Origin of The Ingredients

Years ago, I learned of several photographers on the ‘speaker-circuit’ who were denying the importance of composition. There was a rebellion against the traditional rules. “Composition is bunk” was one line I vividly remember*. This confused many beginners, especially those who were entering images into competitions since most judges continued to refer to compositional rules.

I decided to try make some sense of this situation. Who were those rebels who scoffed at composition yet were cheered on and rewarded with thunderous applause? It turns out that these were primarily niche photographers who were mostly shooting images which did not rely on composition but were using other appealing qualities. The most obvious ones were the conflict photographers who were going for maximum emotional shock effect. Then there were wildlife photographers who used a dramatic nature story or high-impact animals to give their images strong interest. Fashion photographers tried to shock us by portraying models on a strong angle.

The landscape photographers however continued to rely on composition. Freeman Patterson was a defender of good composition.

However, besides composition, there were clearly several other image qualities that could be used for strong images to lean on. And this is how the concept of The Ingredients (for great images) was born. It explains how sometimes we can do without composition, provided we have other image-ingredients to fall back on.

So, the job was to identify these other qualities and re-establish some order in the photographic universe.

I started by listing Good Composition as #1 on the list of Ingredients. Under composition there are quite a few sub-sections to be distinguished.

Ansel Adams is still revered as one of the most influential photographers. One of his famous quotes is: “There are no rules for great photographs, only great photographs.” This is a line which seems to erode the importance if not the reputation of composition yet Ansel Adams had discovered he could garner great accolades for his art if he severely altered and exaggerated light and contrast. Ansel worked on his images for hours in his darkroom and created works of art which were very much removed from reality. They were, for his time, highly unusual.

The Unusual became #2 on my list of Ingredients.

Among my own images I discovered several images which stood out due to their interesting lighting. Some images with backlighting, accent lighting and interesting texture seemed to contain no compositional elements at all.

I placed Interesting Lighting as #3 on the list of ingredients.

Due to their design, some images had high visual impact due to colour or subject matter. Visual Impact became #4 on the list of ingredients. Some refer to this ingredient as the ‘wow factor.’

Photojournalists and conflict photographers have discovered that images of bodies washed up on a beach or the dead bodies of a father and baby have so much power that they can change the world. In 1968 Bill Anders took the ‘Earth Rise’ image from lunar orbit. It too had a major impact on the psyche of mankind in general and many feel this image inspired the environmental movement. These examples demonstrate how Emotional Impact, and here I mean primarily very powerful emotional impact, can be an Ingredient which can render any form of composition unnecessary. That does not mean that other images have no emotional impact. One can make a valid argument that all good photographs have emotional impact. The point is that when it comes to shocking emotional impact, composition can be dispensed with altogether.

Strong Emotional Impact is #5 on the list of Ingredients.

There are plenty of nature images that tell a strong nature story. Animals catching prey, feeding their young, mating dances etc. all these images contain strong nature stories. Here too composition often takes a back seat or is completely absent. A Nature Story is #6 on the list of ingredients.

#7 is Colour Harmony . In this context, it refers to the kind where the colours of the subject are repeated in the background. The colour harmony created by super-soft pale de-saturated colours is part of this.

Complementary colours are a different form of colour harmony. Here the colours that are located opposite to one another on the colour wheel** are simply a pleasing match. It is #8 on the list.

To my mind, there are three additional Ingredients, but they are less common and harder to define. These are The Mysterious, Creative Use of Negative Space, and Tension. I continue to develop these.

Here you might say: interesting, but how does this help me as a photographer?

This is how.

  • Good images can rely for their success on multiple image-ingredients.
  • Composition may be the best-known ingredient, but it is not the only game in town.
  • A great image with poor composition must have one or more other powerful ingredient(s).
  • Many good images use multiple ingredients. The more ingredients an image contains, the stronger it tends to be.

Photographers benefit from understanding the ingredients while making images in the field and in the (digital) darkroom. Conscious awareness of the Ingredients allows ‘Ingredient-targeted editing.’

I am fully aware of the intangible nature of this subject and that we all have our personal biases and opinions. Your constructive comments and/or contributions are therefore most appreciated.

* A few years ago Juris Kornets presented at the Mississauga Camera Club. He received loud applause for thrashing the importance of composition proving that this issue has not been settled and continues to confuse us.

** For more information on ‘Colour Theory’, I suggest you Google “the colour wheel”.)

©Peter Van Rhijn, September 2020.