Art Training for the Photographer
Throughout this website, I repeatedly separate the artist from the photographer. This distinction in labels isn't accidental or derogatory. In truth, most photographers aren't taught in the same manner or to the same capacity as the classically trained artist. For example, the classically trained artist must first learn how to draw before they move on to any other aspect of art education. Through the act of drawing, one learns how to see, interpret, and express their vision successfully.
In contrast, far too many photographers restrict their education to the technical aspects of photography and rarely, if ever, study the art of composition. Additionally, photographers will often assume that if they learn how to produce a "fine art print," it's considered a work of art. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case. The definition of a "fine art print," by today's standards, is usually limited to the technical characteristics of the physical print and doesn't always consider the artistic components of design, visual balance, figure-ground relationship, etc.
If a photographer wants to learn how to create images that are considered "art," or at least artistic in nature, they will have to study classical skill-based art techniques and transfer that knowledge to the act of taking photos. Regrettably, most photography books and websites only discuss the subjective and technological aspects of image making and almost never acknowledge the necessary design skills required for becoming a highly trained artist.
Dynamic Symmetry for Photographers
A Real-World Approach for Taking Better Photographs
This article is an attempt to teach photographers how to read a work of art, introduce the principles of design using classical skill-based art techniques, define the true meaning of intuition in photography, and shed light on the many myths regarding Dynamic Symmetry, camera grid products, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Photographers that have a strong desire to build upon the modern-day rules of composition will find Dynamic Symmetry extremely beneficial. Dynamic Symmetry is not a gimmick nor is it "New-Age." In fact, this system of design is over two thousand years old. Artists that have employed Dynamic Symmetry principles in their work include Magnum photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, Martine Franck, Alex Webb, Leonard Freed, Eve Arnold, and Constantine Manos as well as a long list of master painters such as Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, Pablo Picasso, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, and Vincent van Gogh.
All of the recommendations made in this article are based on ten years experience in design, two years experimentation with camera grids and hundreds of hours spent analyzing art. More importantly, everything the photographer needs to learn more about Dynamic Symmetry and composition in art is available on this site as a free download. In summary, Dynamic Symmetry is a serious design tool that will allow the artist and photographer to create superior quality art with an infinite amount of flexibility.
Below you can download a Dynamic Symmetry grid pack for Lightroom and Photoshop, a camera grid pack for beginner students, and a PDF on the best books available for learning more about the art of composition. These books represent a complete course in design and no further readings on Dynamic Symmetry are necessary. I highly recommend starting with The Art of Composition: A Simple Application of Dynamic Symmetry by Michel Jacobs.
The Art of Composition:
A Simple Application of Dynamic Symmetry
Click here to download
Dynamic Symmetry Grid Pack for Lightroom and Photoshop
+ Dynamic Symmetry Camera Grid Pack (204)
The Dynamic Symmetry grid pack includes the root 2, 3, 4, 5,
root phi, phi, 1:1, 1.5, 4:3, 7:6, 16:9, and the 5:4 rectangle.
Click here to download
The Art of Composition:
A User's Guide for the Modern Artist and Photographer
Click here to download
For the photographer to be productive in applying Dynamic Symmetry principles to their images, it's important to understand that they can't approach design in the same manner as the artist. Because the artist has no restriction on time to create a work of art, they can spend days, weeks, months, and even years on a composition. In contrast, photographers only have a fraction of a second to compose their photos. Due to the obvious differences between these two artistic practices, the professional photographer will find that Dynamic Symmetry is best used as an evaluation tool in post-processing - not one of direct application.
At the beginning stages of learning Dynamic Symmetry, it’s critical for the photographer to acknowledge the difference between the intuitive act of photographing and intuition in composition. These two concepts are not the same and shouldn't be viewed as such. As I repeatedly mention throughout this website and in my user's guide, composition in art is not intuitive (in the magical sense), and it's a skill that must be learned, mastered, and applied if the artist or photographer expects to create a consistent and masterful body of work in their lifetime.
In the book The Decisive Moment, Henri Cartier-Bresson states “Composition must be one of our constant preoccupations, but at the moment of shooting it can stem only from our intuition, for we are out to capture the fugitive moment, and all the interrelationships involved are on the move." While many photographers assume Henri Cartier-Bresson is stating composition in photography is intuitive, this assumption would be incorrect. What Bresson is actually referring to is the brief moment in time when a trained photographer can recognize visual order in a scene and have the skills and insight to be able to capture a successful photograph based on solid design principles.
It's well documented that Henri Cartier-Bresson was thoroughly trained in classical skill-based art techniques and executed this intuitive knowledge with precision in a massive body of work. Unlike most other photographers, Bresson had hundreds of images that were considered masterpieces, and he was able to accomplish this incredible feat because of his training in design. Richard Avedon talks about Bressons' accomplishments in his 2004 interview with Charlie Rose. Click here for the video clip.
Learn How Photographers Apply Dynamic Symmetry
An Email From a Curious Photographer
I received an email recently from a photographer that was curious about the application of Dynamic Symmetry. The photographer who wrote asked, "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?"
Like the person who sent me the email above, many photographers are confused how to apply Dynamic Symmetry to their photographs because the act of photographing is, in many ways, intuitive, and they don't have the time to create elaborate compositions like the artist that draws and paints. While this time constraint might seem restricting at first, there are several ways a photographer can effectively incorporate Dynamic Symmetry principles in their body of work. Here's how.
Learn how to critically evaluate art. You can do this by selecting a few of your favorite artists and study all aspects of their designs. Start with the artist's earlier works and track their progress throughout their career. Take notes of their improvements, shifts in subject matter, changes in technical approach, etc. Try to recognize repeated patterns, consistency in quality and specific artistic style. Also, look for ways to improve their images and decode why some works are better than others.
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 taking pictures. In other words, you've trained yourself to look for specific qualities that make a photograph a work of art and have the ability to respond to them quickly. Throughout this website, I refer to this intuitive approach to composition as "intuitive knowledge."
By investing the time to study drawings, paintings, and photographs you're learning how to improve your visual literacy skills. Every highly trained artist throughout history, from da Vinci to Degas, went through the process of analyzing art and there is no reason that the modern artist and photographer shouldn't do the same. And even though this approach is frowned upon by most contemporary art teachers, in the past, it was a way for the student to learn all the techniques of value, color theory, design and so on.
Overlay Dynamic Symmetry Grids in Post-Processing
Design Grids for Quick Evaluation
Every time you've completed a photography shoot, overlay design grids on your images to see how well you did. This form of evaluation is extremely beneficial for improving your visual literacy skills, requires almost no effort, and drastically speeds up the learning process.
Henri Cartier-Bresson used the same practice 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 and 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 incorporate this additional step in your post-processing workflow, your visual skills will improve each time you pick up your camera.
Work the Scene
Take More Than One Photograph
Among photographers, there is a continuous debate on how many photographs of a scene they should take. Some claim one image is enough, while others advocate for shooting more. However, one crucial point to keep in mind is that a classically trained artist will rarely, if ever, draw only one sketch before transferring their design to the canvas. They might do 3, 5, 10, 15 drawings or more. Photographers should approach composition in the same manner by shooting a series of images (as opposed to just one). Click here for a sample image by Henri Cartier-Bresson working a scene from the book Scrapbook. Click here for a sample image by Eve Arnold working a scene from the book Eve Arnold's People. To learn more, I recommend the book Magnum Contact Sheets.
Improve Your Knowledge of Dynamic Symmetry
The Best Books Available on Composition in Art
To improve your knowledge of Dynamic Symmetry and composition in art and photography, click here for a complete list of recommended books. It's important to note that this list does not contain any photography books. In my experience, most photography books on composition only discuss the Rule of Thirds, the Rule of Odds, the Rule of Space, and Leading Lines.
Other Considerations for Photographers
That Want to Learn More About Dynamic Symmetry
Why 99.9% of Photography Websites Don't Understand Design
One mistake I see continuously made on almost every photography website on the internet is that they will apply the golden section rectangle (1.618) to a 1.5 frame claiming that it will creater a more pleasing design. This analysis and conclusion is incorrect. Master artists, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, did not compose their images using the golden section rectangle placed or stretched inside a 1.5 rectangle. Bresson used the Dynamic Symmetry armature of the rectangle, as demonstrated throughout this website.
Design Grids for Cameras
Advertising vs. Real-World Application
With the recent revival of classical art training, Dynamic Symmetry is becoming more widespread. Along with this rebirth in classical design techniques comes new art and photography products as well. Over the past few years, I've had a significant number of photographers ask me if taping design grids to their camera's LCD screen is necessary for creating great compositions. My response is always the same - absolutely not.
Regardless of the product claims found online, professional photographers don't use camera grids to compose their images nor are they photographing with these grids in mind. More importantly, using camera grids in no way ensures that the photographer will capture an acceptable image. Creating successful photographs is dependent on many variables that include the armature of the rectangle, figure-ground relationship, proper overlapping, and the appropriate balance of individual elements in your design.
Before using camera grids, there are several factors that all photographers must consider. Firstly, attaching a design grid to a camera's viewfinder prevents the photographer from concentrating on the scene or subject they are photographing because they are always preoccupied with lining up visual elements. In turn, this constant distraction limits the photographer's artistic creativity because they aren't considering any other alternatives for their composition besides the design scheme they have chosen to tape to their LCD screen.
Secondly, photographers that rely on camera grids for composition are not acquiring the long-term benefits of learning classical skill-based art and will never develop the necessary intuitive design skills to shoot without this visual crutch. The fact is, despite all the elaborate camera grid products available, there are no shortcuts for creating great art and taping design grids to your camera is far too limiting to be considered a realistic approach for applying Dynamic Symmetry in photography. This technique is best suited for the beginner student.
Why Complicated Dynamic Symmetry Grids
are Unnecessary for Photographers
One of the biggest mistakes I see made among many photographers and design educators is that they overcomplicate the application Dynamic Symmetry. When a classically trained artist creates a drawing or painting, they aren't copying what they see. The artist will manipulate lines, change angles, and move their subject (or subjects) around the canvas to line up specific elements with a design grid. Because the photographer doesn't have this degree of flexibility in the design phase, there is no need for using complex design grids on cameras or in post-processing - the basic armature of the rectangle is more than enough for most photography applications.
My Professional Experience and Thoughts on Camera Grids
Because Dynamic Symmetry allows the artist to create an infinite number of compositions, photographers should never restrict creativity by locking their images into one design scheme. Photographers that continually use design grids on their camera, whether it be the Rule of Thirds or Dynamic Symmetry, are always faced with this problem.
While some online marketers claim camera grids are necessary for applying Dynamic Symmetry to a photograph, these design educators lack real-world experience, misinterpret the application of Dynamic Symmetry in photography, are trying to increase camera grid sales, and overlook the critical fact that tools should benefit the artist, not restrict their artistic freedom. Camera grids are not only unnecessary but if overused a photographer's visual literacy skills become stunted and their images predictable and overly mechanical.
In my combined 36 years experience as a photographer, educator of design, and graphic artist I have yet to come across any highly skilled, historically relevant photographer that used camera grids to compose their images and for any professional to engage in such a practice would mean a loss of credibility. Photographers that are taking their first step towards learning more about the art of composition should fully understand that camera grids are an aid for the beginner student - not a tool for the skilled professional.
Can Photographers Learn to Visualize the
Dynamic Symmetry Grid While Taking Pictures?
It's highly unlikely that any photographer can visualize the full armature of the rectangle while trying to concentrate on the scene or subject they are photographing and I would be wary of those that claim they can. In most cases, these exaggerated claims are meant to sell products, not give the photographer a realistic view of how to apply Dynamic Symmetry principles to their body of work. With that said, the goal of the photographer shouldn't be to memorize the Dynamic Symmetry grid but instead develop the necessary skills to be able to recognize a masterful image intuitively.
Composite Photography vs. Straight Photography
For those photographers interested in composite photography (cutting and pasting multiple images together to create a composition) applying Dynamic Symmetry is used in the same manner as the artist that draws and paints. In other words, the composite photographer is not limited by the amount of time for creating their final design.
Also, it's important to point out that composite photography and the application of Dynamic Symmetry should not be restricted to one design scheme - meaning the use of camera grids becomes even less relevant. Much like the artist, the composite photographer will use the angles of their subject to dictate the rectangle they choose for their design and also have the ability to move individual elements around the frame as they see fit.
Learning the Rules of Composition and Then Breaking Them
As the saying goes, if I had a dime for every article I've read about learning the rules of composition and then breaking them, I could retire a wealthy man. In fact, the phrase "breaking the rules" in art has been repeated so many times by artists and photographers that it's become a cliche. As I mention in the Frequently Asked Questions section of this website, there isn't anything wrong with breaking the rules of composition. The problem with breaking the rules in art and design is that far too many artists and photographers don't know what the rules are.
Unfortunately, when most photographers talk about rules in composition, they are referring to Rule of Thirds, the Rule of Odds, the Rule of Space, and Leading Lines. These rules, which have been repeated and debated ad nauseam on every photography website, actually have little to do with art or real design. In other words, just because a photographer understands how to apply the Rule of Thirds grid to their images, and then occasionally "breaks the rule," this is in no way a clear indicator that they are thoroughly trained in classical skill-based art techniques.
"Design rules must be actively sought out, learned, and applied. There are rules for drawing, there are rules for color, and there are rules for composition. In fact, the rules or limits of any discipline help define it and give the participant in that subject freedom to create and express himself. Jacques Villion (the brother of Marcel Duchamp) put it well when he said, “In the artistic chaos of these last years, when the absolute liberation of the individual instinct has brought it to the point of frenzy, an attempt to identify the harmonic disciplines that have, secretly, in every period, served as foundations for painting may well seem folly. Yet the framework of art is its most secret and its deepest poetry.” The time has come for the modern master painter to begin to reconstruct the skills and unearth the lost traditions of this secret framework."
-Juliette Aristides - From the book "Classical Painting Atelier."
Photography Design Concepts
Below is a list of design concepts that all photographers should study, master and apply to their lifetime body of work. You can learn more about these techniques in the free PDF, The Art of Composition: A User's Guide for the Modern Artist and Photographer.
Figure-Ground Relationship in Composition
Figure-ground relationship in composition is a technique master artists use to separate their subject (figure) clearly from the background (ground). By having a distinct separation between the subject and individual elements in a design, it makes it easier for the viewer to read the artist's intent. The best way to achieve an effective figure-ground relationship is to have a dark subject on a light background or a light subject on a dark background.
Aerial Perspective in Composition
Aerial perspective is a technique that artists use in their drawings and paintings to give the illusion of the third dimension on a two-dimensional piece of paper or canvas. This method will create depth and atmosphere in your art. The way to achieve this effect is to keep your values, contrast, and details that are closest to the viewer stronger, while diminishing the values, contrast, and details the further you go back into the picture.
The concept of aerial perspective happens naturally in the world around us due to particles of dust and moisture in the air. These dust and water particles reduce visual contrast starting from the foreground and continuing to the background. The further back our line of sight goes, the more muted our visual perception becomes. A good example of this natural phenomenon can be found on a foggy day after a rainstorm.
An arabesque, also known as the "line of continuity," collects, organizes, and relates different elements in a composition. An arabesque can be used to tie in the background with the foreground or connect specific components together in a design to create a sense of unity. A well-designed arabesque will allow the viewer's eyes to move fluidly (without hesitation) through a composition in a drawing, painting, or photograph.
Aspective view means you are showing the most identifiable parts of the subject which provide the viewer the maximum amount of information from different angles.
A coincidence in composition is a technique that artists use to tie specific elements (coincide) together at point-to-point relationships to give the eye a visual path to follow. The more coincidences you have going in a particular direction, the quicker the eye will move along that path. Also, a coincidence allows the artist to direct the viewer to read their work in a certain way, while at the same time emphasizing what they feel are the most important directions in a design.
The Armature of the Rectangle
The armature of the rectangle is the compositional grid that artists use to create their designs. Photographers can use the armature grids in post-processing to help them select the best composed photograph. To learn more, I recommend reading the book The Art of Composition: A Simple Application of Dynamic Symmetry by Michel Jacobs.
Echoing is a technique used by artists to create recurring themes in their images by repeating patterns, symbols, or ideas in the foreground and background. Many street photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, and Craig Semetko use this approach to create a surreal and sometimes humorous effect.
Being observant of the edges of your compositional frame is vital to the overall success of a design. Photographers, more than painters, have a difficult time with edge distractions because, subconsciously, it’s easy to block out the visual elements around the subject. For this reason, sometimes when previewing images in post-production, you might notice details in your photos that you didn't see when you first snapped the shot. An effective way to avoid this problem is to visually scan the edge of the frame before you decide on a final composition.
Ellipses in Composition
Ellipses used in a composition are regular oval shapes that connect and tie together specific elements to create a sense of unity and a fluid visual movement for the viewer.
Enclosures in Composition
An enclosure in a composition unifies and ties together specific elements by locking them into simple geometric shapes.
Framing Within a Frame
Using the composition technique of framing within a frame allows the artist or photographer to easily signify to the viewer what is the most essential element in the composition. Framing the subject (within a frame) can easily be achieved by using architectural structures like archways, doorways, tree branches, etc. Additionally, the artist or photographer can use light and shadow to frame their subject.
Gamut in composition means the artist is using a limited number of directions in their drawing, painting, or photograph. By limiting the number of directions an artist uses, it won't overwhelm and confuse the viewer. Generally speaking, most master artists will only use 5-7 different directions in a work of art. Also, in a masterpiece, those directions will come from a Dynamic Symmetry grid.
Gazing direction in a composition is the direction a subject is looking at in a scene. When creating a design, the artist should make sure that the gazing direction makes sense to the overall balance of the frame.
Greatest Area of Contrast
The greatest area of contrast (GAC) in a composition is the location in the picture where the viewer's eyes are usually drawn first. Generally speaking, this is most often where the lightest light meets the darkest dark because profoundly contrasting areas tend to demand immediate attention.
In the book The Art of Composition: A Simple Application of Dynamic Symmetry, Michel Jacobs states "If we were to take a layout and paint the principle point of interest a gray, and another part, which we intended to keep as a minor point of interest, a black surrounded by a white mass, the principle point of interest would not hold our attention. It must always be born in mind that the greatest contrast in black and white value will attract the eye. Sometimes we put a very light highlight into a dark mass and sometimes the reverse putting a dark mass into a light area: either one of these methods will hold the eye."
With this idea in mind, a common practice with master artists is to place the most relevant subject (or element) on or near the GAC to give the viewer a sense of priority.
Obtaining a visual hierarchy in a composition is a major step in creating a masterful design. As humans, we have the ability to view an entire picture at once, but we can't focus on every element at the same time. For example, if we were to look at a landscape painting, we might start by looking at a large tree in the foreground. Then our eyes will move to another element near the tree in the middle ground, then continue to look further off into the background, and then back to the tree in the foreground. Our eyes are always striving to seek order.
In composition, a visual hierarchy can be created by using theme and variation through the use of line and value. For this reason, artists use a limited number of directions in a drawing or painting, also known as a gamut. Artists achieve a gamut by enhancing one direction while suppressing another. As Andre Lhote once said, "Exaggeration, diminution, and suppression are the three operations which the artist must constantly practice whether it is a matter of lines, values, colors, or surfaces."
In most works of art, there is a dominant vertical, dominant horizontal, and a dominant diagonal line. These dominant lines define the highest level of a hierarchy in a composition.
Juxtaposition in composition is a technique used by many master photographers that combine several elements in a frame to create a surrealist effect or visual story. Henri Cartier-Bresson was famous for using this concept early on in his career.
Negative shapes in composition refer to the space that surrounds a particular figure or object. While many artists and photographers tend to use the phrase negative space, I find the word "shape" is better suited for fine tuning your visual literacy skills. However, regardless of your terminology, it's important to keep in mind that sometimes negative shapes can overpower the positive elements in a design if the artist isn’t careful or aware. A delicate balance is required.
The technique of overlapping in a composition is how all of the elements in a drawing, painting, or photograph overlap each other to help create the illusion of the third dimension. Generally speaking, you want to strive for a 1/3, 1/2, 2/3, or Phi ratio overlap. If the elements become too close together, it tends to flatten out the design and destroys the illusion of depth and space for the viewer.
Placing One Eye Center
One technique that is commonly used by master artists and photographers when composing a portrait is that they will place one eye of their subject dead center in the frame. It has been said that by placing one eye center "the portrait tends to follow you around the room."
Artists use pointing devices (cues) to give the viewer a visual path to follow in their compositions. If designed correctly, visual pointers will allow the viewer to enter the frame at a predetermined location and move around the piece in a calculated pattern as well as enable them to exit without hesitation or too abruptly.
Pointing Devices vs. Leading Lines
Many artists and photographers will often confuse pointing devices with leading lines. While on the surface they might seem similar, when you take the time to study the techniques more carefully, you will discover there is a clear distinction between the two concepts. The most noticeable difference is that leading lines tend to draw the viewer to one focal point, were as pointing devices move the eye around the entire image.
In Kimberly Elam's book Geometry of Design, she refers to rabatment as the "lazy man's golden section." Rabatment is a design method that consists of overlapping squares in a horizontal or vertical rectangle, regardless of the dimensions, and the resulting horizontal and vertical lines give the artist a compositional structure to work within.
All horizontal rectangles have a left and right rabatment, and all vertical rectangles have a top and bottom rabatment. However, an important point to remember is that rabatment is only one design principle in a much larger system. Other design techniques must be employed in order to make this compositional method successful.
Radiating lines are used by master artists in composition to tie specific elements together from a single point, much like the spokes on the wheel of a bicycle. Using radiating lines creates a sense of unity and allows the eye to travel within the work of art smoothly.
Separating elements (or shapes) in a composition allow the viewer to identify the subjects and their relationships to each other clearly.
Simultaneous contrast refers to the way in which two different colors or values affect each other when they are placed side by side. In other words, the actual colors or values themselves don't change, but how we perceive them is altered.
Simultaneous contrast was first described by the 19th-century French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul in his book on color theory, "The Principle of Harmony and Contrast of Colors," published in 1839. In his book, Chevreul studied color and color perception, showing how our brains perceive color and value relationships.
When the subject of a picture is on one side of the middle, it must be close to a pivot point. If it departs from the center, it must be balanced by a small weight element on the other side to create a visual balance.
Photograph above by Henri Cartier-Bresson intuitively applying Dynamic Symmetry