and how they relate to each other and the image frame.

When working with students in the field, I might ask them to squint their eyes just a little so the literal elements mostly disappear and all that remains is the skeletal structure of the scene – shapes, lines, patterns, etc. This is very good practice if you’ve never tried it before and a good way to learn the art of visualization. The literal elements flesh the image out later when the image is captured.

In the images above, you can easily see how the elephant family creates a virtual triangle. There is aesthetic value in arranging important visual elements into power shapes – triangles, diamonds, pyramids, and circles – rather than random grouping of animals or primary subjects. Seeing abstractly allows you to identify these underlying shapes that help give your image balance and order.

Pretty scenes are a dime a dozen but well designed pretty scenes are much less common. Developing the ability of seeing abstractly will lead to stronger compositions and more compelling photography.

If you find you have some difficultly in seeing abstractly when doing your photography, try the advice I gave above about squinting so that the scene’s literal details are blurred out. If that doesn’t work, you can practice by studying the work of other photography masters and artists while identifying the underlying abstract nature of the images.