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Photographic Composition 1

This is part one of a four part article on photographic composition. The second part of the article will appear in the in a few weeks.

7925 Wet Highway near the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana


All the pictures in this article illustrate some of the basic principles of composition: All the pictures are simple images without all kinds of distracting clutter. They are all about one easily discernible subject. Your eye tends to gravitate to that subject and stay there. Many of the images here have a lot of depth which is created by lines which converge in the distance, and by objects which get smaller as they recede into the distance. And, all of the important objects in the picture are placed using the rule of thirds.

The picture of the lonely Montana highway above illustrates all of these principles. The subject, the highway, is placed off center as called for by the rule of thirds. The lines of the highway converge as they recede into the distance. The telephone poles get progressively smaller as they recede into the distance. And the horizon line is placed in accordance with the rule of thirds. In the course of the four articles in this series we will explain these principle in much greater detail.

The basic rules of composition are simple. In my opinion they are: 1) Framing the picture (i.e., selecting just the right piece of the real world in your camera view finder). 2) Making sure the picture has a subject or at least a main point of interest. 3) Using foreground properly. 4) Developing depth in the picture. 5) Using line and space and shape and color to create an image that pleases the eye and the soul. I will cover all these subjects in this series of articles.

Without good composition, a photograph can never be more than mediocre. Composition is an essential tool that every photographer must at some point come to grips with if he wants to create compelling and interesting pictures.

Composition basically means giving order to a photograph. It's something all artists do, not just photographers. Visually, reality is a chaotic jumble of forms, shapes, lines, details, colors, clutter, and junk--even the most beautiful scene. If you don't believe this, just try shooting twenty shots randomly without looking through the viewfinder; the pictures will be filled with disordered, meaningless details and clutter. Whenever you put a camera to your eye, you are automatically practicing elementary composition: you choose to frame one subject rather than another, you position certain elements of the picture in a certain way rather than another. The goal of this series of articles is to help you to refine this simple, automatic sense of composition to much higher levels. Even if you don't make your own pictures, a knowledge of basic composition will help you to appreciate good pictures and good art of all kinds.

Some people seem to have an innate sense of good composition. I'm not sure if they are born this way or somehow learn composition, but they seem to automatically know how a scene in the real, three dimensional world should be organized to make a good two dimensional picture. People like this are usually visually oriented people who tend to think in pictures rather than in ideas. These people are often said to have a good eye and they often say things like "I can't understand it unless I can see it." The visual person has something of a head start as a photographer. He can often look at a scene through his lens and just feel the way it ought to be. By changing his shooting location a few feet this way or that way, or by framing the picture in slightly different ways and fiddling with this and that he can often arrive at a picture that feels right and is right. If you are this kind of a person, it usually works to trust your instincts and feelings. You can often produce a very good picture instinctively. I often work partially in this mode. I do depend a lot on my intuitive inner eye, but I also depend greatly on learned rules of composition and a lot of years of photographic experience.

The good news is that even if you are not a visual person with a naturally good eye, you can still become a very good photographer. For one thing there are easy, sensible rules for good artistic composition that can be learned by anyone. We'll get to some of these rules in just a bit. However, before you begin thinking about rules, one of the best things you can do is to make a conscious effort to really see pictures. Start looking carefully and consciously at all kinds of professionally done pictures and ask yourself questions like "What makes this picture good," or "What does this picture have in common with other good pictures," or "How could I take a picture that would be like this picture." Start looking at lots and lots of all kinds of professionally done pictures: photography, paintings, drawings, advertisements. Buy photography books and art books. Go to galleries and museums. Look at pictures in magazines and on TV carefully. There is a tremendous amount of art in all of this stuff. After a while you begin to get a feeling for what it takes to make pictures work.

Another factor in learning composition is experience. It is very important to just get out there and begin shooting. Do this in conjunction with looking at other artist's pictures. Don't worry if you take a lot of bad pictures. Taking bad pictures can be a wonderful learning experience. I suspect that it may be necessary to take at least 100 bad pictures to learn how to take one good one. Get out there and shoot. Shoot a lot. Make mistakes. Look at the mistakes, analyze them, decide how to fix them. Try again. You really can't become a good photographer without doing this. And this process never really stops. After forty years of seriously taking pictures, I still take many, many bad photographs. And I continually try to fix the mistakes and to do better. This is one the best ways to grow photographically, maybe the only way. You really can't learn photography from books or articles or from asking other photographers how they take such good pictures. You really have to go through the whole trial and error process yourself and make all the mistakes before you can find your own way to take great photographs. This is the only way, believe me.

The first rule of composition is simplicity. This is one of the most important aspects of composition. Good pictures are often simple pictures. Simple pictures are pictures that are easy to look at. When a person looks at one, his eye doesn't dart all over the picture from insignificant detail to insignificant detail trying to figure out what the picture is about. When you look at a good picture you know right away what the picture is about: a beautiful mountain scene, a golden aspen standing alone in the sunset, a group of columbines with mountains in the background. If there is a lot of clutter in the picture, a bunch of trees here, a fence there, a batch of flowers over on the side, the eye doesn't know what to look at and gets confused.

So, keep your landscapes simple and uncluttered. When you look at any scene in the real world, the human eye in combination with the human mind tends to automatically simplify the scene by discarding all the stuff you are not interested in. You don't even realize you are doing this. Unfortunately, this can be a problem when you want to take a picture of this scene; the camera doesn't automatically remove the clutter, it captures everything in front of it, good, bad and ugly.

For example, you see a scene with a beautiful rainbow. The first reaction is to say "Wow, got to get a picture of that." So you grab a camera and shoot. "Got it." Later, when you see the scene on your monitor, you see what the camera saw, not what you saw with your eyes. And, of course, the picture is often very disappointing. It consists of a big field with wet ugly mud and scraggly bushes in the foreground, three cars in the right rear corner, a highway sign in the left corner and a tiny rainbow that you can hardly see way back there somewhere. The rainbow is maybe 5% of the picture. Cameras don't distinguish between beautiful and ugly and unimportant like the human eye/mind does, it just captures everything that is in front of it.

We've all had this experience. It's one of the most common experiences in photography. What has happened is that your mind has filtered out all that stuff that you really aren't interested in, but the camera hasn't. It's the same filter that lets you take pictures of Aunt Sally with a telephone pole growing out of her head or pictures of your daughter dressed for the prom with the dirty laundry basket in the background. Your mind filters this inessential stuff out, but the camera gets it all. The cure for this is to stop and think both before and after you shoot.

Stop and think. What really interests you about the picture? Is it the rainbow in the background and not the muddy field in the foreground? OK, the subject of the picture is the rainbow. Let's make it good and big so it takes up a significant part of the picture. This probably means a long lens. Now, look at the new picture through the long lens; with the junk gone the rainbow is kind of lonesome. Well let's try and frame the rainbow under that gnarly tree branch over there. Look, rethink, re-shoot. Oops, almost got that picnic table way over there on the left. Move over a bit and cut out the picnic table. Rethink...reshoot... and pretty soon you have a decent picture. One that has a single, easy-to-grasp subject.



Here are a few more pictures that are well composed, more or less. (No pictures are perfect; another good rule to learn.)


10253, Frosty Autumn Leaves and Grasses, Yellowstone National Park



10045, Goose Island, St Mary Lake, Glacier National Park



Longs Peak and Branch, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado



10059, Last Light, Wildflower Meadow, Glacier NP


Composition two is coming up in a few weeks.