Can composition in photography be learnt? In a cliché way of a reply, yes and no, depending on how you look at composition.
It is not really opinionated to say that no photographer hasn’t learned about compositional techniques at some point of time by reading guidebooks, studying works of others or soliciting advices from old hands. I for one have tried all of these. Just as any techniques, compositional skills can be learnt.
However, it is clear as one travels further in photography that compositional contemplation isn’t just about implementing standardised codes. In fact, I am starting to query the conventional wisdom of treating compositional principles as a paradigm standing on its own. It is in this sense that I think composition cannot be learnt.
Take today’s shot for example.
At the sight of this spot the question immediately jumped to my mind, in a split of a second, was how to frame a nature shot. Probably intuitive to every adept photographer, the typical rule and sure-fire way is none other than enclosing the centre of interest with the usable elements of landscape around. But chances are that no landscape element is available around and maybe they are changing too fast for that purpose as in the case of this shot.
This scene captured my attention as the 4-wheel drive was whishing across the desert to the next sand dunes in Dubai. Seeing through the viewfinder, I fixed my eye on it and decisively snapped the shot when the elements within the frame fell into place. It should be pointed out that the driver hadn’t slowed down the car for my sake which was going in like 110 km/h (roughly 68 mph). So, no chance to compose in a proper sense really. Fact is, however, I did not fumble for any second there and then with the composition as a matter of its own. The composition, together with the exposure combo, simply serves to reflect my state of mind at that decisive moment.
Now, to decipher the shot’s composition in a technical way, I can say that putting the lone tree on the left bestows the image with a continuous view as this conforms to our habit of reading (maybe except for Arab readers whose language is read from right to left); checked. The green bit of the tree is roughly on the golden intersection; checked. The one third distribution between the land and the sky is a commonly taught compositional technique; checked. Nothing to engage the viewers on the left portion of the shot – not so good. I could also say that I might have probably viewed the scene in geometric forms. So on and so forth.
But I would rather see the shot as a whole in terms of how it reflected my state of mind. It was taken on my last day of the Dubai trip when my frustration over the various hacked online accounts and the tiredness under the hellish heat were subsiding. It was meant to be a chance to stay away from the hectic work at home but, paradoxically, the prospect of going home somehow gave me a peace of mind (which street photographer won’t with no mobile communication under a weather too hot for street photography). After all, the vista outside of the car windows was captivating. I saw the tree braving the heat on the dry desert. It was a sign of hope which connected to my feelings. Looking through the viewfinder, I snapped the shot when the elements combined to best reflect such feelings of mine. I did not compose the shot to fall in line with the technical rules or to amaze the viewers in the first place.
In a nutshell, what is important is not whether compositional technique can be learnt. To me, composition is only as good as the technical rules can get if without first fermenting one’s feelings towards a scene. The rules of composition in photography can and should be learnt as a technique to build a stepping stone from which one should move on to look at the compositional device not for its own sake but, together with other photographic devices, for use to reflect one’s feelings which should be there in the first place.