In all my years of printing and teaching printing workshops, the single most important thing I’ve learned is that 75% of a print’s success depends on the quality of the photograph. Unless you start with an image that already has something to say, it will be impossible to produce a print that resonates with others.
Sure, I may be able to make a technically proficient print, but that’s not what I want. I want to make meaningful prints, and that starts when I’m in the field with my camera.
What Is An Image About?
When asked what an image is about, you might say it’s about a “beautiful landscape.” Yet that is an external description that is more about what you are seeing than what you are feeling. Art is about our internal world—what is the image about to you and your emotions ?
That question is much more difficult to answer precisely because it’s contingent on having an emotional response to the subject. I can not interpret an image without this emotional compass, and that works together with the composition itself, which IS what allows the different components of an image to convey more than what is seen.
I see way too many photographers get lost in superficial adjustments to make every part of an image “shine” when in fact all they’ve done is make every instrument in the orchestra louder and clearer—yet it remains an ambiguous message at best.
Hans Hofmann said, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” Yes that’s philosophical again, but it worked amazingly well for Van Gogh and Da Vinci.
Making good images is much more than simply pointing the camera at a beautiful subject, be it a landscape, urban scene, or person. You may produce a technically perfect image, which is almost trivial given todays technology, but that’s not the same as making an image that conveys more than what is photographed.
You may get lucky and make an image that resonates with others, but the goal is to have creative control over the outcome, not rely on chance. The better you learn the visual language of photography, the greater your degree of control and the more you will enjoy the journey. You’ll rely less on formulas and technology, and develop skills that you can use intuitively.
Compositional skills are the foundation of using that language to communicate to others, so here are a few basic concepts to study and practice.
Simplify Your Images
The best thing you can do to improve your composition is to simplify your composition. Be absolutely sure that what you include in the frame is adding to the image, not detracting. Make sure there is a clear center of interest, mood, or motif that is easy for others to identity.
Your image should have a main character, and supporting characters, not two main characters. This is very easy to overlook, but with careful evaluation and feedback, you can spot this rather easily. Ask others what your image is about, and if they can’t tell or it’s ambiguous, it’s a sign that the composition is compromised somehow.
Design Your Images
Good composition uses things like the rule of thirds, leading lines, shapes, color, and pattern to communicate your vision. These may sound cliche and formulaic, but they work and have worked for hundreds of years.
Learning and using them may feel mechanical at first, but once they become second nature, it will open up compositional possibilities you don’t see now, regardless of your proficiency.
The most common question I get on workshops is “how did you see that?”, and the answer is simple – I practice the basics over and over again so that my brain can focus on harder and harder challenges. Even Yo Yo Ma practices the basics almost daily.
“Mastering music is more than learning technical skills. Practicing is about quality, not quantity. Some days I practice for hours; other days it will be just a few minutes. Practicing is not only playing your instrument, either by yourself or rehearsing with others — it also includes imagining yourself practicing. Your brain forms the same neural connections and muscle memory whether you are imagining the task or actually doing it.” – Yo-Yo Ma
Follow the Light
Finally, photography is about light. Study light and its effect on your subject as carefully and intimately as you can. Attention and presence are critical skills to develop here, because the light is always changing and your ability to stay connected will directly impact the quality of your images. This includes the color, quality, and direction of light when you’re in the field.
Light defines composition, and so it’s the first thing I look for when making an image, NOT the subject or landscape.
I know these are broad concepts, but think of them as portals to explore as you progress in your photography. I didn’t start with these concepts, but rather found my way to them as my printing skills improved, yet my prints didn’t.
Once I realized what the weakest link in the chain was, I refocused my energy and time on composition and design, and subsequently, my prints improved dramatically.
I’m working on a new online course focused completely on visual composition, so stay tuned for more news about it soon. In the meantime, here are some resources to explore.
- Essentials of Composition – Basic Principles Explained – video
- The Art of the Photograph: Essential Habits for Stronger Compositions – book
Published with StoryChief