Cracking Composition

Posted on Jan 18, 2017


We compose pictures based on the way we see the world. Everyone sees things differently. Composition is a personal choice, but it does take foresight.

“Composition is the setting you build in your viewfinder, then you wait for a performer to complete the picture,” says photography instructor David LaBelle. “Always look for potential.”

Work ahead. Think about how you are going to get the shot you want.

Here are three ways to arrange elements and subjects to engage readers.

1. Play With Space

Photography is the art of subtraction. Go closer. Subtract distractions. Fill the frame. Six inches can be the difference between being a participant or spectator.

But just as there is a time to get close and see faces, there is also a time to pull back to set the mood. Know when you should back off. Some stories need space. Is what somebody is doing interesting? Or is where they are doing it interesting? Maybe it’s both. Include the environment.

2. Aim for Details and Patterns

Look for symbols and visual anecdotes you can add to the frame. Well-composed, detailed pictures support the overall story and plot. Remember to:

  • Capture clues. Small details—picture magnets on a refrigerator, a prized heirloom, even a tattoo—are important visual cues to help a reader understand a story.
  • Watch for repeating forms. When looking at patterns and shapes, change your angle to see how it affects the composition.

Look for details and patterns to add color to a story. Photo by Denise Porter

3. Angle for Backgrounds

Backgrounds can be helpful or harmful. Try these ways to boost your backgrounds:

  • Look beyond your subject. Avoid ugly mergers, when a pole or horizon cuts into your subject.
  • Move your lens. Find separation between the background and your subject. Change angles to try to surprise your readers. Things look differently from above. Shoot from below, too. Getting down low changes the affect of your background.
  • Look through your frame in layers. See the subject, then the background. Use foregrounds to lead the eye and create depth in your images. Find foreground to add depth and tone. Without the foreground, an image can become one-dimensional.
  • Backgrounds add scale to images. Use that scale to add contrast to your image. Writers compare things with words for scale. Do the same with pictures.
Image of a boxer

David LaBelle ranked this image as a favorite from 2016 workshop students. His only suggestion was to watch for mergers in the background. Photo by Geoff Oldfather

There are no rights or wrongs in photo composition. It is a matter of choice. For examples of how David sees the world, visit his blog.

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