This is an interesting perspective and one I had recently with a colleague while we were hiking out in Pawnee Buttes of Northern Colorado.  The nuts and bolts of the back story here is that we were talking about the creative process and how people “see” their pictures.  It’s not so much the pre-visualization process (although that’s a good topic too), this is more a question of what your eye happens to catch first.

While both the light and the composition are essential elements to a photograph, often times you will “see” one before the other.  So the question became one of “Do you see the light?”  versus “Do you see the composition?”  Take for example the photo I’ve shared in the past of Bull Island at Sunrise:

Bull Island Sunrise, SC

When I first saw this scene, it was not a sunrise – it was more around 11am – noonish.  It was my previous trip to Bull island, and my first thought was “This scene would be gorgeous at sunrise!”  To me, for that moment, the composition was totally the first and only thing that popped into my mind – I simply had to find the time to get back for the right light.  As you can tell from the above shot, I did!

By contrast, sometimes you are in a location and the light just speaks to you…something about it inspires you to capture the moment.  After the moment of inspiration then, the way to compose starts to creep into your minds eye.  Here, a great example from my own portfolio archives is some beams of light that caught my eye in a parking garage:

Lines of Light

The lines of light that shot through the grid-style wall of the garage really caught my eye here, and I spent a good ten minutes trying to figure out the best way to capture the moment.  Clearly, I was shooting on a tripod, but I wasn’t sure if I should look at it from this side, the other end, or from the front.  Either end would have given a left-to-right (horiztonal eye movement) perspective, whereas shooting from on the side would have been a vertical sort of shot, with the lines drawing the eye in.  Ultimately, I shot it as my own eyes first saw it: left to right.  The point though, is that I saw the light first, then had to think about the composition…

For me, the best way to express the whole idea of looking at images from a perspective of lighting and composition, it’s probably better to not use the term “versus” because neither one weighs more for me – I consider both equally.  Does one sometimes catch my eye first?  Of course – but I always draw the other element into the image whenever possible.  For me it’s more of a scale – with lighting on one end and composition on the other:

Which Way do You Slide?Sometimes something on the left end of the spectrum catches my eye, then my brain pulls me to the right to bring the two together.  Other times something on the right end catches my eye, then the opposite happens, my mind starts thinking about the left.

As you can see, it’s not as simple as one would think to really definitely answer this – but I will say this:  It helps to explore which you may lean toward more.  Some people just see the lighting element of imagery plain as day, while for other the composition just falls naturally into place.  Knowing which way you lean though, can help you to work on the other element.  The question really to ask then is:  which comes first in your eye? (Hint: Sound off in the comments! 🙂 )  Happy shooting and we’ll see you back here Friday for some honest to goodness ground-breaking news!

3 thoughts on “Lighting versus Composition

  1. this is an interesting topic. I look at a scene and try to just enjoy the moment first, then ask whether this is worth a photo, then figure out the composition. usually

  2. Lighting is what I tend to see first. I look for both, but to me if the lighting is bad I don’t get as enthused about a shot…

    1. Same here, good light is major factor for me.

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