Some advice on composition

Shaftesbury Avenue long after dark.© Neil Turner November 2014

I often refer to my photographs as “telling a story”. That’s how I look at what I do. Portraits help to tell that person’s story and the rest of my work is all about creating images that either tell the whole story of work with other elements to achieve that goal. Stories don’t necessarily have to have an ending. Many of the best stories ask a question of the reader/viewer and leave them thinking about what they have seen, read or experienced. That, in my opinion, is what photography is about; telling the right stories and asking the right questions and how you choose to compose your pictures is one of the vital elements of visual storytelling.

A little over seventeen years ago I wrote a blog post about the best pieces of advice I had ever been given as a photographer. I have quoted them and the corresponding worst bits of advice many, many times in the intervening years including a complete re-posting of that original blog post about ten years ago.

I was talking to some young photographers a few days ago and I was going through those bits of advice yet again and I decided to add a new favourite to that slightly worn out old list:

Think about composition. Try to remember that it is almost always the case that anything that doesn’t add to the image will detract from it.

Let’s try to break that down a bit. Most photographs have a number of elements. Some of them are there because they are essential to the story you are trying to tell, some are helpful, some are neutral and others detract from that story. If there is a way to compose the picture and avoid the inclusion of the detracting elements then do so. It often means compromise on the way you frame the picture of what lens you shoot it with. It can mean slightly altering your angles and it can result in losing some of the power or immediacy of the shot. It’s all a compromise.

As an example I often shift where the subject of a portrait is in the frame to use them to block out something I don’t want to see. That might mean moving myself a bit or moving where they are positioned. It often means shooting from a bit further away with a slightly longer lens. It is, as I have said many times, all a compromise.

So here is a tip: the longer the lens you are shooting with, the easier it is to lose unwanted elements. There are two reasons for that. The first is that longer lenses tend to help to eliminate foreground. Secondly, longer lenses appear to have shallower depth-of-field and therefore have fewer sharp elements on the frame. Finally, longer lenses mean that you only have to shift your position a relatively small amount to allow you to mask elements behind the subject.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love a well-composed wide-angle image. A bit of foreground, a lot of middle ground and loads of background can, when the composition is spot-on, tell a story incredibly well. It’s just that it can also descend into a confusing mess or a dull picture really rapidly.

Inevitably one of the young photographers asked why you shouldn’t just use Photoshop (or any other image editing application) to simply clone them out. Call me old-fashioned if you like (I’d prefer ‘honest’ by the way) but I just don’t want to do that. I am willing to crop pictures to exclude annoying elements around the edge of the frame or a little bit of dodging and burning to de-emphasise things but that’s as far as I go. Different genres of photography have their own limitations on image manipulation but in my editorial and PR work I stick to the tried and tested “normal darkroom practices rule adopted by news photographers many years before the arrival of digital cameras.

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