I used to shoot with a guy that told me he taught “The Elements Theory” to his students on his workshops. “Oh Yeah?” I quipped, “Elements Theory? Like that mountain over there is red because it has the element Iron in its composition?” He laughed hard before he elaborated. No, he said, I mean the number of “photographic” elements. The beautiful mountain. Thats element #1. The sky and clouds are amazing; thats element #2. The stream running through the foreground; element #3. The wonderful light bathing the entire scene, thats element #4. Its really very simple; the more elements, the better the picture. Oh and by the way, odd numbered elements work better than even numbers (of elements).
After closing my jaw, which I’m pretty sure was momentarily hanging open, and regaining the power of speech, I ventured to comment, “so if we had a moose in the stream with an eagle landing on its rack, it would make it a better picture.” He replied, theoretically, sure. But remember, that would total 6, and thats an even number of elements; so it could be problematic.” “Oh”, I responded, “in that case, lets just say theres an imaginary beaver swimming by the imaginary moose with a stick of wood in its mouth.” So after that, every time we’d shoot together we’d attempt to count the elements, but always end up in some argument over what qualified as an element. I liked anything that could be used compositionally. I’d say, “this cool shaped bush I’m using for foreground is a great element”, and he’d say, what, that weed? That picture sucks. For him it had to be super-cool to qualify. At the other end of the spectrum, to him any cloud at all qualified as an element. And so it would go, back and forth.
I’ve always remembered that, and so if you happen to set up near me on some remote hilltop, and hear me mutter something like “five”, its not some kind of masonic code. Its just me running some Elements Theory through my head. (I have to count out loud; good thing I’m not an accountant). Just to let you know, in my photo library, I have at least a coupla hundred fives, a whole lot of sixes, 3 sevens and 1 eight. I saw a 9 once but I couldn’t get my camera set up in time. And I’m still trying to figure out why odd numbers would work better. Makes no sense to me….