When analyzing the composition of a picture, one can find two major categories of elements: content and form. However, separating the two for the sake of analysis is an impossible task while carrying behind it philosophical deconstructions of what a picture even is. Because of the nature of a photograph, it must always have both of these elements present as it must always have someone or something present in the frame. When most people take a picture, this process of figuring out content and form simplifies to a greater degree. But why is any of this important to composition? When anyone looks at a scene and attempts to shoot it, the same question always comes up: “How do I frame it?” Because composition is merely a solution to this problem. Understanding content, form, and the interconnections of the two becomes fundamental to the creation of better pictures and how a photographer communicates through photography.
At its core, content is the subject matter of the picture; it’s both concrete, such as the subject, and abstract, like the emotions provoked by the image. Form, on the other hand, deals with the shape of the graphical elements within the image. Interestingly, the nature of the subject and type of photography used will often direct the method of shooting it. With news photography, for example, little care is placed upon how the subject is shot rather on the subject itself, producing content heavy photography. However, if a photographer is allowed enough time, he can spend more time fine tuning the details of form or experiment with more eccentric composition as in the case of any art-centered kind of photography. Form may not usually carry its own meaning, but it can certainly add nuance to the content. While in theory these two elements are quite distinct, in practice the line between the two tends to blur.
After setting up our Christmas tree at the very appropriate time of mid-November, I decided to take some pictures of it to better highlight the difference between content and form.
Observing the picture, the subject is the tree itself, which is positioned in the corner of the living room near a couch beside a window. The image may appear a bit dark, but I exposed it in such a way that the brightness of the window would not overpower the frame and the lights on the tree were further emphasized to produce a visually interesting picture. Because the picture merely presents a statement, a Christmas tree in a living room, its content receives major emphasis as well as all of the ideas associated with these elements such as the anticipation for Christmas morning, the whiteness of snow in the morning, and the comfort associated with the couch and the holiday season.
On the flip side, the subject of this picture remains a bit more ambiguous. Since the ornament is made of glass, it gains an interesting blend of warm and cool colors due to the various lights in the tree hitting it from several directions at once. The ornament also depicts two cardinals sitting on a branch of holly, two elements of nature associated with love and the sacrifice of Jesus respectively. However, the entire ornament cannot be seen due to it being cut off from the frame or hidden by cords or branches, leaving the actual meaning of the ornament up for debate. With this more eccentric composition, the potential meanings of the drawings etched into the glass are also layered with an inherent sense of coziness found by nesting deep within the tree, surrounded by branches and colorful lights, which captures the indescribable emotions that come with the Christmas spirit. Thus, the form manipulates and layers meaning onto the content.
In the end, how does one discern the best situations for a main focus on content or form? In my experience, and with most things in photography, it simply depends on the context. Often times, the situation itself predicates which element to focus on more. If, for example, you wish to take a picture of friends or family at a social event as a memento, then you probably wouldn’t bother with the form all that much. In other situations, attempting to best direct the form might seem inappropriate in places like a cemetery. In other words, there is a time and a place for content, and a time and a place for form. But most importantly, intent rests at the core of composing an image whether to simply make a statement of fact or to spread a warm sense of Christmas cheer.