Pulse of the Picture

11.09.2017 |

Episode #7 of the course Master photographic composition by Tom Ang



Yesterday, we looked at the power of symmetry: keeping things simple. If the symmetry is too perfect, the image risks being boring. With today’s approach, we are also finding the path between two opposites.

Let’s look the pulse or rhythm of an image and what that means. The idea of pulse is probably more familiar to you when applied to music. We know that too rigid a pulse sounds mechanical. But one that is too sloppy or uneven sounds unmusical.


Picture Pulse

The pulse or rhythm of a picture is the arrangement of visual elements that alternate strong to weak and strong again. Imagine a viewer’s eye scanning an image. Their mind unconsciously takes in the strong bits—such as patches of bright light or color—alternating with the dark bits.

Compositions that work often offer a strong rhythmic pulse, like a good disco or jazz beat.

When you look out for these rhythms in the world, you will start to see the world in a different way. And that is another part of your eye-training to unlock photographic composition.

Try this:

• Look out for rows of objects that are repeated but slightly different from each other. My favorite is an avenue of trees: They are regularly spaced but all are different. You have the trunks and the spaces between—lights and darks. Or sunflowers lined up in not quite identical rows. The more you look around you, the more you’ll find. Photograph them from different angles and positions.

• Alternatively, look out for rows of objects that are very similar but broken up or interrupted in some way. Building columns interrupted by people walking through. Or fence posts with an undisciplined plant sticking out. Notice how shots with no interruption look static and a bit boring.

The Tune on the Beat

Once you’ve found the visual pulse of a scene, you can overlay the activity—the scene’s tune, if you like. In my shot in a Bhutan monastery, the regular columns are interrupted by the back of a boy and another peering around. But the play of light changes subtly from one column to another. These elements all add up and work together. That’s what picture composition is about. It’s like composing a tune.

When the four wild horses came up the road, I knew a picture was in the making. I wanted them fully separated into four horses. But when I saw their shadows, I knew the picture was there. The shadows, legs, bodies are all repeats but not quite the same, giving us the strong/weak pulses that make this image work.

Tomorrow, I’ll share some ancient knowledge with you, something that unlocks much of the natural world yet can also inform our photography.

See you!



Recommended book

Extraordinary Everyday Photography: Awaken Your Vision to Create Stunning Images Wherever You Are by Brenda Tharp, Jed Manwaring


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