3 Things You Can Do Now to Improve Your Compositions

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[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left”]Your photographs can be way stronger. It’s relatively easy to master the basics of the camera, but those aren’t what make our photographs more compelling or more captivating. It’s not really buttons and dials that make images that cause people to react.  What people respond to within the photograph are things like the decisions we make about what goes where, which moments we choose, and how the elements within a scene relate to each other.

“There’s a whole language to photography and it’s that language that many photographers take way too long to learn, bound by rules and platitudes.”

Take a few moments to consider this video and the three things you can do now to begin changing your compositions for the better, the stronger, the way less accidental. Then leave me a comment if you’ve got a moment – let me know what your big challenge is when you’re composing your photographs.

I’ll email you in a week and let you know when the third video is posted. See you then!

For the Love of the Photograph, 
David duChemin[/text_block]

What’s your biggest challenge regarding how to compose better photographs?


  1. Dear David,
    To me, I am moved by colour, strong colour- like when you’re in France and people have blue shutters on a achre building, with texture! I am also moved by photos that evoke emotions. This can be with people, but not “cutesy”, or it can be the sheer emotion of beauty. Wild or subtle.

  2. I’m mainly a landscape photographer. That’s what I like to do, that’s what attracts me. One thing troubles me. The shoots I most like, the ones I really find compelling are the ones with less success on the social medias. The ones I personally find more like postcards or more classical are receiving more positive returns. So, I don’t know if I’m using the right “language” to express my vision of what I see and this makes me have doubts on whats rights or not.

  3. sometimes it’s completely intuitive, but sometimes my analytical brain gets in the way and I get distracted by “thingness” (what something is, what’s happening, rules) and I lose the ability to see and feel the interplay of the relationships between light and shadow and color and line and negative space. I’d like to learn to be able to refocus myself on really seeing and understandng how to convey the feeling of what I’m experiencing in a way that doesn’t get me all caught up in words and preconceived notions and judgments.

  4. I shoot in B&W. I love to express emotion in my B&Ws. I want to capture the feel Of the time & place I am shooting, even that feel of antiquity in historical places or pieces. OK, who would you suggest as photographers to study??? I am always looking to grow, just really have not been at this long enough to know how to find photographed that are on the same track I am. Thanks for any help you can give!

  5. The biggest challenge is learning …..most of the learning material, which I have used, is like learning a set of skills with only slight mention of the intentional dimension of the activity…I often hear this with people who are learning to sing. The best of them get good at imitating a stereotyped technique or sound, but they do not acquire the soul. They end up using more and more virtuoso elements (often exaggerating the element as if that was the secret), which makes the piece sound more and more fake (like over saturated post- processing). I am afraid that Miles Davis’ comment that you have to play a long time before you play like yourself, may also apply to photography….so I hope your program will be a jump start.

  6. I like obstruction in a frame to guide the eye to what the subject is. I also think scale helps a lot. There is always a lot of talk about getting closer and I think that is important BUT one can get obsessed with that and forget that often contrasting people or objects in a frame to give a sense of scale even if the subject is tiny can work very well. Thank you David for being inspiring

  7. I was told one of the best ways to practice photography is to photograph everything around you. How do you become intentional about photographing everyday things and make them compelling? Is there a book of photographs that I could study from on “everyday things”?

    There’s also the green grass on the other side mentality, that when I see other people’s photos that look amazing, they are in fact taken in their own back yard. How do you look for this excitement that you see everyday?

    I love all your videos and the way you teach. Please keep on spreading your craft!

  8. Thanks David. Glad you want to talk
    MDeme laugh
    I just started a photography class
    And have learned so much already
    It interestingly I’m already following one of your principles
    I belong to a FaB photography group and I have been studying the ones that get a lot of likes
    I have recognized that the ones that do well make you feel you are there
    Because they are vividly captured, some have an emotional connection. And others just have the perfect subject combined with perfect lighting, color, texture, and composition. My challenge is to apply what I’ve learned. I am finding improvement in my photos as I continue to learn and practice. Got that just move a step one way or another, shoot from a different angle can completely change impact of a photo.

  9. I shoot a lot for the challenge. Whether it be something in nature, a jet flying by at 300+ in an air show, or something that I had the pleasure of seeing in nature and want to record the moment to share with others. I compose the best I can by trying to be in the best spot I can so that when the opportunity is presented I’m in the right place.

  10. As part of my efforts to help my composition I recently read a book “Photograph Like a Thief” by Glen Dewis. The main theme is to find work that inspires you and go out and try to copy it with the outcome that it will help you to develop your own style. I think that this will fit in with what you are saying about studying other photographers work?

  11. Thanks, David. After a good many years I can often tell in seconds that an image will NOT work – but I can’t explain why until I look closer (distractions, bad pov etc). Is this subconscious or experience? Whatever, it becomes a challenge when I know an image WILL work. My gut feeling says “yes” but I struggle to put this into words. You seem to be saying we should put this into words before we press the shutter. Tempted to agree, but I love gut reactions (with the option to delete later).

  12. For the most part, I’m not going to be privy to traveling “exotic” or “grand” places that seem to naturally foster numerous opportunities to create compelling photos-be it lines, light, movement, etc. For me, most of my images will be close to home or a day’s drive away. In the “banality” or “comfortableness” of where I go, I want to learn to “see” differently. Not be content with only the “beautiful” landscape image or nature image. To see not only the grand overall picture but also the minute details within a scene. Ok, that was sounding a bit “professorly” or whatever, but that’s an area of improvement for me.

  13. Hi David,
    Thanks again for your compelling insight. As you asked for a comment, here is mine from an enthusiatic beginner.
    When I look at a scene, it takes me usually quiet a while until I get this “warm” feeling about a detail. Then I take my camera and try to get into the flow from various perspectives. Suddenly, and most of the time I do not know why, the photograph just feels right and I click the button. That’s my way to make photographs, as simple as this.
    Now, I’m on my way to get this feeling/success more often (very addictive), I try to understand with your help why one of my photographs is so much stronger than the otherone.
    Have a great Sunday

  14. David, that photo at 2:46, can I ask if it was in Trastevere? I saw this scene with the lady looking out the window, but missed the shot.

  15. Thanks for posting these tutorials. My biggest challenge is to capture scenes/images that are meaningful to me and to avoid getting tracked by trying to please others. I enjoyed reading the posts. Although I agree that the composition elements you discuss make a good photograph, in my experience Paul K nailed it. Folks are moved by different types of images. I also liked the comments recommending studying paintings as well. Good idea.

  16. Thank you for this series, David. I would love to see a book which talks in more detail about *how* to study photographs and other visual art–not just “do it,” but a text which connects compositional techniques to the emotional impact in the mind of the viewer by dissecting carefully culled examples.

  17. I prefer to study paintings , the composition, light, lines, shapes and spaces. I’ve studied and tried to learn the visual language of impressionists, and of several individual painters.

  18. As an enthusiast amateur photographer, I have done lots of courses, read hundreds of books, studied thousands of famous photos and I now even teach basic photography to beginners – amazing how that helps me learn more. But what I always find is the great interindividual variability in how people react to images. Some of my best shots (ie those that move ME the most) have less impact on some observers than other pics that I might find less enthralling. One mans meat, another’s poison etc. so who do I aim to please and to move with my images? And what do I do with those images – as an amateur I don’t have clients, dont sell them or display them in galleries – how do I get them seen if I’m proud of them?

  19. Especially in landscapes, having a clear focal point dramatically improves the image. Too often landscapes are just views without a focus.

  20. I struggle with capturing moment and composition in one frame. I tend to chase the moment and lose the composition, or focus on getting the composition just right, only to have missed the moment. The struggle is real!

  21. What makes a photograph captivating to me are lines, colours and perspective and also when the photo is not utterly obvious and I can participate in discovering its story.
    The big challenge when I’m composing my photographs lies in recognising how big or small the detail of what I find to be the heart of my photo should be.

  22. I’m fascinated by the trails that I travel while backpacking. Sure I find some wonderful long views when the trail tops a ridge or pass. Most interesting for me is unpacking the elements and lines of the trail built by nature and those with a little help from man. My images on the trail give me the most memories. Your guidance is helping me to slow down to develop a stronger image of my journeys in the wilderness.

  23. I’m making a documentary about Eadweard Muybridge, and so have been looking very deeply at hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of his photographs. Most people know Muybridge, if they know him at all, as the man who broke the photographic “speed barrier”, capturing sequences of horses in motion. He’s recognized as an inventor, or technician. Which is a shame. Because prior to his motion work, he was a landscape photographer and his work is absolutely spectacular – haunting, other-worldly, awe-inspiring, eye opening. If I had to put my finger on one thing that strikes me about his work (prior to the motion sequences), its that his best images are magnetic – they suck you towards them, both compositionally, often employing vanishing points in nature, and they possess a kind of energy, a wonder. Water moving too fast to be seen is a blur, an image of speed. Valleys of Yosemite are filmed to emphasize gravity as if you are falling into the picture. Simple choices, such as Muybridge’s routine and rare for the day choice of posing figures looking AWAY from the camera, into a distant void, directs the viewers attention into the photograph and into a kind of unknown. Muybridge eschewed the ‘portrait work’ that was the bread and butter for photogs of his time. Muybridge has an eye for telling stories with his photographs – and does it well. Its this talent, even more than his inventiveness, his technology, that defines his greatness.

  24. Seeing… I have found that I am getting better at seeing the background… it was always easy to locate the OMG in a foreground, but that was obscured by distractions in the background… and not necessarily because of depth of field… but more often by bright spots or shapes… managing exposure has been a technique that has really helped manage the inclusion/exclusion in the composition..

  25. Hi Dave, your passion is infectious. Would it be an idea to present great photographs and explain to us what makes them great. Kick start our visual homework by demonstrating what you see as superior in the great photographs. Yes, we can tell a great photo from a dud but do we have the training needed to explain why it is great?!

    1. Check out a couple of David’s e-books… “A Deeper Frame” or “Drawing the Eye” are two good starting points… then you will get hooked on all his other resources too…

  26. Hi David: I am listening to your videos and looking forward to your mentor class with much anticipation! In answer to the question you posed in this 2nd video, what makes a compelling photo to me? Here is my answer…

    When my eyes first behold a photo and I audibly “gasp”, it is a compelling photo! That gasp most often is because of the interplay of light and shadows! If its not that, or in addition it can be the mystery caught in the photo (which often relates back to the light/shadows).

    There are other things too but I think those are the top things for me!

    Bring it on, David and thanks so much for the inspiration!

  27. 1) When taking pictures of chamber music musicians in rehearsal or concert trying to capture some of their passion for the music and not just snaps of musicians at work
    2) When photographing vistas, farms people or cities ,communicating the emotions I feel on this funny 2D image that wants to masquerade as a 3 D image. ( Too much packed into this comment which is trying to talk about the tension between our creation of a 2D image from a 3D visual/physical reality)

  28. I have been thinking about my “why” a lot lately and this talk really helps me articulate that. Story and narrative are what drives me so yes, heart and energy create the story in the frame or not. Thank you for always sharing your wisdom!

  29. David
    I’m totally excited and looking forward to your course about composition and visual language. I’ve been studying composition haphazardly for a few months now. I agree that is what makes a compelling image. I need help!
    My biggest challenge is figuring out what my subject is, especially in a big vista landscape. When I go to the beach and see a sunset, I think it is the color of the sky. But the waves and water and rocks are all part of the scene.
    I’m also unsure of how to study and learn from “great” photographs.
    Looking forward to this class.

    1. Hey Mark – I think we take the idea of subject too literally at times. In your case – say the beach at sunset – the subject could be the mood, in which case you’ve got choices about what you need to include/exclude in order to best express that mood. Or it could be the meeting of water and sky. Or the texture of the clouds mirrored by the texture of the water. Perhaps don’t think as much about specifics (though sometimes the subject is very specific) and try thinking of it more along the lines of “what broader thing am I trying to point at?” If you’re thinking “Oh my God, look at that!” help me get to “that” as powerfully as you can. So yes, the waves and water are part of the scene but are they necessary to express the subject in this one photograph? Remember there might be 3 or 4 great photographs in the scene, rather than one photograph that does it all .

  30. The compelling image for me starts with light, contrast and the moment. If the timing is good and light casts the right kind of shadow you might get a good photos. The moment is an entirely different animal. You might not catch it. It is elusive. While you are carrying your heavy camera and lens around your neck, have your smartphone in your pocket.

  31. I am more into landscape and wildlife photography and what moves me is the more I look around, the more I see things in nature. Specially the very small insects, moss or lichens. My problem is more what to choose and make it “pop”.

  32. Hi David, A great photograph makes me see a level of human emotion or condition that we all at some time experience,It evokes memories,desires,feelings of love,empathy,joy sadness and so many more.These are really great tutorials you are giving us. Thanks for such a gift.

  33. If a photograph grabs me and gives me an immediate emotional connection then I think it is a great image because it had an impact on my psyche on some subconscious level. Then I do my best to defocus my eyes (taking off my glasses is a start) and look at it the image for graphic and design qualities. It really helps to use defocused eyes! I can identify why I think the image works on a graphic/design level and then I relate it back to the feeling I felt. I love it when a photo hits an emotional nerve from the get go!

  34. David
    I’m totally excited and looking forward to your course about composition and visual language I’ve been studying composition haphazardly for a few months now because I agree that is what makes s compelling image. I need help!
    My biggest challenge is figuring out what my subject is, especially in a big vista landscape. When I go to the beach and see a sunset, I think it is the color of the sky. But the waves and water and rocks are all part of the scene.
    I’m also unsure of how to study and learn from “great” photographs.
    Looking forward to this class.

    1. From what you’ve said, I have a feeling this course is really going to help you, Mark.

  35. I am drawn to photos that tell a story and spark a feeling. I am a scrapbooker so to me photos plus words are stories of life. ?

  36. My biggest challenge: conquering the emotional distance between me and my subject, and then remembering the emotion while I frame the shot. In other words, turning off part of my brain, storing my emotions in a very accessible place, and then turning that part of my brain back on in order to execute what I felt. My biggest photographic failures are failures of the heart.

  37. Great question David, and thanks for some thought-provoking stuff, above. When I see an image I really love, it usually tells me a story. It always evokes an emotion, but how the emotion is stimulated is variable. I could be equally moved by a grand, romantic landscape as by an ultra-minimalist abstract. I guess the deeper the emotion and the more moved I am, the more I like the image. Ergo the popularity of “love gone wrong” songs 🙂 Cheers David!

  38. The momentum in the expression of poeple or when you capture a person in her his intimante state of mind

  39. What I like to see in a photograph is truth, nothing forced, spontaneity. Real stuff, nothing fabricated. Often I feel like my photos are made up, still, boring, no emotion. I want to take photos that have feeling and I don’t know how to capture feeling in nature.

  40. What makes a captivating Image: An image that “grabs” me has emotion,mood and depth – and those things are “spoken to me” by the image. Some images have it all, some have 2 of 3 and some, the real dandies – have all 3. Thanks for your insights as they give light to the road to get all 3 in my images.

  41. More I intentionally do what you suggested and study more photographs, more I feel that images (the ones that connect with me, anyway) are about moments and conflict/juxtaposition.

    I was recently studying Elliot Erwitt’s Boy with a Pistol photo. That image is so powerful but I find it mostly about timing of the boy holding the gun to his head and the conflicting nature of the story.

    In past every time I heard the phrase “decisive moment”, I used to roll my eyes but now I feel I’m starting to understand it a little bit.

  42. On a more technical side, I often struggle in getting the “right” balance between elements in the frame, the right proportions, the ratio between say empty space on the right and on the left, between bright and dark areas.
    Thank you

  43. Dear David, thank you very much for all the effort you put into you teaching as well as photography work, it is helping me and inspiring me a great deal. I appreciated a lot the concept of energy in a picture, I’ll have to ponder on this.

    I find that my biggest challenge in creating a compelling photograph happens before beginning to composing the photograph. For me that’s asking myself what’s the heart, or the soul, of the scene and therefore the photograph that is manifesting itself in front of me. Once I stop, pay attention and find an answer to this question (not the “right” answer, but any answer that sets me in motion) then composing the image according to it just comes by itself, often of course by trying, experimenting and getting closer and closer, but the goal is clear. But too often I don’t pay enough attention, or don’t spend enough time to listen to it, to make my mind clear on what’s the heart/soul of the picture. In the days of film, we had to pay more attention because film wasn’t for free, now it’s even too easy to snap away…

    Thank you!

  44. My biggest compositional challenge:

    Finding the balance between simplifying the content within the frame versus including background elements within the frame to give context.

  45. A “studied” rendering is my preference. This works for landscapes and is less applicable for street shooting. In either case, as noted in your first point, there must be one primary area of focus. If two subjects in the frame carry equal weight, then the viewer is confused and uncertain about the primary interest/purpose of the image. Unlike painting, photography starts with a full and cluttered slate. A stronger image results when I/we can figure out what to eliminate in the frame. So, in a sentence, I want to quickly “see” what clutters the image and then find a way to eliminate or minimize that clutter.

  46. Difficult question to answer. I especially love images depicting common surroundings or themes in a new way. The most difficult thing for me to achieve is keeping my self calm and concentrated in finding my subject when i am visiting a foreign place. I am so overwhelmed from my surroundings that i feel stressed to push all the interesting elements in one frame. Unfortunately i end up with 100 uninspired and confused photographs. Love your work,looking forward to your course!

  47. Biggest challenge for me of late has been to slow down and work the scene. I see what I want to shoot but sometimes I can’t quite reproduce it with the camera. However, even that has been greatly reduced now that I shoot mirrorless.

    Next item would be really recognizing the light and shadows. This is what I think makes a great image and many of the photo masters understood it well (Cartier-Bresson is my favorite!. But Mapplethorpe’s flower series is another great example.)

    So now when I approach a scene I take some test shots, try all the angles, remove color if it’s not necessary…sometimes, if none of the elements are there, I take note if it’s a place worthy of return under different light and try again later.

    And then sometimes, you get one chance, one moment, one shot and you embrace and appreciate what that is too.

  48. How are diagonal lines more impactful than leading lines? Just trying to understand!

    1. Hi Steve – I don’t know that they are. They’re different. But diagonal lines have more energy than horizontal or vertical lines, so depending on what you want the image to say or to feel like they can be much more impactful. But all lines can be leading lines – as long as they pull your eye into the image or toward something specific. By definition they have to lead. But they can do so slowly, as a horizontal line might, or with much greater visual energy as a diagonal might. I hope this helps clear it up as best as can be done in the comments. Thanks for asking for clarity.

      1. I feel that a group of (parallel) diagonal lines has less impact than a group of (non-parallel) leading lines. Static, as opposed to dynamic — even if the diagonal lines point toward something.

  49. I find I’m drawn to photographs that have a force perspective….lines as you say. They draw me in and then hopefully have something at the end that is worthwhile to look at, color, mountains, buildings etc. I’m glad you keep focused on this. I have learned a lot from your books. Just need to slow down and do it. Thank You

  50. Every excellent photograph I have seen does the same thing to me – it evokes a strong emotion. This emotion can be of many types positive, negative, peaceful, exciting etc. Looking at a scene and being able to interpret how the camera is going to record the scene and then changing my approach to get the camera to record what my mind sees is the challenge. ie. the ability to translate our 3D world to 2D pixels. I hope you can help me on this journey.

    1. I think I can, Steve. Ultimately it’s all visual so if we can learn the elements of design and tie them to storytelling and other ways of invoking an emotional response, then it gives us tons of possibilities for interpreting that scene and creating that mood or story.

  51. I like photographs that appear to be a pivotal moment in the story of a compelling character, and that character can be a person, an animal, or even a place or an object. I will often take time to swipe through dozens of photos on 500px on my ipad, grabbing screen shots of images like that to build a library of micro-stories to inspire students in my writing classes or to spark my own creativity. If a photograph draws me in, makes me care about the character and invokes curiosity, empathy, or a sense of immersion, it’s a keeper. Often there is a hint of the unknown…what is through that doorway…what is he/she looking at…what is the character reacting to…some sort of spark of curiosity that draws me into the story I see in a single image. The triumvirate of Story is Character, Plot, and Theme…when you can evoke all three in a photo, you will ALWAYS subconsciously engage what I call the “Story-Responsive-Device” that is built into the fabric of human nature. It is, I believe, a byproduct of the Universal Language Device proposed by Noam Chomsky, and the phenomena of Apophenia, which is the human tendency to seek meaning among random elements, the combination of which propels us to create narratives that define ourselves and our existence. The Story Responsive Device is like an automatic engine that kicks in whenever we find Character, Plot and Theme intersecting in an interesting way, whether in a book, a photograph, or a random set of events.

  52. You are using the term “heart” of the photo. Another well known photographer used the phrase,
    “What is the subject” of your photograph. I’m assuming ou two are saying the same thing.

    1. Hi Frank – Yes, I think we’re saying similar things. But I prefer “heart” because you can still have a subject but not express it in such a way that there’s an emotional core to the image.

  53. What attracts me the most is lines if I am looking at landscape and architecture, whereas if I am looking at flowers the colours and the vibrancy the plants is what will attract me. I also seem to photograph the “unusual.”

  54. As others have mentioned, when I see something that excites me, making myself SLOW DOWN & explore the best way to express it or get the maximum impact out of it is my biggest challenge.
    Some of my favorite types of photos are closeups of natural textures/natural items, geometric oriented scenes. Figuring out the how to get the best impact out of them is an also an ongoing challenge. Sometimes, of course, I may not have the luxury of time, so I want to challenge myself to visualize better & more quickly. I do feel I am making progress in my visualization of a scene, but am continually working to improve.
    I really enjoy your videos, books, and blog. They help me think more visually more often!

  55. I’d like to be better able to see through the lens what I eventually will see in the print. I often shoot wider than I think I “should,” only to find in the editing that the extra stuff in the frame isn’t extra at all. Somehow I intuited the need for the wider shot, but I can’t trust that; it’s sporadic insight at best. I think the answer for me involves just doing a lot more shooting and studying, looking at good photos to see what happens if I remove one or more elements, figuring out why they’re there. And above all, I need to slow down a lot more, study what’s in the viewfinder longer before I push the button. Not good for action shots, but I suspect the insights I’ll gain by going slower when I can will make for better speedy decisions when that’s needed.
    Also, to anyone reading this, I highly recommend two of David’s wonderful books: (1) A Beautiful Anarchy, which I’ve just bought again because my loaned copies never come back, but instead get passed along to others; and (2) The Visual Toolbox: 60 Lessons for Stronger Photographs (Voices That Matter). Buy them and share them. But be prepared: the lent copy will never return!

  56. For me a compelling image is one that stirs desire. It may be a desire for a former time or experience that I am brought to through memories. It may be the desire to find a certain kind of light or expression. Often it’s the desire to rest in the visual experience of the image. Your BC bear images are a prime example of that to me. Actually I’ve had all three of these expressions of desire stirred by those images.

  57. I’m probably most excited to create an image when I see a subject reflecting or interacting with it’s context or setting in a unique way. That’s pretty specific, but if this relationship between subject and setting is captured with interesting light and appropriate composition those are the images most compelling to me.

  58. Among other things, a couple of specifics that make a photograph really spark for me is strong graphic elements, and the unexpected — especially humour. Like juxtaposing two things from completely different worlds.

    Thank you for doggedly pursuing this, David. I realized that the camera is the least of my concerns a while back and I have collected a decent library of books and magazines with photos from my sources of inspiration.

  59. Hi David, thanks again for bringing us to making more connecting photographs.
    What makes a captivating photograph for me ?
    I would say : the Moment of human interaction: mother-child, spark in the eyes or smile of the subject looking at me. Also feeling the Spirituality of the human subject, or feeling the animal doing its daily life.
    If Architecture … feeling the Architect or Daily life in that City. If landscape… feeling the connection with the Beauty of the Nature . Can you help me to capture these elements on a more consistent way ?

  60. This morning when I was out in the meadow working on my summer photography project, I did pay close attention to what drew me to photograph certain things. Strong lines was one, backlight creating silhouettes was another, negative space is a personal favorite, I am always aiming for the serene feeling. But the number one thing that has moved me in this project is the light, beautiful golden sunrise.

  61. David, I’ve been following your philosophical approach to photography for a few years and it appears that this new series is a culmination of your perspective. I look forward to your mentoring program to help in my personal journey toward satisfying my inner muse! You suggestion to look at photographic books is one that has great potential. My challenge is being less concerned with the opinions of others and to increase my satisfaction with the images I produce. Keep up the great work!

  62. David: I make images that appeal to me, not intended to appeal to a mass audience. This approach helps me from discarding images that may not win the local photo club competition. Many of these images have made me very pleased with my selection

  63. Sorry … my comment didn’t address my challenge which is still finding the heart of the photo. I find a scene that excites me but somehow I don’t find the way to capture it.

  64. I find it very hard to study photographs of others. Mostly I can tell if I like a photograph. To analyse why this one image works for me is hard work 😉
    If the photographer used design principles I am not aware of then it gets even harder.

    But I think I am not alone here. I already saw lots of image discussions where people claimed to find the “rule of thirds” when obviously Dynamic Symmetry was used in combination with excellent FGR and for example radiating lines. So I’m often unsure if I find the correct answer why an image works for me.

    1. True. But how you place that moment and give it it’s best expression is the difference between a photograph that succeeds or fails. Great moments don’t automatically make for great photographs.

  65. I get excited by photos of rather ordinary things that somehow make me see them in a different way or knock me over with color and the feeling of movement. Thanks so much for this series and helping all of us dig deeper into our photography.

  66. figuring out what to try and isolate in the image – working through what the most important things are in the frame and then getting rid of the other distractions to make a stronger image – and then deciding how to emphasize that through composition

  67. On the one hand, you’re talking about “rules” of composition. And rules are made to be broken. We need to learn them, but we need to also unlearn them to not be too rigid.

    On the other hand, I’ve been looking at a lot of photos by William Eggleston lately. (Yes, I have been spending a lot of time looking at books by the great photographers.) You can say that many if not most of his photos are boring, but, if you look closely at his most effective photos, you can see a lot of the compositional elements you discuss.

    Interestingly, Eggleston has said he sees his photos as somewhat abstract; he says they should work if you look at them upside down. But instinctively, he’s still uncovering compositions in the banal subjects he photographs. Fascinating stuff.

    1. I’d be interested to know which rules you think I’m talking about Kirk. I don’t talk about rules at all. I talk about principles and there’s a vast difference. Rules are about “do this and do that” while principles are about “when we do this, this happens” and allows us to choose if that’s what we want. As for Eggleston – well, boring, like beauty is in the mind of the beholder. If you study his composition you’ll still see him using the principles of visual design. Whether the subject per se interests me or not (often not, but his design is excellent) is not usually the point with his images.

      1. Right, it would be more appropriate to talk about principles, not rules. Many of the points you make in this video about lines and colors are obvious when you take some time to look at many of his images.

        And, as you say, for him the subject is not always the focus in his images (but I think it is more often than people say).

        Look at this image, for example:


        There’s lines and color and light, and it’s almost like a renaissance still life.

        Or this well-known portrait, which, I’ve read, is his first color photo:


        They dynamism of the boy’s body, the lines of the shopping cart that contribute to the right-to-left movement, all form a truly ideal composition.

  68. My biggest challenge lies in embracing the environment so that elements that might be viewed as distracting actually enhance the story – give it depth, context and meaning – that I might not immediately see. So many times I am focused on the subject, trying very hard to eliminate background distractions, but sometimes those distractions are not really distractions but instead a part of the story. For me, it’s about accepting imperfection and making it work in the image.

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