Conversations about the rules of composition tend to annoy me. Perhaps it’s just my disposition about rules in general, but try talking to your favorite photographer about composition rules and the technical details of their greatest photo and you may be ignored, or worse. Let’s face it—nobody ever liked a photograph because it adhered to a rule. Perhaps the best you can say about any rule of composition is that it’s good to know so you’ll know how to break it, and while I feel that good composition is important and often underlies the emotion produced by a photo, the importance is relative to the scene being composed and is often the product of an experienced eye. Many photographers have a sense of composition that did not come from learning rules, but from a natural talent “to see,” or simply from years of experience. It can be interesting and beneficial to go back and look at your photographs to note how and if they did adhere to the various rules often discussed, but my feeling is that if you are thinking about rules when you compose a photo, you will miss your moment of inspiration or miss the action entirely.
My task in this piece is to talk about the edges of a composition and how they can be incorporated into making a stronger image. It seems that this is a thornier issue than other aspects of composition, like leading lines, frames within a frame, and the Rule of Thirds, but I happen to like to play with the edges of a frame. Perhaps it’s an easy idea to play with because there are no hard and fast rules that dictate how to use the edges—if anything, the edges are often ignored, even denigrated as a compositional element. Reading a recent article on composition, I came across this quote: “Surveying your edges improves your compositions by reminding you to reduce or eliminate distracting details missed when you concentrate on your subject.” It often seems that the edges of a photo are only considered in relationship to the principal (presumably centered) subject. Do you include a secondary subject or crop it out? Do you trim the top of the frame? Do you remove “excess” space?” These are all questions asked when relegating the edges of a photograph to secondary status.
More than a representation of a scene or subject, a photograph is first and foremost a frame, an often strictly defined window that includes a scene but almost as importantly, excludes everything else. The edges of this frame need to be “dealt with,” need to be given meaning just as much as anything else within the frame. The edges should not just be the beginning of the nothingness that supposedly exists beyond the moment captured in the frame. And more than just eliminating what is distracting to the central image or superfluous to the story, the edges should be part of your overall composition and create a relationship with what is unseen, beyond the frame.
Two great examples of working the edges that I admire come from photographers as diverse as Garry Winogrand and Osamu Kanemura. Winogrand’s incredible Hand Feeding Elephant Trunk, Zoo shows a human hand entering from out of the frame on the right and an elephant’s trunk reaching straight across the frame from the left to meet in the center-right of the frame. While this image does capture the decisive moment of the food leaving the hand and dropping into the elephant’s trunk, what is most impressive is the composition—the straight line made by trunk and forearm dissecting the frame and the fact that the edges cut off almost all of the elephant and human subjects, leaving us with few clues as to who is actually in the photo, yet still supplying us with the meaning that the photographer wanted this image to offer.
The photographs of Kanemura are typified by the chaos of urban life. Lines, often light poles or electric and telephone wires crisscross and exit the frame or lead the eye into a maze of bustling activity. While many composition rules (leading lines, frames within frames) are in “hyper-play” within these images, what strikes me is that the edges, while certainly carefully considered, feel randomly selected, as if the photographer took a cookie cutter to his vista and just stamped out square frames that tell as much about what is outside the frame as what is in.
When I started shooting cityscapes, I quickly grew bored of placing the primary building in the center of the frame or even carefully off-center and decided that I preferred to use a wide-angle lens and have several buildings entering the frame from the edge, with the center being cloudless sky. My goal was to get building entering the frame from all four edges. I doubt that this made a shot of the Empire State Building any more grand or imposing, but it did provide a challenge, a new perspective and a way to see the buildings in relation to others around it. It had much more to do with creating a framed composition then representing a subject.
Playing with the edges or composing from the outside-in became something I liked to do as I developed my skills. And as I gradually transitioned to shooting documentary, street, and news photography, this idea of “working the edges” has stuck with me. Often what is jutting in from the edge of a street scene is just as important now as the main subject. At times, a sidelong glance from a face leaving the frame will direct the viewer’s eye to a subject or part of the scene and thus become a co-conspirator in a stolen moment, or a tattle-tale pointing out what we should have seen immediately.
Another example that I have since used when shooting events, weddings, or even sports is to have an arm enter from outside the frame, sometimes with glass being raised in celebration or a hand gesture that offers meaning. The body and face attached to this hand are not as important as the supplemental meaning the hand is lending the composition as a whole. We are also now noting a popular style in wedding photography that emphasizes negative space, placing the bride and groom on the edges of the frame with urban or natural space taking up most of the image. While I like this idea in general, it seems more applicable to street photography where the idea of alienation, loneliness, and individuality is more germane than at a wedding, but hey, who am I to criticize what’s trending?
I also appreciate the idea of placing the main subject on the edge of a frame to disrupt the expectations of the viewer. The reason can be playful, something unexpected that forces the viewer to look twice and ask why or simply to impart a feeling of emptiness that aligns with the subject’s emotional or physical state.
Aspects of the image on the edge of the frame can also add dynamism and meaning to a photograph. Think about lines that run parallel to the edge of a frame and how they could create a feeling of movement or lines that cross perpendicular or diagonally out of the frame and how they can “carry” you into the image or force your eye onto a primary subject. I also like the idea of “balancing” a photo with something small but important on the edge of the frame and a large empty space filling or less “heavy” subjects taking up the rest of the frame. There is also the effect of vignetting, which can be created by lens choice, modifiers or in post process, to give your image a desired feel and/or focus attention onto a specific subject. But again, here we are speaking of the edges in relation to the center. I suppose it’s hard to get away from this idea, and understandably so.
Indeed, most discussions on the edges of a photograph’s composition tend to deal with them as a problem needing to be resolved, but if you really want to push the boundaries of your imaging, I suggest you think about what you can add at the edges instead of what you should take away.