I used to have this issue with tilted horizon lines. I’d see a photo – say, a beach photo, a nice sunset or something – and I’d notice the horizon was slightly bent. It would drive. me. nuts. But I never really understood why it annoyed me so much. That’s what I want to talk about in this video. Well, not bent horizons, but composition. Specifically, the power composition can have over us, why it has this power, and how a deep knowledge of composition theory will give you a huge advantage over other photographers.

Composition in photography is oddly undervalued. It might not feel like it when you skim through the thousands of Rule of Thirds videos on YouTube, but today’s popular conception of composition is pretty threadbare.

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This situation partly due to the Modern Art movement. A movement that tossed out the idea of learning composition theory, in favor of an artist’s innate intuition. Modernists were about stream-of-consciousness over planning, emotion over design. And because Modern Art was the dominant art philosophy when photography came into being, photography just never really adopted classical composition theory.

Instead, in an effort to explain the undeniable fact that some compositions just ‘feel’ right while others don’t, that some compositions are affecting but others aren’t. Well, instead we’ve been left with the ‘rule of thirds’, the ‘rule of odds’, and a bunch of others. But these rules aren’t new, they’re abstractions, and poor abstractions at that.

So, photographers get handed these simplified composition rules, they get taught that using them is a choice and that they should follow their intuition. The problem is, this isn’t good advice because, when used well, composition can affect people. It can make them feel. So, composing in an arbitrary manner is a wasted opportunity. It’s a wasted opportunity to connect with your audience, to communicate with them.

Much of the power of composition stems from its ability to manipulate our perception. Because we don’t actually see a scene, a person, a painting, or a photo, we perceive it. Seeing and perceiving are far from the same thing. We use internal heuristics to make a continuous stream of educated guesses on what’s within our visual field. And we’re pretty good at it. It’s a process that’s been shaped over millions of years of evolution, further molded by society, and of course, our own experiences. That perception IS our world view. It’s how we ground ourselves.

And in that worldview…. a horizon line is normally straight.

A bent horizon means something out of the ordinary is happening: you’re falling, jumping, dancing, whatever. In cinema, it’s called a Dutch angle, and it’s used to indicate that something abnormal is happening. It’s meant to make the viewer feel unsettled, ill at ease, on edge. Bent horizon lines are also used a lot in sports photography where they help imply movement and action.

A lot can happen when you tilt a horizon line. That’s why I’d get angry when I saw those photos. Because the composition would mess with my worldview, with my perception of the world. Composition really can be a powerful tool.

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Harnessing this power comes from understanding that photography, like any art form, is a way to visually communicate. Composition is the vocabulary of this visual language, and the way you structure the elements in that composition is the message. It’s what you are saying to your audience. It’s explaining why the photo you created needed to exist. That’s why we shouldn’t think of composition as an arbitrary choice. It has to help support the message you are telling your audience. It has to be deliberate.

A photographer fluent in visual language will deliberately shape their composition so they capture the emotion or the mood of that moment. Not just the reality of it. They will attempt to compose their frame to make sure that the visual elements cohesively communicate that message. A photographer who isn’t fluent in visual language may not even notice a bent horizon. Why would they, they don’t understand how that element might be perceived.

In fact, this idea that every photo is a chance to communicate is one of the key differences – I think – between an amateur and aN experienced photographer. The amateur takes a photo and then tries to make it pretty. Maybe they crop it to the Rule of Thirds, maybe they throw a LUT over it. But they are doing these things arbitrarily. An experienced photographer decides what they want their photo to say at the time they take it. And then they deliberately create a composition to support that message.

*Content shared with permission from JP Stones

About JP Stones

JP Stones is a British born, Mexico based photographer. He runs workshops that showcase traditional and modern culture. JP’s work has been published in a bunch of photography publications, including 2 cover features for Good Light Magazine.