Photograph above by Dynamic Symmetry Art Member Warren Wish
A Photographer's Dilemma
I received an email the other day that I felt was worth addressing in an article. The person who wrote asked me, "How can I capture an image based on Dynamic Symmetry composition rules and how can I enhance the power to acquire the knowledge of this system?" Even though I address both of these issues thoroughly in my user's guide, The Art of Composition: A Dynamic Symmetry User's Guide for the Modern Artist, the question is an important one and deserves further clarification.
Like the person who sent me the email above, many photographers are confused how to apply Dynamic Symmetry to their photographs because they don't have the ability to overlay grids while they are taking pictures. While this restriction might seem daunting at first, there are ways to get around this obstacle. Here's how.
Start by learning how to analyze art. And when I say art, I don't mean limit yourself to just photographs - look at drawings and paintings as well. You can learn a great deal by studying a master painter's body of work. Once you have fully grasped the elements of design (figure-ground relationship, overlapping, the greatest area of contrast, perspective, the armature of the rectangle, etc.), you can then learn how to apply these techniques while you're shooting on the fly. In other words, while taking pictures, you're looking for specific qualities that make a photograph a work of art and responding to them quickly. Martine Franck talks about this in her essays on the art of photography.
By taking the time to analyze art, your learning how to become visually literate. While on the surface the term visual literacy might sound threatening or insulting, it really isn't. Every highly trained artist throughout history, from da Vinci to Degas, all went through the process of analyzing art. In fact, it was standard practice for an artist to copy another master's work. While today this approach is frowned upon by most art teachers (because they aren't classically trained), in the past, it was a way for the student to learn all of the techniques of value, color theory, design and so on.
Every time you've completed a photography shoot, overlay design grids on your photographs in post-processing to see how well you did. This is great practice, requires almost no effort, and drastically speeds up the learning process. Henri Cartier-Bresson used to do this by drawing the 1.5 armature of the rectangle on a piece of tracing paper. He would then lay the tracing paper on top of his contact sheets or prints to determine which images worked and which ones failed. Today, this process is more efficient because you can use Lightroom and Photoshop to import pre-made design grids. If you're willing to go through this process, your visual skills will improve each time you pick up your camera. Simply put, your learning how to see like an artist.