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C for Composition


The reasons why

Composition is the glue that holds a picture together. Composition is all about you, how you see and what you perceive as significant.

Composition is one area of photography that your camera cannot help you to improve your skills and awareness because the camera is only a tool to record your ideas. Your expensive camera cannot choose your vision, intent, ideas, subject matter, the placing of the subject within the frame, etc. These are all part of your role as the photographer in charge of the process of taking and making the picture.

All the camera does is record the brightness of light on the sensor contained in a variety of viewfinder aspect ratios. You the photographer provide everything else to that makes up the picture.

In A for Attraction we were discussing the photographic moment, an instant recognition that what is unfolding before your eyes has the potential to become a great picture. On a deeper more intuitive level, it is the anticipation that an imagined scenario may fall into place with patience and photographic technique. A major element of anticipation and planning the shot is the composition or design. Without a planned design the shot will not reach its potential. This is particularly true of street photography when it’s done by a master of the art such as Dave Mason, Dave’s work relies on anticipation, design and most of all serendipity, he goes to every shoot with the idea in the back of his mind that something good will happen.

The Aims of composition

A great composition helps to reveal your vision and intent. A photograph is a deliberate act of communication prepared for the viewer by the photographer. You are the viewer’s eye.

If you received a hand-written a letter in a language that you cannot read, would you take the trouble to have it translated?

Alternatively, if you received a typed letter in English but it had no punctuation, poor spelling and bad grammar, would you value and place significance on the content of the message?

What is composition?

“Geometry (composition) is to the visual arts, what grammar is to the art of the writer.”

Guillaume Apollinaire


Composition or design or geometry is the glue that holds the picture together without it none of the parts gel together to give a coherent message.

Composition is probably the most difficult of photographic skills to learn for the beginner. It requires perception, awareness and the making of decisions based on what looks right to you. There are no right or wrong answers; it is not a mathematical formula.

Hot Hint
For successful results, composition, photographic design or geometry is about dominance of the significant subject matter.


Would you consider the sender’s reasons for sending the letter in such a tardy manner and most importantly what the sender thought was the benefit for you?

The visual message, a picture needs to be presented in a way that is readable or understandable. To be readable, a picture requires organisation and structure to give it coherence and strength. The best photos have a combination of technical proficiency and artistic intent. Artistic intent will be displayed by the composition or design geometry of your picture.

5 things you need to know about framing

“The art of composition is knowing how much to exclude; you can’t photograph the whole world.”

Elliott Porter


1 Simple geometric shapes

I tend to think of composing the picture in the viewfinder as an arrangement of very basic geometric shapes such as; a triangle, rectangle, square, circle, etc. So I am not thinking about the actual subject so much as the balanced arrangement of shapes within the four bounding sides of the viewfinder.

2 Keep it simple – less is more

The first part of the process – the selection – is all to do with attraction and to ask yourself the question “why am I photographing this, what for me, is the essence of the attraction?”  Our pictures will be chaotic unless we actively choose to make order out of what we see through the viewfinder.  

As our photographic careers go forward, we spend more time looking for order and simplicity.   Your pictures will show much more perception if you take a minimal approach to framing and think about the saying “less is more”.   The viewer works out what’s happening around the photograph through their life experience nothing is ever presented in a vacuum.

Most photographers think the process of framing the subject is similar to zooming in and stopping at the point where the edges of the frame excludes unwanted clutter or irrelevant detail. However, if you are looking for minimal and simple a “less is more” framing approach why not think about the reverse method of looking?



Hot hint
Less is more.
4 If in doubt, get closer

As we are discussing getting closer to exclude unwanted elements, there is also the very famous quote by Robert Capa the Second World War photographer “If your pictures are not good enough, get closer.”


For me, what Capa means is not the physical closeness of the camera to the subject but the familiarity of your understanding of the subject and how you interpret the subject matter with knowledge and perception.

Arnold Newman said, We do not take pictures with our cameras, we take pictures with our hearts.”  So getting closer to the subject could include looking at other photographers work for inspiration, a better sense of direction and interpretation.

3 Essentials, nice to haves and must not have picture elements
  •         Essentials – must haves
  •         Nice to haves
  •         Must not have

Every element of your design must add to the overall effectiveness of the message and not detract from it. Think about the essence of the attraction you are recording and present to the viewer.

What are the essentials aspects or essences, the must haves to be included in the picture and without them, the picture is not complete and therefore does not work?

What are the nice to have elements? Are they adding context or confusion?

What are the definite must not haves, not to be included elements?

In the chapter on E for Exposure, we talk about “using or losing” bald skies that do not add to the overall composition of a picture.



Hot Hint
Make sure you get the Essentials and Must Not Haves, right.
5 Use it or lose it

Every element of your picture must add to the overall positive message that you want to convey to the viewer. Consider every element of the picture through the lens of “use it or lose it.” Look for elements that don’t add strength and cohesiveness to your composition.

Cohesiveness means a sense of interrelatedness and belonging. Composition in photography is the art of leaving things out; it is a subtractive method of arrangement. Areas to be particularly wary of are bald grey skies with nothing to add to the mood and atmosphere of the picture. Always be on the lookout for areas of bright tone or colour that compete with your subject particularly if the distraction is on the edge of the frame. The way of dealing with these rogue elements is to change your position or to frame to exclude distractions in the background at the taking stage.

Hot Hint
Get closer, fill the frame especially with wide-angle lenses.


Skill Embedding Exercise

Decide for you what is the minimum amount of information the viewer requires to make a comprehensible picture. Take a series of pictures zooming out rather than zooming in – to set the boundaries of the frame.

Core ABC of CameraWork Content 



Understanding the reason for taking a picture and sharing it with a viewer



Any picture will either sings or sag depending on the effectiveness of the background


Depth of Field

Depth of field is a tool for seeing, feeling and presenting an expressive picture

abc manual

The source of the core content  is The ABC of CameraWork Manual – How to see photographically by Andy Beel FRPS.

Each online article is taken from the manual text and pictures


Click on the Manual cover for more information how to get your copy.

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