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Composition: Getting Beyond the Snapshot

Text and Images © Copyright Gloria Hopkins

With today's high-tech pro cameras and IS and VR lenses, learning to take perfectly sharp, expertly exposed photographs is a snap. There are thousands of technically perfect photographs in print and on the web and it seems there are as many talented amateurs emerging every day. But there is a notable difference in the work of a photographer who takes the time to think about the composition of their image. The composition sets the mood for the shot and tells the story. Compositions can be used to evoke powerful emotional responses in a viewer, a goal for many photographers, but something that is achieved by few.

In order to create a technically good, visually pleasing photograph it would make sense that a photographer have a solid understanding of both the technical and aesthetic sides of photography. The ability to intertwine the two is what propels the work of masters like John Shaw and Galen Rowell far above the seas of documentary shots.

I have always felt that the best way to improve composition skills is to first learn how to see compositions. Try to see the compositional elements in every photograph you can find. Look at the lines in the image. Do they work together or against each other? How does your eye travel around through the image? Does it flow smoothly from one thing to the next or jump all around in the image? Look for space distribution, color, mood, perspective, depth, light and time of day, shapes, etc. How did the photographer use major components of the image like light and shadow, shape and form, background and foreground?

Below I have created what I call "composition maps." They are photographs that I have marked in Photoshop highlighting various aspects of the composition. I use them as visual teaching aides to break images down to their basic parts and see the underlying composition. There are many aspects of these photos that could be addressed such as quality and direction of light, patterns and repetition, balance, weight, shape vs. form, negative space, perspective, contrast, etc. The list goes on but there is not enough space to put it in writing here, so I focused on one compositional element for each graphic.

In this image I highlighted the spacing in the image and how it could be viewed on The Rule of Thirds grid:

 image#1_gdh.jpg (46988 bytes)


Here we examine only the lines in the image:

 image#2_gdh.jpg (46719 bytes)

Many other maps discussing different highlights could be drawn for a single photograph. I recommend practicing at home with your own photographs. Studying compositions builds good design skills even though you are not actively designing the image. Seeing is half of the art of photography and this exercise will help you to recognize that prize-winning shot when you have it in your viewfinder.

If you keep composition in mind when in the field, it will eventually become second nature to you. It will go from being a source of uncertainty to a powerful tool that will enable you to speak to the world through your images, exactly how you want and on your own terms.


Images and text © Copyright 2003  Gloria Hopkins

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