Photography by Design

by imageguy

I recently had an email exchange with a photography student who told me he was using my work as a research source for a theme project where he would work in the style of another photographer. He had chosen work from my blog post about Nature’s Reclamation, saying my style was to photograph rusting metal, so he would work on photographing rusting metal. He had asked me for advice on how I captured my images and my first reaction was to point out that photographing rusting metal was not my style of photography. It simply was what that article seemed to focus on, and even that was more about how nature takes back everything eventually, not just rusting metal. It would certainly work for a project theme, but I consider my “style” something all together different.

rusting building

blinds and glasses

I believe most serious photographers will tell you they have a style, that is, a certain way they approach their subjects, certain things they like to concentrate on. I think a photographer’s style says something definitive about how they see and interpret the world, how they see themselves, and what they want to express through their art. Styles change. They evolve just as personalities do. They change as our tastes change and as we gain experience as artists and technicians. This is true of anyone in any creative endeavor, whether it’s architecture or graphic design or clothing design or landscaping or photography and so on.

banana grayscale


When I was a very young man, I dreamed of being an architect. I drew houses, grand colonial facades with columns and shuttered windows, I drew elaborate contemporary homes with glass and stone and spreading floor plans. Today, I would prefer an arts and crafts bungalow to any other style for myself. Photography is no different. I went through my black and white phase, my Polaroid phase, my color landscape/nature phase. All of these different types of photography have interested me. But through it all, I think my style has always revolved around design. Around good composition.

Willimantic street

Seaside flowers

All 2-D art, whether paintings, photography, etchings, collages, serigraphs, whatever, depend on elements of composition that have been around for centuries. The Golden Mean, the rule of thirds, pattern and repetition, the basic elements that form successful composition and cause our brain to stay and linger and our eye to travel where the artist intended. Elements that move the viewer and cause us to react in some way. Not always easy to define. Pictorial images, unlike abstracts, cause us to react both from design elements as well as subject matter. More abstract images cause us to imagine, and react more purely to design, to line and form and color and texture. Whether an images is pictorial or abstract, good composition, good design is what makes the image work or not. Simple subjects, if properly composed, can be incredibly moving and dramatic. Complex images rely to a great degree on good design to keep them from being chaotic and confusing. We often are not even aware of why an image moves us so, why its composition works. It’s like a good picture frame, it enhances the image without drawing attention away from it. But if we take the time to really dissect an image we like, we can usually pinpoint the elements of the composition that work. It’s a good way to study composition, much like studying a well written paragraph.

sunrise Cayuga Lake

pool from above

Hindu ceremony

The main thing I used to teach my students about composition is that composition IS the visual language. It is the way to give order and understanding to an image. It is about every element of the image, what is included and what is not included. How every element relates to every other element, and how they all relate to the frame of the image. How one part that is misplaced or improperly included can be such a distraction as to destroy the effective communication of the artist’s intent. Everything counts.



One of my favorite photographers and one of the most influential in my own development as a photographer is Freeman Patterson. His book, Photography and the Art of Seeing probably taught me more about how to see and compose an image than anything I’ve ever read. Freeman talks about “dynamic simplicity”, that point where we distill an image to its most basic elements while maintaining something dynamic and stimulating to keep the image alive. His images are pure and rich and complete.

red awning

I have tried for years to work toward the goal of this kind of purity of design. It has shaped my style. And my style has shaped my vision and my art.

All images are Copyright © George Cannon, All Rights Reserved.