Photographers are not like painters. We can't pencil in a grid, place an object, then add another, then balance it with another, trash it and start all over.
No. Composition is quite a different thing for us.
We are somewhere; we have a camera. We can move this way or that, take it now or wait… drat! shoulda clicked!
Of course nowadays we can just hold the shutter down, move the camera all around, and examine terrabytes of data back home, on the computer, at 3:00 A.M.
If this is your idea of photography: stop reading now, step away from the monitor, go apologize to your spouse.
For the rest of us, we want to be able to feel composition, to know two main things – where and when – without thinking. Where do I put the camera and when do I click the shutter? We want to know this the same way we know something is beautiful – the instant we see it. It’s immediate recognition.
Because we don't have much time to decide. And, anyway, do we want to be absorbed in this moment or step back and cogitate the geometry for a while? Our choice is not between beauty and geometry – they are joined despite us – but between instinct and thinking, joy and calculation.
The best ever at composing instinctually was Henri Cartier-Bresson. He clicked the shutter at what he called the decisive moment. “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment,” he said. Henri used one camera and one lens – a Leica rangefinder with 50mm – for the majority of his photographs. Composition for him was primarily about “when.”
“Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”
- Henri Cartier-Bresson
Below is a short documentary by HCB. If you've read this far, you may find it worth your time.
– IMHO, jj