Archive for the ‘Composition’ Category

“There Are No Rules of Composition”

October 23rd, 2015

It is often said that there are no ‘rules’ of composition. And yet, there they are – Rule of Thirds, Golden Rule, Leading Lines, S-Curves, Layers, Off Center, Symmetry, Perspective, Lines of all sorts and on and on. And why is it that when so many fellow photographers comment on one of your photographs they comment about the rules of composition and not what the image expresses? In fact, most books and courses on composition begin by stating that there are no rules of composition before launching into an exhaustive analysis of, yep, the rules of composition. And of course, it’s not fashionable to refer to the rules of composition as rules anymore because ‘there are no rules of composition.’

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And yet we diligently study them all the same.

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Mastering Composition – Rule of Thirds

February 22nd, 2014

The Rule of Thirds is a compositional principle that is widely used. And for good reason because, well, it works.  At least, it works in a lot of situations.

What is the Rule of Thirds? You superimpose a tic-tac-toe grid on your image, two vertical lines equally spaced and two horizontal lines equally spaced. Then you place the key elements of your image on or near those lines, or at one of their intersections.  They don’t have to be exactly on the lines or intersections, just near them.  This is art, not engineering, so it’s important that it feels right.  But the Rule of Thirds gives us positions that are visually very strong and command the viewer’s attention.  That’s why you want to use this principle for the key elements of your composition, the elements you want to draw the viewer’s eye to.

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One should be cautious in overusing the Rule of Thirds. It should not be applied mechanically and certainly not universally.  It does not apply to all compositions.  After all, aren’t our ‘Rules’ of composition made to be broken?  But on the other hand, sometimes a composition gets just a little bit stronger when you move the key element just a tiny bit to place it closer to or right on a 1/3rd line.

The fact is it works so well in so many situations that the camera manufacturers give us the ability to display the grid on our camera’s LCD screens and viewfinders. Also, software publishers like Adobe display the grid when we use the crop tool. This is true of Elements, Lightroom and Photoshop. And these aids can be very helpful in achieving strong compositions.

Why does the Rule of Thirds work so well? To answer that let’s talk about Visual Tension.

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Mastering Composition–More Border Patrol

January 17th, 2014

It may not be obvious at first but a photograph’s border is a critical element of a successful composition.  All too often we get so focused on the subject that the borders get  ignored.   Because it’s so important I’m writing a second post on the subject.  To read the first post you can click on this link  – Mastering Composition – Border Patrol.

For this post take a look at this photograph.

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The photograph is of the famous tunnel at Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, California.  In wintertime, as you can see, not only do the waves come crashing through but the setting sun turns the water to liquid gold.  It’s easy to get so absorbed by the spectacle that important elements of the composition get ignored.  Can you see what I missed here?

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Mastering Composition – Border Patrol

December 30th, 2013

“When I compose an image I spend more time getting the borders right than I spend on the subject.”  You think this is a surprising statement?  There are a lot of photographers that I really admire for whom this statement is true.  I know when I first started out I had no idea what was happening on the borders.  I paid no attention to them.  Until it was pointed out to me that my borders were very sloppy.  And from that point on composition got a whole lot harder because getting clean borders is not a trivial task.  But over time it became second nature to me.  Now I always check the borders and make appropriate adjustments before I press the shutter.

Well, almost always.  Take a look….

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Mastering Composition – Balance

December 22nd, 2013

There are many rules of composition.  I know people don’t like to use the term rules and for good reason.  If you treat these rules as if they are hard and fast you can end up with compositions that are mechanical.  So I prefer to call them ‘principles of composition.’  Now I’ve said before that composition is a problem solving endeavor.  That is, you have been inspired by what lies before you, you have connected with it and you have an idea of what you want to say.  And one of the key elements in communicating your message is the composition you choose.  There is generally a point where this becomes very much of a problem solving effort, meaning it can get very analytical.  And while the analysis may be important if not essential, it can cloud aesthetic considerations.  Take for example this photograph of dawn in the Little Lakes Basin up Rock Creek in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.

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I was drawn to this Lodgepole Pine growing from a cleft in the granite above the lake.  I gave a lot of thought to this composition and compositional principles came very much into play.  The way I saw it, the two key elements were the tree and the lake.  I didn’t think of the peaks in the distance as being a key element although I knew they were important.  And I was aware of the lake as a leading line the drew the eye to them. I placed the tree on the right 1/3 line so that it wouldn’t block the lake.  And I enjoyed the wonderful alpenglow as I captured a few images through the final minutes of civil twilight.  Then I wandered off looking for other photographs.  But later, after the sun came up I was drawn back to this tree and saw it completely differently.

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Mastering Composition – What?

December 7th, 2013

Composition is one of the four pillars of a strong landscape photograph (See Making a Photograph – The Four Pillars).  There are many approaches to mastering composition and certainly countless excellent books on the topic.  Many books discuss the elements of design and how they relate to composition – line, shape, form, texture, pattern and color.  Others go into the various rules of composition – rule of thirds, golden rule, leading lines, near / far, layers, frames, etc.

All of these rules or principles are very analytical and, I think, are necessary and useful building blocks.  Often creating a strong composition is very much of a problem-solving endeavor.  But in the end I believe the goal of the composition is to support what the artist wants to communicate through the image.  And this comes more from compositions that just feel right, not ones that are mechanically created from the rules.  That’s not to say that one is not aware of these principles as the composition is being worked out.  Rather these principles are like words in a sentence.  They are carefully chosen so that the sentence as a whole communicates the author’s message.  There are several techniques that lead us to this goal.  And one of them is to ask yourself, ‘’”What am I photographing?”

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The Making of a Photograph – Virgin River 2011

December 1st, 2012

A friend asked me if I’d do a blog on the making of the photograph I took of the Virgin River during the Zion National Park photography workshop in 2011.  He’s a good friend and it’s a nice photograph so let’s do it.  Here’s the end result. (You can click on each of the photographs to enlarge them and get a better look.)virgin_river_2011

And here’s what it started from.

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The difference is obviously pretty dramatic so there will be a few things to talk about.  We’ll start with what I was experiencing in the field and take it all the way through the darkroom to the end product.  So let’s get started.

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Mastering Composition – Working the Shot

October 26th, 2012

There’s no doubt that composition is one of the key elements of a successful image.  You can have all the other factors of a great shot – fantastic light, optimum exposure and appropriate sharpness – but with a weak composition you have a weak photograph. 

I know photographers that work slowly enough to work out the strongest composition before they press the shutter.  I admire these people immensely.  But I don’t work that way, especially in an area I’m unfamiliar with.

A short while ago I was driving south through Utah on beautiful highway 89 traveling between Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks after wrapping up a successful photography workshop.  I came upon a stand of cottonwood trees that were in full autumn splendor.  I had to pull over.

I grabbed my point and shoot (Canon G11) and started scouting for photographs.  I like to use the G11 for that, scouting for compositions that are worth the effort of setting up my big Canon.  I found two compositions that were promising.

The second proved to be the most interesting, at least in terms of how the final composition evolved.  Behind the cottonwoods was a meadow with a dilapidated shack.  It was so Utah!  I set up what I thought would be an interesting composition.

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(Click on the images to enlarge them.)

I positioned my camera so that there would be a narrow opening to the meadow and the shack.  It is a tight composition that draws the viewers eye to the shack which is placed in a very strong position within the frame.  It has a feeling of depth with a strong foreground opening up to the shack in the background.

I was feeling good about this composition and then I noticed a glowing cottonwood just outside the frame to the right so I moved the camera a couple of feet to the right and created this image.

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The golden cottonwoods on the left are balanced by the single, smaller cottonwood to the right.  This arrangement has the effect of placing more emphasis on the autumnal trees.  The eye makes three stops, first at the cottonwoods on the left, then to the right and finally works its way back to the shack in the back.

I was pretty  pleased with these two compositions and thought I had something to work with when I got home.  So I disassembled everything and put  it back in my camera bag, collapsed the tripod and started back toward the car.  I hadn’t gone 5 steps when I looked back up toward the shack and saw there was another blaze of cottonwoods right next to it.  So I swung my backpack back down to the ground and set up again for this shot.

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Now there are three sources of golden light for the eye to explore – the cottonwoods to the left, the one a little further back on the right and the ones way in the back by the shack.  (Odd numbers of things are always good.)  The image is well balanced and every element in it contributes to the entire impression.

There’s a story here, a story of living in this beautiful valley during a time that is gone and will probably never return.  It must not have been an easy life but one of honest, hard work and the satisfaction of living in a place of such splendid beauty.  We would do it differently today with more conveniences and comforts.  And maybe, just maybe, miss out on the more intimate connection with Mother Earth that living in such a simple shack must have provided.


I’d be interested to hear which of the three compositions you like the most.  Please leave a comment saying which one you like and why.  It will make for a very interesting dialog.

If you enjoyed this post please feel free to Like it and share it with your friends.  You can use the links at the top.

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To see more of my photographs click here.

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Taking Your Photography to the Next Level

December 23rd, 2011

I read a great series of articles by George Barr on taking the next step in photography.  They were passed along to me by a good friend – Brian Graham.  I have some early thoughts on what Barr proposes.

In his articles he defines six or seven steps for both technical and aesthetic growth in photography.  His articles define each step, discuss ways you can determine what step you’re in and gives ideas on how to advance to the next step.

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Vacation Photography – Useful Composition Tips

July 17th, 2011

There are a couple of things that make a great vacation photograph.  Certainly photographing loved ones in exciting and exotic places is one of the most important.  But there is something else that is very powerful and not that hard – Composition.

There are many facets to composition, far more than can be covered in a brief blog posting.  But come along and I’ll share 10 simple compositional techniques with you that will enhance not only your photography on your vacation but throughout the year.

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