Mastering Composition – Border Patrol

December 30th, 2013
by doinlight

“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….

Here’s a photograph of God Rays in the Lady Bird Johnson Grove of the Prairie Creek State Park in Northern California.  The conditions were perfect – a light fog that was letting glorious rays of sunlight rain down upon the stately redwoods.

redwoods_130427__SM35921_2_3_4_5-Edit

This is a photograph I was fortunate enough to get because I turned around and looked behind me.  I was so excited I set up the camera, did a quick composition and tripped the shutter.  I didn’t do adequate border patrol.  Yea, I paid attention to the bottom of the frame, carefully aligning how the path came into the frame.  I also paid attention to both the left and right sides.  But there was one very big flub – the upper left corner.

You see, the aim of border patrol is to ensure that nothing is creeping into the frame that does not belong.  Or worse yet, you need to make sure that there’s nothing on the border that will distract the viewer’s eye from where you want it to go – in this case down the path to the beautiful rays of light.  And one of the things that is the worst offender in drawing attention to itself is bright spots – like the one in the upper left corner.  That patch of bright cloud is screaming for attention and gets it in short order.  Now the viewer’s eye is at the edge of the image and I’ve lost them.

So the compositional principle here is that bright spots attract the eye so you have to be sure that they are used to support the main subject or intent of the image and not detract from it.  Actually, this is just the way our brains work.  Bright sparkly things attract our attention.  That’s all there is to it.  And we need to use that knowledge when we prepare our photographs.

So can anything be done after the fact.  Well, I cropped out the offending upper left corner and ended up with this.

redwood_grove_trail_130427_rrpm_rc50

Ah, that’s much better.  The eye goes down the trail amid the calming greens of the foliage and then BAM, it runs into the very energetic diagonal lines of the God Rays.  It’s exciting, the contrast between the energy and the calm.  And there’s nothing on the borders to detract from this effect.  In fact, one hardly pays attention to the borders.

In other words, the borders are doing their job.  “What job is that?” you ask?  To keep the eye imprisoned within the frame and not let it escape.  And there’s nothing on the borders that pull the eye away from the action.  The second image works ten times better than the first.  Scroll back and forth and see for yourself.

In summary, the purpose of border patrol is to make sure there are not any elements on the borders that will distract the viewer’s attention away from the main intent of the image.  And bright spots are just one of may potential distractions.  So next time you’re out shooting, sign up for border patrol.


I have a few more recent articles on composition.  Check them out if you haven’t already.

Mastering Composition – What?

Mastering Composition – Balance


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Posted in Composition | Comments (3)

  • […] When a key element is placed near a corner visual centers of gravity the effect is a little different. The element is pulled towards the corner and the viewer’s eye will go right along with it. It becomes a place where the viewer can escape from the frame and is gone. This points out another quality of a successful image, namely, that the composition holds the viewer captive within the frame with no easy way for the eye to escape. But placing a key element near a corner provides a gateway they can pass through and are gone.  (See Mastering Composition – Border Patrol). […]

  • Jerry Miller says:

    Ralph, in these three posts on composition, you have clearly written, and showed examples of how to improve our photography. Thank you for taking the time and sharing your ideas.

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