On Composition

November 2016

One of the most challenging topics of discussion and debate on many photographic workshops is how to find a good composition. I have lost count how many times I have read on participants' booking forms preceding the workshop that they are okay with the camera technicalities but want to address how to improve their composition. From a tutor or course leader's angle this is almost an impossible itch to scratch in a single day. Let me explain.

We live in an age when everybody has the ability and accessibility to own and use a camera. I have mentioned in previous posts about the growth of the mobile phone generation and the fact we all have a camera in our pockets. So instantly, everybody is a photographer! This is a good thing, or is it?

We are flooded with instant imagery on the internet and in magazines. Social media is awash with mundane photographs of people’s daily routines to wonderful spectacles of nature and works of art. Walk into any high street newsagent and look at just how the shelves are full with diverse magazines from Country Living to patchwork quilt making, from cars and caravans to computers - all using the visual medium of photography to enhance and sell their product. This week I have been seeing a lot of trailers on TV for the new series of Planet Earth 2. We all know how amazing David Attenborough is (at 90) and I am sure we would all agree the videography that accompanies him is second to none and truly wonderful!

So as a result, our visual expectations are high; we are tuned in to seeing images of exceptional quality and for some reason assume when we pick up our camera, our images should meet the standards set by what we see around us. Now, as I said, this is not a bad thing because we also assume an inherent desire to be better photographers.

So is it any wonder then that the first time we venture out with our cameras and fail to capture what we see elsewhere we fall at the first hurdle and get despondent? Or worse still, we fall into trap of thinking we need a better camera or lens to get the image (but that’s another story). Another failing is the notion that we can somehow transform a bad image in post processing in programs like Photoshop or Lightroom and all will be well.

Okay, so what is the secret of good composition?

A good analogy is the news item I saw recently. Andy Murray, the great British (Scottish) tennis player, who, for the first time in his career (aged 29), was crowned as number one player in the world. They showed pictures of him as a spindly young boy starting out and then his crowning glory this year as two times Wimbledon and Olympic champion… a truly amazing achievement and fair play to the lad for his dedication and hard work!

The point being of course that to be the best, or even good at what you do, it doesn’t happen overnight. There are no quick fixes to learning, even when we see others around us supposedly doing it effortlessly. Picking up a camera and expecting to get the perfect composition is akin to picking up a tennis racket for the first time and expecting to win Wimbledon. Asking a tutor of any subject or activity to teach you in a day what can only be learned over years of experience is of course an impossibility. The honing of our skills and some basic rules (and broken rules) of composition can be helpful and pointed out by any tutor. The reading of books, looking at past masters of art and photography will also help as we learn how and why it works for them. Scanning a view for a potential composition will be aided by simple rules like the rule of thirds, lead-in lines and placement within the scene. But, as time goes by, your own habits of observation and how you structure your images will develop … making it unique to you!



Visual foundations
The key is to consistently practise until good composition becomes intuitive – just the same as learning the technical aspects of using your camera. Visual intuition will only be attained by repetition and intention. Compositional strengths and weaknesses will surface. Good and bad experiences will be noted, addressed and built upon until they become instinctive. After a while those habits formed will slowly sift out the wheat from the chaff as intuition becomes instinct - and your compositional strengths will grow every time you use your camera!