Updated: May 11, 2019
You may own the most expensive photo equipment and have the latest array of software for tweaking your images but it’s all for naught if you haven’t quite figured out the fundamentals of how to put together a suitable well-balanced composition. Creating a harmonious photographic composition is not easily accomplished or learned. With today’s sophisticated digital camera’s sporting high-quality LCD monitors, each photo you make is instantaneously presented to you with zoom capabilities, histograms, shutter speed, etc. The trick is to embrace this technology, if not you have overlooked your best opportunity to create and fine-tune your composition. The LCD Monitor is the best and the only feature your camera has that can actually aid you in framing up your next great photograph. Just as there are clear guidelines that pertain to writing, music, sculpture, etc. there are similar parameters that apply to the two-dimensional arts like painting, photography, and printmaking. A strong composition regardless of the content generally makes the difference between a mediocre photograph and a poignant image.
Back in the day of the film most of my commercial photography work was done using a large format View Camera. As a rule, when making a large format photograph you would expose a 4/5 sheet of Polaroid instant print film to check your composition, lighting, object placement, etc. before loading your film and tripping the shutter. You would diligently check every square inch of the Polaroid making adjustments to the composition; too close or too far away, should I be a bit higher or maybe just a tad lower a bit to the right or left, lens choice, depth of field/aperture/ shutter speed, etc. etc. By adopting this type of workflow images could be refined one Polaroid at a time. When the composition is right in conjunction with the lighting, time of day, etc. its time to pull out the film and make the photo. This workflow model fits perfectly with today’s digital cameras LCD monitors giving the photographer instant feedback with every click of the shutter just as the Polaroid did for large format photographers. Compose, shoot, check your LCD monitor, adjust re-shoot, adjust-re shoot as many times as necessary until you feel comfortable with what is happening inside your camera’s viewfinder. In essence, you are becoming your own best critic each time you post up another shot.
Creating a good composition is a dynamic process just as are all creative endeavors. We all approach image making, interpretation and expression of self differently as we are unique individual seers. Creating a good well-crafted composition takes time, patience, thought, consideration, experimentation and of course being at the right place at the right time. “Dynamic Mode” relative to composition is acting, interacting and reacting to what is going on around and within you, reflecting, composing, fine-tuning and finally capturing. If you are not working dynamically in conjunction with your LCD monitor when framing up your next photo you are missing the mark, hence your efforts to stalk, capture and display your trophy images will more than likely translate into a cliché or worse yet, mundane imagery.
The relationships of objects within a scene are affected as you raise your cameras vantage point higher or drop down lower as well as from side to side. There are the lens, aperture, and shutter speed choices to make as well as pointing the camera from level, up, down, swing to the side, etc. etc. These are all choices one makes when composing and each adjustment will affect your composition. Computing all the variables in creating a good composition can be overwhelming for anybody, hence a prescribed workflow means taking composition
step by step. You will begin to see how one adjustment affects the whole leading to the next adjustment and so on until you have created a good well- balanced poignant image.
When I am out scouting around for a photo OP I try to stay focused on light quality, shadows, color, or any other type of stimuli that will attract my attention and draw me in. When I notice something that stops me or strikes a chord I approach the scene and begin a visual exploration then check out the scene in the viewfinder. The more deliberate you are while composing the more intimate you will become with the physicality of the scene and its particular nuances. More times than not if you are dynamically composing you will intuitively be drawn into what the particular environment is emoting hence you may very well discover what normally you would have passed by due to the half-hazard point and shoot syndrome which should be avoided at all costs. There will be various aspects to consider when you are staking out your first composition take. Make one adjustment and see how it affects your overall composition, and continue to do so no matter how many times you need to make adjustments until you are feeling confident about your image capture, click make your final assessment using the LCD monitor then pack it up and move on.
What I have discerned after teaching photography for many years is generally when students go out to shoot they are stuck in the point and shoot mentality, meaning they discover suitable subject matter to photograph but don’t take the time or have the where with all to concentrate on composition. The common scenario; raise the camera point and shoot, check the histogram, adjust the exposure if need be, re-shoot then move on to the next image without closely studying and refining their composition. This type of mindset is not easily overcome; it is habitual for the most part and originates from naiveté assuming that photography is as easy as point, shoot. This nonchalant approach to photography is pretty much a dead end and certainly not a dynamic way to get involved with the magical experience of image making and creative process.
My best advice is to slow down and be in the moment while you are out stalking your next award-winning image that is when you will discover the real magic of the creative process.