How to Use Low Graphic Style as a Compositional Tool

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In the never-ending search to improve photographic skills, it’s important to push the limits and try projects that push you outside your comfort zone. That’s why a project that involves studying and creating images using low graphic style is an important undertaking that can help to stretch the imagination and push your photography skills to another level.

Low graphic style is not often discussed, but it is worth exploring. The elements of low graphic style often contradict the formal rules of photography. The big question, however, begins with a definition for low graphic style or rather a discussion of the psyche behind creating this style of image.

Low graphic style evolved as a reaction to traditional composition rules and ideas found in photography.

How to Use Low Graphic Style as a Compositional Tool - b/w street scene

This image presents a typical eye level view of a city street in Montreal.

How to Use Low Graphic Style as a Compositional Tool - silhouette at dusk

Compare this image to the one above. Here the horizon is centered but the bold colors and the deep shadows of the silhouettes definitely add some bold graphic elements to the picture.

Low graphic style attempts to create an image that is free of manipulation. The goal is to create an image that shows the plain truth which could have been altered by the use of traditional compositional rules. Whether low graphic style achieves this goal is a philosophical discussion is not suited to this article, but the basic elements of low graphic style should be studied like any other style of photography and understood to push your photography skills to a higher level.

It’s impossible to attempt to photograph in a certain style without completely understanding the elements that make a photograph fall into the realm of low graphic style. So without wasting any more time let’s compare low graphic to the more common high graphic style.

1) Static Balance

Static balance is in contrast to the Rule of Thirds. The idea is that the photographer focuses on creating compositions that utilize symmetrical compositions. The photographer also avoids including dynamic elements like diagonals which might add energy to the image.

2) Square frames and centered horizon lines

The use of a square frame or placing the horizon on the midline instead of alone one of the 3rd lines also helps to create an image that is far more in line with low graphic style.

3) A feeling of passivity

Images which fall into the realm of low graphic style often feel very soft or passive. You won’t find an image in this realm which depicts intense emotions. An image of a group of people running aggressively through the street will not fit into low graphic style.

How to Use Low Graphic Style as a Compositional Tool - b/w of a boy in the road

With the exception of the diagonal shadow, the image fits well into low graphic style. The boy is centered in the frame and the focal length is 50mm. There’s no feeling of movement so a sense of passivity is present within the photo.

How to Use Low Graphic Style as a Compositional Tool - b/w portrait of a woman with sunglasses

Consider the look and feel of this portrait in comparison to the one above. There are many differences and a huge contrast in the effect each image has on the viewer.

4) Normal focal lengths

Typically images that utilize low graphic style use normal focal lengths that mimic the normal range of the eye. Focal lengths like 15mm won’t be used when creating low graphic style photos.

5) Bland colors

Bold bright colors and high contrast are out when trying to achieve a low graphic look. Keep the colors bland and the contrast minimal. The goal is subtlety, not boldness.

How to Use Low Graphic Style as a Compositional Tool - low contrast image

In this image, there’s very little contrast. Also, the colors and lighting are flat. The idea is to plainly portray this hillside without attempting to add emotion or drama.

6) Monochrome

Focusing on black and white conversions will remove any of the emotional content that colour often provides to an image.

monochrome image of Montreal - How to Use Low Graphic Style as a Compositional Tool

Monochromatic images help to remove any emotions that could be evoked by colors.

7) Repetition

Using repeated patterns helps to reduce the possibility of evoking emotion with an image. Also, images that utilize one uniform texture can be considered low graphic style.

rock pattern on a roadway or path - How to Use Low Graphic Style as a Compositional Tool

In this image, we hit several elements of low graphic style. The image is monochrome, depicts a uniform pattern and texture throughout.

Conclusion

Low graphic style might not be for everyone. It suits the aesthetic taste of many, but there are those of us who love bold colors and bright emotional images. There are those of us who love constructed images that push the boundaries of reality.

Whatever style you prefer, trying something out of your comfort zone is never a bad thing. For those who love this look in their photography, by all means, share with us your tips of the trade. We want to hear all about the differences between high graphic style and low graphic style.

How to Use Low Graphic Style as a Compositional Tool - parking garage in b/w

The simple flat view of a parking garage ticks off many of the compositional elements of low graphic style.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Erin Fitzgibbon is a freelance photographer, writer, and teacher, from Ontario, Canada. She specialises in portrait, sport, and fine art photography. In her free time, she escapes to the backcountry or the beach with her family.

  • AntiPoliticallyCorrect

    Cute term, doesn’t change the fact that these are bad lifeless images suitable only to verify the delete key is functioning.

  • waynewerner

    I guess that depends on what your goal is. Art is pretty subjective – someone thought https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/98.203 was worth paying a cool million for. If you are intentional about what you’re creating – even if nobody else likes it – presumably it’s still art.

    If someone had a goal in mind when shooting, and went out and achieved that goal, is that different just because the composition, lighting, and color are explicitly understated and plain?

    I don’t think I can agree with that, any more than I can agree that all B&W photographs are garbage, or all color photographs are worthless, or all landscape photographs are terrible, or all posed photographs are rubbish, or all photojournalism/lifestyle photographs are pointless.

    Just because I don’t like the way steak tastes doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy the heck out of that $75 NY strip steak.

    And just because we may prefer more dynamic compositions doesn’t mean someone else can’t enjoy deliberately “boring” photographs.

  • AntiPoliticallyCorrect

    It’s all post rationalization which was my point. You can go out take these “low graphic” images intentionally. Someone else, who has never held a camera in their life, can go out and take the same exact pictures because there isn’t anything hard or complex about them.

    They are technically inferior, so you don’t need to know how to operate a camera. They are lacking in composition so you don’t need any art history or art knowledge. in fact, 10 years ago they would have been referred to as snapshots, a pejorative term used to denote complete lack of artistic understanding or intent.

    So who then is the artist? The person who intentionally did it or the one who got lucky? The answer is neither. Yes, Art is subjective, but it is also intentional. Because there is no way to verify intent, other than the “artist” statement after the fact, i.e. post rationalization.

    whole thing seems like a weak argument justifying Instagram filters applied to a bad image.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Ohh good I’ve woken up to some comments and controversy. This is exactly what I was hoping to have here. I first ran across this term when looking at one of Micheal Freeman’s books. It’s an interesting concept. I will admit it.. I am not a fan of low graphic style and I struggled to make pics that would fit into the category. It’s hard. Really hard but many love this look. That’s why art is so subjective. If you wish to call the term cute go for it, lol but I’m not the one who coined it. You might need to go argue with some pretty famous photographers about their ideas. ;))) Keep it coming folks. Who likes this style? Who doesn’t? What do you think. Discussion can only lead to more ideas.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Excellent points. I know people who pay a ton for low graphic style. It also happens with paintings and such. I can look at a Mondrian and think um… no thanks… meanwhile others fall over themselves to take a look.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    You’ve made some great points. Yes it’s easy to say they are inferior but that’s the problem with art. Some people see abstract as inferior, that it takes no skill to paint a bunch of lines on a canvas. While others argue differently. In this case Low Graphic Style was a reaction to conventional composition ideas. Some would argue.. Freeman including that the elements of low graphic style don’t necessarily make an inferior image that they can be beautiful too. Low Graphic Style emerged in the 70’s. There were several pretty famous exhibitions that utilized these concepts. The goal was to create “stylistic anonymity”. If nothing else the idea of composing images in such a way that goes against the rules of convention can only lead to more exploration. It’s worth looking at things and asking why we see them as good vs. those we see as bad.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon
  • Would this image fit the genre? The subject is in the middle, the horizon is in the middle, nothing is in focus. Yet somehow I keep coming back to this one. There’s something I kind of like about it that I can’t quite put my finger on.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/55f20bc7a4437f1dadc51c10f76ef74d1113eab750daffc92ffe5ab474fc6830.jpg

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    It’s got a lot of the elements to it yes. I see what you mean about it having that certain something to it. I see it too. In fact it sort of reminds me of the look and feel of an Alex Colville painting. http://www.welcometocolville.ca/assets/gallery/15/E-00733.103.jpg

    I would count it as low graphic style. Some may argues the colours are too intense and there’s too much contrast but that’s not really the point. Why does something have to fit the genre perfectly?

    It has an atmosphere to it and I think ultimately that’s the most important part. Nice job. I like it for sure.

  • Thanks Erin!

  • AntiPoliticallyCorrect

    @erinfitzgibbon:disqus
    My response was not intended negatively toward you.

    Just sick of seeing the art world lower the bar at every turn to make everyone an artist. If everyone and every expression is art, than nothing is art. I’m glad you brought up abstract. because the real problem with abstract that you describe, is that most people don’t understand it and therefore label things abstract incorrectly. Abstract has very defined terms, but people who lack education in this area just throw the label around.

    Another example where this happens outside of art is with Anarchism. Anarchism is not chaos, it is order without control. Very big difference, but one many do not understand.

    I get the concept of low graphic, and it’s intent to go against the grain of conventional thinking. but conventional thinking is conventional because it is the result of trial and error. It’s what everyone agrees on after everything else failed.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    See as someone who was forced to take these i ages for the article I found it hard to do.

    I would also argue that yes anyone can make art. As someone who teaches art the struggle is to get people to let go of their fears. Theres this worry about making something “right”. I hear it all the time. I cant do this it doesnt look right. Rather I want people to let go and create with emotion and enthusiasm not create by a strict set of rules. This fear of getting it right makes people hold back. I think thats wrong. First and foremost art is expression for each individual then its seco dary role is to grab others. If that cheesy instagram filter turns your crank and lets you be creative I say have at it. Create fir the sheer joy if it. Who cares if others think its good.

    Beautiful work is subjective and there are art critics out there label as good bad .. Other … Let them. Let people make and experiment. Theres no harm in it. Exercises in creativity are never a bad thing.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    No no i wasnt seeing them as negative not at all. I love a good philosophical discussion. Say what you think and i will happily respond. ???

  • Mark Miller

    Personally, I enjoy, and appreciate all art forms/styles. There is much to be learned by trying things that are different, or appear strange. Who knows, you might gain insights into your own psyche by trying something you find strange.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Excellent to hear Mark. Taking risks and experimenting is always worth it.

  • Jack Doy

    I’m with you all the way there APC. WTF did she dig all that crap up

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Feel free to google low graphic style and the name Michael Freeman.

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