This section is from the book "Complete Self-Instructing Library Of Practical Photography", by J. B. Schriever. Also available from Amazon: Complete Self-Instructing Library Of Practical Photography.
328. Composition is the creating of a subtle arrangement of lines or forms in photography which shall present a beautiful whole. The object of all composition in photography is to give pleasure through the picture. The composed picture is to the eye what music is to the ear. It may be harmony or discord according as the arrangement is good or bad. The most important factors in composition are design and pictorial value, the difference between them being that the first may disregard scientific truth, while the latter conforms to it.
329. The value of design in composition is that it brings abstract ideas into concrete form. Its forms are idealized. In landscape pictures we must consider the element of truth, and we are limited only by the necessity of following nature. For instance, in design, one may have no shadows at all and relative sizes of anything one pleases. In picture making, while we may transform trees into bushes, leave out fences, put in houses, color values, etc., we must preserve the appearance of truth, at least in the local color and the perspective of the picture. We need not tell the whole truth, that is, reproduce every individual leaf upon the tree, but we must give a truthful impression of the tree as a whole. We should not show any contradiction to scientific truth. Mere fidelity to nature in picture making is only giving a record of fact, pure and simple. It does not give the picture artistic value, any more than being alive and human makes us all beautiful. Truth to nature may exist with complete absence of beauty, yet beauty is necessary to give pleasure, and since the object of all art is to please, all pictures must be beautiful, either in themselves intrinsically, or in their expression.
330. Beauty, then, being the vital spirit and the essence of all good art, it is natural to ask, first, what is beauty? The poet Shelley says, "Beauty is truth and truth is beaut}', and that is all there is to it." But after all is said, this definition of beauty is narrow and limited to one point of view. It must also include the creative imagination. The artist must first think of his subject in a certain effect or design. In photography he must think of his subject in light and shade, beauty of line, atmosphere and perspective. Having created the effect in his own mind he then makes the picture. In this way the creative imagination comes into photography with design, and when they both come into any art, that art becomes a fine art. It is not the beauty of the subject, but the beauty of the form which the imagination of the artist gives to the subject, that makes the photograph artistic.
331. If the photographer has had art training, com-position will help him to create something in a design, and this design must be beautiful in itself, apart from what it suggests or signifies. Unless the photographer is something more than a mere recorder of facts, he does not portray beauty, nor does he give pleasure. To be artistic the photograph must be pictorial, must follow the accepted rules of composition, light and shade, and must express beauty in an unmistakable manner. It must show temperament, and a personal intent on the part of the photographer to express beauty to be called art. All these principles may be learned from the works of the great masters. They are primarily and briefly summed up in this one word, "composition." With these preliminaries, laid down as essential to right picture making, it is easy to see that the quickest way to arrive at art in picture making is by process of elimination.
332. You should take out the things in a picture that are not artistic, and secure the features that are artistic from among what remains. You can, for instance, eliminate the scientific, the commercial and even the pictorial aspect of the picture.
333. The photographer may be artistic, first, in his choice of subject; second, in his arrangement; third, in his handling and technique.
334. In every picture there is a central point of interest in the choice of subject, which holds the greatest amount of attention. This represents the subject value of the picture. It is essential that this should, of course, be pleasing and beautiful.
335. If the photographer is artistic he will demonstrate this fact in his arrangement of the subject chosen. Arrangement, or composition, is probably the principal thing for the photographer to consider. In landscape studies, for instance, he can divide this arrangement under two heads, - first, in the selection of a subject, and second, in the arrangement of the details.
336. This choice of a subject is largely a personal matter. The arrangement of the details calls for more attention. It can be better understood perhaps with a knowledge of how the system of arrangement has been historically evolved. The first arrangement in picture making was made by the Egyptians, thousands of years ago. The Assyrians also had good ideas of drawing, though they knew little of arrangement. There was first, a series of upright lines opposed to horizontal ones. Then, somebody succeeded in evolving curved lines, and the Greeks improved upon this form some hundreds of years later. That is, they broke the line off. The Romans went still further and made spiral lines, all of which represented progress and improvement over the original straight line, and so composition in picture making progressed by degrees in this way.
337. The composition of the Egyptians was made up of straight figures, and, therefore, was represented by a number of straight lines. The Greeks filled up their forms by posing the straight lines in opposition to each other, at very nearly right angles, but it was all straight lines and there were no flowing curves in it.
338. The Romans, however, carried composition still further and began to use another form of curved lines, which ran together and made a sort of hollow form. From that time to the days of the early Renaissance, it is not difficult to follow the development of the art of picture making.