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Archive 2012 · Help with composition
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p.1 #1 · p.1 #1 · Help with composition

Hey guys, need help from some of you pro-togs! I find that my pictures are missing that "wow" factor. I would like some opinions on what I could do to improve my composition. Here are some pics that I think could have been better framed.

What would you do different?


Happy New Year by Better Image, on Flickr


Where the red bridge goes by Better Image, on Flickr


Non-Inverted Sacrilege by Better Image, on Flickr


Not unloading the boat here by Better Image, on Flickr

Jan 16, 2012 at 04:45 AM
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p.1 #2 · p.1 #2 · Help with composition

#2 has the strongest composition. There's a clear subject and our eyes are led to it by the stream in the foreground.

The rest live in a photographic purgatory. They are neither sweeping wide shots or closeups. There's no story or obvious subject. The cemetery photo does have a subject and I like the symmetrical composition, but there's just nothing compelling about the photo.

Perhaps you could sharpen your eye by giving yourself assignments. Set out to illustrate "cold" or "rough" or "lonely" or "busy" or some other emotion or feeling. You could also challenge yourself by setting out on a photo expedition where you won't shoot anything from more than 12 inches away.

Also, study photos that you think have a "wow" factor. Go to the photo section of your library and check out as many photo books as you can find. Stop at any photo that grabs you attention, then see if you can figure out why. Try to figure out what the photographer did to make a strong image. Think about the subject and how the photographer used composition or tone or focus or other design elements to lead your eye to the subject.

Jan 16, 2012 at 02:44 PM
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p.1 #3 · p.1 #3 · Help with composition

The goal of the exercise of taking and sharing a photo is, at the most basic level, a emotional reaction to what was seen by the eyes and imagination of photographer who then attempts to create a similar reaction in the mind of the viewer.

Every photo tells a story which the photographer creates and edits with choices of lighting angle, shooting distance, aperture and crop to control the balance between the desired focal point the punchline where they want the viewer to gravitate towards and dwell on to "get" the story. When photos have the "wow" factor it because beyond simply telling the story effectively the story triggers some emotional reaction in the mind of the viewer.

A good example is this photo by RustyBug: http://www.fredmiranda.com/forum/topic/1075344 It was a very simple photo of a old weathered tractor logo but it evoke a strong emotional reaction for me because I was raised near an International factory. I created a similar reaction in someone else who learned to drive in an International Scout truck. Other who didn't have an emotional reaction based on personal experience with an International product got the message Scott was hoping for with the photo and it's title. It has the type of "wow" factor you are looking for.

The more complicated you make a still photo by cramming it with content competing for interest the more important it becomes to holistically compose the shot with contrast and content placement so the viewer has a clue where you want them to go to find the "punchline" for the story.

I find most scenic still photos work better for me and are liked by others when composed like a joke with the "I get it" moment coming at the end of the eye path across the context of the background not at the beginning. Like a joke if you see the "punchline" focal point immediately anything seen afterwards is boring by comparison. So you want to compose a photo so there the viewer has a clue where you want them to go. You can do that by:

Crop: Isolate the focal point by eliminating potential distractions. For example Ronnie's edit of your first shot edits the story by focusing our attention more intently on specific objects by making them larger relative to the overall frame and isolating them from all the other eye catching detail.

Shooting distance: Shooting distance controls near/far object size contrast. Shooting close and making the foreground object larger tells the viewer it is more important than the background context. That has the same overall effect as Ronnie's crop of both your shots, pulling the viewer closer to the content and putting more emphasis on the foreground content because it stands out more than in the wider crops.

Most of your photos put the focal point the background or everything a similar distance to the camera. In the last shots there are posts contrast and dominate visually but they distract from the focal point, the river. Until I read the caption on that last one I really didn't understand what I was looking at because the point where the water is overflowing the bank is hidden by the crest of the road. A close up of a half submerged object with the river seen in the background for context would have told that story better. The same is true of the message in the second "Bridge to ?". Shooting it sideways with the path leading out both sides of the frame doesn't tell the viewer where it lead as well as a shot though from the path, seen through the bridge large and in the foreground would.

Selective Focus: Shallow DOF works like shooting distance to isolate foreground and background telling the viewer their relative importance in the story the photo tells. The tendency for many enamored by "great Bokeh" is to completely isolate the foreground and background with very shallow DOF. The other extreme is to keep everything razor sharp. But it is when you modulate the background sharpness by degree that you can nuance the visual balance of foreground and background and guide the viewer over context without them getting "stuck" looking at it and never get to the intended "punchline".

For example below I edited your last blurring the white posts in the foreground and the far shoreline leaving the river and posts near it sharp. That tells the viewer, subliminally, to move past the distraction of the white posts to the more important message in the middle ground. I also cropped tighter to eliminate the eye catching distraction of the tree on the left border..


Had there been a huge tree or something else larger and more interesting than a small stick floating by in the river it would have been a more interesting photo. That also illustrates another point of composition. If you create a leading line in a photo like the row of posts leading to the river try to make it point to something more interesting that the path taken to get there.


I'm not suggesting you use Photoshop like that to add focal points and radically alter your images, only using it here to illustrate what gives photos more of a "wow" factor in that type of scene: using composition techniques to lead the viewer over the potentially distracting foreground the the more important focal point in the middle ground, then equally important keeping them from wandering away to check out the far shore and sky by rendering it sharp enough to be recognized but not so sharp you want them to dwell on it. But for example if this was a shot of a washed out bridge I'd shoot it with the background sharp at capture then blur it selectively in PP so the far shoreline was slightly OOF except for the ragged end the bridge.

Blocking / Parallax: Blocking is the physical arrangement of actors on a stage or set. In a photo the choice of camera angle can be used to convey conflict or harmony by how close together two objects appear in the photo.

For example in your first photo of the street the cars in the middle and the tree in the background and the stop light are all lined up front>back and "unified" in the sense that the viewer can see all three at the same time with very little eye movement and immediately grasp they are some how related to each other. But in the same photo you have mirror-like images of the buildings on the street in opposition like a tennis which forces the eye to bounce back an forth across the photo to see and understand the detail.

Symmetrical compositions invite the eye to travel down the middle between the "bookends". But as in the river shot if you create a strong leading line you should put the focal point of the messaged at the end of that path if you want the photo to have the "wow" factor.

Having driven through a lot of "one stop light" small rural towns that are in decline my reaction when seeing your first shot was how busy main street was, as evidenced by the traffic and cars parked on the side of the road. Seeing the "Christmas" tree in the middle before seeing your caption my mental image was "Last minute Christmas shopping in a thriving small town." I'd crop it like this...


for this reason...

Try to find interesting geometric patterns: Our brains are wired try to sort patterns out of chaos as we scan a scene. That's the basic perceptual mechanism that allows us to recognize things in photo. We first grasp the overall pattern from the contrast clues, then the brain runs through its mental inventory of similar shapes which allows you to discern what it is.

The reason I cropped your first shot as I did was to create a basic triangular shape that is mirrored between the tree that is the natural focal point and the other content that frames it...


I cropped out the lamp post on the left because it was so far to the side I felt it would throw off the visual balance if I used the two posts as the "anchors" for the base of the framing triangle. So instead I used the two cars. I tried it with and without the post on the right also cropped out and liked it better with it in because of the other element on that side such as the marque and the post holding up the streetlight.

I also like Ronnie's crop cutting the street down the middle. His crop eliminated the ping-pong between the two sides of the street but at the same time created a similar dynamic between the stop sign and the theatre marque. But unlike the widely separated sides of the street the two main competing centers of interest of stop light and theatre marque are larger and closer together so the eye movement between them isn't rapid, creating a more harmonious vibe.

Viewer Eye Movement: When looking a live scene or a photo of it our eyes move in a series of saccades and fixations. Eye motion / perception studies have found that the brain doesn't process much information about the scene when it is in the saccade or scanning phase. The impression is created by the areas where the eye stops and fixates.

In person taking a photo we stand still, things move around us and catch our eye, we fixate on them and find them interesting enough to photograph. Often when looking at the photos we notice distractions we didn't when taking the shot. Why? Because the brain doesn't process the parts of the scene that didn't catch the eye and cause us to fixate. Our eyes saw them but the brain filtered them out.

On my tutorial site I have a perception exercise where I use round dots to illustrate how tonal contrast will attract the eye on a primitive perceptual level and predict where it will look in a photo: http://photo.nova.org/Perception/

On a dark stage the what winds up in the spotlight gets all the attention and the "star" of the show. The same is true for a photo with an overall dark background; what is lightest in tone will attract the eye more than darker objects. When a photo has a predominantly light background the contrast dynamic will pull attention to the darker and more colorful objects.

What happens on a gray background is that light and dark objects will both contrast equally so there is no strong pull to one vs. the other perceptually to guide the eye of the viewer. Contrast is the invisible magnetic force that will pull the viewer right/left/up/down in a photo. The stronger a focal point contrasts the clearer the message you deliver subliminally to tell the viewer where to "get it" it being the emotional reaction that come from understanding the story you are trying to tell in the photo.

In your first shot the stop light and tree in the middle become focal points because they contrast in tone, but neither is a compelling focal point.

In the second shot of the bridge the attractive force is color contrast between the blue water and the red bridge contrasting with the non-colorful background. But again what contrasts most isn't a very compelling focal point because of its size and direct. Where do we go next when arriving at the bridge? Either direction leads us out the side of the frame.

The third shot, tonally, is a sea of sameness in part due underexposure. All I did below is normalize the exposure on the focal point, creating the same effect as burning in the corners of a normally exposed shot to create a vignetteL


That illustrates how the contrast dynamic can be creating either changing the foreground, changing the background, or doing both together in a way the has the net effect of making what will deliver the message contrast more. The attention of the viewer could be focused even more by combining tonal contrast and contrasting sharpness...


Of all the compositional devices that can be employed to edit a message the two I find most effective are cropping and contrast in its various forms.

When taking or editing a photo I ask myself what is most important to the story then I look for ways to make it contrast. That starts by choosing where to stand, which dictates how large the object in the foreground will be, how it will contrast with the background surrounding it. If for example I'm shooting a light toned object I'll look for a darker background to frame it.

Cropping decisions are based on how much background or foreground context is needed to tell the story and including in in a way that doesn't overpower and trump the message in the focal point. By cropping out eye catching but unimportant stuff the impact of the remaining content around the focal point becomes stronger

The way I decide how much context a photo needs is to crop in tight on it as Scott did on the "International" logo to totally isolate the focal point, then slowly expand the frame outward. For example in your first shot after deciding on the tree in the middle as the focal point I'd crop in tight then expand the frame.


When the stop light entered the frame I'd decide whether or not it added to the story and supported the focal point like a frame, or distracted from it. That's why when expanding the frame for my crop I decided to crop out the lamp on the left. I found that the bright patch of snow between it and the building was too distracting, pulling attention off the focal point in the center. The stuff on the right side is also distracting from the focal point, but the marque and name of the movies showing add interesting detail and also established when the photo was taken.

Jan 16, 2012 at 04:41 PM
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p.1 #4 · p.1 #4 · Help with composition

Holy crap, cgardner! I ask for advice, you write a text book. Thank you! I can see where you are coming from, and I like your points of view.

I have a problem where I tend to underexpose, but for some reason it looks right to me. What can I do to work on this? I thought the cemetery scene was properly exposed, especially because it is a HDR.

Thank you Ronny, I do like your crops as well.

So what I need to work on are tighter crops, with leading lines that actually lead to something. And a stronger contrast based background to foreground.

Thank you, guys!

Jan 17, 2012 at 12:27 AM
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p.1 #5 · p.1 #5 · Help with composition

UsseryG wrote:
I have a problem where I tend to underexpose, but for some reason it looks right to me. What can I do to work on this? I thought the cemetery scene was properly exposed, especially because it is a HDR.

What I've found to work well for exposure is to keep the clipping / blackout warning active in the playback. Then simply raise exposure until you see clipping on solid white non-specular highlights and back off one click (1/3 stop) at capture. Better to err on the side of not blowing highlights at capture. It's easy to tweek them to the point of clipping in PP.

An optimally exposed full range of tone looks like this on the histogram:


In the studio with flash its easy to fit the range to the sensor. Add fill until you see shadow detail then overlap accent and key until the highlights are just below clipping. The histogram represents the sensor range. When the scene fits sensor the graph doesn't run off either side. The vertical scale is how much of each of the 256 tones represented by the bars is in the scene. The camera captures far more discrete tones, but the graph shows 256.

The camera can record 6-7 stops with detail. A sunny outdoor scene is typically 10-12. But light direction makes a big difference. The more of the scene that's in the sun the more normally exposed the photo will look with highlights exposed under clipping...


Here the same camera settings with camera turned 180


Here's the shot above with a single flash added:


The overall histogram runs off the left side indicating loss of shadow detail, but the foreground illuminate by the flash (inset histogram) fits the sensor,

So making things look normal requires fitting scene to sensor. If you can use flash put face the sun and light the shaded side with flash. The background will be darker than normal in the shadows but the foreground lit with the flash will look normal. The less of the background you show the more normal the flash lit foreground will look...


To make flash look normal, match the angle of the flash to the angle the natural skylight (not direct sun) is modeling the face or object before flash is added

If you can't use flash in the foreground if you put the sun at your back most of what the camera captures will be highlighted and have detail. The light will not be flat because it always comes form overhead. It will cast shadow behind the objects in the scene, mostly out of sight. Loss of shadow detail will not be noticed because shadows are small and insignificant.

What you want to avoid is putting important dark detail in the shadow of the sun. If you do that and expose for the highlights you will have no detail in the shadows. The more shadows cross lighting creates, the less detail there will be.

If you do HDR your baseline exposure, on a tripod should be for the highlight detial. Then if you slow the shutter and bracket by +1, +2, +3 and +4 stops you should capture all the shadow detail. Find the shot with the best shadow detail and blend it with the baseline highlight exposed shot and you'll have the entire range. Change shutter not aperture so DOF doesn't change between shots.

Jan 18, 2012 at 01:37 AM

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