Having completed the image capture and preparation for the exercise of positioning an object in different places in the frame, but before logging the results, I want to spend some time researching the basic principles of composition.
The Mind’s Eye, Henri Cartier-Bresson (1999), includes an essay on composition in which he makes some fundamental points of principle, the first being that composition must be one of our constant preoccupations and that it can only stem from intuition. He goes on to say that application of the golden rule is made by the photographer’s eye and not by geometric tools. This is the key, we survey a scene, point, compose and shoot using our instincts, yes, we do now have the option of dividing the view finder into the rule of thirds, a day that Cartier-Bresson hoped he would never see, but it is still our eye and our instinct that sees the shot.
I am only now discovering Cartier-Bresson’s work beyond the most recognisable and iconic images. I am intrigued that image after image follows a pattern of composition where the golden rule or golden section has been applied and, no doubt, applied instinctively. I understand that he did not crop and thereby re-compose his photographs in the dark room so what we see is what he saw in his viewfinder. Sir Ernst Gombrich (1978), the eminent art historian, wrote in his introduction to the Victoria and Albert Museum archive of Cartier-Bresson’s work that nearly all his photographs exhibit the visual balance and the secret geometry of a formal composition. We know he trained as an artist and Gombrich (1978) tells us that, in his older age, he painted and sketched more than he used a camera.
It comes as something of a relief that Michael Freeman (2007) reassures us that the photographer does not need to be concerned with the exact proportions calculated by the ancient Greeks and the painters of the renaissance, the golden rule. The important point is that each of the ways, generally devised by painters, to divide the frame recognises that we respond positively to certain proportions in a picture, a harmonious division. The photographer seeks a balance in composition, a balance between the space occupied by the subject or subjects and the space not occupied by the same.
The easily understood basis of the golden rule is that it is what nature appeared to have intended we use, it is apparently repeated time and again in natural design but, perhaps, the most telling fact is that the human face is divided into sections that follow the rule. Regardless of the mathematics it seems obvious that the human brain will be geared to recognising the human face and that we feel comfortable looking at something that mimics those proportions.
Fig. 1 is a picture I took in 2006 and shows my original crop of a photo of a neighbour in the middle of his field which had become an ocean of poppies. As a reference point I have re-cropped the image in Fig. 2 to place Pepe on the intersection of golden sections.
The rule of thirds is sometimes described as a simplified version of the golden section. It was apparently named much more recently, most sources I found cite John Thomas Smith (1797) in his book Remarks on Rural Scenery quoting a previous work by Sir Joshua Reynolds. It appears that Smith (1797) was making an observation that great painters tended to divide their canvas into thirds both horizontally and vertically. The sky often occupied a third and the land two thirds, he continues to say that he found that the ratio of two thirds to one third more pleasing that the precise formal half or any other proportion. For the none mathematician this is instantly more understandable and I am drawn to the idea that it was an observation on existing work rather than the application of a formula.
In Fig. 3 I have moved Pepe to the vertical intersections created by the rule of thirds.
My summary of this short piece of research is that the golden rule and the rule of thirds have more similarities than differences. Both say that we respond positively to visual balance and that we can divide a composition into proportions that are harmonious and satisfying. However, neither can be a rigid rule of composition, and neither will direct us to a single perfect point to position the subject. In a scene where there is a single subject within an even background there are many potential points of position that follow the rules.
To bring this back to the exercise in hand Michael Freeman (2007) says that when we are photographing a single and “obvious subject” and where we have made the decision to allow free space around the subject, we have to decide where to place that object within the frame. Assuming that the subject is going to take up a reasonably small part of the frame we are left with many choices. The golden section and the rule of thirds are useful tools to help make these choices but we are reminded by Cartier-Bresson (1999) that the camera is an instrument of intuition and spontaneity. The message must be to hone our instincts to find the harmonious balance so we point, compose and shoot without tedious calculation and delay.
This little research project has given me a reason to revisit my original photo of Pepe and his poppy field and I have concluded that the most pleasing crop is the one in Fig. 4. Although as Freeman (2007) points out, free placement is never guaranteed, I wish I had included more poppies to the left as I would like to see a crop with Pepe even further to the right with the red poppies stretching further out behind him in two directions. However, I am pleased I was reminded of this image and came back to it and maybe even improved the composition.
A a small piece of non photographic information. The amazing display of poppies proved to be a once off event. Pepe had ploughed this field in preparation for planting young oak trees whose root balls had been impregnated with truffle spores. He must have ploughed at the perfect moment for poppy seeds as early next summer this wonderful display appeared. Soon after the photograph was taken he turned the soil again and planted his young oak trees. I am not sure whether the truffles have arrived yet, they say it takes seven to ten years, so maybe soon.