Photographic composition is learning to see

The first and most important thing about photographic composition is learning to see.

This is part one of a two part article on photographic composition. In part two, I discuss foreground, the rule of thirds, and picture depth.

I have already written a separate article about the importance of foreground in photographic composition. The right kind of foreground is really the most important part of composition. So, if you are interested in becoming a good landscape photographer, you should probably read this article first.

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Composition is one of the most important and least studied photographic skills. It is about framing the picture (i.e., selecting just the right piece of the real world in your camera view finder), making sure the picture has a subject or at least a main point of interest, using foreground, developing depth as well as using line and space and shape and color to create an image that pleases the eye and the soul.

Without good composition, a photograph can never be more than mediocre. It is an essential tool.

In this picture the flowers are the subject of the picture.  Everything else is secondary. Photographic composition is learning to see
In this picture the flowers are the subject of the picture. Everything else is secondary.

Composition basically means giving order to a photograph. It’s something all artists do, not just photographers. Visually, reality is a chaotic jumble of forms, shapes, lines, details, colors, clutter, and junk–even the most beautiful scene. If you don’t believe this, just try shooting twenty shots without thing about what is most importing; the pictures will be filled with disordered, meaningless details and clutter.

Whenever you put a camera to your eye, you are automatically practicing elementary composition: you choose to frame a certain subject rather than another, you position certain elements of the picture in a certain way rather than another. The goal of this article is to help you to refine this simple, automatic sense of composition to much higher levels. Even if you don’t make your own pictures, a knowledge of basic composition will help you to appreciate good pictures and good art of all kinds.

Here is another well composed image.  It has foreground, middleground and background.  The obvious subject is the barn.
Here is another well composed image. It has foreground, middleground and background. The obvious subject is the barn.

Some people seem to have an innate sense of good composition. I’m not sure if they are born this way or somehow learn composition, but they seem to automatically know how a scene in the real, three dimensional world should be organized to make a good two dimensional picture.

People like this are usually visually oriented people who tend to think in pictures rather than in ideas. These people are often said to have a good eye and they often say things like “I can’t understand it unless I can see it.” The visual person has something of a head start as a photographer. He can often look at a scene through his lens and just feel the way it ought to be. By changing position or by framing the picture in slightly different ways and fiddling with this and that he can often arrive at a picture that feels right and is right.

If you are this kind of a person, it usually works to trust your instincts and feelings. You can often produce a very good picture instinctively. I often work partially in this mode. I do depend a lot on my intuitive inner eye, but I also depend greatly on learned rules of composition and years of photographic experience.

The good news is that even if you are not a visual person with a naturally good eye, you can still become a very good photographer. For one thing there are easy, sensible rules for good artistic composition that can be learned by anyone. We’ll get to some of these rules in just a bit.

However, before you begin thinking about rules, one of the best things you can do is to make a conscious effort to really see pictures. Start looking carefully and consciously at all kinds of professionally done pictures and ask yourself questions like “What makes this picture good,” or “What does this picture have in common with other good pictures,” or “How could I take a picture that would be like this picture.”

Start looking at lots and lots of any kind of professionally done pictures: photography, paintings, drawings, advertisements. Buy photography books and art books. Go to galleries and museums. Look at pictures in magazines and on TV carefully. There is a tremendous amount of art in all of this stuff. After a while you begin to get a feeling for what it takes to make pictures work.

This picture works well, or at least it does for me.  At first my eye gets a little distracted between the sky, the barn and the Tetons.  But it pretty  quickly realizes that the picture is mostly about the Tetons.  This happens pretty instinctively.  And maybe my eye moving between the three centers of interest is adding something to the picture.  No rules are absolute.  The rule about one main subject is a good one.   But I mainly trust my instincts.  If they say a picture is good, it's good enough for me.

Photographic composition is learning to see
This picture works well, or at least it does for me. At first my eye gets a little distracted between the sky, the barn and the Tetons. But it pretty quickly realizes that the picture is mostly about the Tetons. This happens pretty instinctively. And maybe my eye moving between the three centers of interest is adding something to the picture. No rules are absolute. The rule about one main subject is a good one. But I mainly trust my instincts. If they say a picture is good, it’s good enough for me.

Another factor in learning composition is experience. It is very important to just get out there and begin shooting. Do this in conjunction with looking at other artist’s pictures. Don’t worry if you take a lot of bad pictures. Taking bad pictures can be a wonderful learning experience. I suspect that it may be necessary to take at least 1000 bad pictures to learn how to take one good one. Get out there and shoot. Shoot a lot. Make mistakes. Look at the mistakes, analyze them, decide how to fix them. Try again. You really can’t become a good photographer without doing this. And this process never really stops.

After forty years of seriously taking pictures, I still take many, many bad photographs. And I continually try to fix the mistakes and to do better. This is one the best ways to grow photographically, maybe the only way. You really can’t learn photography from books or articles or from asking other photographers how they take such good pictures. You really have to go through the whole trial and error process yourself and make all the mistakes before you can find your own way to take great photographs. This is the only way, believe me.

Here is a bad picture I took the other day.  I has no  subject.  What is it about?  Who knows.   The foreground grasses are kind of interesting but not really.  Notice that your eye darts all over the picture looking for a subject but it can't find one.  There is no organization here.  This is just an image of what misc trees and grass.  It this is your object, OK,  but that doesn't make it an interesting picture.  Also the colors are all the same.  One great way to add a subject is to include something that is a bright warm color and oppose it to a dull monotone background.  Here the whole picrture is dull monotone background.

Photographic composition is learning to see.  When you have a good eye, one glance tells you this is an awful picture.
Here is a bad picture I took the other day. I has no subject. What is it about? Who knows. The foreground grasses are kind of interesting but not really. Notice that your eye darts all over the picture looking for a subject but it can’t find one. There is no organization here. This is just an image of what misc trees and grass. It this is your object, OK, but that doesn’t make it an interesting picture. Also the colors are all the same. One great way to add a subject is to include something that is a bright warm color and oppose it to a dull monotone background. Here the whole picrture is dull monotone background.

The first rule of composition is simplicity. This is one of the most important goals of composition. Good pictures are often simple pictures. Simple pictures are pictures that are easy to look at. When a person looks at one, his eye doesn’t dart all over the picture from insignificant detail to insignificant detail trying to figure out what the picture is about. When you look at a good picture you know right away what the picture is about: a beautiful mountain scene, a golden aspen standing alone in the sunset, a group of columbines with mountains in the background. If there is a lot of clutter in the picture, a bunch of trees here, a fence there, a batch of flowers over on the side, the eye doesn’t know what to look at and gets confused. See the picture above.

Here is an example of a simple but good picture.  There is no question of what this image is about.
Here is an example of a simple but good picture. There is no question of what this image is about.

So, keep your landscapes simple and uncluttered. When you look at any scene in the real world, the human eye in combination with the human mind tends to automatically simplify the scene by discarding all the stuff you are not interested in. You don’t even realize you are doing this. Unfortunately, this can be a problem when you want to take a picture of this scene; the camera doesn’t automatically remove the clutter, it captures everything in front of it, good, bad or ugly.

Here is another simple but good picture.  You eye doesn't even see the ugly background trees.  Photographic composition is learning to see.  It doesn't take long to learn this.
Here is another simple but good picture. You eye doesn’t even see the ugly background trees.

For example, you see a scene with a beautiful rainbow. The first reaction is to say “Wow, got to get a picture of that.” So you grab a camera and shoot. “Got it.” Later, when the film is developed, or you try to print the digitally captured shot, you see what the camera saw, not what you saw with your eyes.

And, of course, the picture is very disappointing. It consists of a big field with wet ugly mud and scraggly bushes in the foreground, three cars in the right rear corner, a highway sign in the left corner and a tiny rainbow that you can hardly see way back there somewhere. The rainbow is maybe 5% of the picture. Cameras don’t distinguish between beautiful and ugly and unimportant like the human eye/mind does, it just captures everything that is in front of it.

We’ve all had this experience. It’s one of the most common experiences in photography. What has happened is that your mind has filtered out all that stuff that you really aren’t interested in, but the camera hasn’t. It’s the same filter that lets you take pictures of Aunt Sally with a telephone pole growing out of her head or pictures of your daughter dressed for the prom with the dirty laundry basket in the background. Your mind filters this inessential stuff out, but the camera gets it all. The cure for this is to stop and think both before and after you shoot. Photographic composition is learning to see.

Here is a pretty good picture.  Your eye goes right to the tree.  Or more exactly right to the tree with the colorful wall behind it.   Your eye flicks back and forth between the tree and the wall.  But it works.  You really don't look very long at the rest of the picture.  Again, the rules aren't simple, so be careful about following even the best rules too literally.  Follow your instincts.  Does this picture feel right.  It does.
Here is a pretty good picture. Your eye goes right to the tree. Or more exactly right to the tree with the colorful wall behind it. Your eye flicks back and forth between the tree and the wall. But it works. You really don’t look very long at the rest of the picture. Again, the rules aren’t simple, so be careful about following even the best rules too literally. Follow your instincts. Does this picture feel right. It does.

Stop and think. What really interests you about the picture? Is it the rainbow in the background¬†and not the muddy field in the foreground? OK, the subject of the picture is the rainbow. Let’s make it good and big so it takes up a significant part of the picture. This probably means a long lens. Now, look at the new picture through the long lens; with the junk gone the rainbow is kind of lonesome. Well let’s try and frame the rainbow under that gnarly tree branch over there. Look, rethink, reshoot. Oops, almost got that picnic table way over there on the left. Move over a bit and cut out the picnic table. Rethink…reshoot… and pretty soon you have a decent picture. One that has a single, easy-to-grasp subject. Photographic composition is simply learning to see.

As I’ve said in other articles, there is nothing wrong with taking lots and lots of pictures. Shoot, stop and think, reshoot, again and again. It really is, for me at least, the only way to end up with really good pictures. An old joke is that the only real difference between a professional photographer and an amateur is that the professional has a much bigger wastebasket.

Here is a picture which has too much of a good thing.  All the fall colors are great.  The white aspen trunks are great.  The bushes are great.  But where is my eye supposed to go?   It keeps jumping around looking at everything and never stops anywhere.  I good clue about bad pictures is that your eye keeps flicking all over the picture and never stops.

Photographic composition is learning to see bad pictures as well as good pictures.
Here is a picture which has too much of a good thing. All the fall colors are great. The white aspen trunks are great. The bushes are great. But where is my eye supposed to go? It keeps jumping around looking at everything and never stops anywhere. I good clue about bad pictures is that your eye keeps flicking all over the picture and never stops.

It’s not enough to get rid of the junk, you also have to limit the number of wonderful, beautiful things in a picture. One problem I constantly have is seeing a lot of beautiful stuff in a scene and wanting to get it all into the picture. Everything is relevant, nothing is junk, I want it all. I want that great stream winding through the meadow, plus the daisies in the foreground, plus the mountains in the background, plus that wonderful gnarled tree over there, plus those deer standing way over there in that bunch of trees.

Wrong, even though there are a lot of truly beautiful things in front of you, don’t try to include all of them in a single picture. Every time I go out shooting I have to fight the temptation to include six beautiful things in every picture. Unfortunately, sometimes I am not strong enough and succumb to taking cluttered, busy, badly composed pictures. I probably lose more good pictures trying to get everything that is beautiful into the picture than any other way.

Here is a foliage picture that works much better than the one above.   Your eye knows exactly where to go.  Right to the bright red bush.  The rest of this picture is just background for the red bush.  Photographic composition is learning to see why this is a good picture.
Here is a foliage picture that works much better than the one above. Your eye knows exactly where to go. Right to the bright red bush. The rest of this picture is just background for the red bush.

Trying to get everything into the picture is a particularly tempting error when using wide angle lenses; it’s definitely possible to get it all in and more. A good way to solve this problem is to put a longer lens on the camera. Another solution is to take four different pictures of the same scene, each picture emphasizing a different subject, rather than trying to get it all into one picture. This will force you to pick out just one item–maybe the gnarled tree standing out against a wonderfully stormy sky or just the flower lined creek bank. Simple scenes like this often turn into a very powerful pictures. Photographic composition is learning to see. Keep working at it and it will come.

A very good composition technique is to look at the scene through a variety of lens. Don’t quit with the first lens, even if the picture looks good. I will often start with a normal lens (a normal lense is one that sees about as much of the scene as your naked eye does), then try a wide angle lens, and then move to a long lens. If I like what I see, I shoot it as I go. Often I will like the longer lens shot best. I have simplified the picture and reduced it to what is really important. And, if I’m lucky, I’ve shot a few other pictures along the way that may turn out well too.

Another way of simplifying your pictures is to remember the old adage, “Fill the frame.” This is very important. Fill the picture frame with what most interests you in the scene, nothing else. Not doing this is the cardinal sin of all beginning photographers. Think of all those shots you have taken of a deer or a brilliantly colored finch that end up being the size of a thumbtack on a huge bulletin board. Zoom in on the important thing and fill the frame with it.

And don’t forget, the frame can be vertical as well as horizontal. All too often, beginning photographers forget that they can turn the camera vertically to shoot. Often this is all it takes to turn a poor picture into a good one. If you are thinking about filling the frame, you will automatically turn the camera whichever way it takes to get the picture all in. A long line of mountains turns into a horizontal picture and a tall ponderosa tree becomes a vertical.

A picture that is all lines and color.  The repeating lines of the trees and the mountains is really very interesting.

Photographic composition is learning to see
A picture that is all lines and color. The repeating lines of the trees and the mountains is really very interesting.

Sometimes even extreme simplicity in a picture can be wonderful. Pictures can sometimes be reduced to just a few simple lines. For example, the lines of purple mountains receding one after another into a distant mauve sunset can consist solely of lines and color. Or the line of a snowy field against a pure blue sky, broken by a single tall pine snag can be pure magic. More details are often just clutter in a picture like this.

Another aspect of composition that is just as important as simplicity is color. Don’t forget, what we are doing here is color photography. This seems obvious, but many of the pictures taken by beginners are dominated by one drab color: drab gray or dull green or faded brown. After simplicity, the main thing I think about when looking for a scene to photograph is color. Of course everything out there is color. But there is color and then there is color.

I really like these red Slick Rocky Paintbrush so I pretty much filled the frame with them.  Bright color is a great way to create order and subject in a picture.

Photographic composition is learning to see.
I really like these red Slick Rocky Paintbrush so I pretty much filled the frame with them. Bright color is a great way to create order and subject in a picture.

I tend to look for either warm colors set in a background of cooler colors or cooler colors accenting a warm background. I love bright red flowers set against a background of green meadow and blue mountains. When I shoot the red rocks of Northern Arizona they never seem to work unless they are accented with the greens of Juniper and Pinion. When I shoot the greens of Colorado I always look for spots of color to break it up–autumn aspens, wildflowers, colorful lichens on rocks, anything. This is probably just my personal style–what works for me. But it does work well. Whatever your personal preferences, pay a lot of attention to color. There are lots of different ways to think about color. There are the muted, soft colors of foggy dawns and late evening. The glowing colors that can be found in close ups on cloudy days. The brilliant colors of full sunlight. The gorgeous technicolor hues of dawn and sunset. Think about them all

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Some links on photographic composition

Looking at Images by Brooks Jensen is a very good book on photographic composition in black and white.

Mastering Composition is a good book

Capture the Magic by Jack Dykinga is a great book. I met Jack one day out in the middle of nowhere in the High Rockies . I had no idea he was one of the great masters of large format landscape photography at the time. We were both waiting for the light so we spent a couple of hours talking about trying to earn a living as a landscape photographer. Jack has got a couple of other good books on landscape photography.

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