White rock photo

I took this photo in White Rock. The sun was glaring and I could hardly see the screen display to know what I was getting. When finally I got it home, it was one that I felt really quite thrilled with for a number of reasons. A happy accident. I didn’t even have to crop it.

First of all, I love subtlety and for that reason, I rather like the reduced palette of greys with only small amounts of subdued blues to heighten it. The balance between light and dark is sufficient to make the picture work. And then, despite many of the compositional rules that I generally go by, this one defies them or plays with them in an elliptical way (in the sense of omitting parts while still providing the meaning – I hope that Elliptical is the adverbial form of elide – to abridge, to omit ).

If you use the rule of thirds, the vertical left hand third and the vertical right hand third have activity going on in them but the center one has none. Already that trangresses the geometric compositional rule of putting something in the critical centre square.

Horizontally, the top two bands form a third; the middle, the major sandbar, forms the second and is enhanced by the small sandbar the two right hand figures are standing on. The bottom third is composed of the pool of water broken up by reflections echoing the figures.

If you follow the compositional rule of reading the picture like you would read a book, there is a strong entry point on the left hand side that is just, and only very minutely so, interrupted by the camera man’s head so that the eye can connect to the downward force to take its journey into the picture and thence again to the right. All the other horizontal lines are interrupted with vertical images, helping the viewer stay in the picture. Even if the directional force is strongly moving to the right, it’s always comfortable to shift down into the image and work your eye around the various figures.

Each of the figures acts as a vertical force that stops the eye from going out of the picture, and yet, because the reflection elides the figure shape, there is no continuous line, just one that is constructed by the eye of the viewer; and yet it reads as a continuous vertical “stopper” in the picture. That is, the viewer has to do some work to connect things together and this is a good thing – the image becomes interactive.

The small sandbar on the right edge acts as an arrow that is a strong counterweight to all the horizontal lines driving rightwards. It volleys the eye back to the left of the image. So, although there is nothing going on in the center, the eye comfortably can undertake a tennis match in the image, going back and forth, back and forth.

There are good contrasts – light and dark; texture and smooth; and activity and stasis. That being said, this might not be as captivating a photo without the adult form on the left who is taking photographs. His posture with the camera and his flapping coat make him the most interesting figure and his activity assists in pushing your eye to the right; and yet, your eye wants to keep going back to him. In this way he is perfectly positioned as a counterweight.

II superimposed a geometric grid on the picture plane and discovered it is not a Golden Rectangle. To my surprise, I realized that digital cameras have a new standard – it’s the 8.5 x 11 inch format that is standard to computer office paper. It’s not the 4 x 6 inches of standard non-digital photography. If it were, the closest would be 8 x12. It’s not far off, but it makes a difference. Of course, with the programs we have now for modifying digital photos, it would be very easy to stretch out or squish the picture to fit a Golden Rectangle proportion and hardly anyone would ever notice the difference

Using the geometric principle of composition, I drew a square on the left using the smaller side as the length of the square and then did the same on the other; then proceeded to make some critical center lines, major diagonals and then connected intersecting points. I came with this:


It’s a photo not a drawing. You get what you get, although when you zoom, when you frame things up before taking the photo, you have some control over composition of your image. So was it by hazard that I got a good approximation of a geometric composition? I think not. I think that the amount of time I’ve spent analyzing this kind of composition helps me to select and frame up images that are already approximately fitting the Geometric composition grid.

There is some good correspondence with the grid to the image – water meeting sand lines in the horizontal direction. a good diagonal on the right side; the figures hovering around a principal vertical on the left side and the figures on the right contained in a major right hand rectangle. The reflections are pretty close to being in the lower third. If I were to plan a painting using the geometric method of composition, it would take very little to adapt this picture to the grid to reinforce its geometric harmony.

Now look at this image again from the Spatial Relationship theory of composition:

The figures act as focal points. I’ve simplified the picture to show how they draw your eye around the image. I’ve traded the denim, (the mid-tone blue) for orange for illustration purposes only; and black as the dark tone. If you cover over the left hand figures you will see that your eye no longer is interested in travelling back and forth over the image. Or vice versa, cover over the right hand figures, the same thing happens. The picture becomes boring and ill-balanced. Also note here that when I modified the picture to make the principal focal points stand out, I lost the horizontal lines of the sea meeting the sand. This modified version of the photo now lacks any horizontal driving force except those lines from the grid itself!

Mostly only artists and photographers are interested in the underpinnings of the picture. They are like the compulsory figures of the figure skater. When they are doing their long skate, you’d never know they spent hours on the compulsories, practicing, practicing, practicing. If I were doing a painting from this picture, I would be searching out the harmonies and balances all the time, at the same time as I was painting the figures with some degree of representational form. Both need to be there – the form and the composition. I would move figures over a bit to make the composition work even better. I might even cut out a shape of one of the figures in paper of approximately the right colour or tone, then move it around the picture and consider where it would best be placed in order to give harmony to the whole.

Good artists understand these rules and regs. They are conscious of what’s going on in their drawings and how they are keeping the eye of the viewer engaged, seemingly effortlessly.

My last comment on this picture has nothing to do with composition. It has to do with subject.

I like this picture because it caught people doing what they like to do, not posed, not stiff. They are enjoying themselves. It’s idyllic.

I hope you’ve enjoyed it too.

If some of this seems esoteric to you and it’s the first time you’ve visited the site, then go back through some of my recent posts. I’ve been writing about composition.

Happy painting!



2 Responses to “White rock photo”

  1. forestrat Says:

    If you hadn’t pointed out that the man in the back was taking a photo I wouldn’t have known. I knew he was doing something interesting, but I could not figure it out.

    Now I see that he is holding the camera away from his face (instead of using a viewfinder) like many people with digitals do these days. It reminds me of my grandmother’s old box camera that she would hold down at her waist to take a pic. My son does this even though I originally taught him to use the viewfinder.

    Your comment about reading a picture like you would read a book reminded me that asian people sometimes have trouble with western art and its left to right design since traditionally they write vertically from right to left. I have heard that this is changing however due to globalization and computerization forcing the horizontal left to right standard.


  2. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Forest Rat,
    You are absolutely right about the Asian concepts on painting. They read from the left and go towards the right.
    When I first got a digital, I had the most difficult time in adapting from the viewfinder to the screen. There are still days where the glare makes it almost impossible to see what I am focusing on but I take the picture anyway and often times it works out.

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