Create Photos With IMPACT By Composing With Purpose

Create Photos With IMPACT By Composing With Purpose

After I started my own critique forum I soon started to realize that composition is one of the most commonly critiqued parts of a photograph and in reality composition is the most important element of a photograph next to the subject.

That said, what composition really comes down to, and what I’m talking about today, is the idea of composing with purpose.

Compose With Purpose Not As an After Thought

I’m not here today to tell you about the different “rules” of composition. I’m not going to tell you what is right and what is wrong, because ultimately, the “rules” themselves are both right and wrong in different situations and it’s up to you as the photographer to determine when and how to use them – to do that – you must compose with purpose.

It’s not easy to teach the idea of composing with purpose, but I’m going to attempt to do so by using one of the most commonly photographed landscape subjects out there – sunset – as an example. After all it’s probably safe to say that most of us have experienced at least one or two of these in our lives.

So how many of you return to your computer after photographing a spectacular sunset to see that the entire import is filled with images that basically look exactly the same as one another? Not only do they all look the same, but they’re all missing something. They might look a little like this one right?

Composed With Purpose-2

It’s not that this is a bad photograph of the sunset, there’s detail in the water, the sky and even in the tree line behind the lake, but there’s no planned composition or story being told in the photo. It has nothing to keep the eyes of the viewer interested and ultimately it falls flat.

Just a Small Change Can Have a Big Impact

The photograph below is the exact same sunset at the same location the only difference is that I’ve just chosen a very specific composition for the scene and thus created a more complete photograph.

Composed With Purpose

By taking a little extra time to think about all the elements of the scene in front of me (with my eyes not my camera) and consciously place everything from the setting sun, to the trees in the foreground, to the lily pads on the water within the frame I was able to take what is not only a beautiful sunset and capture it in time, but I was able to add depth to what I captured which allows me to showcase not only what was happening, but where it was happening – this is what adds impact to your photos.

Of course the above is a very simple example of what I’m talking about today, but it’s important to realize that composition isn’t just a set of rules that we must follow – instead composition is an active search for the best elements within the scene in front of you.

Sometimes you’ll need to step back and take the entire scene in to find the composition that make the most sense, other times you might want to put on a super telephoto or grab some binoculars and zoom way in to find some very interesting details not obvious to your normal vision.

So the next time you go out with your camera and something starts to attract your attention, whatever it may be, don’t stress too much about the rules that you’ve learned instead just try to compose with purpose. Hopefully by doing so you’ll get some unique and powerful compositions that will ultimately allow your photographs to stand out from the crowd.

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John Davenport is the creator of PhoGro an online community that aims to help you grow your photography through engagement with other photographers. Join today! John also offers a free email course 6 Weeks to Better Photos. This course covers the most important techniques you need to learn when getting started with photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Scott July 12, 2013 02:08 pm

    I didn't read everyone's comments in depth, but as the author alluded to; good composition keeps your eye in the image. On the other hand, poor composition can not only not keep your eye in, but actually lead your eye out of the image. By framing with the tree on the left, including the lily pads in the foreground, which just happened to lead toward the sunset, and the better reflection on the foreground water he has done exactly what good composition is supposed to do. Landscape, including sunset, shots are invariably improved by a point of interest (in this case the beautiful orange clouds ) and elements which draw the eye in and hold it for a while. As a matter of fact that applies to almost any photograph or 2d art.

  • Tho July 12, 2013 10:52 am

    @ Leon, well said!!
    I echo your sentiments!!
    So many people talk of great stories behind photographs but poor me can't read that language and the story gets lost on me.
    Different people different strokes!!
    I am attracted by the coloir, some times the detail, by the composition, by the lighting, and almost never by a story behind the picture.
    But great article John.

  • Leon L. Nery July 12, 2013 07:54 am

    Thanks John for a very helpful tutorial and reminder for some. Words of gratitude is also due to girare and Jeffrey for their engaging viewpoints. But will somebody tell me what is the story or how to make a story in a photograph? Where is the once upon a time? For me the story is in the viewer based on his own sense of life and emotion as stimulated by the photograph. Am I confusing the word "story" with my English 102 which insists a story has elements of plot, character, situation of conflict, denouvement and the likes? Or are we just to pretend like the patrons of abstract painting and say that there is a story by just looking at a disorganized splatter of paint on a canvass created by a wiggling dog bath with paint?

  • John Davenport July 12, 2013 06:47 am

    garirae - If you look closely at the two images you'll notice that the water isn't truly smooth in either one - the difference is that I'm zoomed in much further in the first image which didn't allow me to capture the calmer water closer to the shoreline. Yes the reflections make a difference, but this difference can be attributed to composition as well due to the wider angle of view.

    But... Even with that said let's give you your point which claims that if the second image has noisy water it wouldn't be a stronger image which I still think is false - given the two images even if both of them have noisy water or smooth water the one composed in the manner of the second image is stronger period and that's the point of this article. Composition matters and it's something we need to do purposefully to create the best images possible. :)

  • Garirae July 12, 2013 05:32 am

    Jeffrey , I think you missed my point..which was not related to correcting shutter speed. My point was that the significant impact of the second image is due to the change in shutter speed which created all those wonderful reflections in the water. If the reflections of the cloud and trees were removed from the second image, one would still have a non-wow image , but one with a bit of foreground tree. Why? Because all of that water area woukd be boring. By slowing the shutter speed , the photographer provide a huge area of visual interest. Im simply saying that in this example, the wow is from the slower shutter speed , not the inclusion of the tree.

  • jeffrey k. edwards July 12, 2013 05:12 am

    Regardless of the shutter speed, exposure can be very easily corrected in post processing.... As John correctly points out, it is primarily about the composition. He provides a unique and dramatic example on how just a simple change in perspective can have a huge impact. Well done John!

  • Garirae July 12, 2013 04:26 am

    It appears to me that more than the composition was changed. In fact the most striking changes occur with the addition of the cloud and tree reflections in the water. Those elements had to require a slower shutter speed that in the first pic. In fact the first image show ripples in the water and only a dim reflection of trees; it obviously had a faster shutter speed than the the second image. Granted, adding a foreground element helped the composition , but the significant improvement to the image came through slowing the shutter speed.

  • Guigphotography July 12, 2013 01:55 am

    A subject that's always worth re-visiting and I think the example given is nice and clear. I often look back over images I've taken in the previous month and note where the composition could have been better and I think that helps keep you preparing better the next time (and doing what John says in the penultimate paragraph). Love it.

  • THE aSTIG @ July 10, 2013 11:45 pm

    Great article John! Nicely done.

    I'm an Automotive Photographer for

    I must say, Automotive Photography is, in a way, pretty similar with landscape photography. Only difference is, there's a car as the focal point. But same rules apply with what you mentioned in this article. Composing with purpose can dramatically change a photo. Even a very minor change can completely change the photo and create a story to it. So thanks for writing this! I completely agree.

  • John Davenport July 10, 2013 10:55 pm

    Thanks for the comments so far everyone!

    You're right Mridula composing with purpose is definitely about trial and error and even I'd go so far as to say that it can be attributed to boredom as well. If we're always taking the same shot we're going to try new things and think outside-the-box this is exactly where composing with purpose comes into play.

    Brian - You're right that kids are unpredictable and fast, but that doesn't mean you can't compose with purpose. Think about it - when you crouch down to their level to snap shots, or if you sit and wait for them to make the perfect laugh you're still composing with purpose, just not in the same sense as I did here with a landscape. :)

  • Mridula July 10, 2013 09:35 pm

    And I guess a lot of us learn to compose with purpose through trial and error!

  • Brian Fuller July 9, 2013 10:50 pm

    When possible I definitely do compose with a purpose. Good article.
    Most of the time however, I am photographing young children who oddly enough like to roam around as much as possible. Very difficult to get much in the way of composition in - but I still do what I can. The results are enough to get me many requests for photoshoots.


  • Steve July 9, 2013 05:33 pm

    My purpose here was to capture the sunrise in Spain. As soon as I saw the chapel silhouetted on the horizon I knew it would add composition and give it impact