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Photographic Composition, Part 2


Gunnison Butte, Green River, Utah

This is a fairly simple picture of sky, buttes and river. Your eye goes directly to the dawn-lit butte, briefly checks out the other stuff and then returns to the butte. There is one main subject which holds your eye's attention.


This is part two of a four part article on photographic composition. The third part of the article will appear in a few weeks. Here is part one of the photo composition article.



As I was saying in Part one of the article, any time you are shooting seriously, don't just fire off shots as fast as you can, you need to 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 and skip the muddy field totally. 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.

As I've said in other articles, there is nothing wrong with taking lots and lots of pictures as long as you are thinking in between the shots. Shoot, stop and think, reshoot, again and again. It really is, for me at least, the only way to end up with really good pictures. As I've also said someplace else, "The only real difference between a professional photographer and an amateur is that the professional has a much bigger wastebasket.

It's not enough to get rid of the junk though, you also have to limit the number of wonderful, beautiful things in a picture. One problem I constantly have is seeing a lot of beautiful stuff in a scene and wanting to get it all into the picture. Everything is relevant, nothing is junk, I want it all. I want that great stream winding through the meadow, plus the daisies in the foreground, plus the mountains in the background, plus that wonderful gnarled tree over there, plus those deer standing way over there in that bunch of trees.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Even though there are a lot of truly beautiful things in front of you, don't try to include all of them in a single picture. Every time I go out shooting I have to fight the temptation to include six beautiful things in every picture. Unfortunately, sometimes I am not strong enough and succumb to taking cluttered, busy, badly composed pictures. I probably lose more good pictures trying to get everything that is beautiful into the picture than any other way.

Trying to get everything into the picture is a particularly tempting error when using wide angle lenses; it's definitely possible to get it all in and more. A good way to solve this problem is to put a longer lens on the camera. Another solution is to take four different pictures of the same scene, each picture emphasizing a different subject, rather than trying to get it all into one picture. This will force you to pick out just one item--maybe the gnarled tree standing out against a wonderfully stormy sky or just the flower lined creek bank. Simple scenes like this often turn into a very powerful pictures. A good rule of thumb is "Simpler is better."

A very good composition technique is to look at the scene through a variety of lens. Don't quit with the first lens, even if the picture looks good. I will often start with a normal lens (a normal lens is one that sees about as much of the scene as your naked eye does), then try a wide angle lens, and then move to a long lens. If I like what I see, I shoot it as I go. Often I will like the longer lens shot best. I have simplified the picture and reduced it to what is really important. And, if I'm lucky, I've shot a few other pictures along the way that may turn out well too.

Another way of simplifying your pictures is to remember the old adage, "Fill the frame." This is a very important rule. Fill the picture frame with what most interests you in the scene, nothing else. Not doing this is the cardinal sin of all beginning photographers. Think of all those shots you have taken of a deer or a brilliantly colored finch that end up being the size of a thumbtack on a huge bulletin board. Zoom in on the important thing and fill the frame with it.

And don't forget, the frame can be vertical as well as horizontal. All too often, beginning photographers forget that they can turn the camera vertically to shoot. Often this is all it takes to turn a poor picture into a good one. If you are thinking about filling the frame, you will automatically turn the camera whichever way it takes to get the picture all in. A long line of mountains turns into a horizontal picture and a tall ponderosa tree becomes a vertical.

Sometimes even extreme simplicity in a picture can be wonderful. Pictures can sometimes be reduced to just a few simple lines. For example, the lines of purple mountains receding one after another into a distant mauve sunset can consist solely of lines and color. Or the line of a snowy field against a pure blue sky, broken by a single tall pine snag can be pure magic. More details are often just clutter in a picture like this. Cluttered pictures look busy, and busy pictures are bad pictures.

Another aspect of composition that is just as important as simplicity is color. Don't forget, what we are doing here is color photography. This seems obvious, but many of the pictures taken by beginners are dominated by one drab color: drab gray or dull green or faded brown. After simplicity, the main thing I think about when looking for a scene to photograph is color. Of course everything out there is color. But there is color and then there is color.

I tend to look for either warm colors set in a background of cooler colors or cooler colors accenting a warm background. I love bright red flowers set against a background of green meadow and blue mountains. When I shoot the red rocks of Northern Arizona they never seem to work unless they are accented with the greens of Juniper and Pinion. When I shoot the greens of Colorado I always look for spots of color to break it up--autumn aspens, wildflowers, colorful lichens on rocks, anything. This is probably just my personal style--what works for me. But it does work well. Whatever your personal preferences, pay a lot of attention to color. There are lots of different ways to think about color. There are the muted, soft colors of foggy dawns and late evening. The glowing colors that can be found in close ups on cloudy days. The brilliant colors of full sunlight. The gorgeous Technicolor hues of dawn and sunset. Think about them all


Below are some pictures that illustrate some of the ideas in this article.



10346, Great Blue Hereon on Rock, Everglades National Park, Florida.

In wild-bird pictures you need to be sure to fill the frame with your subject. Since birds are small, it is very easy to end up with tiny birds lost in huge backgrounds. This usually means you need a very long, telephoto lens.



10631, Moose and Berry Bush, Teton National Park Wyoming.

Filling the frame with wildlife is also important. Wildlife is usually a long ways away and it's very difficult to fill the frame without a good telephoto lens. If you don't have a long telephoto, bird and wildlife pictures are pretty much impossible. This picture was shot with a Cannon 500 mm lens.



8074, Driftwood, Green Leaves and Sand, Green River, Wyoming.

Lots of photographers never notice what is right at their feet. Getting up close to small objects and filling the frame with them often means a great picture.



8080, Layered Rock and Pebbles, Green River, Wyoming.

Ditto for this picture. Getting close and filling the frame often means a very arty picture. Another plus is that you don't need an expensive telephoto lens for this kind of picture. I have to say that I really love this picture and the one above it.



7830, Green Grass and Leaves, Merced River, Yosemite National Park.

Here, the heart of the picture is the bunch of green grasses in the lower center of the picture. Your eye goes right to it and keeps coming back. The green colors all through the picture also unify the picture. This is almost a portrait in green.



7835, Boulders and Morning Light, Merced River, Yosemite National Park.

Here the close foreground catches and holds your eye while the the receding lines of the river adds depth to the picture. The trees melting into the mist also adds a feeling of distance and depth.



7841, Half Dome Sunset and Merced River, Yosemite National Park.

Here the sunset-lit face of Half Done is the subject. The red sunlit face is the central unifying point of the picture. The cool contrasts of the green trees and the blue sky work well also. Your eye pretty much goes to the red rock face and the green trees and stays there.



Part three of this article on photographic composition will show up in a couple of weeks.