The elephant in the room


It’s that thing that sets the artist apart… and the thing about learning photography that makes me most uncomfortable.

I was able to put off worrying about it while I was learning basic mechanics. I suppose that I could continue to ignore it indefinitely, but I think it’s about time to confront the monster. It appears that I’m not the only one: my friend Deb has been blogging about it recently, and Scott has issued a Rule of Thirds assignment.

I’ve read about – and to some degree, have incorporated – things such as the rule of thirds, the golden mean, converging lines, “get it out of the middle”, etc.Ā  In the class I took last fall, I learned to keep the composition simple and to crop out unnecessary stuff. Lately, I’ve occasionally received “great composition!” comments on some of the pictures I’ve posted on Shuttercal and Flickr. But still, I don’t feel like I have a real grip on the topic.

Walking into the sunset

This garnered some comments on composition, and will stand as my submission to Scott's assignment

I think the way that I need to approach this is to pose some questions – self-Socratic questions which don’t necessarily have right answers. Please feel free to chime in with your thoughts. Here are a few, for starters:

  • Is there such as thing as bad composition? Ummm, yeah, I think so, but to some degree it may also be a matter of taste.Ā  In Googling “bad composition,” the examples I found often either had other things wrong with them, or were from know-it-alls dissing the masters. In most cases, instead of using the word “bad”, I’d say the composition has room for improvement.
  • How would you define good composition?I found this great quote online: Good composition leads the eye where you want it to go and bad composition distracts your eye from where you want it to go.


    Does this follow any of the composition rules? Just the one about leading the eye where I intended. Do I like the composition? Yes. Would others like the composition? Not sure.

  • How can you ensure good composition?True artists will almost always nail it. For the rest of us, I think it’s more a matter of try, try again. Every once in a great long while, I’ll bring up a shot for post-processing and think – THAT’S IT! Boom! In most cases, that happens after I’ve spent a long time working the shot.

    Out my window

    I spent most of a morning on this one.

  • Is there always a good composition available for a given subject? I think the answer is: maybe. There are certainly some people who can create interesting art from mundane scenes, just by framing things in a way that others didn’t think of. But can they make anything interesting? Unknown.

Most of what I know about composition comes from reading stuff online, or from bits and pieces I picked up in last fall’s class. I’m considering taking Kent Weakly’s class on composition but would like to find out more about it first. Do you have any other suggestions for good resources?


  1. Barbara, great topic! Shooting my first wedding has prompted me to think about composition when it comes to posing people (another layer of composition complexity).

    I’m seriously considering taking a Japanese FLOWER ARRANGING class, just to view the topic from another perspective (!).


    • Wow, Jim – a wedding – you’re much more brave than I am. Good luck!
      Hmmm, using flower arrangement to view composition differently – sounds like a very valid approach. Let me know if you follow up on that…

  2. Aside from light, composition is one of the toughest things to grasp. To some, it comes naturally; to others, not so much. What I tell my students is, to simply ‘play’. When approaching a subject, just start shooting. Then move around, go high, go low, walk to the other side (if possible); zoom in, zoom out or get closer. It takes about 15-20 minutes for the technical/logical side of the brain to ‘turn off’ and allow the creative side to fully come forward. Eventually, good composition will become somewhat second nature.

    I like the middle image the best of the three. For me, it is the most succesful. I wish the bottom image (LOVE the concept) had something FABULOUS and colorful outside that window. The small, horizontal tree limb stops my eye cold and then I find myself wandering aimlessly in the woods, finding, well, nothing. šŸ˜¦

    • Tracy, thanks so much for the thoughtful feedback. My back window is what it is… I’ll have to come back with a summer or fall shot on that. šŸ˜‰

      • …or hang a colorful scarf or something on a branch. Or a bird feed thing šŸ™‚

        I also like the middle image best, though the first also is a very nice photo, the tones and the graphic style, I like this very much.

  3. The photograph of the jetty is a great composition, which well meet the criteria of “rule”. I like it that you have created a good motive of a detail from a larger scene.

  4. I think learning the mechanical was the most difficult for me, and I still have a lot to learn. I do like the reflection on your computer monitor in the last image, would love to see that in the Spring and Summer. šŸ™‚

  5. Pingback: Assignment 17 Recap | Views Infinitum

  6. I suspect that it works the same way in photography as it does in writing. Cut out everything but what you need. But, but . . . yes. That’s exactly the most difficult part, isn’t it.

    • Oh, good point! Yes, I always feel like there’s so much more to the story in the picture, and I want to share it all… but that really only confuses people, right?

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