Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Composing A Photograph

Questions - Choices - Decisions

When we compose a photograph, we address and respond to a handful of essential questions:

1. What should be included in the frame, what should be excluded, and where should the components be placed for maximum impact?

2. What is the most important part of the frame/object in the frame, and how can we highlight it?

The photo below shows the fa├žade of two buildings, but we don't see the entire buildings.  The first decision was to exclude parts of the buildings in order to focus attention on particular details.

We see fishing nets and life preservers hanging from a railing.  We see window shutters of different colors.  If the photo showed the buildings in their entirety, these smaller details might have gone unnoticed.

a photo of riomaggiore cinque terre italy
Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, Liguria, Italy

The second decision was where to draw the lines for the section that was included.  I wanted to include the green downspout on the right side of the frame.  I thought that it highlighted the edge of the photo nicely.

At the bottom of the frame I included part of a staircase and a sloping stone wall.  The opposing angles appealed to my sense of balance.  I trimmed the lower features a bit in order to hide some potentially distracting elements.

The building on the left was tricky.  Originally, I wanted to include only the two windows with the open shutters.  However, this would have required cropping through the leftmost door.

If you put your hand over the left edge of the photo and move it in toward the blue shutter, you can see the effect that I wanted to avoid.  I felt that it would have been a distraction.  I included the leftmost window in order to avoid cropping through this door.  It's not a perfect solution, but I felt that it was an effective compromise.

I'll mention one more detail.  It's so subtle that it's easy to miss, but I felt that it was important when framing the shot.  The distance to from the bottom of the doors to the bottom of the frame is approximately the same distance between the top of the windows and the top of the frame.  There is a similar consistency between the left and right sides of the frame.  I feel that this consistency in opposing margins gives added balance to the composition.

No cropping was done in post processing (although I'm not opposed to doing so when it helps the final composition).


There's no mathematical test for a good composition.  If such an algorithm existed, we could let an app in out smart phones make all of the compositional decisions for us. 

That said, when we compare two photographs of the same scene side by side, one will almost always impress us as being be the better of the two.  Our minds evaluate details and pick out the better composition almost instantly.

When we're shooting we need to be aware details that could make an image seem cluttered, disorganized, or poorly arranged.  The viewer will make those assessments, and we don't want to disappoint them.

The Human Factor

We can apply guidelines and principles to the composition of a visual image, but there is always room for interpretation.  I made certain decisions when shooting the photo above, and I can justify those decisions, but someone else would shoot the scene differently.  Countless individual interpretations are possible.

Taste, style, and the experience and personality of the photographer are critical factors in composition.  A photograph is as much a portrait of the photographer as it is a collection of the elements that are visible within the frame.

Camera: Nikon D800

Lens: Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G AF-S VRII

Light happens.  Be ready.  Shoot hard.

Copyright © 2013 Daniel R. South
All Rights Reserved

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