Bullseye Composition

‘Walking to Lindisfarne’, Causeway, Holy Island, Northumberland
Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, Canon 17-40 f/4 L USM @ 31mm, 1/400 sec @ f/8, ISO 400
LEE 1-Stop ND Grad filter.
Manfrotto 055CXPRO3 tripod, Manfrotto 405 Pro Geared Head.
Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop.

“To consult rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk.” Edward Weston

Bullseye Composition

Edward Weston said that “to consult rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk”. He felt that adhering too closely to such rules inhibited “freshness of vision” and resulted in “tedious repetition of pictorial clichés”. However, even a cursory study of modern landscape photography will quickly reveal that such compositional rules are still frequently utilized, to great effect. Perhaps the most powerful of all such rules is the ‘rule-of-thirds’, ensuring that prominent elements are placed on a divisional third or intersection of thirds within the frame. A testament to its importance is that camera manufacturers are starting to provide a thirds-grid overlay within the LCD displays of modern cameras. Another compositional rule is to avoid central placement of the horizon.

Of course, the truth is that there are no real ‘rules’, only guidelines. Such guidelines have evolved by studying art retrospectively over the centuries and determining common patterns that have previously worked well and produced pleasant results.

Holy Island is steeped in history, it is thought to be the origin of the earliest surviving Old English copies of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. More recently it has become a centre for revival of Celtic Christianity. A tidal causeway joins the island with the mainland, and becomes crossable at low tide. There is quicksand here, so there was a degree of hesitancy in creating this image. I positioned myself on the sands and as the water lapped around my ankles, I waited for an appropriate ‘pilgrim’ to cross the causeway.

This image is about peace and spiritual solitude. I have strayed from the traditional ‘rules’ to introduce some subtle tension, placing the horizon exactly half way up the image and the woman at dead-centre. My intention from the start was to create an image with a square aspect ratio. The square is unique among the possible choices for cropping our images because of the equal length of all it’s sides. This equilateral nature of the square format has a profound effect on the elements placed within its frame, emphasising their placement and also increasing their compositional weight. Square formats often favour symmetrical compositions and centrally placed main subjects can work very well. Such rebellious placement is given authority and the consequent tension acquires greater gravitas.

It can be interesting to follow Edward Weston’s advice and shun traditional guidelines with the intentional aim of avoiding the cliché.

This article first appeared in Outdoor Photography Magazine. Reproduced with kind permission.