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Light, Composition or Subject?

Which is the most critical?

Tim Parkin

Tim Parkin

Amateur Photographer who plays with big cameras and film when in between digital photographs.

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I’ve read a few times in the past months that ‘light’ is always the most important thing in photography. Every time I read this I’ve felt a little more uncomfortable. This week a colleague pointed out another occurence in the popular press and as I was in the process of writing a couple more articles I thought I had to respond.

The only way to really address this is to look at potential permutations of these three aspects of photography that are repeatedly mentioned and I’ll try to come up with examples.

Good Light, Good Composition & Good Subject

Obviously this is the goal, we don't really need to dwell on this - get everything working together and you’ve made it. Here's a Joe Cornish picture that ticks all of the boxes for me...

Good Light, Good Subject & Poor Composition

Many beginner photographers work in this area as they’ve made the effort to go somewhere special or have found a beautiful subject be it a tree, dry stone wall etc.

What they haven’t worked out is how to compose a picture yet and so the result, whilst being something that could satisfy the undiscerning viewer, is ultimately unsatisfactory beyond the observation of a moment.

Here’s one of my early efforts to demonstrate what I mean

 

Good Light, Poor Subject & Good Composition

Well we have to ask ourselves here “What is a poor subject” - in fact in landscape photography, I’m not sure I can completely define subject. Subject makes sense in portrait photography, it’s the person isn’t it? And architecture you could say it’s the building. However, in landscape photography, the subject is whatever we point the camera at. Again, I suppose that you could say that there are certain pictures where there is a focal point or icon that is itself intrinsically beautiful. This would make ‘The Storr’ a subject and also a beautiful tree or wall.

Could a definition be ...  ‘that which a member of the public would point at and say ‘that is beautiful’? If so then here are a few photographs that show 'poor subjects'.

Clachaig, Scotland - Tim Parkin

Joe Cornish

David Ward

Poor Light, Good Subject & Good Composition

So, according to the established truth, these photographs shouldn’t work. The lack of great light should produce sub-standard pictures.

However, in my eyes there is no such thing as poor light - only an inflexible photographer. Even bright sunshine on a blue sky day can be used (supposedly the worst sort of light) and as for those ‘flat light days’, well, just take a look below at a couple.

Joe Cornish

Joe Cornish

Tim Parkin

Now we'll take a look at each of the variables on their own to see if they can be used 'individually' to create good photographs.

Good Light, Poor Subject & Poor Composition

Can good light on it’s own provide a good photograph? Well, I’ll cut to the chase here - can it hell... I’ve yet to see a picture that would be considered ‘great’ with just light. Even pictures that are all about the light have to have some form of balanced composition of clouds or shape to support them. Any suggestions for this section??

Poor Light, Good Subject & Poor Composition

An a good subject on it’s own? Well - it would have to be an inherently beautiful subject and then a bad composition would detract from the subject which means the photographer has reduced the intrinsic beauty of the subject through poor composition.

I had quite a problem finding these - I have bad pictures but when I started I was mostly going out in good light. However here's a photo of the Rumps in Cornwall that was pretty bad and I've cropped it badly too.

Tim Parkin (ahem! a long time ago, really!)

Poor Light, Poor Subject & Good Composition

Given poor light and poor subject we should have real problems. And yet the amount of great pictures here is remarkable. A great photographer can go out at any time and come back with a satisfying image and quite often a great one - regardless of intrinsic, iconic beauty or ‘great’ light.

David Ward

Tim Parkin

Alistair Haimes

Poor Light, Poor Subject & Poor Composition

Hmm.... I think we can agree that this wouldn’t be good :-)

Conclusion

Well, my conclusion is that it’s all about the composition. Without composition, photographs can only be representation of what was before the camera - a documentation of a scene with the photographer’s skill reduced to camera craft and the finding of subject and the luck or calculation of the right time for the 'right' light (and maybe some photoshop talents at the end).

I won't say that light is unimportant, complementary light is essential - however ‘warm sunset/sunrise’ light can be bad if it doesn’t match the subject. Take the following examples.

Joe Cornish

David Ward

Tim Parkin

So, it doesn’t matter what light you have as long as it complements the subject. Doesn’t matter what subject you have as long as you compose it well.

It’s composition that is the photographers skill, the core attribute that lifts a photographer from craftsman to artist.

Let me suggest a scenario that I hope highlights my thoughts. I sign on to a Joe Cornish course and he takes us all to a great location and, knowing the weather well, he has brought us at just the right moment.

Each photographer takes a picture - who’s photographs are they?

Well, if it’s all about the light or the subject then they are Joe’s pictures. If they are about the composition then they are the workshop participants.

And....

A colleague Rob Hudson took a look at this article and pointed out that the whole Light/Subject/Composition triumvirate was missing a while dimension. That dimension can be called concept or narrative - it's a function of the way the photographer communicates through the picture. This needn't be conscious, a photograph can communicate emotions as a concept and these may be a subconscious reaction by the photographer. It may be better if the photographer is aware of what they are trying to communicate though.

A photograph may also work as part of a sequence, in which case we could have a photograph with poor subject, poor (or no apparent) composition and poor light and yet as part of a sequence of pictures it has inherent meaning.

He also pointed out the redundancy of good/bad and the fact that there is really no such dichotomy - however the article is responding to a received vocabulary and grammar of the photographic community as represented by the popular press. I would agree with Rob that it doesn't really matter about light, subject or composition as long as the photograph is creating a reaction that the photographer wanted. However that would make a boring article :-)



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