Photo Shoot Tips

Practical Composition

Episode #237 of the TOGCHAT Photography Podcast

Transcript | TOGCHAT Resources


Practical Composition- Make Your Images More Exciting — Without Rules!

Joe: [00:00:00] This week, I want to share some thoughts with you about composition. But wait, don’t click away. I want to introduce you to something that I call Practical Composition, and I promise you, if you try this out, it will have an immediate impact on your photography. Stay tuned.

DJ: [00:00:19] You’re listening to the TOGCHAT Photography Podcast, the only podcast dedicated to the HOWS and WHYS, behind creating consistently great photographs. Here’s your host, Joe Edelman.3 Simple No Rules guidelines to improve your composition

Joe: [00:00:36] Hey gang. This is episode number 246 of the TOGCHAT Photography Podcast. I am Joe Edelman. And my mission is to help photographers like you to develop a better understanding of the HOWS and why WHYS behind making consistently great photographs. A few quick notes for you before we dive in.

[ 00:00:59] Be sure to check out my website, If you’ve never been there before, what are you waiting for? If you’ve been there, I want you to know that it looks a lot different and there are some new features. First when you visit the website, the first thing that you’re going to see is my portfolio not a bunch of articles. The articles are still there, but I wanted to put the images front and center and I’ll be expanding on the portfolio and adding my fine art nudes over the next few weeks. There are over 300 articles and tutorials on the site, along with the directory of modeling agencies and makeup artists from all 50 of the United States. You’ll also find some great advice for models as well as the photographers that photograph them. And the website serves as home base for all of my TOGCHAT podcast episodes, as well as The LAST FRAME LIVE. Be sure to sign up for my email newsletter to receive updates. Don’t worry. I will never sell the list. And. I only email when I have something exciting to share no spam from Joe.

[ 00:02:14] I’m hoping that you subscribe to my YouTube channel and that you have seen my new series called The LAST FRAME LIVE. The LAST FRAME is a one hour live stream that happens every Wednesday evening at 6:00 PM. ET in the U S.

[ 00:02:29] Each week, The LAST FRAME focuses on a different topic with no scripts, no razzle dazzle, no canned presentations. I do my best to give you a lesson or demo or series of tips based strictly on my experience. In other words, how I do it? No rules, no bullet points, no top five ways. I share my ways of doing it so that you can get an inside understanding of how another photographer works. This is not your usual YouTube tutorial stuff. You can find the link in the show notes. I hope you’ll check it out.

[ 00:03:12] If you haven’t subscribed to my YouTube channel yet, please do. You can find the link to the channel and all my social profiles in the show notes or visit my website

[ 00:03:27] And Hey, if you’re listening on iTunes or any other platform that allows reviews, do a guy a solid, please leave a few positive notes to help other photographers find out about the show. Honestly, the reviews, they help to attract sponsors, which helps me to continue providing you with access to all of this great photography learning and the amazing photographers that I interview.

[ 00:03:55] My thought for the week… actually, I don’t have anything really witty this week. I just got off the phone with a photographer friend that I have known for years and he told me he’s getting out of the business. I’m honestly in shock and I asked him why. He told me he had to give up because he keeps losing focus.

DJ: [00:04:17] Next up is this week’s TOGTOPIC.

Joe: [00:04:20] The word composition has many meanings in our language. Even in the language of photography, it has multiple meanings. I want to talk to you about the meaning that describes the placement of relative objects and elements in a photograph. Yes. I’m talking about that category of composition with rules, like the rule of thirds and terms like positioning and leading lines and negative space.

[ 00:04:50] I want to introduce you to a practical approach to composition. That can and will have an immediate impact on your photography and all without having to follow any creativity killing rules. I want to be upfront with you about my philosophy towards rules. In fact, you know what, let me share Ansul Adam’s thoughts on rules.

[ 00:05:14] Adams is famously quoted as saying, “There are no rules for good photographs, only good photographs.” Or from another iconic master of photography, Mr. Edward Weston; “Rules of composition are deduced from the work of strong masters and used by weak imitators to produce nothing.” I sincerely believe that rules are creativity killers. Actually science confirms that rules are creativity killers.

[ 00:05:48] 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 and an intent to be creative and think outside the box to be original will be hampered by your knowledge of the rules. I mean, come on. It’s easier to think outside the box when you don’t know where the box is.

[ 00:06:18] My history with these rules of composition began when I was 13 years old and I was getting really serious about photography. I went to the library and check out a book on composition. It was a big book. We’re talking about an inch and a half thick, hard bound book published in the 1960s with some of the most boring black and white photos you have ever seen.

[ 00:06:45] Now 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 my first 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 placement, and you know what, actually, I can’t even remember that entire list, but I knew that if I had to remember all of those things, I would never be able to press the button.

[ 00:07:26] 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.

[ 00:07:47] Now, fortunately, an early mentor encouraged me to ignore the rules and to just keep shooting. He encouraged me to take the time to review my own photos and to always have my own opinions about them. With this permission to ignore the rules. I taught myself 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 won awards, been published in magazines and advertisements, and even displayed on billboards and on the sides of buildings around the world.

[ 00:08:37] I share all of this background with you, because from this point forward, I won’t be telling you any of the rules and I won’t call them by name or describe them. I don’t want to be responsible for putting you in the box. And just in case you are already in the box, I don’t want to be the one 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.

DJ: [00:09:22] Enjoying the show. Please take a moment and share it with your friends on social media.

Joe: [00:09:27] I mentioned earlier that the word composition has many definitions. According to Merriam-Webster, composition is the act or process of composing specifically. It is the arrangement into specific proportion or relation and especially into artistic form.

[ 00:09:48] Doesn’t actually sound very useful for photography. Does it? The key words in there that do apply to our conversation are arrangement and proportion and 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.

[ 00:10:12] We can expand on that and say, the composition is the placement or arrangement of visual elements in a photograph based upon why are you taking the shot? What your subject is and how you want people to feel about the scene that you are photographing. Photographic composition is the way that we guide the viewers eye to the most important elements in the scene.

[ 00:10:44] 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.”

[ 00:11:06] Armed with the freedom that my mentor had given me to ignore the minutia that was in that book on composition, this quote by Edward Weston became my early working definition of composition. But what does that really mean? How do we make sense out of that quote to improve our photography?

[ 00:11:30] 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 we’ll see and how they will see it.

[ 00:11:58] Remember that no other human being will have the same experience with your photo as you did. But you can certainly influence the viewer’s experience with the way that you compose your shot.

[ 00:12:12] 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 the best part, it doesn’t cost a dime. The more you work to make it a habit, the more it will become second nature, and eventually it does become an instinct.

[ 00:12:40] Composition is present in every photograph you make, whether you are thinking about it or not good or bad it’s there. So it’s incredibly important to be aware of it when ever you are planning a shot, and most definitely when you have a camera in your hands.

[ 00:13:00] Let me connect this to something that so many new photographers struggle with. Composition means reading your camera manual and knowing how to move the focus spot away from the center of your frame. And then when you are about to take the picture, composition is finding the most visually interesting place in your viewfinder to place the subject, and then moving the focus spot to the subject to ensure that your subject is in focus.

[ 00:13:33] You can’t create great compositions by always having your subject in the center focused spot. And you will not create consistently good photos by placing the subject in the middle of your frame and cropping later in post production. So I want to give you a few guidelines that are practical and sensible and should apply to every photo that you ever take.

[ 00:14:03] So many books and articles that I found about composition lists 15, 20, even 30 rules of composition that you must follow. That is just ridiculous. So let me share with you the mental checklist that I use when I shoot.

[ 00:14:23] First, before we picked up the camera, it is important to know why. Why are we taking the shot? The answer to that question will influence all of the choices that we 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, and should be influenced by Why.

[ 00:14:54] Second, always ask yourself, What is the subject? I know that seems kind of obvious, but 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. So taking a moment and actually considering the answer to that question helps to focus your attention on your subject, to be sure that you’re showing the subject in a way that conveys your thoughts and your feelings.

[ 00:15:25] Now, with the answers to WHY and WHAT is my subject, you can start to work with the elements in the scene to create an interesting image. The third guideline is HOW do you want the viewer to feel. It’s about the emotion. The emotion that you create with your image is what allows people to connect with it and appreciate it.

[ 00:15:52] And yes, composition plays a big role in how people feel when they look at your photograph. Pretty easy so far? We know why we’re taking the shot and we know what our subject is. And third on my list, come three simple words that will make your composition better every single time.

[ 00:16:16] 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. And believe me, this is one discipline that took my photography to a whole new level, but let’s be clear about what fill the frame really means.

[ 00:16:54] I approach it as a type of visual editing in real time, while I’m looking through the camera and I’m making choices about what to keep and what to get rid of. I find a lot of photographers think that fill the frame is just another way of saying crop tight or get close, but it is so much more than that.

[ 00:17:17] Fill the frame is the process of making sure that you only include the things that need to be in your shot. It is VISUAL EDITING. When I am composing my shot, 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 of the frame 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’m taking the photo and what my subject is now for working in the studio. We have the luxury of full control. Nothing is in the photo unless we put it there and we put it where we want it. If we’re working in a natural setting, indoors or outdoors, the challenge is much bigger.

DJ: [00:18:16] Did you know that you can have Joe as your personal photography mentor? I’m talking about direct access to ask him questions and get advice. You can also attend weekly video meetups for members to share and help each other with Joe’s guidance. Be sure to check out the link in the show notes.

Joe: [00:18:33] Fourth on my checklist, KISS IT. Keep It Super Simple. Simplicity is a powerful composition tool. Simple compositions make it easier to identify the subject. This fits with the recommendation to only include what needs to be in the shot. If it doesn’t add value visually or emotionally and if it doesn’t help tell the story that you want to communicate, then leave it out. Simple is always better.

[ 00:19:10] Fifth on my list. How do you want the viewer to feel? This is an important question to ask yourself because it makes some remaining steps that I’m going to give you quite a bit easier. Part of creating any photograph is considering the emotion that you want the finished image to evoke.

[ 00:19:33] Number six. 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 a storytelling element in the shot. When you’re thinking about space, think of where you want the viewers eyes to go. And remember that diagonal lines are always your friend diagonal lines are great for leading the viewer to a point in an image, or to bring attention to something.

[ 00:20:23] Number seven. Pay attention to the colors. Color impacts mood and emotion. All too often photographers, overlooked color as a compositional tool. Take some time to learn about color theory and use a color wheel if you struggle with pairing colors. You can load apps on your phone now that are with you at all times while you’re shooting and will help you improve your understanding of what colors work well together.

[ 00:20:55] Eight on the list, Pay attention to backgrounds and foregrounds and don’t . Forget the edges of your frame. I know I’ve already talked about including only what you want to include, but now we want to take it a step further before we press the shutter release. You see success in photography, it 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 subjects head. This is due to a brain deficiency that we all have. It’s 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.

[ 00:22:01] Number nine. Please don’t succumb to A.E.L. Disease. A.E.L. Stands for Always Eye Level. It is an unfortunate disease that affects so many photographers. 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 the shot. A little warning though about tilting the camera. If you’re going to tilt the camera. Tilt the damn camera- make a statement, then it’s art.

[ 00:22:53] For you landscape photographers, a horizon line that is not level is just plain sloppy. A horizon line that is tilted to create a new perspective is artistic.

[ 00:23:06] Last but not least on my list. Work your shot. Please don’t be the photographer that shoots one or two frames and then moves on with the attitude that you have a good photograph. I would suggest that if you only take two shots, you’ve wasted your time. I always assume that my first idea or composition is just, okay. I look at it as an entryway and an introduction into the shot and the subject. That allows me to start seeing a photograph and looking at the details through my camera’s viewfinder. And that process allows me to start to look for better opportunities in terms of camera angles, lighting, body language, exposure, and of course, that list goes on. If I’m planning a studio, shoot, I plan in enough time to experiment with each look. And I shoot two, three, four, even five different variations of each look. If I’m shooting an event or an editorial story, I’m looking for as many ways as possible to tell the story in one photo and then for as many photos as possible to contribute to a bigger story.

DJ: [00:24:31] Are you a member of a photography club or meetup group? Did you know that Joe presents virtually to clubs all around the world? Follow the presentation link in the show notes to learn more.

Joe: [00:24:41] So there you have my philosophy on composition and my tips to help you create awesome composition without having to live by creativity, killing rules.

[ 00:24:55] This method gives you the freedom to be creative and to create images that meet your emotional expectation. I mentioned Ansel Adams earlier. He frequently spoke about how he visualized the shot in his mind’s eye. The mind’s eye is not a cool adjective. Merriam-Webster defines it as the mental faculty of conceiving imaginary or recollected steams.

[ 00:25:24] For a photographer, that means that the process of making great pictures is the art of using the physics that allow us to create images with cameras and your abilities to imagine a result based on the why, what and how that made us stop and pick up the camera. I hope that you will consider the things that I have shared with you.

[ 00:25:51] I promise you that these concepts will be easier to understand and work with then all of the many rules of composition that have been developed over the years. And the best part of these concepts is that they will give you the freedom to create unique photographs. Photographs that are not boring photographs that don’t represent been there, done that. Just like anything else in photography. It will take practice. The goal of that practice is to turn these ideas into habits. I promise you what I have just described to you in great detail is my approach to composition in my photographs, understand a consistently great photography is in large part the result of making practice a habit.

DJ: [00:26:45] Enjoying the show. Please take a moment and share it with your friends on social media.

Joe: [00:26:49] Okay. Folks that will do it for this episode of the TOGCHAT Photography Podcast. Stay safe, have a great week. And until next time, please remember these words. Thanks for listening to the TOGCHAT Photography Podcast. Now go pick up that camera and shoot something because your best shot. It’s your next shot. So keep learning. Keep thinking and keep shooting. Adios!

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Joe Edelman

Joe Edelman is an award winning Photographer, Author, and "No Bull" Photo Educator.  Follow this link to learn more about Joe or view his portfolio. Please be sure to connect on the social media platforms below.
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