What makes a photograph interesting? How do you capture the viewer’s eye and entice it to linger? How do you make an impression that will cause your audience to keep coming back to your pictures?
If you are looking for a silver bullet, I am pretty sure you are smart enough to recognize that no such thing exists. But if you are looking to get a better understanding of what makes a powerful composition and to improve your skills in the process, you can hardly do better than pick up Ian Plant’s “Visual Flow: Mastering the Art of Composition”.
This is an in-depth work that breaks down theoretical principles of composition and illustrates their practical application on a wide range of examples. Every concept is accompanied by a supporting photograph (created either by Mr. Plant himself or by his collaborator in this work, George Stocking), many of which are “diagrammed” for clarity. The key principles are also illustrated by famous works of painting. In fact, I found Mr. Plant’s insight of studying famous paintings as a way of improving one’s compositional awareness rather eye-opening.
The goal is to turn boring and mediocre into interesting and superior. If you ever thought that a few widely-accepted rules of composition is all you need to accomplish that, “Visual Flow” will show you that there is a lot more of creative thought and attention to all elements of the scene than just putting your main subject on the intersection of lines according to the “rule of thirds”.
The first chapter specifically talks about not being a slave to the rules but instead using the tools that the rules imply; it also lays foundation for thinking about every scene in terms of abstract shapes and lines; it discusses positioning as the key ingredient of powerful storytelling. And in the following chapters you progress from simpler concepts, such as shapes, lines, visual mass, depth, perspective, to more advanced ones, such as division of space and dynamic balance, and simplification of seemingly chaotic compositions. The last chapter adds discussion on mood, and using color temperature as yet another compositional tool.
Overall, comprehensive, well-written, and highly recommended! One of the best photography education books I have ever read.
I am certainly now miles more comfortable with compositional theory than before. I am also able to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of my own photographs beyond the vague sense of impressions they make. Finally, I have identified several points and techniques that I need to practice, now that I am better in theoretical understanding.
And then, there is one takeaway from “Visual Flow” that is not exactly straightforward.
There is a large variety of principles and techniques that can make your composition stronger – even more so if you combine them together. None of them are absolute; there are quite a few places in the book where Mr. Plant posits that no rule is unbreakable. On a converging tangent, some of his photographic examples do not speak to me even after the author explains how they supposedly represent superior compositional approach.
Put it all together – and I realize that, in a sense, any random photograph can be argued to be “strong” because it either follows one or more of the defined concepts or purposefully breaks them. Even if the photograph is, on balance, not that great. And if you don’t like a particular picture, you can always find theoretical basis for an argument that “it could have been stronger if only you re-positioned just so…” Even when the photograph is liked by many people.
Mr. Plant quite plainly says it himself in the afterword. There is no silver bullet. All you can do is work on creating photographs that you believe express you creativity and your intent in the best way possible. Your viewer may still think otherwise. But if you possess a good understanding of how good compositions are achieved – with the help of a book such as “Visual Flow” – your chances of making a lasting impression on your audience increase manifold.
The book is available from Ian Plant’s Online Store.