Home How-To Tip Of The Week 7 composition questions to ask before you click the shutter—11/15/10
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Monday, November 15, 2010

7 Composition Questions To Ask Before You Click The Shutter—11/15/10

Challenge yourself to find compositions that lead to better photos

This Article Features Photo Zoom


There are a lot of little things to think about before you take a picture. There’s the technical stuff that so many of us obsess about—aperture, shutter speed, white balance, ISO—and the creative stuff that just "comes naturally." In fact, I say we take that creative stuff for granted. It’s actually just as important—no, it’s more important than the technical settings. We need to work at being creative. We should be challenging ourselves to make better, more interesting compositions. To that end, here are seven questions to ask yourself in the moments before you push the button.

1. What if I got higher or lower? Eye level is just too easy, and often boring. Consider sitting or stretching, lying down or climbing on top of something. Or maybe even just a subtle shift of a few inches above your normal viewpoint. Every little perspective change has the potential to dramatically improve your image.

2. What if I moved left or right? The same idea holds true with lateral movement as well. Often when you move to the side of your subject it’s amazing just how different the entire scene often appears. I’ve noticed how dramatically different things look from 90 degrees, so I often shoot from there just to make sure I’m not missing the ideal angle.

3. Why am I not closer? Almost every amateur makes one mistake: they don’t get close enough to the subject they’re photographing. I don’t mean they could afford to push in a touch—I mean most folks fill the frame with nothing in particular and trust the viewer to find the important thing somewhere in the center. When in doubt, get closer—either with your feet or with your zoom lens.

4. Is the horizon level? I’m horrible at creating straight and level photographs when I handhold my camera. Maybe that’s why I like tripods so much; I can study the frame. I’d be well served with every exposure to tilt a little to the left. Even if you’re not as consistently off as I am, it never hurts to double-check your horizons. It’s all too easy to create a crooked picture.

5. Are the edges clean and clutter free? For the longest time I took pictures concentrating solely on the subject and forgetting all about the background. I discovered that all sorts of strange things I didn’t intend to be in the picture found their way into the scene—especially at the edges. Half a head, a corner of a building... These are the things that clutter compositions and keep pictures from being graphically clean and simple.


6. Is everything I see in the frame important? Along the same lines of watching out for errant elements, some things that are included in the frame just shouldn’t be. New photographers especially feel they need to throw more and more into a shot to tell a more complete story. The reverse, however, is true. If something’s just not working in your composition, simplify it. Ask yourself, "How can I make this simpler?" Can I justify every element in the frame? If not, use some of these other tips to simplify the shot.

7. If the primary subject—a person in a portrait, for example—was removed from this image, would the scene still be graphically interesting? Portrait photographer Seth Resnick told me that several years ago, and it’s really stayed with me. Seth found that if he composed images that looked great even if the subject walked out of frame, he was on his way to a wonderful shot. I find that the same principal holds true no matter what you’re photographing. The context should always be graphically great. If it isn’t, simplify, move in closer, eliminate elements or utilize any of these other tips to improve your composition. Then click the shutter.

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