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Composition Considerations - Organising your toolbox

Does this sound familar?

You study composition, you know all the tools and you are on board to try them out. So you grab your camera go out in the world and then the second you start to take pictures and the composition considerations are no where near - or you can only think of one or two and you get stuck in a rut of rule of thirds and all your photos look the same and end up being boring?

If this sounds familar, then brew your coffee and continue reading, I have a solution that could work for you, a way to think about all the tools at one time (or as close as possible to one time).

Coffee brewed, lets go ...

So last week we discussed our philosophy of composition and how we all need to be rule breakers, embrace our inner artist and invest in a big tool box! If this sounds like nonsense to you I would recommend going back and reading last week's blog first! Here, I will even leave a link for you - Previous Blog!

It is ok, I will wait, I got a big mug of coffee!

Oh you are back, great, let us keep going :D

How is your toolbox organised?

Photography is great because there are so many tools and ways to create a photo and I could write a whole book (and many people have) about it. But unless you bring your library with you every time you go out with a camera there needs to be an easier way to keep all these tools at hand and in mind.

If we continue with the toolbox analogy you have one of two options - you can have all your tools thrown in and pick out each tool at a time and consider it or you can organise by category and use so you have all your screwdriver and nails in one sections and you can pull out that sections in one go instead one at a time.

How my tool box is organised:

I am a grouper. I have grouped the tools by four categories that make sense to me. I have done this so often I do it instinctively now to think about them as groups.

The four groups I have defined for myself are:

  1. Subject in space (Tools include = Rule of thirds, Perspective, Negative Space)

  2. Frame (Tools include = Framing, Lead in lines, Background distractions)

  3. Light (Tools include = Main light source direction, highlights/shadows, reflections, colour)

  4. Design (Tools include = objects, patterns, people, texture, B&W)

The four groups (according to my brain) are Subject, Frame, Light and Design. This is what I call my Compositional Mindset.

My Compositional Mindset:

Subject: What is my subject and how do I put it the space of my frame?

So when I first pick up my camera and start to see what I want to photograph - aka my subject- I first ask myself how do I want that to appear on the final image. So I put the subject in the middle, or on one of the lines of the rule of thirds, I go low and look up at the subject or do I look down on my subject and I move around the subject and find the space I want it to occupy in my image. The tools that I can use to answer this question include Rule of thirds, perspective (going low, high to the side etc) as well negative space and how I crop the image.

Frame: How do I highlight and emphasis my subject?

Then I cast my eye around the rest of the frame. I look for natural framing, and how much of the frame I want to fill with my subject. Then I always cast my eye again for anything else I am missing - any distractions I don’t want to be in my frame, like a dog peeing in the background of my beautiful portrait of a young child! This is all about highlighting my subject with elements from the scene and avoiding distractions.

Light: How is my subject lit and how do I want it to be lit?

Then I check my lighting. How is my subject lit and more importantly how do I want it to be lit. Do I want to be bright, or dark moody, have sun flares by shooting directly into light or do I want it coming from the side to create long shadows etc. I also consider colour here - is there good colour contrast or do I need to add something to boost the contrast! Is there reflections around from windows or puddles that can use the light that way.

Design: Can I make this more visually appealing?

Then once I have my subject in the space I want, framed how I want and lit how I want, I think how can I make this better - is there an object I can add or remove to highlight my subject more, is there repetition or pattern I can use to add visual interest. Is there people in my shot - how are they contributing or distracting from my subject. Do I want to highlight shape and structure - if yes, would black and white be better - if yes how can I emphasize the contrast of highlight (white) and low lights/shadows (blacks).

Remember be a rule breaker:

So as I work through these four steps Subject, Frame, Light and Design, you may notice or think but surely reflections could be in the design step, or framing should be in the subject group or where does lead in lines fall it could be subject, frame or design. And you would be right. I would advise you to think about your own subjects and make a list of all the composition tools you know and divide them in a way that feels intuitive and sensible to you.

There is no right or wrong way to do composition - remember from last blog it is all about knwoing the rules so you can break them, use them or ignore as you the artist see fit.

I am certainly not rigid in what I group in what step, it is just a structure I can work with that gives me the opportunity to consider my picture and how I want it to turn out. By pausing for this millisecond, my picture now has ceased to be a snapshot and become a photograph and that is what matters.

By pausing for this millisecond, my picture now has ceased to be a snapshot and become a photograph and that is what matters.

Final sip of coffee thoughts:

Now you can divide them up in many different ways but this way feels sensible to me, and when I go through this list in this way of thinking of Space, Frame, Light and Design I usually use the right tools, even if I am not thinking of each tool in turn but more as groups.

Does this make sense to you? How would you group the composition tools in your tool box?

But there are times I get uninspired or stuck in a rut and then I go back and go through each tool in detail and try to use one I haven’t used in a while and create challenges out of it to force myself out of my comfort zone. So both methods can and should be used, but on a day to day regular use I do recommend a group system that allows to build habits out of composition considerations.

If you need a friendly reminder to fit into your camera bag, feel free to screenshot the image below and keep to hand either on your phone or print for your camera bag.

Or screenshot the blank one, and write in the tools how you feel it makes sense to you! If you fill in the blank one, share it on instagram with me tagged so I can see how your mindset works.

Till next saturday's morning coffee and blog,

Happy sipping and happy shooting,


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