The importance of Gesture in your photographic compositions

It may seem obvious if you are making portraits. Your subjects gestures, movements, and expressions are often the key component to a photo that sings and a photo that falls flat. It’s equally, if not more, important in our landscapes or “non-people” photos as well.

Just what is gesture in a photograph? Especially a photo with no people involved? To put it simply, it’s the interplay between a subject and it’s surroundings. It could be viewed as perceived motion or even the sense of “drama” that the photo contains.

Rather than try to explain it verbally, I’ve pulled a handful of examples of my own photos that can illustrate this point a bit more. I’ll break each one down just a bit as we go through them.

First up is the cover photo for this article. I made this photo a little earlier this winter on an overcast morning that was seeing the blue sky struggle to break through the clouds. I was drawn to the gesture of the tree, the way it felt like it was struggling and leaning into the wind that had blown the snow deep all around it. If you look at the shape of the snow covered ground you’ll see it appears to have been blowing in from left to right, while the tree is arching “into” that wind straining to stand up against it.

A perceived motion that, in reality, is just a tree that has grown to lean a bit. There is one added bit of gesture in this photo that I really loved. It’s the way the blue sky is just peeking through above and to the left of the tree, adding to the perceived motion and gesture that the tree is somehow striving to reach for the blue sky and sunlight.

Trees are a great place to find gesture. Take this example for instance. What drew me to this composition is the foggy mood coupled with the broken branch laying in the grass. The way the still standing trees on the left side of the frame are slightly leaning out along the slight hillside, hovering over the fallen branch, was a powerful vision.

It reminded me of soldiers walking up to and bowing their heads to a fallen soldier. Or maybe parents just coming to aid their child that just wiped out on their bicycle and this is that moment, that gesture, just as they sweep down to pick them up. The gesture in this photo really adds to the mood and feel, which when combined with the fog has a feeling of quiet sadness for me.

Ok, the last example of trees having gesture. Sometimes it’s a slightly comical feel, as in this photo. The farm implement sits there, just at the edge of and among the trees. yet the trees right behind it and the ones to the right of it all appear to lean away from the equipment.

As I framed this scene I remember smiling to myself because I just pictured all of these trees being terrified and trying to get away from the equipment, almost like a bunch of kids running from the mean neighborhood dog that suddenly jumped out of the yard and was about to give chase.

Now, sometimes the gesture isn’t as obvious or in your face. In this photo it’s a very small gesture, a feeling of “going against the grain”. Every item in this photo is either stretching vertically or horizontally, the brush and trees reaching straight up to the sky, the snow on the fallen log and ground in the back forming horizontal zones. But this one strong bit of grass and weeds is struggling to stand up.

With a heavy diagonal lean, it’s blade still rigid and strong, it gives me the feeling of something trying to stay strong when the weight of the world is trying to pull it down. When you add in the way the fluff at the end is hanging, the only part of that grass that is drooping, there is added tension. It’s a person that has been knocked down, is trying to stand up with all of their strength, but their head is bowed under the stress.

Ok, something different here. Sometimes your composition is found by taking time to look at different angles. This small memorial statue, when photographed from this angle, with the sun rising in the distance, gives such a happy and playful feel to this photo. The gesture here is of hope, of feeling eager to greet the day, of literally running and flying towards the rising sun.

When combined with the setting, allowing a bit more of the cemetery headstones to be seen, it sets a nice juxtaposition. We know a cemetery should feel somber and sad, yet this small statue flying to the sunrise evokes a feeling of happiness that is much needed among the heavy sadness. I imagine this little sprite dancing happily, running from headstone to headstone whenever no one is watching.

One last example for you, this time a still life of a simple subject. The cables, the post, and the locks are all in nice straight lines. They feel very rigid, very “locked into place” in an unchanging way. There’s a permanent feel to the scene. But that one bell is attached to the side of one of those rigid locks and even though it forever hangs at that angle, it gives the appearance that it is in movement.

The gesture showing that in a rigid, silent world, this small bell rings to remind us of a time now passed. Again, perceived movement to bring mood and feel to the photo.

I hope these examples give you something to think about as you work to incorporate more intentional gesture into your photography. More importantly I hope you found this useful and enjoyable!

Until next time remember to #TakeActionGiveValue. We all have something special to share, so get busy doing great things!

David (Usually Dave) Szweduik is a photographer, podcaster, and all around geek from the great state of Minnesota and can be found weekly on his podcast Adventures in Creativity. There you’ll find him having conversations fueled by curiosity around the amazing world of all things creativity.

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