It is very common in books and blogs on photography, and in workshops and classes, to highlight line and shape as being very important elements of good compositions. Count me among those who believe that. In fact, I did a blog post on line that dives into the reasons they are so important. It would be very helpful for you to read that first: Friday Foto Talk – Line. Also check out my post on Shape.
But before I join the crowd and trumpet the value of the abstract over the literal, I would like to ask a simple question: Is it worthwhile while photographing, to go searching specifically for line, shape and pattern? The reason I ask is that I have come to question whether the emphasis on abstract patterns among many instructors (as opposed to a more literal focus) isn’t doing a disservice to the learning photographer.
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If you’ve been following this blog for awhile you know how I generally feel about learning photography. I think it’s one of those things best learned by doing. Isn’t everything that way you may ask? Well, I think I would prefer to learn how to calculate rocket trajectories from an expert rather than go experimenting with it (especially if there are astronauts onboard!). Photography is an art, and art can only be genuine when it comes from you not others.
We live in a time that is flooded with how-to. And photography is a particularly apt example of this. In nature and landscape photography, and in travel photography as well, most professional have to teach in order to make ends meet. While nearly all of these folks are very good if not great photographers, perhaps some of them do not put enough thought into their teaching approach.
I have seen photographers whose images I greatly admire preach that you must learn to seek out abstract patterns if your nature and landscape/cityscape photography is to rise above average. I believe these teachers, good as they are at photography, are giving style-specific advice and making it sound as if it’s a universal principle.
While I agree that line, shape and the patterns they form are certainly key parts of many compelling and interesting compositions, I don’t agree that a learning photographer should go out with the specific aim to find abstract patterns.
Of course if abstraction becomes part of your style, then go ahead, knock yourself out. I do it from time to time. But don’t let anyone (even if their photography is masterful) convince you it is the way to successful image-making. That is far too rigid. Instead, I believe your overall approach should be more open-minded. The elements you seek out when you’re shooting should be guided by your own personal take on the character of your subject and the mood of its surroundings.
A strong photo will always tell good story about its subject. I don’t think you can focus on the character and mood of your subject, scene and lighting if you are too wrapped up in the abstract patterns. As I mentioned in the post on Line, we are visual creatures who naturally seek out leading lines or repeating shapes and patterns. So trust that you will find them even without a conscious focus.
Concentrate on what makes your subject or scene cool and interesting, on how that light helps to set the mood you wish to either create or pass on from the scene directly to your viewer. Do this I believe, and those compelling lines and patterns will show up all on their own.