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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.
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?
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.
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.
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.