The Art of Seeing: An Exercise in Photo Composition

Over the years I have seen that there are two main problem areas with most photographer’s work; exposure and composition. Getting a correct exposure can be handled in many ways, and now-a-days you can even set the camera to do it all for you. What I call the PHD feature, ie, “Push Here Dummy!” If that were all it took, then good photography could be done by anyone, but composition and the art of seeing is a whole different story. There have been many articles written on the subject of composition, but a well-done image is more a matter of practiced/experience than it is one of following a list of rules. I for one have never been much for other people’s rules, but I am not saying that such rules are not an important base of standards to use as a starting point, just that they are not written in stone.

photography composition exercise

The final image you see here was a later imaging test that I did using Adobe Photoshop CS4, where I used the solarize filter on the cloud area only and got an even more dramatic effect than was created by just the building and clouds alone. The main exposure however was still done with only it’s composition in mind. © Paul W. Faust

Even Ansel Adams broke any and all of the rules of composition if it gave him the final results he was after, and if it was good enough for him, then I don’t much care what other people think about it. I use what works. That is the point of doing things in certain ways isn’t it? To serious artists, photography is about creating an image the way you want it to look. Not how an image will turn out by following steps 1, 2, and 3.

The best photo images are not taken anyway, they are “made,” and I have always thought that learning photo composition is not that much more different than learning anything else. Some people just catch on faster than others, but eventually with practice most people can do it. How long that will take mostly depends on how you go about it. The only real way to practice composing an image is by recording them on film, or digitally, so that you can see what you did right, and what you did wrong? It is actually all of your mistakes that teach you how to do it right the next time. However, just slapping a lens on your camera and shooting away is not the answer either. As the saying goes, “There has to be a method to the madness.”

Many years ago I came across what is probably the best way to learn composition, and also the hardest one to actually use, even though the concept is very simple. You take one camera body, one lens, one roll of film, (or memory card) and you pick one subject to shoot. Then go out about town, or around the countryside, and fill that one roll with that one subject only, but take your time when doing it. Rushing things just leads to even more mistakes that may not have anything to do with composition, but will lead to confusion. You want to learn from “how” you did the shooting, and not because you were rushed to do it. You must also keep complete notes on each and every frame. Not just exposure, but also what else was in the area that you had to deal with. Did you have to move in to make one flower larger, or take two steps to the right to use a tree to hide something in the background? Note everything that played a part in how you made the shot.

What camera you use makes little difference, but I do suggest that you only use a lens of 35mm or less. In fact, the wider the angle the lens is, the better. You will see what I mean when you start trying to compose an image that has a large field of view. Telephoto lenses are too easy to compose subjects with. Just about any way you turn it you can frame a shot with them, but a wide angle lens will make you “work” to get things right. A distracting object will make you move in or around to eliminate it, or if you need more of a tree branch across the top of the frame, you may even have to lie down on the grass to get the amount of branch you need. (More facts to take notes on)

On a recent day trip I made to add some images to my stock files, I got an added bonus of the illustration shown here for this article. For my one and only subject, I decided to shoot some reflections wherever I could find them, but with the one lens limit. I attached a 19-35mm wide-angle zoom lens to my Nikon 8008s and went down town. I picked a day right after a large storm had just passed through, as that is when you get a sky full of those big dramatic white clouds. (I do love those!) If you do use a zoom lens, stick to one focal length only. In this case I shot everything at the 19mm setting. This puts even more of a demand on the thought and effort you have to put into an image.

Since I know from past experience that tall office buildings always make for great cloud reflections, that is where I headed off to first. In the illustration shown here, I included a bit of the lower framework of the building to add a base to the image, and then framed the rest of the building to get in as much of the sky and cloud reflections as possible. The wider focal length, along with the clouds right over the top, makes it feel like the building goes up and into the storm.

One last tip on composition. My first and foremost composition rule of thumb is that; “If any object that appears in the viewfinder’s frame does not “Enhance” the image, then it will most often “detract from” the image.” That applies in ALL areas of photography. Get rid of it in any and all ways possible, either when composing the shot, or later on in an imaging software program if you have one, but get rid of it. For an added learning tool, take two shots of your subject. One with the distraction in it, and another shot without it, and when you compare the two side by side you will see first hand exactly why that rule is my first thought EVERY TIME I compose an image.

Once you try this composition test, and see just how demanding it is, you will also see how much better your images start looking as you learn how to better compose them.


About the Author:
Paul W. Faust is a self-taught Photographer, Writer, Digital Imaging, Photo Restoration, and Photo Stock Service professional. You can see more of his work at:

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One response to “The Art of Seeing: An Exercise in Photo Composition”

  1. Nice write up.

    What I tell my students and workshop participants is that they are not “rules,” but “tools.” Keep them in your pocket so you can use them if needed.

    I also tell them to learn them and then forget them. Creativity is not bound by rules.

    Thanks again.

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