What I’m referring to is simple. If you find yourself in a rut, whether it’s generally speaking, or just with a single subject/shot, there’s an easy way out. Take your photography back to basics. No pole or pasties required.
Usually when we think of composition, we’re taking into account several different things simultaneously: subject, light, texture, color, geometry, and any number of other factors. Sometimes when we’re looking at something, we can be overwhelmed (or, conversely, completely underwhelmed, wondering just what it is we should be seeing) by everything within and outside the frame. Suddenly, we’re stuck.
When this happens, one solution is to look for one simple thing that draws our eye, or to change our viewpoint altogether. In other words, rather than trying to take all of these things into account, simply choose one thing that grabs your eye, and zero in on that. Sometimes this will mean choosing different subject matter, but other times it can also mean finding new (and hopefully fresh) ways of approaching your favorite things. A few things to try:
• Texture: Flat surfaces, in some cases, can mean flat photos. Sometimes, however, getting in close enough to something that you can see it in detail can mean seeing details you would otherwise have missed, and make you realize that there’s more to your subject than was apparent at a first look. Sometimes, texture can be compelling enough to be its own subject.
• Line: How does this thing you’re photographing fit together, whether it’s a building or a body? What do its lines, and its geometry, suggest to you? Where do they lead your eyes? And how might you use them to, in turn, lead your viewer’s eye?
• Color: Like your subjects themselves, colors can provoke strong responses in people. The presence of color (or a telling absence when we’re expecting it) can give a sense of richness and depth to your photos, and sometimes pure color-based abstraction can be a fun outlet by itself.
• Light: This doesn’t only influence, and determine, your exposure. The right light can mute colors or saturate them, flatten textures or reveal them, and do all sorts of things for your dynamic range, composition, and so much else.
• Patterns: Sometimes it’s a matter of seeing more than one of something; other times, it’s finding a surprising sense of order, or a story within the arrangement of, things that otherwise would have no relation to one another. If you see patterns, what kind of story do they tell you, or what story can you use them to tell?
• Contrast: Contrast is a great way to add inflection to a photo. You know the old Gershwin tune, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”? Picture singing that in a monotone, and you’d start to wonder what all the fuss is over potatoes and potatoes. A photo with insufficient contrast can also be like that.* Conversely, effective use of contrast can be just the thing to draw attention to something in your photo (or to make that something a red herring, if you’d like something else to sneak up on the viewer and only reveal itself later).
• Subject: For many of us, this can present the biggest challenge, but also the biggest rewards if we’re willing to take the risk (and it’s a small one, let’s admit it). Photography has existed for long enough that by this point, most subjects have a visual syntax associated with them. We expect sports photos to look a certain way, or expect certain things when we see a photo of a car, building, or person. The more fluent, and comfortable, we get with that subject and the visual vocabulary that goes with it, we may paradoxically find ourselves struggling to do not only what others haven’t done already, but also to avoid repeating ourselves. A change of pace (and of subject) can be just what the doctor ordered, since we learn new bits of “grammar,” as it were, that can be imported into our usual subject matter.
Something to keep in mind is that it’s okay to “cheat” here. Each of these things has ways of seeping into the others, because in photography as with so much else, it’s all interdependent. Sometimes you can’t bring out the texture without the right lighting, for instance, or you may find that the color is precisely what’s emphasizing a sense of pattern in something. If you find that happening, flow with it rather than fighting it; those connections are a great reminder to us of how all of this stuff works, and can build mental cues that we can use going forward. If, for example, you notice the connection between light and geometry (which influences shadow, texture, and geometry), you can learn to use these things consciously. You may start out paying more attention to the light, but that can, in turn, remind you to take a closer look at what the light is doing.
This has another use as well. I think that most of us will, at one point or another, get a good feel for a subject or element that we’re “good at,” and whether we do it consciously or not, we start to specialize in that. This can lead to its own kind of rut, especially if we’re looking through our photos and seeing certain themes or stylistic elements repeated over and over again. When that happens, forcing yourself to find a new area of focus ensures that you’re taking into consideration other elements that you might be neglecting. If you’re giving color short shrift, try concentrating on texture; if your photos tend to be a bit flat dimensionally speaking, experiment with geometry or shadow. It’s good exercise for the eyes, and can break up some of the monotony for your audience as well.
*Conversely, the overuse of something, whether it’s contrast, infrared, or your favorite Photoshop effect, can be like someone affecting a fake English accent for a whole evening. It gets old fast.