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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Composition With Lines

If you poke around on the web you will find web sites with stuff like "horizontal lines suggest tranquility" and "vertical lines suggest power or dominance" and similar sorts of things. These things are not quite as common as the "rule of thirds" which pretty much everyone trots out as their first, and frequently only, tip for improving your composition (which they then proceed to get wrong).

Is there any basis for this stuff? If so, what might it be? I suppose we could argue that there are cultural norms in play here, but that seems to be a bit of a stretch. The authors of all these trivial "pep up your composition" web sites almost certainly have no notion of any basis for this business with the lines, they're just cutting and pasting from one another and introducing errors at every step.

This seems to be drawn from graphic design, where things like lines are actual things. A graphic design actually contains real lines as part of the composition. A horizontal line is actually a thing that looks like it cannot tip over, a vertical line looks like a thing that could. A diagonal line looks unstable.

Photographs of things, however, do not generally have actual lines in them, they have trees and buildings and stones and people. A enormous tree, while vertical, does not really have the same feeling of instability that a literal vertical line does. A dragster proceeding at 200 miles per hour in a horizontal line does not have the same feeling of rest and repose that a literal horizontal line on a page does. A picture of a thing that is not at rest does not inherit a "sense of repose" through some superficial resemblance to another thing which is actually at rest. An immense pyramid, despite having diagonal lines, isn't a thing that can fall over. Therefore, unlike a diagonal line, it does not look like a thing that can fall over.

What's great about these guys who talk about vertical lines and whatnot is the examples. "Horizontal lines suggest homeostasis (lack of change)" accompanied by a picture of a frozen leaf on a frost-covered plank with horizontal grain. "Vertical lines can suggest peace" accompanied by a photograph of a verdant forest. No. The subjects suggest homeostasis and peace, you idiot. Worse yet, if you poke around a bit more and take notes, you will find that vertical or horizontal lines can suggest pretty much anything. Diagonals seem to always suggest dynamism or action, at least. Except, I suppose, when photographing immense pyramids that have remained substantially unchanged for more than 4000 years?

Leading lines are a real thing. We do actually tend to follow lines with our eyes, this is at least partly neurological. This other stuff, I don't know. There might be something real there, but the web people hunting for hits to sell ads have so confused the issue that there's probably no easy way to sort out what the real things is. You'd have to dig up original papers and so forth, which sounds like a lot more trouble than it's worth.

You know what suggests peace? A peaceful photograph. If you want to know how to make a peaceful photograph, go find some and look at them. Go into the world and find some things that make you feel a sense of peace. There's no formula for a "peaceful photograph" there are just peaceful photographs.

The more I dig in to this, the more I think that graphic design is the wrong starting point for understanding photography.

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