Friday Foto Talk: One Rule for Creative Compositions   24 comments

The White River Valley, living up to its name, and Mt. Hood at sunrise.

The White River Valley, living up to its name, and Mt. Hood at sunrise.

I have noticed a trend in photography-related tips on the web lately.  It has gotten somewhat away from the nuts and bolts of exposure, etc. and gone in two directions.  One is tricks and tips to get certain looks.  If you want your pictures to look like this, do this or that with filters or on the computer.  The other is sort of a reaction to the plethora of similar-looking images we see on the internet.  It involves composition, specifically how to compose pictures in a creative way.  This second trend is more interesting and relevant than the first.

Morning sun hits fir trees on Mt. Hood, which got a late-season snowfall earlier this week.

Morning sun hits fir trees on Mt. Hood, which got a late-season snowfall earlier this week.

Once you’ve got the basics of photography down – being very familiar with your camera and lenses, knowing the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed & ISO), and knowing how to control sharpness and depth of field – it’s time to learn how to make compelling images.  The way I see it, great images depend on three things:  Subject, light and composition.  Putting yourself in front of interesting subjects is the most important, but it’s also the most subjective.  One person’s fascinating subject is another’s boring one.  Light I’ve blogged about before, and it is certainly important.  Even so-so subjects can look good in great light.  And good subjects look spectacular in great light.  But even though it helps if you can put all else in your life aside to go out when the light is good, quality of light is largely outside our control.

Water flows down and disappears into a mossy carpeted hillside in Oregon.

Water flows down and disappears into a mossy carpeted hillside in Oregon.

The third key to great images, composition, is definitely within our control.  A huge amount of information is available on composition:  rules, reminders, do thises and don’t do thats.  A lot of it is repetitive, and I’ll admit to blogging about some of these tips.  But I was thinking yesterday about how I learned good composition, and how I became able to shoot creative compositions (something I’m still learning).  I am very sure my way is not the only way to learn composition, but I think it is simpler than most.  Most important, it leads to developing your own unique style.  Nobody wants to follow along and copy the images of other photographers, at least nobody who is honest when they say that photography is an art.

The countryside outside of Portland, Oregon is used to grow all sorts of shrubs and trees used in landscaping.

The countryside outside of Portland, Oregon is where all sorts of shrubs and trees used in landscaping are grown.

My way to creative composition involves only one ‘rule’, if I can even call it that.  It’s a rule you follow whenever you are around things you may want to photograph, a rule you practice whether or not you have a camera in your hands.  It is practicing enthusiastic observation.

I’ll give an example from my own experience.  I never learned any of the rules or methods behind good composition prior to getting into photography.  Way before I got my first camera I was very interested in nature and the way people have influenced and been influenced by it.  I was an enthusiastic reader.  I wanted to know natural history in the same depth as those poets and writers:  Thoreau, Emerson, Aldo Leopold, Stegner, Muir.  I wanted to know people and the way they interacted with nature like Hemingway, Steinbeck, Ed Abbey and Annie Dillard.  I looked carefully at everything I saw.  I stooped down, climbed trees or got on top of rocks, walked around to see things backlit by sunlight.  I drew close and almost touched things with my eye.  I turned over rocks and logs.

The upper Sandy River on Mount Hood in Oregon.

The upper Sandy River on Mount Hood in Oregon.

When I got a camera, almost immediately I noticed that these different viewpoints yield different pictures, even though the subject was the same.  Even the mood or the story of the picture was changed with viewpoint slightly shifted.  I also learned that most pictures look better when you place important things off to the side somewhat, or when you don’t run the horizon straight across the middle.

Believe it or not, you can learn all the rules and methods behind good composition on your own, and you can learn them much better than reading or having someone tell you.  You only need to open your eyes and really look.  You need to be observant, especially during shooting but also when you view the pictures afterwards.

A church in the small town of Camas, Washington.

A church in the small town of Camas, Washington.

Being observant takes practice, and it requires a sort of relaxed focus.  Your body is relaxed but your eyes are most definitely on-the-job checking out anything and everything.  Your mind is both relaxed and focused.  To give a non-nature/landscape example, if you’re a very astute people-watcher, you’re likely to be a good street or portrait photographer.

By the way, I have seen a lot of photographers moving around with the camera up, trying out possible pictures.  And photography teachers encourage this.  I think this takes away and distracts from observation, which should have priority.  For me, observation comes first, then a decision to take a picture, then the camera comes up to my eye.   I prefer to get the broader view and mentally zoom in and out with my eyes/brain.

The western Cascade Mountains of Oregon filters moisture out of clouds coming in from the Pacific.

The western Cascade Mountains of Oregon filters moisture out of clouds coming in from the Pacific.

When I decide to take a picture, I have in mind a general focal length.  So I choose a lens (or zoom in/out) and frame the picture, making sure to look carefully at the edges and corners for “junk” that doesn’t add to the picture.   Of course my approach is different if I already have in mind the picture I want from a previous visit.  But I still practice observation, I expect pictures other than the one I’m going for to present themselves.  Among other things, the fickle nature of light and weather conditions can change things greatly.

The second part of the rule, being enthusiastic, is what I blogged about in one of my first Friday Foto Talks.  If you are curious about your subject and enthusiastic about shooting it, your images will be that much better.  If you love photography enough to spend all kinds of hard-earned cash on spendy cameras, lenses, tripods, backpacks, etc., then you must really love photography, right?  It means when you’re out shooting you are really into it – both the subject matter and the total immersion you get from the act of photography.

Mount Hood peeks out from low clouds on a frosty morning after overnight snowfall.

Mount Hood peeks out from low clouds on a frosty morning after overnight snowfall.

My opinion of a person who walks up to a viewpoint and plops their tripod down, waits for the light to get good, then shoots a bunch of pictures with very similar composition (perhaps with his camera taking pictures automatically every few seconds, ugh!) is that that person must not really like photography much.  Why get into such an expensive hobby (or a career that is anything but lucrative) if you don’t really love it?

But if you like it, really like it, you’re going to be a bundle of energy, always trying to see what other compositions are available.  You’ll move around a lot before really starting to shoot (a common tip).  You’ll get low or high to change viewpoint (another common tip).  You will work the subject (that’s another).  You will zoom in because you’re interested in the ‘picture within the picture’ you just captured (yet another).  You’ll draw ever closer, even creeping along on your belly if your subject is some furry critter (recall the quote, “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”).

Spring runoff flows down the Salmon River in Oregon.

Spring runoff flows down the Salmon River in Oregon.

See the trend here?  There are many tips and rules that can be boiled down into one principle:  enthusiastic observation.  Don’t hold anything back; open your eyes wide and go for it.  Put your soul into it!  It’s how I learned all those things without ever picking up a book.  If you combine enthusiasm with well-practiced observational skills, I really think that good, creative compositions will come naturally.

So that’s all there is to it.  Get out and shoot this weekend.  And have fun!

The setting sun lights up Mount Hood as it watches over the Columbia River.

The setting sun lights up Mount Hood as it watches over the Columbia River.

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24 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: One Rule for Creative Compositions

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  1. I so much agree with you. Thanks for interesting comments and tips, and again; fantastic pictures.

  2. As always, fabulous pictures! And I love your advice to embrace enthusiastic observation. I’ve never understood how some people try to take photos from only a technical/predictable perspective without seeking out unique views and a bit more of an artful perspective. Seeing the beauty with your eyes first definitely makes it easier to capture it with a camera.

    • Thank you Jakz! Yes with so many people getting fairly sophisticated cameras, many will inevitably end up focusing on gear (or post-processing). They may approach the capture process in an overly analytic way. Even a lot of professionals do this. It’s ironic: those who protest when photography is dismissed as not being true art don’t themselves treat it as an art form. And many don’t even have a lot of fun doing it; they’re too focused on the end result. Hope you’re enjoying spring! .

  3. That’s a great rule!

  4. What great post, written from the heart. I agree with all of it, and love your images. I used to paint before I got the photography bug….developing an artistic and curious eye is one of the greatest gifts life can offer 🙂

  5. Your photography is breathtaking! I am a nature-lover and an interest in photography has come later in life to me, actually because I am now in a position to embrace it, and I still have so much to learn. This post really spoke to me and I cannot wait to get out and start practicing. So glad that I have found your website. 🙂

  6. Beautiful shots & excellent advice … I just wish digital had got here decades sooner~!
    Weird thing though—now I can take oodles and throw most of ’em away—I find myself planning more, tripodding more; and no longer think of it as cheating to enhance a wee bit.
    Thanks again …

    • Thanks a bunch Argus! I have gone through the same progression, though I always remember the shots are free with digital! It encourages experimentation. Good luck!

  7. Exquisite!

  8. Thanks for the enthusiastic underscore. I’ve walked around thinking angles, light, settings, intent…and all that. But when on rare and harried vacation with lesser engaged, (kids) I often find myself in that rushed moment, – grab an image fast and keep the tribe happy! The luxury of time at the places we want to be, is precious. Today, retired, I cherish simple excursions, and dream of additional travel – with primarily just me and my camera…..
    Great, inspirational pictures and tips. Just became aware of your site and am looking forward perusing. M

    • Thank you so much for the nice words! I’m happy you have developed a way to travel and both enjoy your family and photography. Funny but that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. Photo classes and workshops don’t to my knowledge address the issue of how to enjoy trips with kids and at the same time be serious about your photography. I would love to run a series of workshops that do this, particularly focused on getting kids more into quiet observation and appreciation of nature – through photography.

  9. I only have one quibble and that is the use of a tripod and timer. Sometimes it is necessary depending on the light or the effect you are trying to capture (that silky water or clouds). But I would definitely get there early, while the light is still good, and take practice shots from different angles until you pick the best place you find at which to set up. Otherwise, I love your tips! Well, I liked that one too! Be a bundle of energy!

    • Emilio I think you misunderstood. I’m talking about the intervalometers where people set it up to take images every 2 seconds and walk away. Delayed shutter and tripod are where I live! I wouldn’t get any of these shots without that. Thanks for checking out my blog!

      • I definitely misunderstood. Thanks for explaining. I used to take the first shot when I came across something that caught my eye. Now I might still do the same, but then I walk around the object or scene, get closer, kneel, sit on the ground, etc. to get a different take. I totally agree with you about moving around.

  10. Gorgeous images. I really love the clouds in the Cascades.

  11. You are making it so much harder to choose a favorite….. 😀 Ditto to the previous comments.

  12. I’m glad that you are back out and shooting again.

  13. What a great post awesome shots!

  14. Wonderful post!

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