Three Simple Guidelines for GREAT Composition – NO RULES Required!
Today my goal is to introduce you to a practical approach to composition that can have an immediate impact on your photography and all without having to follow any creativity killing rules.
And even better yet — I am going to teach you this concept without showing you a single picture. You are listening to a podcast after all. But I accept the challenge and I would even propose that you can learn this concept better by listening and not watching. As long as you promise to give it a try — with your camera soon. The longer you wait — the less you remember.
I want to be upfront with you about my philosophy towards rules.
I believe that rules are CREATIVITY KILLERS. Actually science confirms and proves that rules are creativity killers. The simple explanation is that once you are aware of the rules or worse yet, understand the rules — you are essentially in the box. Everything that you do in an attempt to be creative and think outside the box to be original will be hampered by your knowledge of the rules. I mean it is easier to think outside the box — when you don’t know where the box is.
My history with these rules began when I was 13 years old and was getting really serious about photography, I went to the library and checked out a book on Composition. It was a big book. We are talking about an inch and a half thick, hardbound book published in the 1960s with some of the most boring black and white photos you have every seen. The 13-year old me eagerly took the book home ready to absorb everything I could about composition and about halfway through the first chapter I slammed the book closed and had a moment of panic combined with a moment of creative defiance.
The panic part — I had realized that if I had to remember all of these rules about thirds and spirals and textures and diagonals and… actually I can’t even remember the entire list… but I knew that if I had to remember all of those things, I would never be able to press the shutter. The creative defiance was my developing passion for photography reassuring myself that I would either figure it out or I would accept that I may not be meant for photography. So the book went back to the library and I went back to taking pictures.
Thanks to an early mentor, I learned a very practical approach to composition that has served me very well throughout my career. It has helped me win awards shooting news images of stressful events that were taking place in real time and it has helped me create awesome advertising and fashion images that have been published in magazines and advertisements around the world.
I share all of this background with you because I’m not going to tell you any of the rules. I don’t plan to call them by name or to describe them. I don’t want to be responsible for putting you in that box and if you are in the box — I don’t want to remind you where the walls are. I do promise you that everything I am sharing with you is deeply reinforced by cognitive psychologists who have completed decades of research about how our brain works and how creativity occurs in humans.
Let’s create a foundation for our discussion. According to Miriam Webster, Composition is the act or process of composing. Specifically it is the arrangement into specific proportion or relation and especially into artistic form. The keywords there are arrangement and proportion or relation.
I believe a more practical definition for photographers would be to say that
Composition is the placement or arrangement of visual elements in a photograph.
As a teenager, frustrated by the books that I found on composition. I stumbled on an article in Popular Photography magazine that was about the iconic American Photographer Edward Weston.
In the article Weston was quoted as saying that: “Composition is the strongest way of seeing”. Armed with the freedom that my mentor had given me to ignore the minutia that was in the book on composition, this quote by Edward Weston became my working definition of composition.
Composition is important to your photographs because it is a creative tool. A tool that helps you to create more interesting and compelling photos, and it helps you tell a story more effectively.
Composition is also a tool that allows you to influence what the viewer of your photos will see and how they will see it. Remember that no other human being will have the same experience with your photo as you did. But you can certainly influence the viewers experience with the way you compose the shot. I can also promise you that once you develop the habit of thinking about composition every time you pick up the camera, you’ll never stop. It is one of the most valuable creative tools that a photographer has. And it doesn’t cost a dime. And the more you work to make it a habit, the more it will become second nature and eventually it becomes an instinct.
Composition is present in every photograph you make whether you are thinking about it or not, so it is incredibly important to be aware of it whenever you are planning a shot and most definitely when you have a camera in your hands.
I won’t call these rules, but I am going to give you 3 guidelines that are practical and sensible and should apply to every photo that you ever take.
Before I pick up the camera it is important to know WHY. Why am I taking the shot? The answer to that question will influence all the choices that I make not just for composition, but also for lighting and exposure — literally everything that goes in front of the camera and everything that is included in the photo is influenced by why.
Then I always ask myself, what is the subject? We’ve all seen plenty of photos that are like a
“Where’s Waldo” puzzle and you can’t tell the subject from the background. With the answers to WHY and What is my subject, I can start to work with the elements in my scene to create an interesting image.
If I am working in the studio, I have the luxury of full control. Nothing is in the photo unless I put it there and I put it where I want it. If I am working in a natural setting, indoors or outdoors, the challenge is much bigger.
Pretty easy so far. We know WHY we’re taking the shot, and we know what our subject is and the third guideline is three simple words that will make your composition better every single time.
I learned these three words as a teenager who wanted to be a newspaper photographer. Frequently my photos would appear as small as one or two columns in the newspaper which meant that they could be as little as two and a half inches wide. In order to make sure that you could tell what was in a small photo it was important to Fill the Frame. This one concept took my photography to a whole new level. But let me be clear about what “fill the frame” really means.
I refer to it as a type of Visual Editing — in real time while you are looking through the camera, you are making choices about what to keep and what to get rid of.
I find that a lot of photographers think that “fill the frame” is just another way of saying crop tight or get close. It is so much more than that.
“Fill the frame” is the process of making sure that you only include the things that NEED to be in your shot. I like to think of it as “Visual Editing”. I’m taking the time to pay close attention to the details in my subject, in the foreground and in the background and around the edges to make sure that I only have things in the shot that I want in the shot.
And remember what I want in the shot is influenced by WHY I am taking the photo and WHAT my subject is.
So just a quick review — the three guidelines — Why are you taking the shot? What is your subject? And then Fill The Frame — only include what needs to be included.
As a bonus — let me give you 7 quick action steps to achieve great composition in your shots. So many articles that I have found about composition list 15, 20 even 30 rules of composition that you should be following. That is just ridiculous.
My 7 steps to better composition
Number 1. KISS It. Keep It Super Simple. Simplicity is a powerful composition tool. It makes it easier to identify the subject. This fits in with the idea of only including what needs to be in the shot. If it doesn’t add value visually or emotionally if it doesn’t help tell the story that you want to communicate — leave it out. Simple is always better.
Number 2. How do you want the viewer to feel? This is an important question to ask yourself because it makes some remaining steps that I am going to give you a bit easier. Part of creating any photograph is considering the emotion that you want the finished image to evoke.
Number 3. Don’t forget about space. Filling the frame doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t have space. Remember that space is an element in the shot and sometimes giving your subject space helps to tell a story or gives the viewer a sense of place. Negative space is anything that isn’t a subject or storytelling element in the shot. When thinking of space, think of where you want the viewer’s eye to go and remember that diagonal lines are your friends. Diagonal lines are great for leading the viewer to a point in an image or to bring attention to something.
Number 4. Remember that Color Impacts Mood and Emotion. All too often photographers overlook color as a compositional tool. Learn about color theory and use a color wheel if you struggle with it. You can load apps on your phone now that are with you at all times while you are shooting and will help you improve your understanding of what colors work together.
Number 5. Pay attention to backgrounds and foregrounds and don’t forget the edges of your frame. Success in photography is in the details. It is extremely easy to get caught paying lots of attention to the subject in your shot and then ignoring important details that can easily ruin the shot — like the pole growing out of your subject’s head. This is due to a brain deficiency that we all have called Inattentional Blindness — you can Google it for more info. Bottom line is that you have to work really hard to get good at paying attention to details and I can assure you that you will never be done working at it — so the sooner you make it a priority — the easier the path will be.
Number 6. Don’t succumb to AEL Disease. AEL stands for Always Eye level. It is an unfortunate disease that affects so many people. It occurs when they purchase a camera and suddenly their knees no longer bend. Then they take every photo from eye level. Every photo from the same perspective is boring! High angles, low angles even tilting the camera will always add a little something to a shot.
A little warning about tilting the camera. If you are going to tilt the camera — tilt the damn camera. Make a statement. Then it’s art. For your landscape photographers a horizon line that is not level is just plane sloppy. A horizon line that is tilted to create a new perspective is artistic.
Number 7. Work your shot. I always assume that my first composition is just ok. I assume that it is the doorway to the best version of my idea. That means I am going to shoot multiple shots. I don’t mean spray and pray where you just lay on the shutter button and whip off 15 frames per second. I mean different camera angles — some horizontal, some vertical, some closer some wider. I work my shot to find the best possible combination of those things to find the best composition.
There you have it. Three simple guidelines and 7 easy to remember action tips that will simplify composition and elevate your work instantly.
“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
— Robert Capa
You know I am all about “fill the frame”. As a young newspaper photographer my go-to lens was a 24mm F2.8 – mainly because it forced me to get VERY close to my subject and the wide angle perspective created a sense of “being there” for the viewer.
Often referred to as the “greatest war photographer” Robert Capa hated war. He was born Andre Friedmann to Jewish parents in Budapest in 1913. He studied political science in Berlin and fled to Paris in 1933 to avoid the Nazi regime.
He was represented by Alliance Photo and met the journalist and photographer Gerda Taro. Together, they invented the ‘famous’ American photographer Robert Capa and began to sell his prints under that name.
From 1936 onwards, Capa’s coverage of the Spanish Civil War appeared regularly. His picture of a Loyalist soldier who had just been fatally wounded earned him his international reputation and became a powerful symbol of war.
After his companion, Gerda Taro, was killed in Spain, Capa travelled to China in 1938 and emigrated to New York a year later. As a correspondent in Europe, he photographed the Second World War, covering the landing of American troops on Omaha Beach on D-Day, the liberation of Paris and the Battle of the Bulge.
In 1947, Capa founded Magnum Photos with Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, George Rodger and William Vandivert. On 25 May 1954, he was photographing for Life Magazine in Thai-Binh, Indochina, when he stepped on a landmine and was killed.
Capa’s images are jarring and indeed they give the viewer a sense of being there which allows the images to make powerful statements.
I invite you to take a look and appreciate this master’s powerful use of “get close enough” to create powerful historical images.
Talent Under 30
This week’s Talent Under 30 photographer is Hannah Beier.
Hannah Beier is a freelance photographer based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
She graduated from Drexel University in June 2020 with a double major in Photography, and Design and Merchandising.
Her senior thesis, “Time Apart,” was featured on the cover as well as given a spread inside TIME Magazine’s June 2020 “Generation Pandemic” special issue and recently, an image from this project was selected as one of TIME’s Best Portraits of 2020.
Her portraiture and documentary work focuses on capturing intimate and authentic moments that connect us as a society.
I encourage you to check out this interview from Time Magazine – https://time.com/5839563/generation-pandemic-time-cover-photographer/. It is an interview that Hannah did with Katie Couric, and she details how she was able to do many of the shots remotely – but not the way so many photographers lazily photographed iPad screens. The amount of problem solving that Hannah did is exemplary and I encourage you to check out the video – AFTER you finish the podcast of course.
Remember the name Hannah Beier — he has a great future in this industry.
You can help me out and “hold the door open” for a young photographer
If you know of an incredibly talented photographer of any genre – under the age of 30 who is creating exceptional work – please share his or her Instagram handle with me so that I can check them out and possibly feature them here on TOGCHAT.
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