CCS00I – Completely Composed – Introduction

by | Mar 1, 2016 | (MON) Completely Composed |

Completely Composed – The Series

A fifty-two (52) session series focused solely on understanding, embracing and improving your composition skills as a photographer. The series, delivered as a cohesive set of articles, samples and assignments, has one goal in mind, dramatic improvement, over a one year period, of the images that you create.



Analyzing Composition:

I can only assume that almost every photographer has experienced some form of the following scenario, at one time or another, during their photographic journey. I certainly know that I have on more than one occasion. You’ll likely recognize the scene immediately.

It is that painful realization that even though you were standing in almost the identical location at a shoot, another photographer, who was there at the same time and place, captured a remarkably different image than the one you managed to record. You know the feeling, that utter disbelieve that somehow you missed that point of view, and that now that you are looking at it, you could kick yourself for not seeing it at the time. Of course you could go back and copy that perspective now, but that’s just not same as seeing it for yourself. And when you spend time thinking about it, you begin to question, why exactly did you not see this alternate and potentially much better version of the scene.

Your internal assessment usually takes on one of two tones and the self talk usually goes something like this:

  • At its best, your inner voice responds with a dialog that’s all about the missing elements. The missing elements typically involve some critical component of the recipe that’s missing in your repertoire of experience, training or equipment. The photographer who is the source of your jealousy has some secret knowledge that heretofore no one has been willing to share with you. He or she, has had formal training in the photographic arts and has been granted a rare but highly sought after photographic wizardry degree. Or, in an effort to not place yourself in an intellectually inferior position, your focus lands on that one piece of photographic gear that they must have, that unfortunately you do not. If you could just get your hands on that new camera body, that special lens, altogether unique filter or whatever the object of your obsession may be, you would finally be propelled to a photographic competency equivalent to that of your photographic nemesis.
  • At its worst, your inner voice delivers you into a well of souls who are lost to the world of the photographically gifted and can never ascend into any level of image recognizing consciousness. You regularly tell yourself, that being artistic is a gift, given to but a select few, creatively blessed individuals and that your time is best spent solving The Time Crosswords puzzle and other left brained pursuits to which you are permanently cast. You resignedly accept your lot in life and realize that switching your camera to any mode other than Automatic is akin to heresy against the church. This belief and the results of some divine selection have relegated you to the position of admiring others work and wishing that you too had been granted such natural gifts.

While one can not completely discount the advantage of better, newer, more feature laced gear, nor can the advantage of being surrounded by the arts all of one’s life be overlooked, the reality of photographic composition is quite different than the oft quoted sentiments offered above. Good composition and the recognition of compelling elements in a scene, is a skill set that is not only attainable by all, but relatively easy to learn given the right training and motivation.

Everyone Can Do It:

I have often heard it said, “I just can’t seem to get good pictures, my images are never going to be as good as…” I wholeheartedly disagree with statements such as these and I firmly believe that compelling, artistic images can be taken by anyone with even a basic camera system. The key to getting good images lies in understanding what to look for in any scene, that you may run across, and knowing how to interpret the elements that you identify within that scene. There is indeed a system for deconstructing scenes, that has been in place for a long time, in the art world and careful study of that system will unlock those viewing perspectives for any photographer willing to invest the time in recognizing and learning them.

Unfortunately, like many pursuits, understanding the creation of compelling imagery has been complicated by a combination of bad advice and incompletely considered answers when new photographers pose the question, “what makes for a great image.” All too often, the answer that is given either relates to gear choices or one of the often referenced “rules of composition” that exist in the photographic world. These answers are at best incomplete and at worst misleading and damaging. The photographer on the receiving end of this advice either believes that they lack the gear to achieve the same results, or worse simply isn’t able to comprehend how to apply one of the vaunted “rules of composition” in a meaningful way.

Here is the thing about free advice, it is worth pretty much exactly what you paid for it…very little. Compelling images aren’t easily achieved simply by purchasing a new piece of photographic gear and more importantly they can’t easily be achieved without investing some time into the process of seeing, capturing and processing the image. Much like to the seasoned musician that you love to listen to, photography takes practice, practice and more practice to achieve a level of competence that allows for regular creation of artistic images. And much like that musician, not every image is go to be an instant success and more than one song, oops I meant more than one image is not going to pass muster.

In summary, if you truly want to learn about composition, I truly believe you can. If you are ready to commit to learning, practicing and evaluating your results I am convinced that at the end of this series of lesson, exercises and assignments you will be a markedly better photographer, with a true understanding how to see, evaluate and visually capture the world around you in a way that others will find engaging.

The Language Of Composition:

In order for use to have an effective conversation, in regards to learning composition, we must learn a vocabulary that allows us to communicate easily. I am not going to build that new vocabulary here, but will do so throughout the lessons in this series. Where appropriate I will call your attention to new technical terms, jargon and slang, as we go along through the series. I encourage you to pay attention to these call outs as they are provided not only for the information they provide when called out, but for the foundation that they provided in our communication about an image or a imaging concept.

Learning About Composition:

Far too many discussions, on learning photographic composition, begin with the “Rules of Composition”, a starting place that I think is not only flawed, but ultimately leads to frustration for many newcomers and seasoned photographers alike. If you, early on in your photographic exploits, have been subjected to the Rules of Composition, without the underlying discussions on design, you may have understood the spirit and meaning of the “Rules”, but have felt that using said “Rules” didn’t lead you to any stronger compositions in your portfolio. Don’t feel alone, many a photographer, attempting to engage in the creation of more compelling images, has felt exactly this way.

Visually compelling images, require contributions from all three of the following disciplines:

  • Exposure
  • Elements of Design
  • Rules of Composition

First things first, I want you to notice that Rules of Composition is last on my list. There is a very specific reason for that, which I believe will become obvious in the next few paragraphs and is quite intentional throughout the lessons in this series.


Let’s quickly address and dispense with Exposure. Exposure is no doubt one of the most critical elements in any successful photographic image, it is also outside of the scope of this series of lessons and exercises. That is not to say that I won’t ever be addressing exposure concerns in a number of the lessons and exercises herein, it’s just that when I address those concerns, I won’t be spending any time addressing exposure theory or how you should set the exposure controls on your camera. My treatment of exposure will be restricted to generic discussions of how exposure might  effect the composition of an image. It is my expectation that you will have a working knowledge of both exposure theory and the controls, present on your camera, to put that theory into action.

If you need an introduction to, or a refresher on, exposure theory, exposure concerns and exposure settings, please see my series “Completely Exposed” for that information. While it’s not out of the realm of possibility that you could manage both simultaneously, the “Completely Exposed” series is meant to be completed before this series in undertaken. Before I move on, I do want to call your attention to a couple of exposure related items that I have very strong belief in:

  • There is absolutely no substitute for a solid working knowledge of exposure theory, especially when shooting out in the field. Light, expression and gesture are but moments in time and they repeat themselves rarely and certainly not on demand. You, more often than not, only get one chance at capturing a moment in time and your exposure theory / control will make or break whether you capture that fleeting instance or not. There are very few books (maybe none) about great photography, that come with well crafted stories about the scene the photographer happened upon, without a supporting image of said scene. Step one, in upping your photographic game, is preparedness when the image presents itself to you.
  • Post-production is not the place to correct exposure compensation. Can it be done? Yes. Have I done it? Again, the answer is yes. Should it be done? Never, if possible and let me explain why. Far too many people are winging their exposure settings in the field, relying on the knowledge that every one of today’s editing tools has the ability to widely adjust the exposure of the original image. Yes today’s editing tools are amazing, but there is no such thing as a free lunch and in photo editing a gain in one value is almost always a loss in another. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see this as a limitation, more of a crutch that should be avoided. Just like a real crutch, use this one for too long and your exposure skills start to atrophy and you lose that edge in leveraging exposure your images. Additionally, large scale exposure corrections, in post-production, come at the cost of diminished tonal quality. Shoot to the histogram. Don’t know what that means, time to go take a look at the Completely Exposed series.

Okay I have rattled on enough about exposure, let’s move on to thinking about recognizing, framing up and getting well composed images…

Seeing the Picture:

In a little bit, I am going to delve into the concept of elements that are considered to be the building blocks of an image. From there we will explore the notion of “Rules of Composition” within which one, some, or all of the aforementioned elements may live in each picture. Before I take you down that path, let’s create a level playing field for our conversation and our upcoming expectations. I would like you to consider an imaginary image, from the standpoint of visual esthetics.

In reflecting upon this imaginary image, I would like you to think about how this image should speak for itself. What is this image going to say to its viewers, how is it going to clearly delineate its message, in what way will it leverage the existing light in the scene, how will it clarify both its foreground and background and lastly, how will it guide the viewer’s eye through its scene. Might sound like lofty verbiage, but this thought process is exactly why we are here. It’s why I am writing this series and attempting to convey all the topics within and its the reason you are reading now and considering following all the lessons and assignments given. Long story short, all of this effort, on both of our parts, is about better and more importantly, considered images. With that thought in mind, think about the following…

For the purposes of this series and at the risk of a debate on semantics, I am going to divide photographers into two groups. I am going to label one group “Observers” and the other group “Interpreters”. Before I step off the ledge here and describe each of these groups, let me emphatically state that I don’t see one group as better than the other. In fact it is wholly possible that you could exist in both groups, likely not at the same time, but in alternating phases, as need or circumstance dictates.

As an “Observer” photographer, your role behind the camera is more of a documentarian. This label does not mean you are not concerned with image quality, it’s certainly likely that you will be and more over, your technical control of exposure settings may be top notch. This grouping infers that more often than not you accept a scene at face value, without much attention, or intention, paid to the compositional aspects of that scene. This is not to say that there is no compositional intent in your image framing, it is just not your primary concern, as speed of capture, accuracy of scene or time to delivery are more important factors in the process. Frequently, this is the style / ability that most new photographers achieve first and many elect to stay at this level, as it completely serves their needs of getting well exposed images of family, events and documentary moments. Certainly this level of competency is the goal of the “Completely Exposed” series.

As an “Interpreter” photographer, your role behind the camera often actually abstracts the existence of the camera, prior to pressing the shutter release. In addition to having mastered exposure settings for your images, you frequently inspect a scene prior to capturing that tableau in your camera. Your scene inspection involves looking for compositional clues, reading the light and determining an ideal point of view, to name but a few things you might consider in creating your final result. Your pre-shutter efforts are all focused on one thing, creating an ideal image from the scene in front of you, with the end goal of creating an image that is much more engaging to the end viewer. More often than not, that creative process involves you moving from your original point of view, in fact it might even involve you changing your intended target composition for an image.

As you can likely see, it’s not a matter of choosing just one of the above photographic groupings, it’s more a matter of selecting an approach that’s appropriate for the shoot at hand. Family gatherings may call for an “Observer” photographer, where as macro images of Orchids may call for an “Interpreter” photographer. Really, only you can make that call, for it’s you that is deciding what these images, in each of these instances, mean to you, your family or potentially your clients. One thing is for certain, this series is targeted at helping you see the difference between the two approaches and more importantly entirely focused on you improving your ability to envision, recognize and capture “Interpreter” style images.

Getting the Picture:

Any number of factors can cause a scene to be less than the ideal frame you envisioned; less than ideal light, more crowded than anticipated, not quite the right point of view or environmental conditions might be effecting the shot. The reasons are endless and so are the excuses offered up as epitomes for not coming back with any images. I am sure you have heard the conversation before:

  • Friend: “So what did you get on your photo shoot today?”
  • Photographer: “Nothing.”
  • Friend: “Nothing, why not?”
  • Photographer: “The light sucked.”
  • Friend: “Oh, sorry to hear that.”
  • Photographer: “Maybe next time.”

This is all well and good, up until the point in time where there’s one friend and two photographers, it’s hard to sell that the light sucked, when the other photographer got great shots, on the same shoot, at the same time, at the same location. Maybe the light didn’t suck… The above scenario is where a true in depth study of exposure theory, design elements and rules of composition all come together to make you a better, more consistent and opportunistic shooter.

One last thought, before we dive in a little deeper, the light never sucks, you just don’t know what to do with it yet. If you complete this series, you will know how to read light, perspective, elements and on and on, ultimately you’ll let the scene tell you what it wants to be. You’ll always come home with something, it may not be a masterpiece, but it will be part of an ongoing and continual evolution of your technique and more importantly your style.

Elements Of Design:

If you have had any formal arts education at all, you have likely been exposed to the “elements of design”, which from a photographer’s point of view can easily be considered as rational guidelines to both building and deconstructing images. Traditionally these “elements of design” have been viewed and considered from the point of view of those teaching and wishing to learn art.

Art instructors routinely use the “elements of design” to convey how lines, shapes, space, etc. can be interpreted and implemented in artistic efforts. These conversations often revolve around mood, tension and order of the elements themselves as well as the overall impression that their presence imparts in an image. While far from being universally agreed upon, I have identified a set of design elements that I think warrant coverage in regards to our pursuit of creating better images. The presentation of each element, will by necessity, cover some academic observations of that element, as well as some guiding examples to reinforce how knowledge of and rational application of that element can effect your resulting image.

The design elements are best thought of as building block approach to composition and they will be presented in that order. The simplest elements will be covered first, with exercises and assignments to reinforce your understanding of them. As we progress forward through the lessons, we will explore the interaction of additional elements with their foundation counterparts and thoroughly explore how combinations of these elements can effect the image that contains them. While some of the elements may at first seem rudimentary, careful observation of their presence, the characteristics they can impart and how to both recognize and optimize their use will serve your advancement as a photographer in immeasurable ways.

Rules Of Composition:

The “Rules of Composition” speak to the overall visual layout of elements within the frame of an image. The rules address such concerns as to where elements lie within the frame, how the eye might be guided through the frame as a whole and a whole host of other concerns that might by their presence be considered in their impact on your final image composition. Compositional rules may apply singularly to an image, or an image may encompass many of the rules in that single frame. Their application can be somewhat loose in scope, or they can be explicitly implied in very exacting ways.

This is probably as good a time as any to address one of the frequently heard refrains when talking about the rules of composition, which is “are these really rules?” The answer is, they definitely are not rules and I do think it’s a bit of a disservice to new photographers to refer to them as such. As is true with most things artistic, they really serve as guidelines, that can be used to help ground not only your compositional starting place, but to assist in focusing your critical consideration of other’s images as well.

It has been said, many times, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Nowhere is this axiom truer than in the art (and for us photography is going to be art) field. Assessing and quantifying artistic beauty can be a fleeting thing, with the whims of the buying public, the voyeuristic masses and the casual observers all influencing trends and values. What’s in vogue one day, can be out of favor in the next. If you have followed photography for any period of time, you will have noted the comings and goings of various artistic flavorings in photographic images. While a lot of these fads have been more stylistic flavorings than they have been wholesale changes in composition, it is worth nothing that preferences and interests change easily and frequently. I think it is important to find compositional approaches that work for you, as not all of them will. Work hard to hone your skills at your chosen looks and styles. Don’t feel you need to stay in one place, switch points of view, compositional leanings and elemental preferences when the mood suits you, but try to focus on a specific style of composition for a period of time and see if you can sense some level of mastery over said style.

Combine the last two paragraphs together and you should have a little bit of a roadmap that you can follow in surveying the Rules of Composition when I present them later in this series. You should feel automatic recognition when you review some of them and even a notion for how to modify or break the rule to fit your tastes. Cutting edge artists work really hard to break specific rules and develop their own unique styles. Those artists develop a set of composition frameworks that work well for them and as a result they hone those selected styles so that they can achieve that feel on a regular basis in their images. It is that unique style, or fingerprint if your will, that helps some artists achieve a loyal following of supporters and patrons.

I am not saying that you have to achieve uniqueness and a following, maybe that’s not even close to your goal. Maybe you just want images you are proud to hang on your walls at home and you are hoping that visitors will appreciate and comment upon them. Fair enough, what I really want to convey before we move on is…look at the Rules of Composition as they are presented in the series and then adopt, modify or wholesale break them as it suits you. One last thought here, if you love your images then you have satisfied the harshest critic of all, you.

The Completely Composed Series:

So here we are at the intersection of where the proverbial rubber meets the road. If you have read to this point in the article, then you have hopefully thought through some of premises being offered above and have a desire to follow a path that will undoubtedly change both the way you take images and the quality of those new images that you capture. From this point forward a path has been laid out, for you to follow, that will thoughtfully guide you through examining critical components in image construction, composition and production.

Series Sections…

Elements of Design: Section one of the Completely Composed series will be focused on the Elements of Design that were mentioned previously in this article. These design elements and the exercises that accompany their presentation, serve to guide you in recognizing key elements in image recognition and construction. Coupled with that element recognition, you will be shown ways by which that element, or multiple instances of that element, can impart specific characteristics or mood to an image. Don’t worry if this seems a little fuzzy to you now, it will all be made clear soon enough. Before too long you will be looking at design elements and the light that falls upon them as your composition friends.

Rules Of Composition: Section two, will be all about the Rules Of Composition and the corollary assignments that help to solidify both your understanding of the rules, but to reinforce you knowledge of when to apply them. I would be remiss if I didn’t reiterate my position on Rules of Composition at this point. I firmly believe that the “rules” are ineffective as stand alone entities and for the uninitiated are difficult to comprehend without the necessary foundation knowledge provided by studying the Elements of Design. In order to be successful with the Completely Composed series, I believe it is imperative that that foundation knowledge, that is the Elements of Design, be in place first.

Refinements And Techniques: Section three of the series, Refinements And Techniques, is all about fine tuning, as well as expanding upon a number of the concepts and lessons presented in the first two sections of the Completely Composed series. In this section we specifically explore ways by which we can augment some of the compositional rules that we have been working with and begin to explore ways to interpret scenes a little differently. In this section, we also explore specific shooting and optical techniques that can have a direct impact on the final composition of an image. While there is some discussion and treatment of exposure concerns in a few of the sessions in this section, the topics are far more related to final image results than they are to exposure and gear specific recommendations.

Breaking The Rules: Last, but certainly not least, section four focuses on one of my favorite topics, Breaking The Rules. In this section, while we certainly don’t throw the rules out altogether, we explore ways be which the Rules of Composition can be stretched to their limits, or at the very least can be used as an antithesis point in framing and composing an image. Bottom line, not every image neatly fits into a “rules” bucket and it’s important to recognize when to discard those rules and go for something new, different and yet visually compelling at the same time.

The Assignments…

In addition to the material presented in each week’s session, a weekly assignment will be included as well. The intention of these assignments is that they serve as both reinforcement for the material presented that week, as well as functioning as building blocks in a journey to a fuller understanding and application of intentional composition.

Look for the assignment at the end of each week’s session presentation. You will find detailed descriptions of each assignment there, as well as an upload link if you are following this series on-line.

This is not a graded series, and I won’t be keeping track of whether or not you have done “your homework”, but I assure you, you will know if you haven’t done the assignments and your photographs will always reflect your level of discipline, dedication and effort.

Quarterly Reviews…

To be updated…

The  Goal…

It feels rather odd to be summing up the goal here, as I am pretty much sure by now you know what it is…better composed images. The word composed here is critical, for without it, this could all just be a technical exercise. I promise you, if you follow this series, read each week’s session material and do the assignments, you will end up generating better images. This realization is not going to spontaneously happen over night, it will take time and you will question the progress. However, if you stick with it and working the topics and assignments, you have know choice but to begin to see things differently, spend more time considering the result and in the end the change will come. Good luck!

Series Schedule…

Quarter:Quarter Title:Week:Topic:Code
Quarter:Quarter Title:Week:Topic:Code
PreCompletely Composed - IntroductionWeek 00Completely Composed - IntroductionCCS00I
OneElements Of Design (EOD)Week 01EOD - IntroductionCCS01I
Week 01EOD - LinesCCW01C
Week 01EOD - Lines (More)CCW01M
Week 02EOD - ShapesCCW02C
Week 03EOD - DirectionCCW03C
Week 04EOD - SizeCCW04C
Week 05EOD - TextureCCW05C
Week 06EOD - ColorCCW06C
Week 07EOD - ValueCCW07C
Week 08EOD - BalanceCCW08C
Week 09EOD - GradationCCW09C
Week 10EOD - RepetitionCCW10C
Week 11EOD - ContrastCCW11C
Week 12EOD - HarmonyCCW12C
Week 13EOD - Unity / DominanceCCW13C
Week 13Quarterly ReviewCCW13R
TwoRules Of CompositionWeek 14ROC - IntroductionCCS02I
Week 14ROC - SimplificationCCW14C
Week 15ROC - Use Of SpaceCCW15C
Week 16ROC - Rule Of ThirdsCCW16C
Week 17ROC - Proportional RulesCCW17C
Week 18ROC - Balancing ElementsCCW18C
Week 19ROC - Leading Lines CCW19C
Week 20ROC - SymmetryCCW20C
Week 21ROC - PatternsCCW21C
Week 22ROC - Point Of ViewCCW22C
Week 23ROC - Foreground And BackgroundCCW23C
Week 24ROC - Depth Of FieldCCW24C
Week 25ROC - FramingCCW25C
Week 26ROC - CroppingCCW26C
Week 26Quarterly ReviewCCW26R
ThreeRefinements And TechniquesWeek 27RAT - IntroductionCCS03I
Week 27RAT - Working The Shape (Rectangles)CCW27C
Week 28RAT - Working The Shape (Circles)CCW28C
Week 29RAT - Working The Shape (Triangles)CCW29C
Week 30RAT - Working The Shape (Others)CCW30C
Week 31RAT - Left To RightCCW31C
Week 32RAT - Juxtaposition CCW32C
Week 33RAT - Shooting When You Are Not ThereCCW33C
Week 34RAT - Reflections, Angles And EffectsCCW34C
Week 35RAT - Illusions In TimeCCW35C
Week 36RAT - Time To GraduateCCW36C
Week 37RAT - Colors, Stars And FlareCCW37C
Week 38RAT - Cooking With GlassCCW38C
Week 39RAT - Optical ManipulationCCW39C
Week 39Quarterly ReviewCCW39R
FourBreaking The RulesWeek 40BTR - IntroductionCCS04I
Week 40
BTR - Ignore The ThirdsCCW40C
Week 41BTR - Defying BalanceCCW41C
Week 42BTR - Optical IllusionsCCW42C
Week 43BTR - Positive Versus NegativeCCW43C
Week 44BTR - The Non-Conventional FrameCCW44C
Week 45BTR - IsolationCCW45C
Week 46BTR - Chaos From OrderCCW46C
Week 47BTR - Working The Focus ZoneCCW47C
Week 48BTR - Shifting SymmetriesCCW48C
Week 49BTR - Breaking PatternsCCW49C
Week 50BTR - Feeling IsolatedCCW50C
Week 51BTR - Light, Bring Your OwnCCW51C
Week 52BTR - Plant And ShootCCW52C
Week 52Quarterly / Final ReviewCCW52R