The art of composition

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Actually, I sort of lied in the title a bit. But only a little bit. The artistic part of a photograph is the instinctive bit, the original idea before your finger gets near the shutter or before you put the camera to your eye. It is the bit that is unique to you.

Landscape photographs don’t have to be big wow factor dawn landscapes, they can be of mundane things, the skies can be dull or middle-of-the-day bright. There are absolutely no restrictions. What matters is that you engage with your surroundings, you should feel inspired to take photographs. It also helps if you have a reason for being where you are, and that you want to be there. You shouldn’t feel pressured into taking or making a particular type of photograph, and you shouldn’t be intimidated at all by anybody else’s photography. You need to find your own style in your own time.

You still need good composition of course, a photograph is nothing without good composition. Many compositional processes are mechanical and can be learned. And poor photography nearly always result from poor composition. And so, given that composition is partly mechanical and is learnable, practice will make good photography inevitable. And that means that everyone is capable of creating captivating, artistic photographs.

This photograph is not one of those wow factor sweeping vistas, neither is it a classic forest shot at dawn with mist. But it is a landscape photo and it is a composition that is personal to me and created wholly by me.

Epping Forest

I am fascinated by these fallen trees that after they have fallen they provide a habitat for a wide range of flora and fauna. I saw the possibility for a photograph instantly when I cycled past on a nearby track. It was the huge fallen hulk and the uprooted root system that caught my interest. The root system contrasts with the leafless branches on the still living trees in the background. Not a spectacular photograph, but one unique to my eyes, and one that fascinated me. I decided to compose the photo as two diagonal halves with the roots in one half of the frame and the background in the other half. The fallen body of the tree sort of links the patterns made by the roots with the patterns made by the leafless branches in the distance. The composition struck me intuitively as I walked around the tree. The photograph consists of two photographs stitched together rather than a single rectangle that’s been cropped in post-processing. I always try to get the exact shot on location rather than ‘recompose’ back on the computer.

The artistic part of photography is in your mind, and for an experienced photographer it is often instinct and intuition. The artistic bit can be the original idea that you have for an image, an image that you may already have in your minds eye of a place that you know very well. Pre-determined compositions of previously scouted locations. This process is suitable for classic landscape photography of sweeping vistas where you are restricted to very narrow sections of the day, and within that require very specific light conditions. But it does mean you may miss your moment because the light conditions were wrong, or it rains. And it may mean spending long periods away from home on mountains in the dark at four in the morning. Which, whilst being a fantastic adventure…it means that you probably can’t go to work that day, or take the children to school.

But there is also the spontaneous made up on the spot photograph. This is where you create a unique and original composition that suits the moment. It is the creation a one-off made up on the spot composition that suits the light conditions and subject matter. This way of taking photographs does not absolutely require early mornings or neglection of family duties. It only requires that you have a camera – any camera – an open mind and a creative eye for a photograph. So you may be walking home from work, or just walking to the shops for some milk. You may be walking the dog, or you may be on a photographic assignment, either professional or a personal project, and there in front of your eyes you see something that prompts you to say to yourself.

“I bet that would make a good photograph”

We all have those moments whether we have a camera on us or not. Even people who never seriously take photographs have those moments, you will hear that comment often in picnic sites in forests or overheard when drinking tea in cafes frequented by hikers and mountain climbers.

And that is a purely creative compositional moment. A moment that only you have seen. And maybe a moment that only you can see. From a compositional point of view, it is a moment where you have seen a section of the environment in front of you that exists within your total field of view. And your field of view is roughly 180degrees from left to right as you look directly ahead. So then you have to slow down and work out what is it that you can see, what is the subject and what exactly is the composition of. Your natural field of view is close to 180degrees, A wide angle 15 mm lens will have a field of view of around 114degrees (therefore cropping your natural field of view), a 50mm may be around 50degrees and a 300mm lens will be around 10degrees. Part of composing an image is deciding what ‘field of view’ is wide enough or narrow enough to only include the elements that make up your composition, which, prior to pressing the shutter will exist only in your minds eye. What you exclude from your composition is just as important as what you include. And you achieve that by controlling the field of view, using lenses or a zoom lens, or walking backwards or forwards. Once you have decided on your field of view you will have to decide where in the frame to position all the elements in that frame. If you only have one lens and it’s not a zoom, then you will learn to see compositions appropriate to the lens. In other words you will ‘tune-in’ to your camera gear. And that process, to a well practiced photographer will be or become instinctive and will take just a few seconds.

I was waiting at the ferry terminal in Calais on a drizzly day in winter. This part of Calais is not the most picturesque place in the world and when the weather is so dull there is not too much to inspire the photographer. Or is there? I was wandering aimlessly and walked under this overpass.

Overpass in Calais

And immediately I looked up and saw these very graphic shapes. And guess what I said. Yep…”I bet that would make a good photograph”. What I saw was the graphic shapes, the curves and the contrast against the dull grey skies. And so out came the camera, and snap. I stopped and looked and slowed down and worked out in my minds eye, using my imagination, what this would look like on a computer screen or in print. And I set about composing it accordingly. And yes, anyone could do this. You just have to ‘tune in’ with your environment, have that moment of inspiration and then think in terms of the final photograph.

Then there are the purely mechanical aspects of composition too that ensure that elements in a frame are defined and separated from interference so that the viewer can see and understand what the photographer has seen, and wants to convey. In the fallen tree photograph above (first photograph), I saw the leafless branches against the bright cloudy sky and I saw similar patterns made by the root system. So I wanted to create a kind of symmetry in my photograph to show off equally the roots in the foreground and the leafless trees in the background, which made me think of a square format, and due to the positioning of the elements I put a diagonal line right through the center of the image with the root system filling up one half and everything else in the other half. That forces the viewer to see what I had seen when I was there. I then allowed the leafless trees to leave the top of the frame so that there was no empty sky above the trees, this has the effect of enhancing the pattern effect created by the trees. These processes can take seconds, especially in street photography. But in landscape photography these processes can often take much longer, and gives the photographer a much wider window of opportunity. With the fallen tree image I had as long as I wanted to take the picture, and with the dawn landscape (lower down in this article) I had only a few minutes before the sun hid behind the clouds and shrouded the valley in shadow.

Visualisation is a process that starts with that initial moment of inspiration, you know, the “I bet that would make a good photograph” moment. Then it ends with the photographer seeing in his or her minds eye the final image. Visualisation, often referred to as pre-visualisation can be applied to any genre and any form of photography. It is the imagining of the final image in whatever form (screen or print) before pressing the shutter. It was a term famously coined by Ansel Adams who was the father of American landscape photography. And it’s very simple. In Adam’s day the final image would have been the physical print after all the darkroom processes, which would include enhancing contrast and techniques such as darkening shadow areas etc. Today the final image might still be a darkroom print, but is much more likely to be a Photoshop processed digital image on a computer screen or digital print. Either way the process is the same. The photographer should ‘tune into’ his or her own equipment and processing workflow so that when they are out taking photos they are able to visualise the finished photograph.

Of course, practice makes perfect, and all of the above is difficult when you are just starting out. And everyone has to start somewhere. Photography magazines are a great initial source of ideas for simple and mainstream landscape photography. And there is nothing better than viewing photographs on a printed page. Magazine quality is not art print quality, but it’s more comfortable and easier on the eye to thumb through pages of a magazine whilst sitting on a sofa having a cup of tea. Plus they are full of perfectly good, valid and useful advice on compositional technique, as well as stuff like photography news and lists of exhibitions in your region or country. And it’s all in one easy to read space. Most of the well known modern landscape photographers became well known because they work in some capacity for the magazines. So the magazines act as a filter for good material as well as having access to art photographers who tend to remain more elusive on the internet. And if you buy magazines from shops there are no obligatory Paypal subscriptions that you may forget that you still have.

This is an example of a classic landscape shot. I scouted this location the day before, predicting that the morning sun would fill the valley with warm light. All that I needed was a cloudless horizon so that the sunlight would do as I wanted. And the weather duly obliged.

Ashridge PArk, Hertfordshire/Buckinghamshire border.

I actually only got a few minutes of sunshine, but that was plenty of time as I had my tripod set up beforehand. This is actually a classic composition, completely pre-determined beforehand. All I have to do is scout the location and wait for the light. You will find this composition applied by photographers worldwide to beaches and mountains and every landscape in between. It’s a great composition to use in order to hone your technical skills. This is a 30mm lens which worked for this shot, but you can get very striking images if you go wider, especially on beaches when you have large rounded rocks or bedrock in the foreground. 15 or 20 mm allows you to get very close to foreground object on beaches, and the dawn/dusk light can really show off the textures and shapes when you go wider and closer. The eye is then led into the middle distance until it reaches the horizon. Some brightly lit clouds and a colourful sky add the icing to the cake.

The sweeping landscape/seascape vista.  This is a very popular pre-determined composition made famous by those aforementioned magazines and prized by outdoors magazines and calender publishers around the world. And with good reason, they have a wow factor like no other. The advantage to the photographer is that it’s the same composition that can be applied to different locations. So once you understand the mechanics of this particular composition you can apply it to beaches and mountains and valleys all over the world.  The sweeping vista is a classic composition, permanently popular with enthusiasts and still has high commercial value. I doubt it will never go out of date. It consists of a prominent foreground object, maybe a track moving into the frame, or exposed bedrock on a beach that leads into the sea.  Then the scene drifts into the middle distance towards the horizon, maybe a long-exposure shoreline to create softness. And then the sun just below or above the horizon.  The whole scene is then bathed in dawn or dusk light adding huge amounts of mood, shadows, colour, contrast and atmosphere. Practice will make perfect, and it will teach you the mechanical techniques that can also be used in all different forms and genres of photography.

As for me, I do take the classic sweeping vista at dawn/dusk when I get the opportunity and I did the magazine thing and attempted to copy the styles of other photographers when I had the time and wanted to progress my photography. But I got into photography ‘accidentally’ through backpacking around the world and became naturally tuned to spotting compositions spontaneously in places that I have no previous knowledge of and will only be there a few hours or maybe a few days if I’m lucky.

Because of all the backpacking I’ve done over the years, I learnt to feel comfortable in ‘strange foreign locations!’. I have learnt that hardly anyone is out to get me, and that I am as safe in an African country as I am in a European country. And that allows me to relax and tune very quickly into the location where I am. And that in turn allows me to emotionally connect very quickly with the environment. And these qualities are very important in creative photography. Whether you are walking the dog close to your home, or completely on your own half way across the world, it is very important to feel comfortable where you are so that you can relax and allow those compositions to appear in front of you.

Whether I have a camera on me or not, I always see viewfinder shaped rectangles and squares in my minds eye when wandering around. I can always imagine the final photograph, it is something that happens in fractions of seconds. And that is my own personal interpretation of pre-visualisation. It also means that life can be a catalog of missed photographic opportunities. The good thing for me though is that many of my photographs are taken this way, and whilst I miss more than I get, the satisfaction of taking a captivating photograph of an unexpected moment in time can be very rewarding. It’s intuitive and spontaneous and it’s fun and often culminating with a huge sense of satisfaction.

It means my photographs are varied and often stray from the traditional and that classic sweeping vista. There is nothing more satisfying than ‘seeing’ a composition on the spot, then slowing down to work out exactly what I have seen and then to start the somewhat mechanical process of positioning all the elements into a frame.

The world is full of photographs that only you can see. Honestly, it’s true! You just have to keep moving around until you see something you like and then compose it in a way that shows off what you saw in your mind.

Coastal road, Bulgaria

It’s very satisfying to take a classic landscape shot that ticks all the boxes. But what happens if you just want to combine a bit of photography whenever you take the dog out for a walk. Or what if you are out with the family at the coast and don’t have time to wait for a sunset that may never happen? Well, the good news is that it’s fun, exciting and equally satisfying to capture something original that only you can see at that particular moment in time. And it really is true, the world is full of photographs that only you can see.

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9 thoughts on “The art of composition

  1. Pam

    You say so eloquently why I love photography and why it never gets boring. One personal challenge (as well as one I give students) is to see how many different ways I can photograph one subject. But equally amazing for me is nature’s artistic, creative skills. Thank you for sharing your beautiful photographs and your insights.

  2. Stella

    You have wonderful photos indeed! I really liked the one of Varna! I’m from Bulgaria and I live in another town situated next to the sea, Bourgas. But you’ve taken an absolutely amazing shot! :)

  3. Between the shadows

    You’ve been to Bulgaria, Varna I see … Nice! It’s a whole adventure trying to find where I can leave comment on your posts, but I think this time it should work! I love all of your images! Regards!

  4. Doda

    Most efficiently written . Kudos !!! Just loved your inspirational attitude and the way you approach the Art of photography.Can’t help but start following you.
    All the best,

  5. John

    Hi Tony,

    Thanks for following my blog. Really enjoyed your article on composition on the train this morning.

    All the Best,


    PS your photos are fantastic :-)

  6. John

    Hi Tony,

    Thanks for following my blog. Really enjoyed your article on composition on the train this morning.

    All the Best,


    PS your photos are fantastic


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