Composition is a vitally important part of the photographic process, but unfortunately one which often is ignored or misunderstood. Composition is your way of telling a visual story to your viewers. A snapshot shows the world what your camera sees, but when you create a composition, you show the world what you see.
In my eBook ‘Visual Flow: Mastering the Art of Composition’, I discuss an important key to successful photographic composition, getting the viewer’s eye moving between multiple visual elements within the image frame. If all visual interest leads to one point, then the viewer will lose interest quickly. Create two or more points of interest, however, and the viewer’s eye will become trapped within the image frame, holding interest over time. This juxtaposition of two or more points of interest is called counterpoint.
Actually, counterpoint is a concept which originates from the musical arts, and was made famous especially by the likes of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Wikipedia defines counterpoint as “the writing of musical lines that sound very different and move independently from each other but sound harmonious when played simultaneously”. The term originates from the Latin punctus contra punctum, meaning “point against point”. Think for a moment about some of the famous symphonies you have heard. The greatest ones might have a simple master theme, but they do not stop there. Rather, the master theme is transformed from something simplistic into something rich and sophisticated instead, by inclusion of an extra counter-theme (or two) in the background. The interaction of multiple themes gives a musical composition complexity and energy, creating something far greater than, for example, the “dah-dah-dah-duh” of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony ever could do alone. Take away the counterpoint, and the Fifth is nothing more than a repetitive dance beat; the audience might have shuffled along for a while, but no-one would be listening still several hundred years later.
Thinking about artistic composition in terms of counterpoint is rather useful. The idea is the same as it is with music, except visual elements substitute for musical notes. In this sense, “visual counterpoint” occurs when one prominent visual element of a composition is set up in contrast or interaction with another. This contrast can be in terms of shape, luminosity, clarity, colour, or relative positioning. Counterpoint, in its most visually powerful form, is a way of positioning elements within the image frame, relying on the spatial relationship between visual elements to create compositional structure and interest.
The image accompanying this article is a very simple illustration of the concept of visual counterpoint. Hopefully, the primary counterpoint relationship should be obvious: the rock in the tidal pool in the foreground is the counterpoint element to the prominent sea stack to the right of the background (and vice versa). There is another counterpoint element in this composition, the cloud in the sky to the left. Actually, the three counterpoint elements, working together, keep the viewer’s eye bouncing between the three areas of the image frame, locked within the composition.
Okay, so you understand the concept of counterpoint, but, when you have two counterpoint elements, where should you place them relative to each other within the image frame? The concept of opposing diagonals is a good way to think about the placement of counterpoint elements: by placing two eye-catching and important elements opposite each other, you can create an engaging, yet balanced, composition. The reason I use the word “diagonal” is that more often than not, by placing the counterpoint elements opposite each other diagonally, as opposed to horizontally or vertically, a more energetic composition is the result. This is exactly what I did here, especially with the foreground rock and the sea stack to the right. The diagonal relationship between the two is reinforced further by the trail of water leading from the tidal pool into the wet surf. A small touch, to be sure, but when making compositions, sometimes the little things matter most.
Composition can be difficult enough to understand, let alone master, but it is worth the effort. Without an understanding of composition, your photographs will never be more than mere snapshots. With it, you unlock the keys to your true artistic potential.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 28 of Landscape Photography Magazine.