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Thread: Article on Composing a Picture

  1. #1

    Article on Composing a Picture

    I've written an article on image composition. I learned a lot in my research on the subject, and I'm sure it'll be worth your time to take a look at it. Some things I talk about are:
    • all the parts of a picture should draw attention to the subject
    • Why the rule of thirds sucks, and how you should place a subject
    • how to use lines to your advantage
    • using hue/value/saturation to create mood and draw attention to the subject
    • and a bunch of short tips


    In a few short sentences I think the main thing I learned about image composition is that all the elements of a picture are equally important and should help the subject stand out. It might seem like a small realization, but it is a completely different way of looking at a picture. When I'm taking a picture I now think about how I can best use background elements to help my subject stand out. When people say to keep a picture simple it's not because simple pictures are the best, but because a simple background helps the subject stand out, while a complex scene can easily direct the viewers attention to the wrong part of a scene.

    If you have any suggestions on what I should talk about in future articles, leave a comment below.
    If you have any criticism on how I could improve the quality of my posts please leave a comment explaining what I can do.

  2. #2
    rpcrowe's Avatar
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    Re: Article on Composing a Picture

    Very worthwhile article with loads of good tips.

    Let me share my totally unproven and unscientific observations about composition:

    1. We live in a visual age. Considering television, motion pictures, magazines, newspapers and billboards; we are exposed to a plethora of images almost 24/7...

    2. Some people only "LOOK" at these visuals while other people "SEE" the images.

    3. Many of the people who have "SEEN" the images will produce very good photography from the first time they pick up a camera. Their brain and eye has learned from the images that they have "SEEN" all of their lives. Their imagery can be improved by training and learning but, these folks start out at a much higher level than most other beginning photographers. I am guessing that Kerry and Malcolm's little girl is somewhere among this group of "natural" photographers. Her images are certainly striking and will only get better with experience!

    4. Many of the people who have "LOOKED AT" but, have never "SEEN" the images floating about them have no conception of what makes an interesting image and are doomed to produce boring images. They may learn the techniques to produce a well focused and decently exposed image. They may even learn the rudimentary concepts of composition but, the content of their images persist as being uninspired and uninteresting....

    5. Most of us are somewhere in between #3 and #4. We are not born photographers but, have some ability to "SEE" an image when we look at one and to produce a decent image when we shoot. Articles such as yours help this section of photographers to improve their photography. And, the more images shot and the more images critiqued by our peers, the better we will become at producing images.

  3. #3

    Re: Article on Composing a Picture

    Very worthwhile article with loads of good tips.
    Thanks, glad you enjoyed it.

    I agree that there are those who for whatever reason have learned to 'see' images without having had much experience with photography, but I believe that with enough dedication everyone who doesn't fall in that category can learn how to 'see' the scene in front of them. Most areas in life are this way, there are those who are naturally talented, and those who are not.
    Much of the older generation that doesn't pick up all the in and outs of photoshop as easily are also at a big disadvantage.

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    tbob's Avatar
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    Re: Article on Composing a Picture

    I am unfortunately one of the people who fall into Richard's category four. So the more of these sort of things I can read the better my chances of composing something worthwhile. I found this quite useful.

    Did you consider using some visual examples of poor versus brilliant composition of the same elements and images? I am a visual creature and seeing examples of the bad, the good and the indifferent would be of great use.

    Kudos at any rate
    Last edited by tbob; 25th January 2012 at 05:56 PM. Reason: punctuation

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    Goldcoastgolfer's Avatar
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    Re: Article on Composing a Picture

    Quote Originally Posted by rpcrowe View Post
    I am guessing that Kerry and Malcolm's little girl is somewhere among this group of "natural" photographers. Her images are certainly striking and will only get better with experience!
    Aww thanks! We'll be sure to let her know you said that.

    Nicely written article - very comprehensive although I think Trevor has a good idea with respect to adding visual examples. Everyone learns differently.

    I wanted to add one more element in to Richards unproven and unscientific observations just from my own personal experience. Passion is an element that I believe needs to be added to the element of composition. Perhaps its the same thing as "seeing" the photo, but for me, unless I feel the photo - the environment, a spark that grabs my interest I WILL produce a technically correct but fundamentally boring photo.

    Case in point - pretty much every single one of my nature photos is uninspiring. I'll post a few photos up but rarely will they elicit a comment - which to my mind says there's nothing wrong with them, but there's nothing great about them either. Why? Because I am fundamentally not really interested in nature photos. I will see a scene, feel nothing but boredom, and therefore compose a scene technically instead.

    Give me something that I'm interested in and all of a sudden I get (much to my surprise) comments, criticism, and encouragement. People, surfing, architecture - those are the photos that I get the most feedback on which coincidentally are also the type of photos I enjoy taking the most of.

    And in those photos, I rarely have to think to hard about composition. Granted, I have a much better understanding of the basics these days - but that little bit of knowledge coupled with a passion for the subject for me is enough to look at the scene, 'feel' what I want to create, take the photo, and then process it to recreate the experience that I felt. At least, that's what I strive for - I'm a long way off obviously but for me, I would probably add a #3.5 which is "FEEL" the image.

    Now that I've written this, I'm not sure that it makes a whole lot of sense - but I thought I'd throw it out there anyway.

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    Re: Article on Composing a Picture

    Thank you for this.

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    Re: Article on Composing a Picture

    I'd like to comment on the specific points expressed on the rule of thirds. First, the rule doesn't always have to be applied both vertically and horizontally, and in fact is being applied vertically in your example image.

    Second, and this is a more general observation, the rules of composition are never broken. Your image will not look good unless the rules are followed. The way I explain it is that you don't have to apply all the rules in a single image. You can replace one rule with another. Going back to the "thirds" image, the rule of thirds was replaced, horizontally, with the rule of symmetry, and that makes the image work.

    Personally I find that the most interesting images tend to apply the rules in a non-traditional way. A common example of this can be seen with landscapes. Many landscapes follows the rule of thirds...you have a foreground, then maybe some mountains, and then a sky (for example.) But there are also great landscape shots that are split across the middle of the image, where the mountains are reflecting in a placid lake. Well, the rule of thirds wasn't broken. As in the image in the article, it was simply replaced with the rule of symmetry.

    I think it's a good exercise to take an image where you think the rules were broken, and study it to discover the actual rule that was employed. But make no mistake about it...there's a rule being employed. There must be, otherwise it wouldn't be a compelling image.

    As for the article in general, it reads well and likely strikes a chord with those who understand...but I can imagine beginners reading each section and saying, "Great! how?"

    An article I like to point beginners toward is Jodie Coston's lesson on composition, which she starts off with a great question..."It's A Beautiful Photograph, But Do You Know WHY It's Beautiful?"

    http://www.morguefile.com/docs/index...ston:_Lesson_1

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    Nature or nurture

    http://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedai..._different.php

    Sein Voit and Svein Magnussen did a study of how artists and non-artists "look" at pictures. The non-artist tended to concentrate on the "key areas" of the picture (faces etc.) while artists tend to look at the overall picture.

    Voit and Magnussen attribute this to the training that the artists had received. However, I am wondering if this way of looking at pictures might have been the way the person with natural artistic talent looks at an image. And that persons with the artistic talent were influenced to go into art?

    I do know that many persons who are not able to shoot good pictures do not see the entire image when viewing it in their camera. They look only at the "key elements" of the picture such as little Judy's face. They tend to overlook the tree growing out of Judy's head, the portion of the kid next to Judy intruding into the frame and they overlook the busy background competing with Judy for interest. The also tend to overlook that parts of Judy's body are cut off by the way they have framed the image.

    I think that Voit and Magnussen might have skewed the results by asking the participants to memorize the pictures. I wonder how the results would have turned out if the participants had been instructed to only look at the image without the memorization requirement.

    I dont know how true this is but, I was told early in my photo career that the eye of a person who is used to reading from left to right and from top down first looks at an image at the interestion of the right and bottom rule of thirds line and then travels up the line and then to the left, then down and then to the right, unconsciously searching for a point of interest. That seems contraindicated since we are used to reading left to ight and then top down....

  9. #9

    Re: Nature or nurture

    Did you consider using some visual examples of poor versus brilliant composition of the same elements and images? I am a visual creature and seeing examples of the bad, the good and the indifferent would be of great use.
    Perhaps I'll go back later and add more pictures. I find that If I wait until I've added a lot of pictures and graphics, I never get around to publishing the article.



    I rarely have to think to hard about composition. Granted, I have a much better understanding of the basics these days - but that little bit of knowledge coupled with a passion for the subject for me is enough to look at the scene, 'feel' what I want to create, take the photo, and then process it to recreate the experience that I felt.
    Definitely. There is that sense of 'feel' where you just know that the scene in front of you will make a good photograph. Although I find that since writing that article about composition, I think more about the way I'm composing the picture, but I always go by the way I 'feel' first.



    Sein Voit and Svein Magnussen did a study of how artists and non-artists "look" at pictures. The non-artist tended to concentrate on the "key areas" of the picture (faces etc.) while artists tend to look at the overall picture.

    Voit and Magnussen attribute this to the training that the artists had received. However, I am wondering if this way of looking at pictures might have been the way the person with natural artistic talent looks at an image. And that persons with the artistic talent were influenced to go into art?
    Very interesting. People who analyse individual parts of an image can naturally 'see' the image and are more likely to become an artist... Agreed, very interesting.



    Your image will not look good unless the rules are followed.
    You can always make up some rule to explain why you like an image, but I think that what Goldcoastgolfer said when he said
    unless I feel the photo - the environment, a spark that grabs my interest I WILL produce a technically correct but fundamentally boring photo.
    is more true.



    I dont know how true this is but, I was told early in my photo career that the eye of a person who is used to reading from left to right and from top down first looks at an image at the interestion of the right and bottom rule of thirds line and then travels up the line and then to the left, then down and then to the right, unconsciously searching for a point of interest. That seems contraindicated since we are used to reading left to ight and then top down....
    Yeah I've heard the same thing. It's a useful paradox. When I first heard about this, I thought about the pictures I've taken, and in most pictures that I've taken of people, the person is in the bottom right-hand corner.

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    Re: Nature or nurture

    I know that many people may have natural ability to see in terms of good composition but I am not one of them. I find that only a few of us are blessed with such ability.

    So what I found I had to do was learn to turn off my emotional connection to the scenes in front of me so I would not be so quick to click my shutter. I needed to slow down and determine what exactly was drawing me to the scene and find better ways to compose my shots. This can only be done by shooting often and then studying what you have photographed on screen later. Many times I have gone back and reshot those same scenes over and over until I began to see them in a new way.

    I teach an intro class and I often tell my students to reshoot their favorite scenes over using the concepts that we read about. Many have told me that this method helped them to see the scene differently and eventually see all scenes more artistically.
    Last edited by Dave Humphries; 20th February 2012 at 08:54 AM. Reason: correct typos

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    Goldcoastgolfer's Avatar
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    Re: Nature or nurture

    Quote Originally Posted by ericg View Post
    I know that many people may have natural ability to see in terms of good composition but I am not one of them. I find that only a few of us are blessed with such ability. So what I found I had to do was learn to turn of my emotional connection to the scenes in front of me so I would not be so quick to click my shutter. I needed to slow down and determine what exactly was drawing me to the scene and find better ways to compose my shots. This can only be done by shotting often and then studying what you have photographed on my screen later. Many times I have gone back and reshot those same scenes over and over until I began to see them in a new way. I teach an intro class and I often tell my students to reshoot their favorite scenes over using the concepts that we read about. Many have told me that this method helped them to see the scene differently and eventually see all scenes more artistically.
    I don't agree that you should turn off your emotional connection to a scene - but i do agree that you should take your time to understand what it is in a scene that makes you feel interested about it. I'd liken it to "lust' vs "love".

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    Re: Nature or nurture

    Hi,
    Very good article. In the 1960's we were taught in mechanical drawing class to offset the the project to the right just past center. This kind of gives an aaahhh to the picture. When taking casual pictures of people think of mirror images. A lot of commercials show people using their left hands, maybe because most people are right-handed. The digital age offers the best solution. Crop lots of samples of a larger picture and select the one that you like the best.
    Tim

  13. #13

    Re: Nature or nurture

    Thanks for posting on this subject as it has been a most interesting read. I plan on going over it again in the very near furture and will keep an eye on the other posts as well.

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    rawill's Avatar
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    Re: Article on Composing a Picture

    Great to read these comments and the article.

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    Re: Article on Composing a Picture

    The article is very easy to read and contains a really nice balance and would leave the novice to Intermeadiate Photographer with ideas upon which to explore, whilst still having conformity to basic principles and theory: this is its main strength IMO.

    I enjoyed reading it and I took things away from it. Thank you

    Quote Originally Posted by mrme View Post
    If you have any criticism on how I could improve the quality of my posts please leave a comment explaining what I can do.
    One concern:
    on the subheadings of Lenses and Depth - although the word “perspective” was not used in either, you come terribly close to attributing the quality of Perspective to the Lens.

    One technical error:
    “Crop In” - you actually describe Framing closer – not Cropping.
    “Frame In” or “Frame Tight” would be a better (and correct) sub heading.

    WW

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    Re: Article on Composing a Picture

    Thanks for sharing... very easily read and understood. Thanks.

  17. #17

    Re: Article on Composing a Picture

    One technical error:
    “Crop In” - you actually describe Framing closer – not Cropping.
    “Frame In” or “Frame Tight” would be a better (and correct) sub heading.
    Thanks for the correction. I changed the sub heading to frame tight.

    One concern:
    on the subheadings of Lenses and Depth - although the word “perspective” was not used in either, you come terribly close to attributing the quality of Perspective to the Lens.
    Lenses change the way perspective is distorted, so yes I guess I'm attributing the quality of Perspective to the Lens. Although I'm not quite sure what you mean on this. Could you expound on what you mean by the "quality of Perspective".

    Thank you everyone for your insightful comments and for all the encouraging remarks. It's very motivating. I'm writing up another article about color. It should be ready in a week or so. If you want to be notified of when I post the article you can subscribe by email here
    or you can follow my Google+ profile here

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    William W's Avatar
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    Re: Article on Composing a Picture

    Quote Originally Posted by mrme View Post
    Lenses change the way perspective is distorted, so yes I guess I'm attributing the quality of Perspective to the Lens. Although I'm not quite sure what you mean on this. Could you expound on what you mean by the "quality of Perspective".
    Certainly.

    Firstly the phrase I used: “the quality of Perspective” -
    I meant “quality” as in “the characteristic - Perspective"; "the noun - Perspective".


    Expanding:
    You write of “Viewpoint” (My Bold Underlined):
    “Move around and find a way of composing an image that you like. Try taking a picture from down low, up high, far away, in close, from the left, from the right, etc.


    And then you write about “depth” and attribute the (quality of) “depth”, to the lens:

    "LENSES
    Use a wide angle lens to increase depth, and focus attention away from the edges. Increase it even more with a fish eye.
    Use a normal sized lens for a natural feel.
    Use a telephoto to compress the depth, and to give the edges more of an emphasis.
    Or fake the lens-distortion in post-processing."

    "DEPTH
    Use the appropriate type of lens for the feeling of depth that you want to create. Depth can also be created, or taken away, by a foreground-background relationship. Make sure there is some kind of relationship when you add a foreground and a background element to a picture."



    I understand what you are getting at.
    I understand you are using general terms to get your message across: but my point is although you did NOT use the word “Perspective” you are coming close to (inadvertently) attributing Perspective, to the Focal Length of lens which is chosen.

    And that is incorrect.

    The PERSPECTIVE of the shot is determined by the VIEWPOINT.

    And the (Focal Length) of the LENS then determines THE SHOT, be it wide or normal or tight etc.

    My concern is that in your quest for simplicity, the (non technical or novice) reader will run away afer reading the word "depth" with the thought that PERSPECTIVE is created by the choice of Focal Length of the Lens.

    That incorrect concept of what Perspective is, is already rampant on many websites and is a particular annoyance because having this wrong concept confuses conversation and understanding, enormously.

    Does that explanation make sense?

    WW

  19. #19

    Re: Article on Composing a Picture

    Sorry for taking so long to respond.
    It looks like I got confused with perspective and focal length. Thanks for pointing that out. I'll have to change the article to reflect that.

  20. #20
    William W's Avatar
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    Re: Article on Composing a Picture

    You are welcome.
    A long time ago when we used to have books published I actually did do a fair bit of proof reading for a range of technical subjects.

    Good luck with your project.

    WW

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