Learn Composition Through Simplification (Exercise)


This is our first educational article of 2010.  As such, I wanted to get a little more detailed.  The article may be a little long for some, but it’s packed full of great concepts and an excellent exercise that helped me to get started as a photographer.  I of course don’t want to go overboard, so I would appreciate your feedback.  Please let me know what you think about this article and, most importantly, if you like the direction I’m headed.  Please post a comment below, or use our contact form to let us know what you think.  Remember, 2010 is all about you.


"Friends of Toddlers" by D. Travis North - a very basic composition

Photography is an art form which has, in recent years especially, been dominated by what I feel to be an unnecessary level of technical knowledge. This technical knowledge is of course important, but it is hardly enough in and of itself to make your photos incredible. If there were such thing as a perfect photograph – and I don’t believe that there is because it’s a subjective art, but bear with me… If it were possible to achieve a perfect photograph, it would be made up of just a few broad concepts: Composition, Technical and Style. One could get much more specific, but we’ll stick to these three points for now. If we were to figure out the value of each concept, I feel that it would probably break down as follows:

  • 75% Composition
  • 10% Technical
  • 15% Style

Our cameras, our digital cameras, are packed full of features. They contain different metering modes, the ability to change ISO on the fly, several ways to control white balancing, different methods to control our flash, and the list goes on. It’s a lot to overcome and it’s a lot to understand, let alone master. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that most of you will never master every feature on your camera. It is certainly possible, but there are some features you just won’t use. These features distract us from the big ticket item: Composition.

Now, in this hypothetical world where there is such thing as a perfect photograph, composition would be easy to define. But this isn’t a perfect world, and we are subjective and composition isn’t so easy to define. Books upon books have been written about composition, classes are taught specifically to teach composition and people spend years trying to get a good grasp for it. It is a complicated topic. And even when you know the rules, you still need to figure out when to throw out the rules. But lets say we are still in that hypothetical perfect world, and we’ve mastered composition. That only gets us to 75% which, as you know from school, is about average. You’re okay, but your photo is not exceptional. How do we then improve our photo? We can improve by increasing our technical knowledge. This is yet another heavy lift. There is a lot to learn about your little camera, there’s a lot to learn about the physics of light, optics and the relationship between ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed. And after all that time and all that research and practice, that only earns us another 10%. Getting better, we’re at least above average. To go all the way, we need to master style. Style is yet another heavy lift, but it has two major prerequisites: Composition and Technical. There is another prerequisite: Experience (Time). We are at the point of diminishing returns. The technical and style concepts of your photos are an important piece, for without them you cannot create the perfect image. But it’s such a small piece that alone or together, style and technical concepts cannot make even a mediocre photograph. The best you can hope for is 25% – a below average score, and you failed.

Follow me so far?

Now we understand the relationship of each one of these concepts that make up the hypothetical perfect image. It took us some time to get here, but I wanted to make one point clear: The largest, most important concept, that makes up any photo is Composition. As a young photographer, this is the aspect you should focus on understanding most. You should be ignoring the technical concepts. I won’t even talk about them specifically, because we’re ignoring them. Even if you’re shooting for a while, I want you to take a look at your portfolio, or share them with someone more experienced. If composition is one of your weaknesses, let’s back up a bit. Don’t worry if you thought you were beyond this – sometimes you need to take a few steps backwards in order to move forward. So lets start at the begining and do an exercise.


Step 1: Simplify
Scenario 1: Those with SLR Cameras – If you are using an SLR, set your camera to fully-automatic mode (not even program mode). You will also want to turn on autofocus and set the ISO to 200. If your lens is a zoom lens, set the zoom to about 35mm or 50mm and leave it.

Scenario 2: Those with Point-and-Shoot Cameras – P&S users, your camera will likely be automatic already. If it’s not, make sure you’re in fully automatic mode. Zoom as wide as you can and don’t touch that zoom. Your camera will likely control every other technical aspect automatically.

Everyone – You have now given up all control over the technical aspects of your photo. It may be hard for some of you to eliminate all control. Just keep reminding yourself that you’re focus in this exercise is on composition, nothing else.

Step 2: Pick a Subject

"Got Sole" by D. Travis North - Just one example of a very simple composition you could create.

Your subject doesn’t really matter, but the more simplistic, the better. Try to pick every day things that you can fit in your hands – nothing bigger than both your fists. Some examples: Shoes, kitchen utensils, office supplies or toys. In both examples on this page, I use very simple subjects (my shoes and my daughter’s crayons).  Only pick one thing. This is going to be your subject.

Step 3: Setup and Shoot
Position the object on a clean table or on a clean floor. Hand-hold your camera and take a shot. Don’t think about it, just do it. Feel free to use a flash (your camera will probably do it for you). Reposition, take another shot. Repeat this process until you have 20 photos, then stop. Remember, don’t think too much, just keep shooting.

Step 4: Analysis
Take all of your shots and pull them onto your computer for analysis. Look through each and every one of them at least once, then immediately eliminate half. Don’t think too hard, just base your eliminations on gut. You don’t have to have a reason. Review the remaining ten shots and again, eliminate half. Don’t think, do. Now that you’re down to five shots, I want you to pick your three favorites (yes, we’re changing it up).  Again, don’t think too hard. This decision is once again based on your gut feeling. The faster you are at eliminating and selecting photos, the more you learn.

I want you to take those three photos and note the following details to yourself:

  1. Do the photos have any similarities between them?
  2. How are the photos different from the eliminated photos?
  3. Here’s a tough one: Why do you think you like these photos the best?
  4. How do you think you could improve each photograph (be specific to each photograph)?

Keep in mind, photography is subjective and there is no right or wrong answer. There is, however, an appropriate answer. The answers you come up with will help you to understand yourself as a photographer. More importantly, it will help you to understand where your weaknesses are compositionally.

What Did We Do Here?

We eliminated all technical knowledge. We are taking shots without much thought, we’re eliminating photos without much thought, and finally, we selected the last three photos – you guessed it – without much thought. We have eliminated the time element which, thanks to the wonders of the human brain, often gets cluttered with our technical wisdom. Essentially, we’ve eliminated the left brain, the part of the brain responsible for logic, and allowed the right brain to do it’s thing. The right brain is whimsical, and care-free. It doesn’t much care about rules. You are acting on instict.

The goal here is to understand how the mind works. This exercise also allows us to understand how the viewer – likely someone who is not a photographer – will understand your works. Rules don’t really matter to them, they are only concerned about what affects them. They are viewing your photos on instict. And since they don’t know the technical aspects, they cannot be bothered by them. Time doesn’t matter to such a viewer. Time does matter to you, because you are wise to at least some level of technical know-how. Which brings us to the next point.

Why Are There Rules?

Many self-taught photographers read a lot. They read about the rules of composition, they read about the rule of thirds, they read about balance and pattern and texture and… well, I’m getting ahead of myself. The point is that they read too much. In my first photography class, our instructor asked the entire class to go out and burn a roll of film shooting whatever we wanted. Cameras in fully-automatic, we did just that and returned. We were taught how to develop film (black and white) and how to make prints. We then made prints of every photo on the roll. Yes, I learned how to develop film before I learned how to compose a single shot. We then handed our shots to our neighbor and did an exercise very similar to the one we have here with our neighbor’s photos. Not much thought, we were all ignorant. Our findings were that we were naturally drawn towards the best images – without even understanding why. Our instructor then took the three best photos from every student and pinned them up on the board and discussed why: The rules of composition. Photo ‘A’ is a good shot because it follows the rule of thirds. Photo ‘B’ is appealing because of the repetitive pattern of contrasting lines. And so on. And that is how I was introduced to compositional concepts.

The biggest mistake that many young photographers try to make is to think that you must shoot to fit into the rules. Compositional rules are, in fact, only a product of the human understanding of composition. Humans try to quantify things, and we did that with art. We analyzed photos and discovered that some compositions were more appealing because of a specific pattern, or because of it’s relationship to the golden mean. We applied mathmatics and analyzed some more and tried to fit art – subjective by nature – into a framework. The rules are important, but in many ways they can be a handicap. The creative mind – the right brain – doesn’t function well when it’s brother, the left brain, tries to apply logic. Logic doesn’t always work well with art. So until you have trained your right brain to play well with the left, and until you’ve trained your left brain not to try to control creative processes, shoot lots and throw out the ones that don’t work. But also realize that the rules aren’t perfect. Some shots won’t fit into rules. Don’t be alarmed. That’s not necessarily a flaw of the photo. It’s a flaw in the rules – or we just haven’t created a rule for that yet. What really matters is if the photo is aesthetically pleasing. If it is, throw the rules out the window.

In Summary

For a while, I would suggest doing this exercise at least once per week. As you grow, some of these concepts will just become natural to you. Keep in mind the process is quick. Shoot quickly, eliminate quickly, make your final selections quickly. Once that’s done, then you can apply the rules to what’s left. Shoot first, rules last. You will grow to understand how the rules really work, and then they will become second nature to you. What you’re really doing is teaching your brains to play well together. Do this often, or whenever you’re in a funk, and you will continue to grow.

Please, feel free to share your best photos with the Flickr Group for discussion or post a link in response to this article. If you’re stumped, or if you don’t know why you like a certain shot, myself or one of our faithful readers/contributors might be able to help explain why your shot is appealing. It will be a fun learning excercise for all of us.


About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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