Advanced Composition – Part III

Article and Photography by Ron Bigelow


When creating images, better photographers tend to think in terms of light. They may tutor novice photographers, "you are not photographing images; you are photographing light". In this role, light plays the part of the master designer of the scene. View the scene in the noonday sun and it may appear harsh and unattractive. View the same scene in the late afternoon light and it may take on a warm, soft glow. On the other hand, light has another role that it can play: that of a compositional element. In this role, light is no longer the master designer of the scene. Instead, it becomes another compositional element in an image. Thus, light, and the absence of light (shadow), become compositional elements that can be used just as lines, curves, patterns, and other compositional elements.

Figure 1: Light and Shadow

This use of light and shadow as compositional elements is shown in Figure 1. In this image, the low angle of the descending sun created patterns of light and shadow on the sand dunes. This created a scene distinguished by flowing lines and peaceful contrast. In particular, the light on the top of the foreground dune has become a center of interest due to its size and contrast. Thus, the light itself has become the dominant element in the photo.

Figure 2: Contrast with Shadow
In figure 2, shadow has been used as a compositional element. The trees and their reflections have been thrown into shadow. This line of shadow divides the image into foreground and background. However, its main function is to make the mountain peak and its reflection stand out. The dark shadows make the blue of the sky and the water seem more intense due to its contrast with the shadow. This increases the effect of the colors. One thing to keep in mind when using shadow in this way is that it is usually a good idea to keep a small amount of detail in the shadows rather than letting it go pure black (you may not be able to see the detail on all monitors).


For the photographer, perspective deals with how the sizes of different objects at different distances appear to the photographer or the viewer of the final image. An understanding and use of perspective allows the photographer to affect the relative importance of objects in the image. If there is a tree in the background that is distracting, one can choose a perspective that makes the tree much smaller compared to the center of interest. If there is a beautiful full moon, but it appears too small compared to the foreground, the photographer can choose a perspective that increases the size of the moon relative to the foreground.

The first thing that needs to be done is to destroy a misconception about perspective. Many people believe that perspective is a function of lens focal length. This is incorrect. Rather, perspective is a function of the distance of objects from the lens. However, it is easy to see how this misconception comes about. When wide angle lenses are used, the foreground objects are typically placed close to the lens and the background objects are relatively far away. This creates one perspective. When telephoto lenses are used, typically, both the foreground and background objects are fairly far away from the lens. This creates a different perspective. So, it appears that the two lenses create different perspectives. In reality, this is not the case -- it is not the lenses that create the different perspectives; it is how the photographer uses those lenses to change the relative distances of the foreground and background objects with respect to the lens.

However, in real life, wide angle lenses are used in certain ways, and long lenses are generally used in different ways. Thus, it is often easier to think in terms of perspective as wide angle, normal, or telephoto perspective. Therefore, for the purpose of ease of explanation and understanding, the rest of this section will cover the topic as if perspective was a function of lens focal length. In spite of this, those of us in the know understand that perspective is really a function, not of focal length, but of how we use that focal length.

Figure 3: Wide Angle Perspective

When using wide angle lenses to shoot images with both foreground and background detail, photographers most of the time place the foreground objects fairly close to the lens compared to the rather distant background. When this is done, a typical wide angle perspective is created. This wide angle perspective has two characteristics: 1) the foreground object is very large and the background object is fairly small, and 2) the distance between the foreground and background objects appears greater than it actually is. Figure 3 is an example of such a wide angle perspective. Notice how the front end of this caboose appears large, but the size of the caboose rapidly diminishes as the eye travels toward the other end of the caboose. Now, it is expected that objects farther away look smaller, but this is much exaggerated in this image compared to what it looked like to the naked eye of the photographer. In addition, the mountains appear to be some distance from the caboose. In reality, they were much closer than it appears in this image.

Figure 4: Telephoto Perspective
It is valuable to next view what happens when a lens with a long focal length (telephoto) is used. When long focal lengths are used, generally, even the foreground objects are fairly distant from the lens. As a result, the difference in the relative distances of the foreground and background objects from the lens is much smaller. Consequently, the telephoto perspective has two characteristics 1) the background objects appear much larger relative to the foreground objects than in a wide angle perspective, and 2) the distance between the foreground and background objects appears smaller than it actually is (the distance is compressed). Figure 4 has a typical telephoto perspective. One of the first things that can be noticed about this image is that the mountains in the background appear quite large. In fact, they are probably farther away from the foreground object (the large sand dune) than the mountains in the caboose image above. The difference in the sizes of the mountains is primarily due to the different perspectives that were used to create the two images.
Figure 5: Telephoto Perspective
Figure 5 demonstrates the second characteristic of long lenses. A series of mountain ridges appears in the image. The photographer wished the ridges to appear closely layered one after the other. A telephoto was chosen for the shot and an extender was added to increase the focal length and to further compress the distances between the mountain ridges.
Figure 6: Normal Perspective

The way normal lenses (about 50mm for 35mm cameras) are used, the perspective does not distort relative sizes or distances. Thus, a normal perspective is similar to that of the human eye. This is demonstrated in Figure 6. The image was shot with a normal lens. As can be seen, nothing about the sizes of objects or the distances between them appears unusual. The mountain is large, but that is the way it looked to everyone that passed this site.

Figure 7: Perspective Solved a Problem

Perspective can be used to affect how a viewer reacts to an image by affecting the impression of size and distance and, therefore, importance (e.g., viewers consider small, distant objects in the image to be unimportant). Perspective can also be used to solve photographic problems. The use of perspective to solve a photographic problem is demonstrated in Figure 7. This image is a case where I set out to craft an image that I had already created in my mind. I wanted to create an image of a Joshua Tree that had a background of either a brilliant sunset or a deep blue sky after the sun had gone down. So, I set out to make my image. I spent the first five hours of my trip stuck in traffic and arrived in the desert late at night. The next morning, I set out to find the best location for the shot that I planned to take late that afternoon or early in the evening. However, a disappointing reality soon hit: all of the most attractive trees were in a valley surrounded by mountains that showed up in the background. With the normal lens that I was using, the mountains cut across the horizontal middle of the image. This created a very bad composition and a bizarre looking image. Nevertheless, I had not come this far to be defeated by the mountains. I quickly switched to a very wide angle lens and moved the camera close to the tree. As a result of this wide angle perspective, the mountains immediately shrunk into insignificance, and I got my shot.


Up until now, this article has covered how specific elements of composition, such as color, can affect mood. In those cases, it is necessary for the photographer to understand how one or more compositional elements contribute to the overall mood of the image.

This section deals with those situations where the environment, as a whole, sets the mood. In this case, the role of the photographer is to capture and optimize the mood that is already inherent in the environment. This topic is one that has tremendous potential for photographers. However, it is far more intuitive and less direct than the topics that have previously been covered. The results are far more dependent on the creativity of the photographer. Nevertheless, there are some generalities that can assist the photographer is his endeavors.

There are an infinite number of environments that radiate a strong sense of mood and probably an infinite number of ways to photograph them. The plethora of neon lights on a main street in Las Vegas effectively trumpets the feeling that the casino owners wish to convey. Shots of the carnage on the D Day beaches of Normandy leave no question of the feelings of the soldiers on the shore. Images of a mother holding her newborn infant clearly radiate her joy as clearly as close up shots of starving children in third world countries signal their despair. There is no way that any article could give a comprehensive coverage of all the possible environments and the moods that they impart. Rather, this article will identify a couple of environments that lend themselves to this type of photography so the photographer can be aware of and take advantage of those opportunities. The two environments on which this article will focus are: inclement weather and environments characterized by the light.

Mood: Inclement Weather

Most people avoid bad weather. As soon as it gets cold and wet, they head indoors. This is also true of many photographers. This is unfortunate, because inclement weather often provides some of the best opportunities for great shots. This past spring, I was loading up my SUV with my photographic equipment as I prepared to head for the local mountains. A relative came over and asked, "Are you aware that the weatherman is predicting very bad weather for all of today?" My response was," God, I hope so".

Inclement weather provides great photo opportunities primarily due to two factors: atmospheric conditions and light. The photographer's role is to recognize these factors and then capture them in such a way as to optimize their impact in the image.

In inclement weather photography, the photographer can sometimes take images of entire landscapes. In this case, the weather is not so bad that it covers everything with clouds, rain, or snow. Instead, the weather tends to interact with the landscape. This interaction shows the landscape in ways in which we do not normally perceive it. This can lend itself to dramatic landscape shots that grab viewers' attention.

Figure 8: Mood and Weather

In some inclement weather landscapes, the strength of the image is dependent on the mood created by the atmospheric conditions. Here, the clouds, rain, or snow mingle with the environment -- the weather blends with the surroundings to create a new beauty. Figure 8 is an example of this type of image. As a storm front moved into this mountain region, the clouds crested the highest mountain range and began coursing into the valley below. The interaction of the white clouds with the dark green pines created a muted contrast that defined the image and communicated the mood of the time and place. This image is also a good example of what was meant in the introduction to this section when it was stated that, "This section deals with those situations where the environment, as a whole, sets the mood". The mood displayed in this image was inherent in the whole area at the time the photo was taken. No attempt to manipulate lines, color, patterns, or any other compositional element could have effectively changed the feeling of the area to create some other mood. In this case, the photographer did not have to work to create a mood; he simply had to capture the one nature so dramatically displayed.

In other inclement weather landscape images, the image is also dependent on the mood created by the atmospheric conditions, but an additional factor is now added: dramatic light. In this type of image, the weather has created an opportunity for light to enter the scene and interact with both the weather and the environment. The light tends to stand out and draw the attention of the viewer. Properly captured, this can create images that powerfully communicate the mood of the location to the viewer.
Figure 9: Weather and Light
Figure 9 is an inclement weather image that uses both weather and light to impart mood. The clouds initially set a somewhat drab scene. The heavy clouds created a flat light that hid the detail in the clouds and mountains. However, a small break in the clouds briefly changed the mood of the image. The light breaking through the clouds added some color to the clouds and created both contrast and a center of interest that had not been there before. All of this functioned to add some drama to the image.
Figure 10: Weather and Diffused Light
In some inclement weather conditions, the image is dependent not on the interaction of the atmospheric conditions with the environment but rather on the lighting conditions that the weather produces. With storms, come clouds. In some conditions, the cloud cover is so heavy that the light is simply not usable for any landscape photography. Yet, under the right conditions, the clouds can produce a very soft (diffused), beautiful light that creates pastel colors in the landscape. These conditions are ideal for landscapes that have color. Figure 10 is an image that was taken in such soft light conditions. A large storm front sat over the area, but the majority of the cloud cover remained above the mountains. This created a very soft light for this image. While there is a bit of fog in the background, this image is not characterized by the clouds but by the gentle color of the foreground tree that stands out from the pastel green of the other foreground vegetation.
Figure 11: Weather and Diffused Light

Unfortunately, we photographers do not control the weather we endeavor to photograph. At times, one may arrive (perhaps after a long drive) at a site only to discover that the storm has completely overrun a location. At such times, the sky has the gray pallor of a mausoleum wall and the terrain has been completely covered in clouds or even rain. Yet, not all is lost. On the contrary, some great photo opportunities may wait for the diligent photographer. In this situation, landscape photography is out of the question. Rather, it is time to move in close. The diffused light may be ideal for photographing small scenes or even switching to close up mode. Figure 11 shows a poppy that was photographed during inclement weather. Actually, this image required a rain coat for the photographer and an umbrella taped to the tripod to protect the camera from the rain and to stop the raindrops falling from the sky from bouncing the poppy all around. Nonetheless, the weather produced a soft light that was perfect for bringing out the color of the poppies. The raindrops clinging to the poppy further served to add character to the image.

When attempting to photograph in inclement weather conditions, a couple of considerations should be kept in mind. The best time to photograph inclement weather landscapes is at the very beginning or the very end of storms. These are the times when the storm best interacts with the environment. Once the storm has completely rolled in, it may tend to overwhelm the landscape with clouds, rain, or snow. Second, storm environments have a tendency to change quickly. Therefore, sometimes the best strategy is to locate a scene that appears to have potential, set up the camera, and wait for the right weather or lighting conditions to produce the image that you want. Be sure to remain vigilant. The perfect conditions sometimes last for only a few seconds. During my last photo trip to Yosemite, my photo partner and I stood in a flooded field in cold weather for two hours. I kept staring at the dramatic cloud reflections in the flooded countryside with the partially snow covered mountains in the background. The sunlight would occasionally break through a hole in the clouds and illuminate a portion of the scene. I kept thinking to myself, "If only the right light would break through the clouds, I would have my image". All of a sudden, a few rays broke the cloud cover and illuminated one rock dome next to the water. The dome and its reflection dramatically lit up and stood out from the rest of the stormy scene. I ran the few feet to my camera and quickly fired off two images. Then, the light was gone, but not for me -- I have the scene forever captured.

Mood: Light

Just as inclement weather has the power to create mood, so do environments that are characterized by certain kinds of light. In these photographs, the light alters the nature of the scene to create and communicate mood. Often, the light in these scenes is soft and has a color tint. This type of light can produce a mood ranging from dramatic to subtle.

Figure 12: Mood and Backlight

Figure 12 (which was presented once before to discuss perspective) shows an image where soft but strongly colored backlighting created a silhouetted series of desert mountain ridges. The entire impact of this image is due to the light -- there is minimal detail in the image. In many ways, this characterizes well the minimalist nature of the desert.

Figure 13: Mood and Mist
Figure 13 illustrates a more restrained use of light. In this case, the use of the light is not so obvious. However, the feel of the image is largely due to two factors: light and mist. The light comes into the image from the left at a very low angle. The light is almost skimming across the sea to arrive at the rocks. This produces a soft light that gives the sea a bit of a luminescent quality. The low angled light also casts the back sides of the rocks and the large wave in shadow. The mist in the air further softens the light and also serves as a soft focus filter to soften the entire image.

The Most Important Rule.

If you have gone through all three parts of this article, we have spent time discussing many elements of composition: lines, curves, and shapes; color; patterns; contrast; selective focus; light and shadows; perspective; and mood. Now it is time for a confession. When I go out with my camera, THIS IS NOT THE WAY I SHOOT! I don't look for lines, I don't look for color, I don't look for contrast, nor do I look for any of the other compositional elements that are covered in these articles. I always try to remember what I consider the number one rule of photography that I learned from reading Galen Rowell's work:



When I go out with my camera, I look for scenes or objects that touch my emotions: the thing that jumps up and hits me in the eye; the thing that makes me freeze in my tracks. I know that if an object or scene can create an emotion in me, it can communicate that emotion in my image. On the other hand, if it creates no emotion in me, how can it possibly do so in a viewer of my images? To me, this is the most important thing in photography and it is what drives me when I am in the field. So, if that is the case, why did I write all this information about composition? For two reasons.

  1. Even if an object or scene has an emotional appeal, if the photographer does not understand what is creating that emotional appeal, he will be unlikely to manage the photo taking process in such a way as to optimize that emotional appeal and communicate it to the viewer of the image. In other words, once I recognize the emotional appeal of an object or scene, I use the compositional elements to make sure that my image communicates what I felt when I took the image.

  2. As one of my photo buddies said to me, "The more I understand about composition, the more I am able to consistently recognize scenes that have great photographic potential".

In short, I tend to operate in intuitional mode when I am looking for images and in analytical mode (including the use of compositional elements) to create the images.

The compositional elements can be learned, but what about the intuitional part? Actually, there is a method that I feel has improved my photography. Best of all, it is cheap, easy, and enjoyable. I study the images of the great photographers. I try to determine what it is about each image that I study that produces an emotional reaction in me. I am not thinking in terms of technical aspects (e.g., I think he used a small aperture, long shutter speed, and a polarizer). Instead, I ask myself, "Why does this image create an emotional response in me?" It is the answer to the emotional part that I am seeking. Once I figure out the answer to that question for an image, I attempt to use that learning in my own photography.

I feel that studying the images of the great photographers and understanding the emotional appeal of their images is the best thing that I can do to continue to improve my photography.

Part III Summary

Using compositional tools is a great way for all of us to improve our photography, but they must be combined with the intuitional side that helps identify scenes or objects with emotional appeal.


Advanced Composition -- Part II