The Zen of the Composition

You’ve done your homework and pored over more than a few books on basic composition, and now you’ve gone out in the field to apply all that knowledge to the real world. Upon arrival, your initial impression of your chosen location is somewhat less than reassuring. In the books, the images used as examples have compositions that look so clean and straightforward; out here in the wilderness, everything looks so chaotic and confused. How do you make sense of the beautiful but naturally chaotic scene before you? So how do you do this, and where do you begin?

Here are some tips:

The human eyes take in an extremely wide field of view, with the brain being able to concentrate on individual points of interest or concern whenever required. This is one reason the landscape can look so confusing and chaotic; you’re looking at so much of it at once. So a good way to begin looking at your chosen landscape is by looking through your camera. Take the camera off the tripod and use it to frame the things that catch your eye as you walk around your subject.

Looking through the camera lens allows you to “crop your overall vision,” bringing a sense of scale to the wilderness by showing you just parts of the overall landscape. The sense of chaos in the land is reduced by viewing it in smaller and more select slices. Looking through the camera as you incrementally move and zoom the lens allows you to watch perspective change with your position. You can then evaluate the placement of possible compositional elements of your image, as well as the relationship of the foreground to the mid-ground. Experiment with different camera angles and focal lengths on the camera while moving positions. (Of course, I don’t really recommend looking through the camera while walking. This can lead to tripping other unfavorable outcomes such as, oh say, a face plant™.)

And of course, walking around with the camera off the tripod has the added advantage of allowing you to see all the places you might want to set up a tripod, instead of possibly walking up to the first and most obvious spot that you might happen upon. After selecting a spot, return the camera to the tripod and prepare to shoot.

Since you might have previously perused some books on composition (hopefully, one of these was the incredible Visual Flow, by Ian Plant) you might have already begun to think abstractly about the very literal wilderness. That is to say, you are beginning to see the trees as trees but also as vertical lines; you see the river as not only a life-giving waterway, but also notice that it makes an s-curve as it winds towards the distant mountains. You know that lines lead in as well as out and to look for repeating shapes, patterns, and frames (for your subject).

After your walking perusal of the scene, set up your camera near what you have determined to be those features of the landscape that provide some flow, or movement into the scene.  Strive for movement and balance in your compositions. The goal of a successful composition is to lead the eye. Movement is required to lead the eye, and balance is required to keep the eye in the frame. Here’s some basic things to watch for when setting up a composition.

Setting up the Tripod and Camera Height – Positioning the camera is crucial, as virtually all your decisions regarding perspective will be made at this time. How dominant do you want your foreground? Is the mid-ground important? Remember, the mid-ground leads the eye from the foreground to the background. It is now that you would check for other perspective issues.

For instance, maybe if in your image a particular tree is rendered taller than the mountain in the background, it might disrupt the strength of a line crucial to the composition. In such a case, repositioning the tripod 2 or 3 inches taller will remedy the situation.

Fly Away Home

Canon 5DMark II, 17-40L @ 22mm; !/30th @ F16; iso 100

Above, in “Fly away Home” I wanted to get really close in order to accentuate the foreground, but leave just enough mid-ground to lead the eye towards the background, so the camera height was critical to the success of the image. If I had gotten any lower, the foreground rock would have merged with the rocks in the mid-ground.

Showdown ar Deadhorse

Canon 5DMark II; 16-35L Mark II @22mm; 1/60th@ F11; iso 100

For “Showdown At Deadhorse”, getting low to accentuate foreground would have merged the distant butte and subject of the image with the foreground, so I used a much higher camera angle.

Lens Selection – Of course, the other really important perspective decision you make at this time is lens selection. Overall, wide angles lenses are more difficult to compose with than telephotos because they include such a wide field of view. When you are having trouble composing a given scene, its often advantageous to lessen the field of view, to look at the scene with a slightly longer (focal length) perspective.

Place the highlights – The eye will almost always go to the brightest and lightest spot in the frame, so placing the highlights is critical to a successful composition. Try to create balance between the light and the dark parts of the image.

Sonoran Disclosure

Canon 5D Mark II; 70-200 F4L 2 200mm;1/100th@ F11; iso100

For “Sonoran Disclosure, I carefully placed the sun, my brightest spot, with the dark mass of the hill on the lower left of the frame. This creates a pleasant overall balance to the frame.

Remnants of a Forgotten Past

Canon 5D Mark II; 17-40L @ 22mm; 6 seconds @ F22; iso 100 w/ 2 stop Lee soft ND graduated filter

In “Remnants of a Forgotten Past,” placement of the highlight in the upper right  – opposite the movement of the boulder coming from the lower left – was critical for the shot to work.

Watch the corners and edges – Very few viewfinders show 100% of the frame, but LiveView is always 100%. I recommend inspecting the corners and edges in LiveView for details that you might have missed – your eye tends to follow the very composition you are creating, neglecting the details on the edges.

The Thumbnail Effect – Painters will often use a “reducing glass” (the opposite of a magnifying glass) to look at their work while in progress. Simply put, looking through the glass allows them to see the work much smaller – that is to say “reduce” it from a recognizable subject matter to the collection of lines, spaces and shapes that make up the composition.

As photographers, we are all familiar with the “thumbnail effect” – you see an image thumbnail and are immediately drawn to it without being able to decipher what the subject might be. You can use your LCD screen on the digital camera for the same purpose. While looking through LiveView, lean back and blur your eyes (I take off my glasses) until you have reduced your image to its compositional elements. This can help with seeing the overall balance and movement of the image.

Work the Scene – This may be the most important of all. Very few of us can walk into a scene and immediately see the best shot. Working within the scene for an extended period of time will yield your best images. So, once you have set up the tripod and executed the image; look for variations on the scene. If shooting a horizontal, look for a vertical. Try getting close, or moving back. Shorter and longer focal length lenses. Upon returning to your computer look at all the images in the “filmstrip” in LightRoom, so that you can see everything in the sequence that you shot them. Now you can analyze what you did. Which is the best image from the sequence? How many shots did you take before you finally found the optimum composition?

If you Itch, you should Sctratch – or – Shoot from the Gut; Intellectualize at the Computer – In the field you should react instinctively to what you see and feel. If something attracts your attention, see whats there, and don’t worry about whether or not “its a good picture” or whatever someone else may think about it. The one image leads to the next until you discover the creative potential of both the location  and yourself. You are on your own private journey of exploration and self discovery. Every image you take is connected. It is the Zen of it all.


George Stocking

Author: George Stocking

George Stocking is a professional freelance photographer, residing in Phoenix, AZ. He works regularly as a contract photographer for Arizona Highways, and his work often graces the pages of Arizona Highways Magazine, Calendars and Books. His work has appeared in numerous other national publications. You can see more of his work on his website.

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