Composition

The art of composing, or designing, an image is one of the most important aspects of creating good photographs…and also one of the most difficult to learn.

Just what is the best way to arrange the various separate elements of a three dimensional scene into an effective and cleanly composed two dimensional image?

I think the first thing to understand is that a camera doesn’t see a scene in the same way that our eyes do, and therefore we need to teach ourselves to see the world as our camera does.

When we look at a scene, our vision often automatically “edits out” various distracting elements in order to simplify and make less complex the huge amount of visual information our eyes actually take in.

A camera though, no matter how sophisticated it’s image processor, never does this, it records everything it sees with equal importance. Often a scene that may have appeared to our eyes as a ordered, uncluttered vista can be recorded with our cameras as a confused and jumbled mess if not composed properly.

This concept of composition, of arranging and designing elements within an image is a pretty abstract, and because of this, most books and articles give general rules on composition that originate from painting techniques.

Concepts like “the rule of thirds” and “leading lines” are all good places to start and are based on sound theories on the way our eyes move through an image.

As I said though, these ideas are widely known and any Google search will be enough to explain them to anyone who’s not already familiar with them.

They are however, only general guidelines, not “rules” to be slavishly followed: Photography, like any art form, is about creativity and while it’s always a good idea to be aware of things like “the rule of thirds” so we can use them as a starting point, it’s also just as likely that there will be times when they need to be broken and/or ignored to create the image the way we see it in our mind.

So in this article I want to explore some other aspects of composition, to try to look at ideas which I have found always help me to get a clearer idea of how I want to compose an image in my own photography.

One of the best quotes I’ve ever come across on composing an image is the following:

“In photography, as in life, the most important mathematics is subtraction. Subtract all that is distracting and unnecessary until only the essential remains”

One of the biggest problems I used to have with composition was the desire to “get it all in”, but as I explained above, our eyes don’t see the world in that way, and trying to put too much in an image will almost always result in that image looking messy and over-complex.

Even in landscape photography, our eyes and brains respond to ordered and simple designs, and whenever we look at a scene with an eye to photographing it, we should be attempting to identify the core of the scene, what it is exactly that moves us, makes us want to photograph it. What is the essence of the scene, and how can we refine that essence, focus on it and remove everything from the image that isn’t part of the essence, and therefore doesn’t add to a photograph?

Remember, that anything that doesn’t add to an image, will in actual fact detract from it, as it will divert focus and attention from what is important about the photograph, so if you are composing an image to include a particular element, ask yourself WHY you are including it, does it improve the image, or will the shot be better without it?

Do we really need to include so much foreground? Are there trees that might be distracting from the overall scene? Can I remove some of the rocks from the composition of the foreground? How much sky do we need in the frame, and is the amount of sky we’re including detracting from the shot?

These are the kind of questions I ask myself when composing an shot.

In the photograph above with the backlit trees, I thought about what it was that really attracted me to the scene…the light on the forest floor, and the long shadows in the small clearing that I was standing in. That was my essence, so it was important to make sure that nothing else in the image distracted from it. The most significant part of the scene that I saw before my eyes that I “subtracted” were the tree tops. Shooting into the sun, I knew all of the trees would be silhouetted, and the tops of the trees would just be blocks of shadow that would distract from the essence of the photo. Removing the tops of the trees from the shot made sure that the essence of the photograph wasn’t diluted by superfluous elements.

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I used the same process of subtraction for the image above. One misty morning on the Amazon river I’d composed some wide shots of the scene including plenty of river, lots of submerged trees and a lot of the far bank.

Using a telephoto lens though, I started to isolate trees against the mist, knowing that the trees wouldn’t blend into the far bank because of the mist. Using a tight composition eliminated any sky, which was adding nothing to the scene, and left only enough water for the reflection. I including enough of the far bank to give a suggestion of what lay behind the fog, and in the end I thought that the minimal composition of the scene, even though it showed only a tiny part of the rainforest and river I could see with my eyes, communicated the atmosphere and spirit of the scene far more successfully than a busier wide shot.

Another thing I always bear in mind when composing a shot is to make sure that each element in the shot is resolved, and if possible, resolved separately.

By this I mean that it’s important to ensure everything that is included in the image has a sense of completion and isn’t left unfinished, and neither does it meet or cross over a different element.

For example, in the image below I wanted to make sure that the many confusing elements of the pier were each resolved as cleanly as possible. That meant trying to make sure that the various poles didn’t cross or overlap each other in the image and that the complete pier on the right wasn’t touching or interfering with the various broken remains of another pier closer to me

As I was standing on yet another pier, my movement was limited and there is a pole that passes up through a building, but it was a price I was willing to pay to ensure that all the other elements were resolved as cleanly as possible.

Designing an image like this requires us to see the three dimensional elements in an image and arrange them into a 2 dimensional composition where each element is separately resolved.

This is particularly important to remember this when an image contains silhouettes.
To our eyes, we may be able to clearly distinguish a rock against a cliff, but our camera may record them both as silhouettes that blend into each other.

Likewise a tree shot against a backlit sky at sunset will appear as a silhouette, so it’s important that the black branches aren’t absorbed by another silhouette, losing the shape of the tree.

Connected with the idea of resolving elements in the image is that of cleaning the edges of the frame.

Images always look weaker if they have elements too close to the edge of the frame or touching the edges, so whenever I compose a shot I make sure that nothing is touching the edge of the frame or too close to the edge. Of course sometimes it’s impossible, for example a big rock on a beach, but in those cases it’s better to cut the rock completely in half rather than have just a tiny part of the rock projecting into the image, or kissing the edge of the frame.

So scanning the edges of the viewfinder to make sure nothing is pushed up against the frame or broken by the edge of the image is a good habit to get into.

Finally, another aspect of composition that I always think about is camera height. As human beings, we spend most of our time looking at landscapes from eye level, and it’s amazing how much the impact of an image can be changed by shooting the image from above or below normal eye height.

Certainly when there is an interesting foreground, a low camera angle can really bring the texture of that foreground into focus, leading people into the image. The image at the top of this article is an example of that. The grass was actually quite short and bare in places, so getting the camera really low brought the texture and detail of the grass right up into the image, and also hid the ugly bare parts of the earth.
When shooting out on the coast, look for rocks (as in the image below, where I lowered the camera to a few centimeters above the rocks, and timed the exposure to give the impression of lines of water running alongside the lines of rocks.

Alternatively, and particularly with telephoto shots, see how getting higher can change the perspective of a landscape. Well known photographer Charlie Waite never goes anywhere without a set of stepladders in his car to give him elevation, and while I’m not suggesting anything so extreme, there have been several times in the past when I’ve set the tripod up in the roof of my long suffering car to get the perspective on the landscape that I really wanted.

So, to finish, here are my composition bullet points:

  • Camera height
  • Subtract any elements that aren’t essential to the image
  • Resolve all the elements separately
  • Scan the edge of the frame

  • 3 Responses to “Composition”

    1. Garvin Johny

      I read some of Andy’s articles and they were quite interesting. I also viewed his website and I am impress.I read about the other photographers as well. Great work out their.

    2. Souvik-Chakraborty

      Excellent article with emphasis on critical components of good photography and accompanied by gorgeous examples. Loved reading it.

    3. Chris Flees

      Andy had addressed one of the top issues in photography, how to compose a photograph, in a easy to understand and straight-forward manner. Applying the techniques he has presented here will take some practice but the effort will be well worth it.

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