Photograph above by Henri Cartier-Bresson intuitively applying the 1.5 armature of the rectangle
Dynamic Symmetry for Photographers A Photographer's Dilemma
I received an email the other day that I felt was worth addressing in an article. The photographer who wrote me 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?" 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 counterproductive 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 taking pictures. In other words, you're intuitively 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. And even though this approach is frowned upon by most modern 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 to see how well you did. This form of analysis is an excellent 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 take this additional step in post-processing, your visual skills will improve each time you pick up your camera. Simply put, you're learning how to see like an artist.
Improving Your Knowledge of Dynamic Symmetry
To answer your other question, to improve your knowledge of Dynamic Symmetry, my suggestion is to read The Art of Composition: A Dynamic Symmetry User's Guide for the Modern Artist. There is a vast amount of information in my user's guide that will improve your visual literacy skills. I've spent ten years compiling the best information on design to make it easier for the artist and photographer, like you, who wants to learn more about the art of composition but don't know where to start.
Design Grids for Cameras
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 many photographers ask me about the use of design grids attached to their camera's LCD screen.
While most photographers view camera grids as a gimmick, this is not the only concern to consider before using this method. For example, 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 visual distraction limits the photographer's 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.
Additionally, and more importantly, photographers that rely on design grids attached to their camera will never develop the necessary intuitive design skills to shoot without this visual crutch. Simply stated, taping design grids to your camera is not the most effective approach for applying Dynamic Symmetry in photography and is, at best, a technique best reserved for the "beginner" student.
*For those that want to give this method a try, click here to download a printable 1.5 grid for any LCD screen. See finished product here. To learn more about this method, please see my user's guide.