“Another article on composition?” Yes, but I promise not to babble about the merits or drawbacks of the rule of thirds. I bet you already know plenty about compositional tools. Understanding what tools to use is crucial and grants you tremendous artistic power. But it’s not enough. You need to know how.
It’s not your fault. Too often, the books, articles, and videos on composition start and stop with the tools. But you must use the tools like a chef uses ingredients—you don’t want to throw everything into the pot and hope it tastes nice. You must deliberately choose and balance the different ingredients in a way that achieves a cohesive taste. Or in our case…a cohesive story.
With photography, that can sometimes mean, for instance, that a natural frame should be discarded for the sake of simplicity. Or maybe a more intimate scene captures the mood better than a grand vista. Your vision is your anchor. It’s the starting point from which all decisions should follow. In this article, I’ll share my process for creating cohesive and deliberate compositions that are rooted first and foremost in you as the photographer.
Imagine this… As you open your car door, the wind blows rain straight into your face. It’s pouring. It’s cold. It’s dark. A golden hour sunrise is off the menu. You consider turning back, but you’ve traveled hours to get here, you’ve brought the right gear, and you’re already awake. So you push on. As twilight lifts the veil on a new day, you spring into action. A short, steep hike up a rocky trail reveals a valley coated in fog. You’re now running! Tripod, remote release, filters, air blower for the raindrops—the race is on to find a composition. Soon, you’ve found a spot and begin racking off frames.
For the first ten minutes, that was me. I ran around like a crazy person looking for the “right” foreground tree. It wasn’t until I slowed down and questioned the focal point that I saw how the two gnarled trees complimented the two streams of the river.
In a situation like this, how would you have chosen what to include and exclude from the frame?
Are your compositions as good as they could be?
Before we get into solutions, let’s look at common reasons you may struggle with composition:
- You look for the same compositions you saw on social media. @matt343328 covered this topic in detail here.
- You get caught up in the scene’s excitement, especially in challenging conditions like cold, wet weather.
- You look for compositions with your camera on your tripod.
- You focus too early and too heavily on the tools of composition instead of composing a deliberate and cohesive story.
- You aren’t really sure what you’re trying to say.
I’m guilty of all the above. A few years ago, I decided I needed to do something different. So I collected my thoughts and notes on composition and typed a set of prompts to use in the field. I printed it out to place behind my camera’s LCD and digitized it to my phone. If I look back, it wasn’t the ‘leading lines’ I needed help to remember, it was slowing down and tuning in. I now share a digitized copy with my workshop participants, and I’ve found it has made a big impact on how they approach a shot.
How to improve your composition
Composition: Your Three Jobs
- Tell a cohesive story through the deliberate choice of characters.
- Separate, arrange and balance the characters. Assign them the proper space and visual weight based on their roles in the story.
- And in grand landscapes, communicate the depth of the 3d world in a 2d medium. I’ve written some in-depth articles on this here and here if you want to read more!
The compositional tools address #2 and #3 above. Chances are, you’ve got those covered. We’ll focus on #1–telling a deliberate, cohesive story.
There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.
The creative path begins with you. It’s your job to write the story. The moment you see something you want to shoot, you owe it to yourself to tune in and find your voice. Listen, trust your intuition. Do so and you will have a deeper place from which to create your art.
Resist the urge to grab your camera. You must explore your subjects before you have meaningful things to say about them. Study the details and the relationships between the different elements in the scene. Train your eye to the full potential of your subject.
- What made me stop?
- What is the mood?
- Describe the scene in one sentence.
- What is unique, interesting or meaningful?
Power is mass multiplied by cohesion.
Decide what your photo will say and then choose how best to communicate that message. The focal point is not your composition. Your view on the focal point is the composition. It isn’t what the scene looks like, it’s what you say about it.
Each decision you make in the field should take into consideration your unique viewpoint.
- Is there a primary focal point
- What is it?
- Who are the supporting characters?
- How important is the sky and land to the story?
- Rank the foreground, midground, and background by order of priority.
Work the scene
Even when you’re in the most familiar situation, you can look for new opportunities.
Now, grab your camera (without the tripod) and work the scene. Use the compositional tools to help tell the story.
- What tools direct attention to the focal point? (If one exists)
- How should I separate, arrange, and balance the characters?
- What lens and camera settings tell this story the best?
Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.
Each character in your composition should have a role that adds to the story. Our brains are good at looking past distractions that will show up in the photo. Move in closer, zoom in, or change positions; remove everything from the frame that doesn’t contribute to your story.
- What can I exclude or deemphasize that’s not part of what I’m trying to say?
The first couple of times you answer these questions, it may seem weird, even pointless. But if you try it, you will tap into creative energy buried deep in the subconscious. If you’ve been at this for a while, you already consider some of the prompts above. Still, if you slow down and make every step deliberate, I promise you’ll improve your results.
Put it to work
Composition is the most crucial skill to develop in photography. And unlike weather and natural light, composition is under your control. If you sign up for my mailing list, you can download a PDF of the above prompts and a bunch more. Save it to your phone to use as a reference before your next shoot.
Like many creatives, you may view structure and process as inhibitory. While free-thinking and a non-linear approach benefit creativity, some structured prompts help you execute. Part of this amazing craft is learning to balance structure and technique with intuition and creativity.
If you take one thing from this… It isn’t what you know, but how you use that knowledge. You don’t need any more rules. You need a method to discover and extract the parts of the scene with which you resonate.
That’s all for this one. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Until next time, wishing you grand adventure and good light!