Help for the Compositionally Disadvantaged

Discussion in 'Large Format' started by alex_hawley, Jun 23, 2003.

  1. I'm struggling with composition, aesthically so. Maybe this is a
    plea for some of our more accomplished bretheren to point me down
    the path of aesthetic righteousness.

    I feel I'm starting to get a handle on the craft side of this art,
    but good composition continually alludes me. I'm not a trained
    artist by any means. I've always been immersed in the technical
    side of things. I don't have time nor patience to fool around with
    classes, even though there is a state university nearby with an art
    department. Besides, I'm a 50 years old and a vetereran who probably
    wouldn't mesh too well with art school students or professors (maybe
    this is a bad assumption).

    So, is there a good, concise book I can read? Understand this whole
    subject is subjective, but it seems to me there's something more to
    good graphical arrangement than the rule of thirds.
  2. Do you have a primary area of interest?
  3. Alex,

    Some would say that you don’t have the time not to take a class. However, I’m not much on “art classes.” I’ve made an effort to stay away from them in order to preserve my own artistic vision and to avoid making images that look like everyone else.

    However, you can work on your own, or better with someone whose work you like. Sit and look at pictures, pictures of all kinds. Sort them by like/dislike. Then look very carefully at each and work out in your mind what you like about the one’s you like. What makes them work? What is their appeal? Then think of details: Where is the light coming from? Where was the camera? What’s going on with the background? Where is the center of interest? Where is your eye going, what attracts it, how does it move? What would have made it an even better image? What was the photographer trying to do? Did he or she succeed?

    Even when watching television—not that any of us would engage in so plebian an activity—you can see what is going on with the camera and think about what was done and shy.

    For the images that don’t work for you, consider why: what would make it be a good, or at least a better image?

    Do this kind of structured viewing a lot. Don’t just look at images; study them intently and with conscious awareness and purpose. Do this process alone, and if possible, with an experienced photographer whose work you like. Get them to tell you what they think about the image.

    And, if possible, try and get an experienced photographer to let you assist them, or at least work beside them. A good workshop would fit in here. I try to do a workshop every summer, and have learned a tremendous amount from them. The opportunity to work with other advanced photographers is very helpful.

    Developing photographic ability is akin to developing musical ability. Some people have more natural ability than others, but everyone can develop whatever ability they were born with. People say that I have a good eye, and it’s somewhat true, but it’s also true that I’ve worked hard for a long time to improve my photographic vision, and continue to look at my work and that of others in a very careful and structured way. It’s not something you can do over night. It’s the hardest and most important part of being a good photographer, and is open-ended and ongoing.

    Good luck,

    Joe Stephenson
  4. Good question Bill. Landscapes, still lifes, small details, machinery, ect. Take a look at my portfolio. I haven't done portraits, probably won't ever do nudes.

    To add to my first post, I realize studying a reference won't enact an ovenight miracle, but I'm sure thirsty for some basics to build upon.
  5. The simplest and most basic rule of effective composition is to frame your subject directly and to eliminate as many distracting elements as possible. especially watch the edges and corners. Forget about using things like "rules of thirds' and "leading lines" unless they help the viewer pay attention to the prime subject of your image.
    A fine and intelligent book o read about composition & framing is "The Nature of Photographs" by Stephen Shore. It is short, well illustrated and powerful and speaks to the heart of your problem, which is as I see it: how to find your own way to visually organize your image.
    The simple rules I would say to follow are (and in this order:
    Satisfy your eye.
    Eliminate visual clutter.
    Really think about what you are really looking at both before you set up the camera and when you are looking at it through the viewfinder or on the ground-glass.; think about what about that subject is important to you.
    Like Bob Seger once sang about the craft of songwriting, the secret to a good photograph is to figure out "what to leave in/what to leave out."
    In general, the best photographs are not mere graphic formulas: they have an idea underneath that surface. This is a true for Ansel Adams, Paul Strand and Edward Weston as is it is for Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Elliot Erwitt, Robert Adams, Nan Goldin, Diane Arbus, RichardAvedon, Irving Penn, or Annie Leibowitz.
    I hope this helps.
    And yes that is probably a bad assumption unless the professors are bad.
  6. Alex:
    Ellis' quote of Bob Seger sum it all up. Rules and guidlines are useful but can result in making you wary of "breaking" any lest you sin against the composition gods. Good reading and excellent images are available at "Where to stand and where to put the edges" is Citret's take on composing strongly and simply.
    As other have said look at images. Direction and nature of lighting, placement of subject , placement of items in the image that support the subject. How close was the photographer? WhY? Why did he/she include/exclude material that would give the viewer a sense of scale?Why isn't there a center of interest but instead patterns, repetition of value, etc.? A workshop teacher i had once suggested a quetsion/answer approach made you think. And he thought firing neurons were a start.
    If you seek out books, websites, where photographers who are interesed in the same kind of subjects, architecture, not macro, landscapes, not nudes, exhibit their work you get a sense of the way they handle their subjects. So now you can see how they compose and light and wait. Continue to shoot. Imitate! There is nothing wrong with seeing how close you can come to the composition of someone whose images you admire. You may learn you do not like his/her take on a subject. You may learn something about camera height, vantage point, the joy of moving a tripod with canera exactly 3.25 inches to get the "right" comporsition.And one polaroid later and you can compare.
    Good luck,

  7. Although the "rule" of thirds is often a good place to start, I think good composition really boils down to a trade-off between visual balance in the image (reducing the image elements to graphical shapes, and balancing them), and guiding the viewer's eye into the image with things like leading lines and such, and keeping it there. Most of the how-to books include basic composition chapters. One that I found particularly interesting is the National Geographic Field Guide, which includes comments and tips from a number of their top shooters. There's also some useful basic info on the Agfa site at In contrast, many of the art books tend to belabor the points.
  8. Alex, I have a book called 'Photographic Composition' by Tim Grill and Mark Scanlon. Its pretty good book, but I also learned alot by looking at the online galleries (like the one here) and paying attention to what works and what doesnt work, and why.

    Some magazines are pretty good too. Some have a photo review section where readers send in photos and ask for advice. The editors critique the photos and give advice for improvement. Photography monthly and practical photography are great publications.

  9. My favorite 101 reference book on composition is "Composition in Art"
    by Henry Rankin Poore. It is only 95 pages and a simple text on all
    the fundmentals of visual composition. Composition is not about formulas, rules, or 'breaking' them. It's more like learning a visual language as a tool and using it creatively. After the effort in learning and constant practice, the 'language' will become more unconsious and intuitive. You don't want to be thinking in formulas
    like 'rule of thirds' when you are composing. Somewhat analytical,
    but more sensing/feeling the weights and movements in the viewfinder frame. If you want to take a class, go for it. People of all ages who
    study art tend to be open minded. I'm sure you would be welcomed.
  10. Rules and guidelines are nothing but the new and imaginative ways of doing things that became standards, they mean nothing in themselves, they're to be used or not used, as a counterpoint to the opposite, and eventually replaced by new ideas which will become popular/en vogue/standards/admired and practiced by other who like the idea.

    Get some Artbooks, looks at the compositional techniques of the masters, from any number of styles, how they used the so called rules, how they broke 'em, go to an art appreciation class, audit, I think you'll like that, 50yrs old doesn't mean nuthin, I don't think you'll stand out or look silly, you'll probably be appreciated.

    Get some Artbooks particularly of the masters whose ability to compose scenes and pose figures/subject matter is simply timeless, I never fail to be awestruck by the work of some masters at how they manipulated their compositions and poses so effortlessly, made them at the same time intricate and yet so simple, a lot of what is considered to be 'old school' is if you really look is fresh, innovative, thought provoking and is a never ending source of inspiration.

    The rules and guidelines mean nothing in themselves, they're to be considered, used or not used, 10 photographers shooting a sunset all using what they consider to be the 'rule of thirds' will still come up with 10 different photographs, everybody does everything differently which is the point of why anybody gets into photograph because they figure they can add a different slant.

    The 'rule of thirds' and 'rules and guidelinges' are monikers that really diminish what is behind their intended use, what you are really talking about in terms of what came before is old ideas that use to be new that'll be used until somebody comes up with something better and/or different which will then make the old stuff passe'.

    Check out the different styles of painting which never ceases to amaze me, it'll spur you on to some ideas.
  11. Had a look at your portfolio. You are NOT Compositionally Disadvantaged, IMHO. Perhaps a temporary lapse of confidence in your own ability. Keep working -- it will pass. Bill
  12. Thanks for the encouragement Bill and you may be right. And thanks for all the suggestions so far. As many have suggested, I'm looking for my own way but I get befuddled. I've been perusing occasional issues of B&W Magazine and Lenswork. Both are full of excellent examples to emulate and aspire to. Seems like I should be able to photograph a barn as good as Morley Baer but when I make the print, I think I fall far short of that aspiration. Part of this beffudlement I think, is that I don't really have the understanding of composition; so, I can't really say why one photo works and another one doesn't. I'm almost shooting blindly; once in a while it works, mostly it doesn't.

    I know several artists build their settings; that's great and I and admire them highly. But I'm mostly a weekend shooter trying to take ordinary, plain things and present them such that it catches the eye and perhaps tells a small story. If I have a vision, its more in line with Walker Evans (I think!?).

    Oh well, onward and upward. Thanks again for everything so far, especially the book suggestions.
  13. Jeeze Alex. You stuff looks pretty good to me. Stop whining and go take some more photos :).
  14. If you don't want to go to art school, why not a workshop or two? One possibility is Freeman Patterson:
  15. Try and art class or 2 on composition - you may find you like it, and learn more than by reading a book.
    I happen to be talented in music and plucked around on guitar for several years not really going anywhere until I decided to make the time to take private guitar lessons. I learned more in 1 year of lessons than in my previous 40 years of trying on my own. Sometimes there's no substitute for instruction. As far as "compromising" your artistic vision - a good solid foundation in basic compostional theory will do more to help achieve your vision than not.
    Good luck
  16. Alix,

    You'll save time and money by taking the class at the local community college. You can make the experience easier by auditing the class. This will relieve you from homework and tests. You can just be there to soak up some basics.

    I was an oil painter long before I started LF and disagree with those who say the classic composition concepts get in the way. There are some basic concepts that have worked for centuries and still work today. They've worked because they tune in on the way the we process images mentally.

    Keep in mind that what the brain sees is only lines, angles, areas and a grid to establish a relationship between them. There are some prewired things that seem to make viewing more interesting and helps the artist direct the viewer. To those who say rules are old hat, even Picaso followed the most basic of compositional rules in his work. He was a good classical artist long before cubism raised it's head. Rules are made too be broken, but even then, there is usually another rule that isn't being broken in art that grabs you.

    I admire anyone who has a natural knack for composition, but if you don't, a class is a great way to close the gap. Once you start seeing images that have natural composition you'll have a much easier time capturing them. If you still don't want to take a class, look in the art section for books. Painters can add anything they want to an image and tend to have a lot of compositional tricks that work well for photography too. Like others have said don't obsess on it. Take photos and learn from your mistakes.
  17. One other idea: Join a good camera/photography club, and actively participate.
  18. Alex, I agree with Bill Mitchell; I don't think you are all that "compositionally disadvantaged."

    In a nutshell, I think effective composition is an arrangement of image elements that keeps your eye engaged and visual brain stimulated, not letting the eye drift off the edges/corners.

    Look at photos that you really like. Where do your eyes move as you look at the photo? Why? I think you are already doing this to some extent as you compose in the ground glass.

    I think composition is more of an awareness and sensitivity to visual stimulation, tension and balance, than rules and numbers.
  19. Ellis,

    I think you are right about avoiding visual clutter.

    That is the single thing most wrong with my photographs. My problem is that I like clutter. It seems to me that if you point the camera in a certain direction, you have to accept what is there. And what is there often surprises you when you look at the developed slide, a print, or a scan. I've always like the idea of taking photographs which look as if they would show something interesting at all scales.

    But again I have to agree that the results of this prediliction are often disappointing. After all, clutter is clutter. So how do I balance my preferences against my visual sense?
  20. I suggest you get the book by Feininger shown here. Thames and Hudson, London 1973, then 1.25£. It is outstanding. I have learned a lot from him, and even I met him personally when I was teaching at ICP in New York in 1981. He was Artist of Residence at ICP that Fall, Lisette Model was still alive, and a bunch of us would go out together on Madison Avenue drink coffe and discuss photography. Those were the days... Or if you are interested in photographs designed by means of a “ruler and a compass” look here:
  21. You've received some great responses. Here's a useless one but maybe the most honest: There is absolutely nothing that anyone else can do for you. What you are talking about is the photographer's eye or vision. You have yours. Everyone else has theirs. It's what makes us unique. Too many photographers are going around trying to shoot like ______ (fill in the name of a famous photographer here) and aren't doing their own work that is honest to themselves. You simply take the pictures that you are capable of taking and if they please you, or at least prompt you to take more, then stay with photography. Don't try to take pictures to please someone else (unless you're a pro commercial photographer). If photography gives you pleasure, continue, and as you do you will develop your style. If the art community likes your style, you may become rich and famous but it's not something to count on. This response is not meant to be discouraging, just truthful, and this is just my opinion.
  22. I bought a book on watercolor composition a few years ago after leafing through it in the bookstore -- and I don't paint. I found it very helpful for photography. Lots of information about leading lines, about bright and dark tones, saturated and pastel colors, where to place the subject, and generally about the things that lead your eye around a scene.
  23. Alex,


    Look at photographs. Look at a lot of photographs. Look at the world around you.

    Don't stop looking.

  24. I disagree entirely with Frank -”there is absolutely nothing that anyone else can do
    for you.” Yes, others can do much for you. There have been fine art schools which helped to produce outstanding artists, also photographers.

    In contrast to technique, art in photography is a most elusive concept, intangible and subjective. It involves the application of taste, discrimination, and sensitivity in conjunction with technicalities such as camera position, angle of view, subject distance and image scale, contrast range, color arrangement, etc. The whole concept of art is very intuitive and subjective one, but instead of art in photography one can talk about composition. That directly leads to one point every photographer agrees with: A well composed photograph is more effective than badly composed one. Composition is usually the most effective and often the only way in which a photographer can express his individuality. Look for example at two forms of graphic rendition which derive their justification solely from composition. These are still lifes and abstractions. Two art forms specifically created to evoked the aesthetic pleasure that can be derived from good composition. I suggest, keep studying good abstract and semi-abstract paintings.
  25. Thanks for everyone's very good suggestions and help. Its always reassuring to know there's a place to turn to for help.

    Best Regards,
  26. Not a book on composition, exactly. But since you say you are technically minded, you might find this book as interesting as I did:
    Perception & Imaging by Richard D. Zakia (Focal Press, 2nd edition 2002)
    This book will teach you why you like some things. It'll tell you why you are drawn to certain subjects. It tells you how you perceive things - how light and dark play together - how line and form work.
    A very informative book. Taken with some of the others mentioned, and with Ellis Vener's sage advice and quotes, you should be heading in the right direction, which ever direction you decide that to be.
  27. Look at art in every form and shape!

    In most works of art there is compositional structure, which can be discovered, analyzed and dissected.

    Knowledge about composition and content is as important as knowing your film emulsion and how it reacts to developers.

    If you are on the West coast plan to be at our Free Red Rock Canyon or Mt. Shasta workshops later this year.
    Composition and content are two important subjects we discuss.

    If interested email me at
  28. "I disagree entirely with Frank -”there is absolutely nothing that anyone else can do for you.” Yes, others can do much for you. There have been fine art schools which helped to produce outstanding artists, also photographers."

    You can be taught technique and the mechanics, but can anyone be taught vision? I think it can be developed with practice to the degree of natural ability someone has, but I really think it's an inate tallent. For instance, I really wanted to learn to play the guitar so I learned all the chords and can play them pretty clean, but practise as I might, I can never even begin to approach the artistry of well known musicians (David Wilcox, BB King, __________ fill in the name of a famous guitar player here). I don't have it in me. I think a "photographer's eye" is the same. Again, just my opinion.
  29. Somehow I think it is about time and space. If we put in enough time(many hours a day for many years) then the space(composition) takes care of itself. Evolution....
  30. Hi Alex. I think that I understand your position. I am certainly not among the "more accomplished" of the bretheren, but I think we all have to make sense of the way we compose our photographs at some point before we can relax and go about our work with confidence and purpose. Of the many honest and informed posts, I relate most to Gary's. I think we are all more visually literate than we realize, but lack the terminology to make sense of our preferrences. The familiar statement " I don't know about (insert art form), but I know what I like" is very telling. A book that I've found interesting and informative is A Primer Of Visual Literacy, by Donis A. Dondis. In the end I agree with those who've stated that overthinking our work can be counterproductive, as well as those who've maintained that there is much to be learned from the masters and the history of all of the visual media. Like so many things, it comes down to finding the right balance. Good luck, and don't lose any sleep over an imagined shortcoming.
  31. Define "Good".

    I find I learn more from going to art galleries and museums than
    I do from looking at photographs. With my head full of
    photographs I find myself simply framing the world so that it
    looks like what I've already seen. There is an almost magnetic
    attraction that drags the ground glass towards a tidy and
    comforting sense of the picturesque.

    My favourite ways to break out of this is to look at Asian art and
    the abstract expressionists. Much Asian art doesn't have strong
    centers of interest and instead fills the frame with a series of
    equally important elements, often depicted on a scale much
    smaller than the overall image - a situation ideally suited to LF.
    Abstract paintings like Pollock's pourings do a similar thing, but I
    also learn a lot from more minimalist works (Roth's blobs,
    Newman 's zips) which are a great way to see how the most
    basic graphic elements work together (or don't) to fill a view.

    So if "Young Dogwood" and the clouds image in your portfolio
    are recent images, get thee to a gallery. If, on the other hand,
    you regard them as your youthful mistakes, you're headed for the
    tranquil pastures of C19th academia, for which there is no cure.
  32. Gene: With your permission, I'd like to quote you in my teaching "stop whining and go take some more photographs".

    Alex: The hard part of photography (or anything else) is deciding what is good and what is not so good. A satisfying image is the result of many small aesthetic decisions. Listen to your gut on every one. Nothing is trivial in art.
  33. I would try The Art and Color of Design by Maitland Graves
    (McGraw-Hill 1951.
  34. Alex, my "one book" recommendation would be Betty Edwards' "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain". I also think you would find a kindred spirit in the books and photographs of Wright Morris.

    Your work and postings exhibit a proficiency in craft. You have chosen a very able seaman camera. I think your portfolio is well seen. More importantly, you are not content, and feel the need to grow. You are certainly not alone in feeling this need.

    I suggest contacting the local art professor and asking him/her to look at your portfolio. Hopefully this person will offer constructive criticism. The critique of your work may or may not prove useful. If the person is cutting or full of BS, you are only out some time, and maybe a fee. A good teacher will help you appreciate your level of artistic development, while encouraging you to continue growing.

    I took some pencil sketching lessons years ago. I found the experience rewarding. I think you might, also.

    The path to artistic development has detours. My two main detours have been lusting after equipment and being too focused on technical matters. (I think they are common problems.) At 53, I am finally listening to my inner voice which says the less hardware between the photographer and the image, the better. A technical background is a fine thing, as long as it is in the background. The real journey is self discovery.

    I recently made some pretty postcards during a trip out west. Some could most probably do well in the local show. Making them was enjoyable. However, I feel the real vision I have to share is of my life in Ohio. I sense a similar passion for life in Kansas in your work. If we were content, we would not grow. In pursuit of your goals, do not forget to enjoy the journey, fellow traveler.
  35. Besides, I'm a 50 years old and a vetereran who probably wouldn't mesh too well with art school students or professors (maybe this is a bad assumption). If you, the students and professors can approach each other in the spirit of "respectful candor" and "thoughtful inquiry," the possibilities for growth and new learning are boundless. All you have to do is be willing to listen, truly listen, and you'll be surprised by each other's knowledge and perspectives.
  36. Composition is like acting, in that you shouldn’t be able to see it. Often by studying an image from the standpoint of content, you may find that the frame places itself. When that happens, IMHO, you have good composition.
  37. I'd echo what others have said - look at photography that draws you to it and try and see what makes those images "click" for you - you may have yopur own list of photogrpahers whose work attracts you (people on here know I have mine...!) - and it depends on what kind of photography you like. But also find some that challenges you. If you don't quite understand why people would photogrpahs cities or the suburbs, then look at some Basilico or Meyerowitz or Robert Adams etc. vice versa for landscapes.

    BUT look outside photography - if you have any good museums nearby look at their paitings - from all periods - old masters to impressionsist to post modernism - see how things go together. And look at some good films too. See how a great cinematographer frames scenes and uses light.

  38. Hi --

    I think this is a fascinating conversation. Initially -- my thought is that looking at photography is not a very interesting place to learn much about composition. And -- I agree with Tim that museums and *movies* are excellent.. As are Japanese gardens. There's an excellent book about Isamu Noguchi's garden that is worth browsing for examples. Make sure to look at the composition of the garden - and not necessarily the photos.

    I disagree completely with the previous post which equates "vision" with "composition" these are distinctly different things -- and both can be taught. However - teaching vision might require teaching some things other than art - so that the person needing training in "vision" might find something exciting to become empassioned about saying. Composition -- is a bit simpler and might even be fomularized - until at some point it is like riding a bike -- Technique and composition are both sublimated by the "vision."

    I have a set of "rules" that I use to create (hopefully) effective compositions. I can't recall any book on composition that I can honestly recommend, although I've read several -- so I'll try just describing my ideas around it.

    First -- Select a format. Don't omit this step just because there's only a 4x5 - Make a decision to use the whole format (or not) - and how to orient it. Leave the camera in a vertical format sometimes - to learn not to shoot every thing horizontal. Part of this step is going to be deciding angle, lighting and size of the stuff in the frame.

    Don't center your subject in the frame -- (Skip the rule of thirds please - it's a shortcut to teach the "novice" artist to get out of the center of the frame) -- instead learn the golden rule or mean or whatever you want to call it. Dividing the "space" into thirds is only a little bit better than dividing it in half. Missing the rule of thirds by a bit is a whole lot better. Moving the subject - or main focal point off the center to a point that isn't spaced equally from anything (including the edges of the frame) will make the composition interesting -- close to a third is a good starting point.

    Fill the frame with the intended subject(s). If the subject is a landscape it is usually (almost always) filling the frame. Eliminate the extraneous stuff - so move in to reduce the clutter. Don't plan to crop the image later - crop it now - try to create it to stand on it's own.

    Keep the composition simple - Large, bold lines and objects will have more impact.

    Try to create movement that steps or sweeps the viewer into what is important to show him (the "vision") and to keep him in the image. There is a general tendency toward "reading" the image from top left to bottom right, at least in the west, so the top left is often the entry point for the viewer. Items or objects within the composition that are related will tend to pull the viewer's attention around in the frame. Relationships can be based on content, color, intensity, value, size, etc. The viewers eye tends to follow linear elements - like the horizon - breaking these lines tends to keep the viewer looking at the image, rather than following it right off the page into the next room.

    Break the edges and spaces of the composition into different sizes so as to make the composition a bit more dynamic. The "Vision" may want to supercede this -- If the vision asks for a static image, make the differences more subtle - but make them just enough out of equally spaced to assure that it looks confidently placed.

    Seek a balance between the weight, color and/or patterns of the objects -- that is relative to their importance, or in some way pleasing (feels right , how subjective this will seem -)) or in some way matches the vision and/or maintains interest.

    Simplify your composition.

    Focus, click. I hope this helps a bit.
  39. Perception and Imaging, Richard D. Zakia. a book written by the instructor of composition at the Rochester Institute of Technology. very few pictures; a lot of gestalt methods applied to, and discussing the eye, and what produces visual order. interesting stuff.

    I have lately been thinking that the composition is a word we use when we do not understand that the camera is a frame about an event, or a relationship. i have also noticed that i can see a really great composition, but the camera does not; or i can see a mediocre image, and the camera sees it otherwise. and finally, i think that "technique, composition, and vision" are words that dissect a fundamental unity, and it is this unity that we as photographers seek to command. this unity is another word for "camera". i'm not being facetious: i think it is very dangerous to impose one's ordinary perceptual matrix on the camera's, when what we need to do, is impose the camera's frame upon our perception. when you look at a photo, look at the frame: this structure is the fundamental ordering principle of what is contained within it. all relationships contained in that box or rectangle take their proper mathematical, logical, and aesthetic truths from it. hence the rule of thirds is a priority in the 35mm frame (this is the golden mean applied to all the corners in a rectangle in a ratio of 3 to 2); and is of little help in a medium format camera.
  40. I assume that you are shooting black and white. If by chance you are not, read a book by Josef Albers on interactive color theory. Color can aid, or completely throw off a composition.

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