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Composition Woes

Having trouble with composition?

Actually, your compositions may be fine.

In my beginning photography classes many students say they need help with composition.

Usually, they're doing fine.

The only thing that many students don't do, composition-wise, is to use foreground.

They don't put anything in the foreground.

There are boring expanses of pavement or grass that don't add anything to their photographs.

So, you may not need to read on.

If I haven't convinced you that your compositions are okay, use the steps below.

Step #1 - Two Assignments

In my beginner photography class, I give two assignments.

Assignment #1

The first assignment deemphasizes the subject.

Photographers often pay too much attention to the subject, and not enough to all of the other ingredients, including composition.

Do the Mundane Object assignment.

Assignment #2

The second assignment is about contrast, a composition tool.

There are many types of contrast.

• Color

• Tone

• Geometric

• Empty space, full space

• Conceptual, such as old/new

The flip side of contrast is repetition.

All photographs have contrast or repetition, or both.

Contrasts and repetitions knit a photograph together.

Do the Contrasts assignment.

Or, concentrate on any of the other composition tools.

To review all of the composition tools, go to Composition > 20.1 - Introduction.

Step #2 - Reduce the Number of Objects

Look for scenes with very few objects or elements.

Don't do the Rembrandt-Nightwatch-type photographs.


Do Rothko-type photographs.


Step #3 - Slow Down

The are three slow downs below.

Slow Down #1

Photograph using a tripod and a stool.

It's much easier to study what's in the frame when the camera is stationary and you're comfortable.

Slow Down #2

Don't photograph a scene for tem minutes.

Instead, observe.

Jot down, without judgment, what you see, think, and feel.

After thirty minutes, circle an item on your note pad.

Photograph the item.

Slow Down #3

Photograph still lifes.

Keep it simple.

As mentioned, limit the number of objects and elements in the frame.

The more elements in the frame, the harder it gets.

Barbara Kasten makes it look easy.

It's not.


Step #4 - Identify

The two questions below overlap with each other.

What Attracted You to the Scene?

Identify what attracted you to the scene.

You can better decide how to point to this attraction by using the composition tools.

What Will the Photograph Be Saying?

Identify what you want to communicate with the photograph.

You can then use the composition tools to make your photograph say what you want more eloquently.

Step #5 - Watch Out For

Study the frame for the following.

Vantage Point

What's the best place to put your camera?

The vantage point controls just about everything below.

Don't wear your Gucci pants.

Wear knee pads!

You need to be able to crouch and climb to get an effective composition.

Rule of Thirds

Use the Rule of Thirds.

You may be able to set your camera to display a grid on the LCD screen.

Edges & Corners

Objects and elements located on the edges and corners of the frame can detract from the composition.


As mentioned, most photographers use middle ground and background.

Most don't use foreground.

Shoot through branches, over the shoulders of people, and the like.

Focal Length

Zoom in (more telephoto) to eliminate objects and elements that don't:

• Point to what attracted you to the scene.

• Help the photograph to say what you want.

You can also use focal length to "move" the background further away or closer.

Use a wide angle focal length to push a not-needed background away from the subject.

Use a telephoto focal length to bring a useful background closer to the subject.

Focal Length > 17.1 - MMs

Instruction Manual Assignments > #8 - Focal Length

Use Depth-of-field

If everything in the frame is more than twenty feet away, depth-of-field isn't useful.

If you're photographing a scene that's closer, try different lens openings to blur or sharpen what's in front, and behind, the subject.

Depth-of-Field > 16.1 - Introduction

Step #6 - Black-and-white Only?

You may want to set your camera to photograph in black-and-white.

The menu choice is often called Monochrome.

By ignoring color, it may be easier to concentrate on the other composition tools.

Step #7 - Project

Work on a project.

The photographs that you've taken already for the project will tell you how to do the new ones.

Here are two final thoughts.

Is Cropping Okay?

Cropping is neither good or bad; nor is it neutral.1

In Cropping Thoughts, the cropping philosophies of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans are compared.

Neither one is the winner.

I say, if you can get it right in the camera, that's good.

But, if you need to crop to remove what's not needed, go right ahead.

Do what serves the photograph.

Your Composition Style

Your composition style may be as valid as the anyone's style.

It's okay to be yourself.

1 This statement was inspired by Kranzberg's First Law, formulated by Melvin Kranzberg in 1896: Technology is neither good or bad; nor is it neutral.