Thinking about photographic Composition

I had intended to keep my writing in a Christmas mood. However, I think with all the gift cameras this might the perfect time for these thoughts on composition. 

I have always wondered what it is about today’s feature packed cameras that makes photographers disregard the basics of compositional strategies and just snap away excitedly.

My assumption has been that many photographers are so excited about the subject they are photographing that they forget to make that same subject interesting in their final photograph. 

There are more people making pictures today than ever before in the history of photography. Some estimates indicate that there are more photographs made in one year than all those made since photography became popular with the middle class in the mid-1800’s.  So, following that reasoning, there should be an abundance of wonderful photographs being made.   And the probability is that photographers, because of today’s technology, should be getting better and better.  The ability to compose on an LCD screen should also allow photographers to see all the elements in a given scene and compose wonderful pictures.  However, because so many photographers simply disregard composition, I am not sure that is really happening.

In Boyd Norton’s book “Wilderness Photography” he said it best in the chapter on Composition: “ In their first efforts at photography most people consider themselves successful if they produce technically correct pictures – that is, properly exposed. Some photographers never get beyond this stage, considering their work good so long as it remains technically correct and bad if the exposure is off.  It apparently never occurs to these people that with the sophisticated equipment nowadays credit for proper exposure lies more with the camera that with the photographer.  Most aspiring photographic artists soon learn that manipulation of f-stop and shutter speeds to produce proper exposure is only a small part of the photographic art. Successful expression in the medium lies in understanding and applying certain concepts of composition together with the technical manipulation required to produce the final photograph.”

There are a few rules to a composition that have come down to photographers through the ages from classical painters.  For example, “The Rule of Thirds”.  To begin, make a reference diagram that will fit most camera’s formats by drawing a 4×6 rectangle. Draw a line every 2 inches across the 6-inch side and draw two lines at about 1 5/16th inches apart across the 4-inch side.  There should be a 4×6 inch formatted rectangle divided into thirds both horizontally and vertically.

For those of use using the English language, reading begins at the upper left corner, scanning each line left to right, with the page ending at the lower right. Because we likely read more than we do anything else in our lives we have become conditioned to viewing a flat page in that way.  For example, the most expensive advertising location in a newspaper is the lower right because that is where our eyes will eventually end up if we are reading across a page. So when we “read” that 4×6 reference diagram we would see the upper left intersection first and the lower right last.

I don’t want to get complicated so I am going to simplify this rule and say that, from a compositional standpoint, where those lines intersect are the most important places on a photograph.

For example, a red ball is placed on a white piece of paper with the intersecting lines drawn on it. The red ball is first placed at the top left intersection, across to the right intersection, then to the bottom left intersection, and finally ending bottom right.  Most viewers are going to prefer the upper right location the best.  I suggest that readers should consider doing this exercise with the subject matter in their photos.  If one were to draw the 4×6 rectangle on a clear sheet of acetate and place it over 4×6 prints it would be possible to check the composition. An old friend of mine, who in his time was the top-selling landscape photographer in the Kamloops area, had an 8×10 matt cut and ran strings across the opening using The Rule of Thirds. He would then have his first selection of photographs printed 8×10, lay the matt on them and discard any image that didn’t adhere to the rule. He told me that any that didn’t adhere just wouldn’t sell.

Every photograph should have a main subject or center of interest.  Yes, even a landscape.  Take that element in the photograph that is the most interesting and place it in one of those intersections and the result will be a much more successful composition.  When dividing a landscape divide it into thirds.  As I look out at the South Thompson Valley I see the sky, the white bluffs and the river, the foreground, and place them each on a 1/3rd plane. Then I look for the most interesting feature(s) and make sure they are placed in one or more of the intersections.


There is a great deal more involved in the pursuit of pleasing compositions and I will discuss them in the future. This time I’ll end with the Rule of Thirds.

I’ll leave you with a wonderful quote by Victor Hasselblad from his 1976 “Composition” booklet: “Composition in a photograph is often the product of a photographer’s visual sensitivity and talent. And composition is just as important in a photograph as in a classical painting. Good composition is the product of inherent talent, judiciously exercised, and of untiring efforts to achieve satisfactory results.”         If ya like my thoughts, be sure to subscribe.

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