One of the classic debates that emerges around any form of art, be that painting, photography, writing etc is whether it is more important to have a great style or great content. For the writer, the style takes the form of the writing prose, the vocabulary or the way they show and don’t tell their story, while the content could be the story or the topic of the writing for a non-fiction example. For the photographer it takes the form of composition and subject. So who wins in the fight of Composition vs content?
Obviously, the dream is to have a great composition and subject. This is worth pursuing, it is often the only way to get incredible photos. When both the subject matter and composition rock, you’re on to a winner. However, we can’t necessarily control these factors always so it’s worth considering the compromise.
If I had to pick from composition vs content
Obviously if you have a great subject but terrible composition, it will suck in the same way an interesting topic written so badly that you can’t read it. Alternatively, imagine a beautifully composed image of something boring. Probably won’t move you either.
However, assuming a 60/40 split in quality (rather than the extremes), I’d choose subject matter. If you’ve got good subject matter then a decent photo will still carry it across. But an okay subject that’s pretty well composed will still be pretty bad. Luckily there are some things we can do to improve subject matter and composition to increase the chance of the dream.
However, there are some tricks we can do to improve the likelihood of getting the dream of brilliant composition AND subject matter. All it takes is some hard work and practice.
Practicing composition so your ready
If you find that your composition is letting you down more than your subject and content, then you probably need to be practicing your composition so you are ready when a moment comes. That means focusing on individual aspects of a photography, perhaps trying to copy a certain photographers style and getting inspired by the composition of other photographers.
Maybe it’s worth shooting with a certain requirement (you have to get low, get close, fill the left hand side, fill the right etc) so that you get used to shooting in that way and can imagine how those images will look.
Work the scene
Another key skill to improve your composition is to “work the scene”, that is making sure you don’t take the shot that you notice straight away or in the way you first think, but instead make sure that you approach the image from different angles or viewpoints so that you have different options. This increases the likelihood that you’ll notice some element of composition when you come to review your pictures. This might open your eyes to how different positions affect your photos.
Seek great content
If you are nailing the composition but your content sucks, then you need to seek out great content. This could be keeping your ear to the ground over upcoming events, or hanging out with interesting groups. However, it is also common for photographers to realize that their hometowns are actually rich in interesting content even in the normal moments, so perhaps you just need to open your eyes to what is really going on around you, appreciate your culture and history more.
Content/composition after the fact
This was something I learnt from Charlie Kirk, sometimes you can only see the significance in the content after the fact. Maybe it’s something you missed in the moment (like the person in the background who happens to make the shot) or maybe its a symbol that you never realised was there. Either way, sometimes we just have to take images and then examine them for significance afterwards.
This is true of both content and composition, you might capture something and then later realize that it is better than you thought. The important thing here is that you need to properly review your photos for it to work
What advice do you have to improve your composition or content in photos?
Also published on Medium.