com·po·si·tion [kòmpə zísh’n]
2. arrangement: the way in which the parts of something are arranged,
especially the parts of a visual image. The artist’s masterly
composition of a group portrait
3. putting together of things: the act or process of combining things
to form a whole
Encarta ® World English Dictionary © & (P) 1998-2005 Microsoft
Corporation. All rights reserved.
What do you do as a photographer when you visit North America’s
tallest sand dunes (Great Sand Dunes, Colorado) ? There are many
stories to tell here, and without a doubt one of those stories is just
how big those dunes are.
Using recognizable objects as to provide comparisons for scale is one
way to answer that question. What to do when there are no cars, and
there are no buildings, and there are no people to whom which viewers
of those images can identify. Making a variety of compositions which
will invariably lead viewers of those images to a conclusion,
hopefully the one you want them to have, is an answer to the question.
I did say an answer, not the answer.
Does this series of swirls cover 200 feet, 20 feet, or 20 inches?
Now we believe that the dunes are at least a few feet tall.
When we realize that those are full sized trees at the bottom of those
dunes, we know were are dealing with some big sand dunes.
The dunes are clearly good sized in this picture even though they are
small in the image. We know that because once again, those trees are
at the base. There is however more to the story. The dunes are almost
as tall as those mountains rising up in the background. Search and
you will be educated because of information supplied through
Anytime you visit a location, and may not be back for a long time if
ever, look for variety. Find as many comps as you can, and always
break that location up into pieces. Visual diversity can describe a
location. Doing so as artfully as possible, will make the viewers of
those images feel like they were there too. They should at least be
left with a desire to see it one day for themselves.
The location below is a section of the Arkansas River in Colorado. I
found it by accident and worked if for maybe 10-15 minutes. In my
opinion, whether anyone thinks the images are good or not, I visually
described what I personally saw and felt when I was there. That’s
about all we can ask as photographers.
You will notice that in two cases below, an image (70mm) is followed
be a second (120mm) picture from the same spot. Increasing or
decreasing your focal length, is a way of creating a different comp.
Composition is not just about moving from side to side.
I feel safe in saying, that since the advent of digital imagery, the
majority (maybe 90%) of all the wildlife images you see are crops.
Even when they are made with telephoto lenses from 400-800mm in
Wildlife images have always needed to be composed just as is true with
any photo. That becomes simpler when we crop at home.
The image below of a Sandhill Crane, is I do believe, the final photo
I ever made of that species. I am pretty sure it is not a crop.
Sandhills are big birds and this one was at the roadside. I used a
500mm lens from my car window. If it is a crop, is a very slight one.
That means one thing, there really were not a lot of choices for my
composition. Not a lot, but still there were some.
Because I was close, I made the logical decision with this big bird
and made my picture in the horizontal format. I also used the tried
and true comp of leaving some room in the direction the subject was
facing. Let’s be honest, this photo would look silly and certainly not
artistic, if it had its beak pressing against the edge of the picture
frame, and had a lot of empty space behind its butt.
Rules, tools whatever! They do work.
The next shot is one I have shared a zillion times, and has been
published on wildlife websites.
This is a crop. I have in fact many times in my life at time made
vertical images of fast and furious action, and done so without
relying on crops that turned horizontal into vertical. Some were even
half way good. I made it a point to shoot every image I made on this
below zero day, in the horizontal format. I made far more successful,
sharable images, by panning to and fro horizontally, and recomposing
into verticals when necessary, at home.
In many cases, when I was shooting flight shots at a greater distance
than the one you see below, and I knew a crop was going to be
necessary, I would intentional not compose the image while on the
scene. I would leave as much space as possible around my subject (s),
so I would have as many compositional choices as possible for when I
began the editing process at home. In the warmth of my house.
I do think, this tight vertical comp is as good as it gets. You will
notice, I still managed to keep some extra space in the direction
these eagles are flying.
Multiple subjects guarantee the photographer of more opportunities to
compose creatively, be it at the scene, or at home.
This image of two male Greater Scaups is an at home crop. While
shooting, my main objective was to get both the diving and the
swimming duck in the picture frame and in focus. Moving the duo around
within the image, was accomplished at home.
This was made shortly after the previous picture, and if memory
serves, they are not even the same two ducks. I was grateful that this
was a small somewhat distant image, that I cropped (composed) at home.
There is some distance between the subjects, and there was some space
for me to move them around in the editing process.
In both images, the beautiful water was a bonus.
Of course, all wildlife compositions are contingent on what the
subject does. In some respects we are merely the translator of what we
believe them to be doing. I like to say, they are the artists and we
provide the vehicle with which the art will be displayed.
In all three of the photos below, the subjects made choices in so far
as the directions they looked, and their body posture. The baby fox
even added to his comp by the quizzical look on his face. That image
is a slight crop. Just enough of one to move this kit off center to
our right. This gave him a little more space in the direction it was
Macro or close-up photography deserves at least as much attention to
composition as any other genre of photography. In many ways, the
closer you get the more you limit your compositional choices, but
there are always some decisions to be made.
This old, old, old film image, of some plant life attempting to fight
for their lives by peaking through the ice, gave me a fair amount of
compositional choices. I certainly do not remember (late 70s or early 80s) making
this but I do believe I could have done better with the comp. In a
retrospective sort of way, I’ll keep it anyway.
A close-up of a gull feather in the morning light very near the surf
of a “great lake”, actually presented me with series of choices to
make. They were, where do I want the flow (the direction of feather
strands) to go? How about light and shadow? The feather shaft gives
us a sort of highway through the flower and that had a lot to do with
my choice of comp here.
If those first two comps are somewhat traditional, some might say this
flower image is confusing. I would say it is an “abstract” way to look
at a conventional subject. It’s about composing a sharp, literal
flower amongst a sea of soft color. It helps that the tone as well as
the focus of the sharp flower differs from most of the rest.
Okay, how many compositional decisions can be made with an image like
this? Infinite!! This slow shutter speed photo of a rushing stream
did indeed receive plenty of thought while I was making the picture.
You’d be amazed just how much time and study I would put into
composing an image of water over rocks.
This photo certainly falls into the category of an abstract. It is
none the less, obvious what the subject is. I suppose, the question
might be asked how does it make you feel viscerally speaking? What if
any emotion does it provoke?
I made it and have made many like it because I like the way it makes
me feel both when I am creating it, and when I look at it later. Truth
be told, it really didn’t matter to me how the outside world would “feel
It is perfectly alright for photographers, including those who need to
make money from their images, to make some images that simply make
them feel good.
Photographers don’t necessarily “write the song”, but they surely do
help create the compositions so that others may enjoy the music.