If the purpose of Formal Composition is to clarify, support, underline the intent of the artist, the obvious corollary is that there must be some intent to clarify.
This is, it occurs to me, one of the great reasons that "rules" are so harmful. They permit the photographer to ape some of the forms of composition, without any particular purpose to it.
It is as if someone, observing that in such and such a great novel, an owl appears as a metaphor for death. The rule is then derived "use an owl as a metaphor for death", and then all the amateur stories on 50000wrds.com start having an owl jammed into them. Sometimes the owl works marvelously, but more often the owl doesn't really fit and we wonder why the author is heavily belaboring this avian death-metaphor in a story about a puppy.
Later, the rule is modified and becomes "stick an owl in your story" or "use birds as metaphors" or "kill everyone in the story" and now we at any rate have variety, but less sense than ever.
The proper lessons to learn from the novel and the owl are that a metaphor for death, perhaps an owl or similar creature of the night, can be a useful tool in the kit. You need the right sort of story to deploy it, and you need to deploy it in a way that makes sense.
In a similar way we can learn many a useful trick for photographs. Separate the objects of interest from their backgrounds with tone, color, and focus. Visual weight is a real thing, and placing forms within the frame one way will produce a sense of equanimity, of balance. Placing them in the frame in another way will produce a sense of imbalance, unease. Diagonals might introduce a sense of dynamism, or energy. High contrast looks this way, lower contrast looks that way. Deep blacks versus softer greys. These are all the owl as metaphor.
The formal composition of the frame always has to be taken as a whole (Arnheim) to understand anything of the formal qualities of the composition.
When you start a business, or plan a project, the more detailed and thorough your plan, the better the chances of success even though success is rarely just what the detailed plan describes. No plan survives contact with the enemy, but planning is essential. We have a lot of experience with this, without a plan nothing much happens.
I believe that the more intense and detailed your awareness of these three disparate facets you are as you shoot, the better:
- Your own intentions.
- The formal tools and details of composition.
- The stuff that's actually in front of the lens.
The job of the photographer is to bring these three together simultaneously, as best we can. Your intentions may not be fully realized, or even realized at all. The tools of composition may not play out quite the way you hoped. The stuff in front of the lens may misbehave. Still, you're better off prepared than not, even then. Or so I claim, without much in the way of proof.
It feels right, dammit.
But let us never forget that the subject matter rules all. About which more anon.