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Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
An Eye for Composition
by Gary W. Stanley 

No matter where in this world we live the subject matter for photographers is for all practical purposes, never ending. We are limited only by our imagination and creative vision. I've related in the past the story of a well-known photographer who told his audience not to look at other photographers' work, but to develop their own style.

My comeback to that is pretty simple: how does one go about developing his or her own style, without something or someone else's work with which to compare it to? "You've certainly taught yourself a lot about the game of golf over the past few years Bob, now would you like to try using clubs?"

I believe that it is important to be able to visually see someone else's work, style and approach to photography, not to become a copycat of that specific style, but as an aid in developing your own style.

Perhaps you've learned some great landscape technique from David Muench, a great close-up idea from John Shaw, or how to use vivid colors in your images for impact from Pete Turner. Each idea gets logged into the brain, absorbing and remembering those points or styles that interest you the most. Then when you find yourself in a particular shooting situation, you draw upon that knowledge and apply it to your own images.

While I credit much of my success as a photographer to folks like John Shaw, Art Wolfe, David Muench and others, I've had to continually be willing to learn from others and from my own personal experiences.

Composition is one area of photography that begs for constant nourishment. I keep looking for new ideas and new subject matter with which to test my skills and creativity as a photographer. Sometimes I feel a little stale, and other times I'm "on the jazz" so to speak. It's those times when I'm on the jazz that I feel like a creative Superman and my excitement level for photography is so high.

In this article, I'll use some visual examples of basic and creative compositional techniques that I hope will stimulate your own creativity as well.

I'll assume that you have a good basic understanding of how your camera works, how to get correct exposure, the compositional rule of thirds, and the good basic compositional elements of line, shape, and texture. What I hope to do for you is stimulate your creative thought process by sharing my own thought process as I compose a shot.

What Lenses Do:

Remember first that your choice of lenses will play an important part in your composition and how the final image will look. Wide-angle lenses expand the apparent distance between objects, and a telephoto lens will compress the apparent distance between objects. Knowing this, you can choose your lens based on the compositional effect that you want.

Making Good Choices: One very important element in developing an eye for composition has to do with making good choices within your composition. First of all, I'm very big on finding a great foreground subject such as a big rock, an interesting tree or something similar to give the eye a point of entry into my composition. Your eyes will naturally see that subject, then, move across comfortably through the rest of the composition. 

This foreground subject also helps to make the viewer feel as though he or she is right there seeing what I saw and experienced at that very moment. This adds a three-dimensional quality and great depth to your image, which of course is a technique used by many 4x5 shooters. Develop an awareness of what to include or exclude from your composition, with a mind for keeping your compositions simple.

Achieving Balance: There are a few basic approaches to this technique. You can have a very large dominant foreground with a complimenting background, such as a large rock framing or leading you to the smaller appearing lighthouse in the background. This tends to add drama or a unique quality to an often-photographed subject. 

Or, you can balance the foreground and background subjects by keeping them similar in size. This technique is used when there is not an overpowering, dramatic subject, even though you find the overall scene pleasing. You can also build that drama or emotion in your photograph by looking for smaller foreground subjects that lead to that large dominant background such as when a stream gently leads your eye back to the much larger and more dominant mountains in the background.

The Compositional Rule of Thumb: There are of course many ways to compose your subject, but if you have a good understanding of how to use line, shape, or texture to your advantage, your compositions are far more likely to have impact than if you did not use them.

Lines: I use lines (usually diagonal lines) as a direct way of leading your eye from one point to another. 

Using triangular lines will help you find your way back. One line leads your eye to the subject and the other brings your eye back to your starting point. I will also look for a good foreground subject and a diagonal line to lead your eye from one point to another.

S-Curves or Shapes: I use shapes as a more relaxed casual way to lead your eye through the composition. A road, a stream, or even the shape of the ground or grasses in front of you can do this very well.

Texture: I look for texture in my composition, because it can add depth and detail to the image. Texture is usually a direct by-product of side lighting. As the light from the sun comes across your image, it sheds light on one side and shadow on the other, thus creating texture and more interest than a flatly lit subject.

Depth of Field: You may have exercised any one of these standards of good composition, but if you failed to achieve adequate depth of field, your images may leave you dissatisfied. Unfortunately many of today's lenses lack a depth of field scale and/or depth of field preview buttons. One easy way to assure maximum depth in your photograph is use as small lens aperture such as f/16 or f/22 and then focus a third of the way into the scene. Not the actual physical distance of the closest object in your picture to the farthest, but a third of the way into your frame as you look through the viewfinder. 

Use your depth-of-field preview button (if you have one) to stop the lens down to its taking aperture to visually check and see if everything looks sharp. Take your time and allow your eye to adjust to the darkened image in the viewfinder. A 'dark cloth' or coat can be handy to shield the sun as you look into the viewfinder. Depth-of-field and critical focus is very important to the finished image.

Another way to get maximum depth of field is to focus at your lens' hyper-focal distance which is what you're simulating by focusing 1/3rd of the way into the scene. For a complete explanation of hyper-focal distance and free hyperfocal charts for both film and digital formats see What is Hyperfocal Distance and Why Should I Care? in this issue.

Food for Thought: Finally, here are a few good review points to remember each time you compose an image. 

1. Make sure your horizon line is level. 

2. Look for distracting elements in your viewfinder that might take away for an otherwise excellent composition. 

3. If you want sharp front-to-back detail, make sure you have enough depth of field. 

4. Look for things in the composition that will allow you to use the basic design elements of line, shape, texture and form. 

5. Look for good foreground subjects to add that three-dimensional look to the composition. 

6. Finally, when photographing at the top of high cliffs or overhangs, don't step back to admire your work! Just checking if you're paying attention.

Give these few suggestions a try as you develop you own eye for composition.

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