Digitalartist’s 10 Good Habits for Composition


An Example of Juxtaposition - A Horse Drawn Cart juxtaposed with a Rexton 4x4 in Argentina

DA’s 10 Good Habits for Composition

Here’s another surge of verbal diarrhea from the throne Room, but be forewarned. This one is going to be a bit heavy. But stay with it and you might pick up one or two  composition concepts that can lift your photography up a few notches.

I was sitting in the throne room, as usual, with my Netbook on WiFi, when it occurred to me that this is the second year that I’m teaching photography at the Malaysian Open University. The good thing about teaching is that it structures your thoughts on the subjects that you teach. Your knowledge in Photography, and indeed in almost all skill pools, earned over several decades of learning from experience, leads you to do lots of things intuitively.
When you have to teach, somehow you’ve got to sit down, and gather your thoughts together in a structured kind of way. How else could you teach composition if you don’t sit down in a quiet corner, and start listing down the composition concepts that you automatically apply when you shoot, but don’t really think about? You do these things intuitively most of the time without really thinking. So part of the results of thinking about how to compose photos, led me to list down some 35 key concepts for composition that I know of.

Gosh that’s a lot of stuff that we photographers do intuitively.

In this rather long and slightly complex rant, I’ll share with you a few of those concepts, to become yet another chapter in my series of Good Habits for photography.

You can check out my :

1. DA’s 10 good habits for Post Processing HERE,

2. DA10 Good Habits for a Digital Photographer HERE,

3. DA’s 10 good Habits for Successful Travel Photography HERE,

4. DA’s Collection of Past Photo Critiques HERE.

If you want the real McCoy,come and join one of the PMPE or PhotoMalaysia PhotoSafari Experiences that Maxby & I regularly conduct for the benefit of PhotoMalaysia members. After each PhotoSafari, we publish a coffee table book containing pictures that are shot by participants, which then becomes an impressive part of their portfolios. We also include the lessons behind some of the published pictures. These books are offered for sale online. Dep Qua’ Vietnam or Beautiful Vietnam is the latest book. Check them out by clicking on the covers below.

So, what are the 10 good habits that you should develop for composition?

The first good habit for composition is to create an Inspirational Pictures Folder in your PC or Mac. Every time you see a picture that you like, simply drag and save it inside your Inspirational Pictures folder. I have a collection of a few hundred of pictures which I find inspiring. Whenever you need inspiration just flip through those inspirational pictures. They tend to get get logged into your memory bank, and usually, some of the techniques used by those photographers, will contribute in helping you to develop your own style. Everybody learns from somebody else so it’s no shame to learn from people who shoot good pictures. Here’s a screen capture of part of my Inspirational Pictures Folder:-

A second good habit to develop is to always think about shooting from an unusual angle. A lazy photographer shoots only from his own eye level, probably using a 30-300 mm zoom lens to compose pictures from where he stands. You should know that picture quality wise, primes are better than zooms, and if you must buy zooms, never ever buy any zoom lens that has a zoom factor of more than 3 times. Lenses with 10x zooms are usually of poor quality with Chromatic Aberration and resolution issues, because the laws of physics and economics guarantee than a consumer lens of more than 3x zoom factor, is usually not very good for serious work.
Primes also force you to move your a** to search for that elusive perfect perspective. If you want a distinctly different picture, try shooting from a low angle, for example.

Here’s Maxby shooting from a low angle at a fishing village in Vietnam. The picture he shot is also shown below.:-

Thirdly, try using a viewing frame. The world around us is a messy and chaotic place. The objective of good composition is to select and cut out a bit of this multi-dimensional chaotic reality, squeeze it into a two dimensional rectangular frame, and have it represent the reality of the world around us. It’s difficult enough to think of depth, and scale, and juxtaposition, and lead-in lines, so I’ve found that a viewing frame can be quite helpful for me. Some people might feel a large viewing frame may be inconvenient and even embarrassing to carry and use. If that is the case try using a smaller, empty, old 35mm slide film frame as an aid to composition. I tell you, it can be really helpful. This is the same trick that professionals often use, except their viewing frame is only the frame made by the thumbs and forefingers of both hands.

Fourthly try to remember that in photography, sometimes less is more. Dont clutter your frame. Identify a main focal point and make sure no other elements within the frame can compete with your focal point for attention. All other elements that you include within the frame must be there for a reason, the main reason usually being to complement the main subject and not to compete with it, unless of course you are composing for juxtaposition. Think about simplifying your compositions by minimalism. Take a look at the work of photographers like PM member Soulfly whose minimalist pictures can be very inspiring.

Fifth, if you are at a loss as to what to put into your photos, and how to select subjects to shoot, try and think about Contrasts as a possible guiding theme.
Contrast can exist in many senses and at many levels in a photo. There is contrast of tones, contrast of colours, contrast of sizes, contrast of placement, contrast of behavior, contrast of subject, etc.etc. You can try shooting pictures which highlight the contrast between light and dark, hard and soft, sky and earth, clean and dirty, young and old, good and bad, rich and poor… fact there are countless possibilities of pictures you can capture about the contrasts that you can see and feel everywhere in our real world.
One of the first exercises that students in most art schools are asked to do, is usually to find and list all the various possibilities of contrast around them. This is intended to open their minds to a whole new world of subjects to paint. This teaching method asks them to first consciously notice contrasts with all their senses, then to consider it, and finally to create an image that embodied it. As photographers, you can learn from these art students. Train yourself to see the contrasts around you. Then try to create an image that embodies the contrast that you see and feel in your heart.

Heavy stuff this.

Let me show you an example to clarify what I’m trying to say. The picture below, by Noree Choo, from our PMPE1 coffee table book, Amazing Siem Reap, shows an image of a Granddad with his grandchild. It’s an interesting picture of contrast between young and old.  Very straightforward, very predictable.  If you train yourself to be contrast sensitive,  and while still focusing on the concept of contrast, you drill down deeper into your hearts,  you can  make a different and more powerful picture of this contrast between young and old, birth and death, and baby and grandfather, by shooting a tight picture framing only the wrinkled hands of the grandfather, protectively holding the fresh tiny hands of his grandson. That would be  contrast and juxtaposition – a really powerful presentation of contrast. Look at the picture below, and then scroll up to the top of this page, and go to the next column on the right to see a picture of what I mean.

In the picture below, PM member Jay-Yudan has captured contrast and juxtaposition. Jay-Yudan is an artist who has participated in dozens of local & international art exhibitions. She took up photography only recently and the mixture of a background in art and photography is very powerful indeed. And artists by their training, can usually see through a third eye. Here is Jay-Yudan’s rendition of contrast by shooting the same subject that Noree was shooting. You should try to develop a third eye for composition.

This leads me nicely into DA’s sixth good habit to develop for composition. And that is to urge you to try and mix around more with artists. Go to art exhibitions and look at the works of artists. Learn from artists. Learn from their photos. Go shooting with PM member Tung-Tung for instance. Like Jay-Yudan, Tung Tung is also another accomplished artist, and if you’ve been privileged to see Tung Tung at work, like at our annual Crossing Bridges international get togethers, and at some PMPE outings which he also attends, you’ll be amazed at the lengths he will go to, to get a unique shooting perspective. Several of Tung Tung’s pictures are in my inspirational folder.

My seventh Good habit for composition is to introduce you to the concept of Juxtaposition. This is again a concept derived from art school, and is another form of incorporating contrast into your photos. Google juxtaposition and it’ll open your eyes to yet another fertile area to look at for good composition. Briefly, juxtaposition is the placing side by side, two objects that oppose one another, for comparison or contrast. In juxtaposition you bring 2 things to your viewer’s attention at the same time, and try to make him wonder why, and to discover the differences. With Juxtaposition, your aim is to get your viewer to start thinking, and to stay longer at your picture. Juxtaposition is about relationships between subjects and things. You need to see and recognize the differences, and then you try and highlight them in your visual story. A photo after all, is simply a visual story.

And juxtaposition may seem a bit arty-farty for most photographers not schooled in the arts. The word itself is kind of frightening. And I haven’t even started to talk about Chiaroscuro which is simply contrasts between Light & Dark. Chiaroscuro is again an art concept which describes the attempts of artists in the Renaissance period to give a three dimensional feels to their painted human subjects, by carefully reproducing the moulding effects of directional lighting. Go and look at the paintings of Raphael and Caravaggio and Rubens and….I digress. The point is, you should go and read up on these concepts so that you can become a more intelligent and thinking photographer, sensitive to the beauty of relative placements of contrasting subjects. If you want to remain a snapshooter, dont bother about these things.

Here’s a simple example of juxtaposition. My friend’s Rexton, contrasting starkly with an old horse drawn cart, on a remote Argentinean ranch in South America, shot during my round South America 4×4 expedition in 2006. I shot this picture with a fish eye lens, making full use of the deep DOF capabilities of the Fisheye, to accentuate the contrast between the ancient and the modern.

See, I told ya it’s heavy, and getting heavier and heavier.
Composition is always a wooly wooly thing in most people’s minds. But If you’ve read this far, you’re on the right track, and probably serious about raising your technical skills up a notch. With juxtaposition, the challenge for you is to try and see the potential connection between elements, to notice their differences, and to bring them together in your photographs for the delight of your viewers. After all, photography is about bringing order to the visual chaos in everyday life. A good photographer is one that can do that well. If you want another example of juxtaposition, try to photograph the reflection of old Kampung Baru Malay houses in the glass facade of the modern skyscrapers which surround this old Malay village in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.

My eighth Good habit to develop for good composition is to be on the lookout for implied diagonals in your compositions. Diagonals introduce dynamism into an image. They activate the frame & suggest movement along the diagonal. Choose a viewpoint to induce or imply a diagonal visual flow. You will delight your viewer as he discovers what you have set him up to. Delighting your viewer is an objective that most photographers aim to achieve. And here I’m not talking about tilting your camera frame to put your subject in an amateurish diagonal setting. That is so cliché and the delight you evoke with that is like the delight you get when you see the antics of clowns at a circus.. Look instead for implied diagonals which can be more absorbing and more powerful.

Chopin is Poland’s most outstanding composer. His monument in the Royal gardens of Lazienki Park in Warsaw was built in 1926, but the Nazis destroyed it during the Second World War. The monument was reconstructed in 1958 and was brought back to its original location in front of a beautiful reflecting pool in Lazienki Park. The statue and its reflection has probably been shot millions of times before, but my picture below, of Chopin’s disdainful gaze on the park sweeper, is a unique moment in time, with an implied and powerful diagonal eye flow. It’s as if Chopin was looking disdainfully down at the sweeper who’s not doing a satisfactory job. This type of implied diagonal visual flow can often make your pictures different.

My ninth good habit to develop about composition is to urge you to be aware of patterns and rhythm in your surroundings.
Repetitions are the visual equivalent of beats in music. Patterns & Rhythm have a sense of cycle, beat, flow, and direction. They have momentum, and because of this, there is a sense of continuation beyond the frame. If you can capture the essence of a beautiful pattern you can give your viewer’s eye the satisfaction of being carried through the scene and beyond, in a rhythmical sort of way.

However, do be careful, because patterns, like my fishes being dried in Kuala Selangor above, can sometimes be boring. You need an anomaly to interrupt the rhythm, like a beat, to make the image more dynamic. Looking back at this picture, I should have placed something within the frame to break the boring monotony, like maybe a crumpled blue plastic bag for instance, at one of the golden points.

Here’s a picture of the pillars at the Vatican that will betterr illustrate what I’m trying to explain. The man walking and positioned at one of the golden points provides the break that gives this photo a more dynamic feel. I should have waited to shoot a man walking out of the frame in the same direction of the Rhythm in order to direct the “flow”, but I hope you get what I mean. Our western educated eyes tends to follow a rhythmical beat in a picture, from left to right, so in a composition alluding to Pattern, Rhythm and Beat, it is probably better to place the “Beat” (ie. the man) on the far right, and moving out of the frame to give the eyes of your viewer time to notice and follow the rhythm and beat.

Ok, we’ve come to the 10th habit that you should develop for getting good compositions.

I hope you’re still with me. It’s by no means all that there is to it. I have a list of at least 35 composition concepts which I discuss in depth with my students at the Open University, and at the PMPE classes, and the PM PhotoSafaris. As photographers I urge you to delve a little more deeply into some of the technical concepts of photography. Most photographers muddle through years of trial and error trying to compose pictures without actually knowing exactly what the technicals are. Not many are privileged to go to photography school. So they continue to muddle through in this exciting, creative and artistic hobby.

If you dont want to attend classes, come and join one of our Photosafaris. It’s a fun way of fast tracking your photography knowledge acquisition process. Its where Maxby and I share whatever little that we know about our fascinating hobby with all who will listen. Some of our participants on the PMPE are coming back again and again to join us in successive PhotoSafaris, confirming perhaps that there must be something really good about these shooting safaris. For instance, we’re fully subscribed for the Photosafari to the Old Silk Road in October 2010. We bought tickets to Chengdu during the Matta Fair, last year, and last week we bought the return ticket from Chengdu to KL. Total cost ? less than RM400. And in the summer, we’ll be going to Nepal, and to Laos in the Spring. Next week we’re off to Vietnam again. Come with Maxby & me on a PhotoMalaysia PhotoSafari Experience.

That’s the 10th good habit that I have for you in order to enjoy your photography…..

Yusuf Hashim also known as DigitalArtist or DA, can be contacted at [email protected]


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