Structure in Photography: Better Images

Here’s the good news: you don’t need new equipment to take better photographs.

Do you want your photos to have more impact? Are they dull?

It could be subtle, or stunning, but you want to be anything but boring.

Yeah, boring sucks.

And, the answer for you may not be so apparent. You just like making images but you want more from them. You’d like to become better at evoking something, an experience in the viewer. When the viewer sees your photograph, you want them to be a tad different when they walk away.

Now, of course, you and I won’t have this as a goal in-mind all the time, but you’d like to have the tools available to you.

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This is an underground tunnel for a subway system – spooky?

Here’s how you become a better communicator with your images (aka less boring).

Find your subject. Know your subject. Have you heard this before? It’s for good reason. Your subject is the message. It’s the primary point of interest in your photograph.

The other way I like to express the idea of the subject is through structure.

Structure – the arrangement of and relations between the parts or elements of something complex (source)

How do you see structure in photography?

  1. Define your subject – Look for big shapes, then small shapes.
  2. Identify structure – See how the parts within the visual space of your image come together.
  3. Squint your eyes – Simplify the image within your eyes before you take the photo. Squinting forces the contrast, light and dark parts, in the image to become the primary cues for structure.
Structure in Photography
Look for lines and shapes

Fight to see how the small shapes can form bigger shapes.

Structure in Photography
Lines form bigger shapes

If you are successful, then you should be able to break down the image into its distinct pieces.

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Interesting

The principle of finding structure to improve visual interest and clear communication in a photograph is useful for stimulating interest.

Some more examples:

Structure in Photography
Simple lines (Oculus –  New York City)
Structure in Photography
You can form interesting images by combining many complex pieces but focusing on having a clear structure. In this case, the buildings on the side “frame” the bridge archway in the center third of the photograph.

Of course, what you enjoy photographing depends on what you like to see. It doesn’t have to be landscapes or architecture. You can look for structure and capture it for almost any subject of interest.

Structure in Photography
A minimalist approach (simple shapes) is one of the easiest ways to make your subject stand out

If you’re just starting out, or want a kick-start, trying using minimalism as a method to define structure more clearly. Reduce everything in your image down to the simple shapes that form the photograph. For example, it could just be a picture of the bright white moon against a black night sky.

Structure in Photography
More complex structure, but still effective when the structure and shapes of each part are cohesive.

When you get used to seeing simple structures, lines and shapes, you will grow to see that more complex scenes are actually made-up-of a lot of simple parts.

A key aspect of photography is knowing/seeing how our world is in many ways simpler than our brains make it out to be. In reality, our visual perception is just a conglomeration of many, many small things put together.

Learn to deconstruct the visual space by looking for simple structure.

Structure in Photography
Structure can move through a space – what is the subject and where is it going?

Use neuroscience to your advantage: capture in black and white 

A quick note on these photographic examples. They are all in black and white. When you are making a photograph, and you’re struggling to define your subject. I find it is much, much easier to find structure when color isn’t in the picture. Color is another layer of complexity.

The key in communicating anything is clarity. Be clear. Remove as much noise in whatever medium you’re using to communicate that idea as simply and clearly as possible.

A black and white photograph captures structure in the simplest way because our brain processes light and dark shapes first, before any other information. Our brain uses these light/dark cues to form the primary visual information that we use to perceive our world. Use this neuroscience to your advantage.

Structure in Photography
Color photograph (Montreal, Canada) – Can you see the structure in this image?

Color is often redundant, and does not add to structure within a photographic image.

Structure in Photography
No color, but structure remains

Of course, color has its own purpose. Color adds another layer of communication within the visual medium of photography. But, in the more than two hundred years of photography, all images were in black and white. See the work of Ansel Adams or  Henri Cartier-Bresson for more recent works that have inspired millions of landscape and street-portrait photographers. Color did not come into play in photography until the late 20th century.

Summary

Become a better photographer by communicating more clearly. In the visual arts, clear communication means understanding how structure creates an image.

Here, structure is information. Information that is new and clear is never boring.


I hope this article has been helpful! Please let me know in the comments. As always, share your work with me. I always enjoy seeing what others create.

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