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Can we learn good composition?

Must you be born an artist to make artistically-pleasing pictures?


Which of these two images is the better-composed picture? Is it obvious, or can't you tell?
Which of these two images is the better-composed picture? Is it obvious, or can't you tell?

What is good photographic composition?

Good question. It is the visual arrangement of a scene's elements that best communicates the photographer's message. Sounds simple, but the word "best" can mean several things depending on the photographer's intentions in taking the picture. For example, it can mean "most beautifully" or "most clearly" or "most shockingly" or "most eloquently" or "uniquely," and so on.

ESSENTIALS FOR GOOD COMPOSITION

There are at least three essential keys to creating good composition in photography:
- comfort and familiarity with your camera equipment;
- a clear understanding of what you want your picture to say; and
- artistic capability.

Beginning photographers rarely have all or perhaps even any of these key elements at the outset, but can make considerable and dramatic improvement in each area over time. Experience - essentially trial-and-error - is the catalyst.

EQUIPMENT

You recognize your first camera's limitations when you find you can't take the pictures you want because of them. So, you start looking for equipment upgrades that are most suited to your personal photographic needs. For example, if you have become seriously interested in shooting portraits, you quickly learn the value to your photography of a sharp, fast portrait lens, and will probably set out to get one. Of course, once you have it and have become used to using it, you will continue to refine your equipment needs and look for, say, filters that aid in making portraits, or a portrait studio lighting system, or who knows what. The point is that eventually, you will have what you need in the way of equipment for your photographic purposes because you want to have it, and because there is a need for it if your photography is going to excel. Having the proper camera equipment paves the way to good photographic composition.


GIVING MEANING TO YOUR PICTURES

Over time, after many clicks of the shutter and lots of observation, you will begin to realize how to make your images tell stories better - that is, to express to their viewers just what you want them to express. Pictures that say what you want them to say are inevitable if you have the desire to improve, and if you observe things, seek criticism and compare your photographic results.

One way this might happen occurs when you are comparing two of your pictures of the same subject that are composed differently, like the roller-coaster photos on the right, and you are suddenly struck by the realization that one seems to say exactly what you want it to say while the other was only close to getting your message across. That is a big lightning-bolt-out-of-the-sky day for you - a mind-opening realization, because you suddenly truly recognize the power you possess in conveying a message through your photography.

With most of us, though, it will probably occur more slowly, less of an epiphany and more of a gradually-growing sense of confidence that our pictures are getting better and better at expressing our thoughts.

Does one or the other of these pictures deliver more excitement? A better feel for the drama of the ride? Anticipation of the sudden drop to come? Which is the better composition?
Does one or the other of these pictures deliver more excitement? A better feel for the drama of the ride? Anticipation of the sudden drop to come? Which is the better composition?

Most of us instinctively know the right-hand photo is the better-balanced, better-composed picture, but we have to train ourselves through trial-and-error over time to be able to create the good composition more often than the not-so-good composition.
Most of us instinctively know the right-hand photo is the better-balanced, better-composed picture, but we have to train ourselves through trial-and-error over time to be able to create the good composition more often than the not-so-good composition.

ACQUIRING ARTISTIC ABILITY

With respect to artistic ability, some think you either have it or you don't, like a birthright. Others believe you can learn it, like spelling or multiplication.

We belong in the second group, believing that there are gifted, naturally-artistic photographers who barely need to think to make a gorgeously-pleasing composition, and that there are less-gifted but disciplined and educated photographers who have learned so much about good composition through trial-and-error that errors have become a rarity in their photography. Both can produce images that are well-composed.


If you are not naturally-gifted with a sense of artistry when composing images, don't feel too badly. Few of us are. But, those of us who work at developing our sense of composition can be successful, and good composition soon becomes as natural as breathing. Knowing and applying the "rules of composition" is a good starting point.

THE RULES OF COMPOSITION

The Rules of Composition are of enormous help to photographers in this latter category - that is, to most of us who were not born as naturally-gifted artists with an instinct for what is and what isn't good composition. These wonderfully-helpful guidelines can train us to not only identify a scene's key components, but also to arrange them in a visually-pleasing manner that expresses our feelings about the subject.

What a thrill it is to take a great picture that is well-composed, nicely-balanced and a pleasure to look at. It makes you feel wonderful, especially when you know you can do it again and again because you have learned how.
What a thrill it is to take a great picture that is well-composed, nicely-balanced and a pleasure to look at. It makes you feel wonderful, especially when you know you can do it again and again because you have learned how.

You don't have to be a naturally-gifted artist to become a master of photographic composition; you just have to work harder.
You don't have to be a naturally-gifted artist to become a master of photographic composition; you just have to work harder.

For the majority of us, appropriate arrangement of the scene's elements (i.e. good composition) becomes second nature after we have continually done it time after time, making corrections when something in our picture contrasts with the Rules of Composition. We change it so that it doesn't violate the rule. Then if we like the change, we keep it and have just learned a bit more about good composition.

This way, we learn where to position ourselves for the best camera angle. We learn which lens or zoom lens setting to employ, and which aperture and shutter speed combination are ideal. We learn by doing, criticizing and correcting in accordance with the Rules of Composition, and then we get better by doing, criticizing and correcting again.


ANYONE CAN MASTER GOOD COMPOSITION

It works. Just about anyone can learn to make well-composed pictures by dint of effort, and by becoming thoroughly familiar with and adhering to the Rules of Composition.

You don't have to be a naturally-gifted artist to become a master of photographic composition; you just have to work harder.

The Rules of Composition are just one source of guidelines for good composition that you can learn from. Works by other photographers, library references, art galleries and so on can all be helpful.
The Rules of Composition are just one source of guidelines for good composition that you can learn from. Works by other photographers, library references, art galleries and so on can all be helpful.
Further information...

The rules of composition
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