I feel strongly that the composition of the following image works but cannot yet articulate why. Viewed traditionally the composition appears to break several “rules”. The horizon is almost exactly across the middle and a tree splits the image into two separate halves. The image also has multiple elements, none of which are on any of the “1/3rds”. Finally, what are we supposed to be looking at? The image appears to be a jumbled set of elements.
Yet the image works for me. I will use these notes to analyse the composition using two different but related methods to gain a better understanding of why this might be.
Auchencorth Moss by Neil McCoubrey
Viewed using Savannah Theory
Here is a scene where the two sides of the image have very different opportunities when considered using Savannah Theory (Mansfield 2014).
Both sides are being viewed from a high vantage point which should be beneficial for seeing any threats and or benefits (prey, for example) from a great distance. This is true on the right side of the image. However, this side also has relatively little cover (refuge from threats). It also has several horizons beyond which there may be invisible threats.
There are parallel tracks, mid ground, just left of the dead tree stump. Being parallel tracks they are likely to be human, not animal constructs and so indicate that people have travelled towards the horizon on a regular basis.
On the left side, there is water, one of the basic requirements for survival and so an attractive prospect. However, the water is in a narrow valley and once someone is in this valley to collect water threats could approach quite closely without being seen.
There are tracks made by either humans or animals heading along the fence towards the mid ground trees and, presumably, onwards to the wooded area in the distance. So, this side has lots of refuge opportunities but these refuges could also be hiding threats and the fence would impede any escape out of the image to the left.
Due to the difference in the colours of grass to the left of the fence, this area looks less fertile than the rest of the image. That may be an illusion but, emotionally, it would drive the viewer towards staying on the right of the fence. It is a strong inner frame.
There are two light coloured rectangular constructions at the centre of the image. Being geometric these are most likely to be human constructs and therefor attract the eye. There is also some form of derelict brick construction between the stream and tracks in the foreground. Both, evidence of human presence and, presumably, survival in this landscape.
Viewed using the “Imagery and Symbolism of the Prospect”
Jay Appleton’s techniques look at the scene in terms of the paths made by the light towards the viewer’s eye and classifies the different elements around the:
“…relationship between the observer and the observed landscape in so far as his view is encouraged or impeded by the content of the intervening environment.”
(Appleton, 1975, p.85)
Note – a panorama is wide view from a good “vantage point”, typically with a 360o view, whereas a “vista” is a view bounded by a frame.
In this image, we have a high vantage point of an “interrupted panorama”. Interrupted implies an object is hiding a portion of the view but not so much as to destroy the overall impression.
The fence, a path and stream form strong regular and irregular “vistal axes”, which guide the eye towards the mid-ground woods. However, progression is blocked by several scrubby trees and the derelict brick construction. Our eyes will not, naturally get to the woods from here. On the left side of the fence there is also space to move but once in there we are visually trapped in a triangle formed by the edge of the image, the fence, and the distant trees. The colours on the left of this fence are cooler than those in the rest of the image which would be less attractive to the eye.
If, instead, we follow the stream it forms a “deflected vista” guiding us passed the near trees and towards the mid-ground woods and the light coloured, geometrical constructions.
The two central trees effectively split the image into two different vistal themes, the left relatively close and contained and the right open and distant. The strong sunlight on the reddish bark of the central tree accentuates it role as a dividing line between the two sides of the image.
To the right of the trees we have several “magnetic lines”. These are the 2 horizon lines, without trees, which attract the eye because they are “secondary vantage points” from where we could also view the scene from a high place. The third horizon appears heavily wooded and, as such, will only work as a vantage point when viewing outwards, from the trees. It is less attractive as it cannot provide a 360o panorama.
On this side of the image there is also a vistal axis, resulting from an imaginary line starting at the base of the central tree going through the fallen tree, its stump and then on to the horizons.
Appleton also notes how “clear light”, as in this image, aids our ability to see everything, even at distance, and this helps when perceiving hazards or threats.
Triangles & Balance
The two previous methods have allowed some interesting analysis of the image content but not of the composition. In fact, Appleton’s analysis suggests that the composition may not work because of the visual blockages that do not allow the eye to flow around the scene. Instead I will try a less analytical and more graphical approach.
I have converted the image to B&W in order to focus upon shape and tone and remove the complexities of colour.
I see two primary, visual triangles in the scene. Both are roughly the same size. They are shown in white and are connected by a secondary triangle, shown in red.
Triangles are always an appealing arrangement in an image.
The left triangle is very solidly sitting on the base line. Being such a firm base and connected by the foliage (red triangle) to the central tree. It appears to act as a support for a mast (the central tree) with the right-hand triangle (being lighter in tone) seeming like a sail.
For me the three triangles together form a delicately balanced structure, with the red triangle as the fulcrum. Whilst, at first glance, the central tree appears to divide the image, it is actually these triangles that hold it together. I believe it is this imaginary structure that is the foundation of the image’s compositional appeal to me.
Savannah Theory suggests that, for a human, this scene has a good balance between potential resources, open views and refuge and any areas of risk are fairly obvious. Therefore, as a scene, it appeals to our basic human instincts as somewhere we can exploit. We like the content of the scene but what of its arrangement?
Appleton’s analysis techniques don’t talk about our likes and dislikes, the threat versus benefits, but about the processes we use to survey and evaluate the scene. These techniques show how our eyes move around to capture and so enable analysis of what we are seeing.
In using Appleton’s techniques it is clear that, in some directions, the route our eyes take around the scene is blocked and we have to jump over visual barriers, from one area to another. Such discontinuities are not generally considered to be a sign of good composition. So, there must be some other factor that makes the composition appealing to me.
I believe my enjoyment of this image is largely driven by the delicate structure formed from the three imaginary triangles and how this structure links the two halves of the image across the apparent dividing element of the central tree.
Appleton J. The Experience of Landscape Wiley & Sons, London, 1975
Mansfield J. Landscape and Evolutionary Psychology, 2014. viewed at https://www.jordanmansfield.com/landscape-photography-evolutionary-psychology/ on 19/01/17.