February 12, 2021
Composition - Getting the Shot
Sheep Canyon Rivulet ©1994
Composition, in my opinion, is the most
important aspect of any art form, including photography. Composition, or the arrangement of the elements of a photograph, is the major thing that carries the message of the image. Second in importance is technical execution. You can have a photo that is technically perfect in every way - perfect exposure, razor sharp focus in all the right places, spot on color. But if the composition isn't there, you've simply got a technically perfect boring picture!
On the other hand you can have a technically flawed photo that has a stunning composition - it will draw the viewer in completely and create the impact you intended. Having technical perfection only strengthens that impact.
Composition: "the disposition or arrangement of elements connected in a picture"
. That's it.
There are countless articles, workshops, YouTube videos, even entire books and colleges courses on the subject of what makes a good composition. It may confuse and bore one to no end, but it is worth digging into.
Little changes can make a big difference in the impact of a photo. Here's an example.
San Felipe Road
I liked this scene. The soft hills, dappled light in the foreground and the isolated trees made for a calm, but striking image. It's not a bad picture, but it's too flat, there's a dead tree to the left, some wires running across the top, and even though the subject of the picture is quite evident, it s kind of lost. Meh.
So I zoomed in a little, made sure some of the shadow ran across the bottom of the frame and I shifted my position a bit to reduce the intrusion of the the dead tree was no longer a distraction. Then when I processed the photo, I did a bit of cloning to get rid of the dead tree, burned and dodged a bit to draw attention to the isolated trees, cropped out the wires. The final image is a lot more appealing with just those little changes in composing and processing the photo.
San Felipe Road ©2020
This journal isn't any kind of composition class or anything like that. It's what I
do to get the images I get. It is about the things that I have found to be successful in creating an image with impact versus simply recording a scene. People have told me I have a "good eye" whatever that is. So I ask myself "What do I do?" "How do I go about it?"
When I'm out shooting or, hell, even if I'm out just taking a walk, I can't help but see what's around me. I see the light, the shapes, maybe an interesting object. Sometimes the way the light falls on the hills with all the grasses, plants and rocks turns the hill into a sort of fairie land. In this shot, the diagonal lines of the light reflecting off the grasses contrast with the hints of details in the shadow. I really like the way the blooming Yucca tree balances the overall image. I intended the photo to communicate the chaotic but calm pattern of the hills. And I think I pulled it off well. Others seem to like it.
Sunland Hillside ©2020
Or a hiker in the distance emphasize the vastness of the forest. It's simple yet impactful. When my son and I took a backpacking trip in the Sierras a few years ago, I hung back just to get this shot. The insertion of a person within the vista is quite the "thing" these days. You see it all over the place, but it still works to create scale, depth and impact. I like it.
Sierra Hike ©2015
I often find myself overwhelmed by the drama and color of an evening sky. This sunset taken at Sand Key Park in Florida was so stunning all you could do was stop in your tracks and gape. How to capture this? You can have your rule of thirds, golden ratio and all the rest, but the subject of this was the fire in the sky. Let it dominate. And that's what I did leaving just a sliver of land at the bottom and I let the sky do the rest. The rules had to be broken.
Sky on Fire ©2016
For me a composition typically comes about in one of two ways. First, and most commonly, I'll be going to an area whether it is in the Wash near my home or in a National Park, desert or forest. I get an idea of what's there and what time of day might be good. But honestly, when you're out travelling, you generally don't have the luxury of picking the ideal time to go shoot in a particualr area, especially if you're with family who may be antsy to keep on moving. So I go on a hike making the most of the hand I'm dealt. And I look. The scenery takes me in and I find things I'd never seen before. I go into a weird sort of zone where I'm both awed and admiring of the environment. Images, compositions, the play of light and shadow, maybe a big tree or odd little plant start jumping out at me and the gears start churning. I snap a few test shots, start working out the elements that will eventually become the composition I hope will communicate what I'm seeing and feeling at the time. That's probably one of the things I love most - finding myself in sort of a timeless zone that's difficult to put into words, but to me it is the heart of creating. This type of shooting that is most spontanious to me and has led to some of my favorite photos. It's also the most fun for me.
I put things together in my mind as well as in the camera: the lines, colors, light and shadow, relative sizes, sharpness. They all play a part in it.
When I got this shot, I was hiking through the barren hills around Lake Powell in Utah. I knew the area was riddled with slot canyons, small rivulets and canyons. I scouted around on a hot afternoon climbing into every crack in the earth I came across hoping for something. Antelope Canyon was out of the question with the 2 week waiting list. But there had
to be something! This little canyon was small, but still large enough for me to squeeze into with tripod and camera. I shifted around a dozen different ways until I settled on this using the lines, colors, shadows and light to draw the viewer into the scene. I wanted to create a "sizeless" sort of feel. This could be 30 feet high, you can't really tell at first. In fact, this was actually about 4 feet tall. Mission accomplished.
Slot Canyon Lake Powell ©2014
There are dozens of rules and guidelines that add up to a good composition, and for the most part they work because they are based on what people generally find agreeable or "pretty", but it boils down to agreement. I still spend hours (probably far too much time) scouring through tutorials, watching YouTube videos, poring through galleries. But that time has also been accompanied by an increasing skill and certainty that has allowed me to execute the art at an ever higher level.
Angeles National Golf Course ©2021