Take better photos by breaking the world down into elements
Today I want to give you a super-simple idea that, if you can grasp it, and then put it into practise, I guarantee will really help your photography.
What we are basically doing as photographers is looking at the world, identifying interesting subjects and organising them accordingly. The way I like to approach this is to break the world down into elements.
If you think about the traditional rules of composition – what they all have in common is that they are encouraging you to break the world down into elements – to see the world as a collection of shapes, lines, forms etc. When you do this, when you see the world not as a 3D surround sound where everything is joined together, then it’s much easier to organise your composition (and also to follow those rules of composition if you’d like, too).
It’s almost like I am trying to remove the elements from their location, take them out of the busy scene and make them an interesting shape, completely separate from their surroundings.
The interesting elements for me in this photo are the men’s mouths and expressions. I did several shots, all around the group, but thought this worked best as it was the clearest angle to see the men’s mouths and facial expressions.
It’s like looking at the world, trying to forget what you know about it – that over there is a building, that over there is a road – and instead looking at everything as a shape, an element, a collection of lines. Think of how a small child sees the world, where details become fascinating, interesting for the form and shapes.
This takes practise of course, but once you get the initial concept you can develop it. Even if you know this already, it’s always good to have a little refresh 🙂
Now – why do we want to do this?
Partly because it makes ‘seeing’ those interesting shots easier. If you can organise the elements in a scene in an interesting way you’ll get an interesting photo. Also, though, because….
The eye loves order and structure. The eye is very attracted to images and scenes where there is structure. Of course too much structure is boring! The role of us photographers then is to create just enough order and structure to a scene – not too little, not too much – and to always include something else: that could be feeling, atmosphere, colour etc. I have covered that in lots of other articles, but for this piece I am just focusing on the structure of your photos.
Now, let’s start with something very simple – lines! Lines are everywhere and they are a very fun element to play with. Here is a shot that takes a very big, endless scene – the sky and the sea – and creates some order to it because, after all ,most straight shots of the sea are dull, dull, dull. This structure, I think, helps to translate some of the epic feelings you get when you are looking at the sea.
There is an aesthetic appeal to having strong lines in a sense that when you look at the photo, doesn’t necessarily scream strong lines. You as the photographer have to create that. I did it by having the rocks run along the bottom, and then layering up from there.
Now, there is one line in the photo above that made this image interesting – can you see what it was? Without it wouldn’t have been as compelling.
It’s the line of fluffy white clouds. Without them, it would have just been rocks, sea and sky. I needed that line of clouds to make it something a little more unusual, a little more arty. It was when I noticed that line of clouds that I thought, ooh, that will be an interesting shot.
The cars here in Cuba are amazing! Old and dirty but very cool and interesting. I love the big, rounded shapes of their design and when I saw the kid through the window I thought perfect. It was the shapes in the car that make this striking, giving him an interesting frame, and drawing your eye, uninterrupted, straight to him.
Below again, I have a person in a frame, surrounded by lots of strong lines. I think the emotion and expression on the man’s face is a really nice contrast to the rigidity of the lines on the bus. Can you see how when I am shooting people I am also thinking about the elements that are surrounding them? The background is as much of the subject as the person, whether you include a lot of background or not very much. You have to be thinking about background, always.
Taking interesting shots around big open spaces like the harbor in Havana is difficult. When you don’t have many elements around to organise, just lots of space and disparate elements bobbing around here and there.
I looked around for interesting elements and came up with the silhouette of this man.
I liked the dreamy quality of the background, I think that worked really well with the contrast of the strong line on the bottom of the shot, and the outline of the man. What for me was the most significant element of the shot was the expression in the man’s body.
Here is another photograph I took around the harbor:
Can you see how I really went for the line down the right side as the strong element, to create some structure? Then we have the elements of the lamp posts also on the right. This creates enough structure and balance for those boats that are spread out, drifting and floating on the beautiful textured water.
The photo below is perhaps a bit obvious. The religious figure against the shining sun – you can almost hear the angels, lol! I thought, though, it was worth taking, particularly with those clouds
(I tried to find a word that means lover of clouds, but couldn’t. If there is such as word then I am one!)
I think you can see the elements very clearly in the photo above and how I placed them (by positioning myself) to make them work together.
Here are a couple of photos that I don’t think worked so well, but I think you can see what I was aiming for.
In this photo above I loved the shape of the church – look at its tower, so strong and proud, and the shape of the building. Then there are these tall buildings on the right, a different colour than the church which was nice. I also liked the strong line of the shadow, dramatically cutting across the church.
Then we have the space of the road and the square, but it’s very busy isn’t it? The elements on the road and in the square are dark and not defined, perhaps that is what detracts from the shot? I don’t think this shot quite worked, but was on its way. Why do you think that could be? What could I have done better?
Here is another shot that had a lot of potential but didn’t work out. But I thought it showed my thinking really well and that’s why I’ve included it. Can you see that I was intrigued by the shape and colour of the building against that beautiful blue sky? The fact too that the sky had clouds in it was also great. I am not often a fan of cloudless skies – they can be too flat and boring. Not all the time, but often.
Now that I had those elements, I thought the shape of the tree was super-interesting and believed that would be the element that would bring it all together, would make it visually interesting and not just a shot of a pretty building. But, alas, this wasn’t the one. Can you see, though, how I tried to place all of the elements together, to organise them in a way that could be interesting? And do you have a sense of how I could have improved this?
Now to my final photo – this is a very simple shot and I liked this one. Engaging photos of buildings are hard – how many millions of completely boring shots of monuments and buildings have you seen? Buildings will come out flat if you don’t create depth and striking visual elements.
By positioning myself off to the right I was able to bring out some of the attractive lines and shapes within the building, giving it depth and making it look less flat. The lovely light and shadows really help; the building would have been very flat in a hard midday sun. Of course the sky again, with those beautiful, coloured clouds also add depth, as well as a little drama.
So that’s it from me today. I am off exploring again and looking for more great shots of this amazing island. I have already hundreds but the longer I am here, the more I get into the feeling of the place, and the better I think my shots are.
Have an awesome day – and of course as always I’d love to know what you think. Please let me know below.
I hope you enjoyed these ideas. Let me know, comment below.
Anthony and Diana
PS: all the photos in the article are from my recent trip to Cuba. Amazing place to photograph.