How to Break the World Down into Elements to Create Better Photos

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sunset photo - How to Break the World Down into Elements to Create Better Photos

I have a really cool idea for you. One that is so simple, and yet so amazingly impactful, that if you start utilizing this concept now you will immediately see the benefits in your photography and you will create better photos.

I come across some very common issues in my workshops. One huge problem is that the photos people take are often too busy. The subject doesn’t stand out and there isn’t a clear relationship between the subject and the elements around it.

Or, in reverse, the photos are so focused on the subject, that nothing else is in the frame, so the photo ends up being relatively flat.

How to Break the World Down into Elements to Create Better Photos - forest stream and mossy rocks

Everything within your frame is an element: the expanse and color of the sky, the child playing in the background, the rush of cars behind your subject, etc.

Each element that is within your frame must have a function, a purpose and must contribute to the overall image. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be there.

Your job as a photographer is to break down the scene you want to photograph into its elements. Then arrange the elements into an interesting and complementary combination.

rolling hills Tuscany - How to Break the World Down into Elements to Create Better Photos

Nature photography by a street photographer

For this article, I have used photos from a project I did in Tuscany. For seven weeks, I stayed in a castle over the winter with my family and a bunch of other traveling families. I spent my time wandering in the quiet hills, photographing. It is an intensely beautiful place.

I am using these photos as examples because I am not a nature photographer. I usually photograph cities, often at dawn, when the light is beautiful and the streets are empty.

So I wanted to show you how I approached a subject I love, but am not super experienced at shooting, and how by using this technique I got some pretty awesome photos.

cemetery in Tuscany - How to Break the World Down into Elements to Create Better Photos

I like to always be developing as a photographer, to push myself beyond what I am already doing. So being out in the silent forests and undulating hills of Tuscany on a winter’s morning was incredibly inspiring.

Nature can be notoriously tricky to photograph. Wandering out into a forest with thousands of trees and millions of other elements that all look the same or similar, can be a case of where do I start?

You are not just waiting for the perfect moment to happen and then to photograph it. You are creating the photograph with the elements around you.

castle silhouette - How to Break the World Down into Elements to Create Better Photos

I am going to use examples of how I approached organizing the elements in the world around me into compelling photos. So let’s get started!

Shapes and Lines

The first example is the photograph below, made almost totally of interesting shapes and lines. Can you see them? These lines and shapes were the elements I used to create the image.

One day, I was walking along this path and the first thing that piqued my interest was the lines that the path created.

rural path and stone wall - How to Break the World Down into Elements to Create Better Photos

They are really strong, so I started to play around with them. From further away the lines were pretty straight and not very interesting, just heading off into the distance. However, as I started to get closer to the curve of the path, the lines of the path started to turn. Then the fence started to come into play and echo the twist of the path. I thought that was interesting.

Now another element I worked into the shot (and I took a lot of shots of the path, going from left to right, and moving further away) was the wall. What a cool wall! The relationship between the chaotic, curved fence, the smooth curve of the path, the strong lines of color, worked really well with the element of the heavy stone wall made up of oblong or square shapes.

So, from an elements perspective, this photo is almost entirely made up of lines and shapes, placed together to form an interesting composition.

My final flourish (and I like to do this in my images because I don’t always want the photo to be too clean) is waiting for the rise of mist. This creates a pleasing contrast to the organized shapes, a little bit of nature and wildness.

Silhouettes

How to Break the World Down into Elements to Create Better Photos - trees in silhouette

Onto my next image. What do you think are the strong elements in this photo above?

Most obvious are the silhouettes of the trees. I was very inspired by the beauty of the sky. The soft pinks and blues, the sun and the little stretch of clouds. But photos of skies, of really simple things, can be pretty boring. So I was trying to move beyond just pretty.

What I love about photographing silhouettes of bare trees is how they add such strong and intriguing shapes to photos. The branches can look wild and chaotic, but they are also contained and ordered by their structure.

I could have taken the photo of the trees against the sky as it was – two very strong elements of sky and trees. But I wanted to add a more grounding element, something that didn’t really look like an important element, but somehow brought it all together.

For that, I have used the view of the forest running along the bottom of the image. And of course, the brilliant sunburst is important.

Detail

How to Break the World Down into Elements to Create Better Photos - signs in the forest

In the photo above is a detail shot, where I honed in on an interesting, simple element. Detail shots are a gift in nature photography, as there is so much you can focus on up close.

But I didn’t want it to be too simple, I didn’t want to just have the sign as to me it wasn’t that interesting. So I used a shallow depth of field to create an attractive, out of focus background of color and indistinct shapes.

I think that this adds a nice bit of depth to the photo. Plus, I have a couple of pine cones sticking out in the front. Again this helps my image from being too clean and organized, but reflect a bit of that wild nature feeling.

Build with the Elements

How to Break the World Down into Elements to Create Better Photos

The photo above is an excellent way to illustrate this idea of building your photo with the elements around you. I saw the tree and I liked the shape of it. But to photograph a tree against a pretty flat blue sky – with not even any interesting cloud formations behind it – would have made a dull photo.

I looked around to see what else I could bring into the shot to make it a more appealing scene. What other element was in my surroundings that could be used to add depth and complexity to the image?

I saw a bush with small, pretty little leaves, and decided that this would make a nice framing element for the tree. Using a shallow depth of field ensured the bush was an interesting frame, but not in focus, and thereby it created a feeling of depth to the image.

road in the trees - How to Break the World Down into Elements to Create Better PhotosA road to…

Put it all together

The key is – you don’t just go shooting. When you find something interesting that you want to shoot, don’t just raise the camera and snap. No! You need to stop and look around.

What elements are jumping out at you? What shapes are being made by the light? Look at the different parts of the scene. Ask yourself – what happens to these shapes when I move over here?

Pause, look around, organize your position, and then start shooting.

Now – look at the photo below and tell me what is the subject, and what are the supporting elements?

house in a field - How to Break the World Down into Elements to Create Better Photos

If you picked the houses as the subject, you guessed correctly! Can you tell me what the next most significant element is?

Of course, it’s the mist! I’ll tell you why. If the mist wasn’t covering much of the rest of the photo, the landscape would be in equal focus and therefore very confusing to the eye. The house would just blend into the landscape and it would be a flat, undynamic shot.

So part of understanding about elements is knowing when to shoot, where to shoot and how to shoot your subject.

How to Break the World Down into Elements to Create Better Photos

So there you go! Those were my ideas on how to break the world down into elements. I would love to know what you think. Was it useful?

Please let me know in the comments below what you think.

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Anthony Epes is a photographer whose work has been featured internationally; including on BBC, French Photo Magazine, Atlas Obscura and CNN. He is also a teacher - writing in-depth free articles on his website. Receive his free ebook on the two essential skills that will instantly improve your photos, and sign up to his weekly newsletter providing inspiration, ideas and pro-photo techniques.

  • Amazing post Anthony Epes, really insightful and in depth post with a ton of great value!

  • brucehughw

    good stuff. I’ll be out this weekend and see about putting it into practice. Thank you!

  • graeme stewart

    Formulaic. Foreground, background, sunset. Check. Leading lines. Mist. Check. Pretty boring.

  • graeme stewart

    I am not trying to be totally negative here, but can you tell me which of these pictures you would print, frame and put on your wall? Unless it was your house or your stream? Tuscany is such a beautiful place rendered relatively mundane here. Maybe go to some of the vineyards or Sienna. Cliché? But never boring.

  • graeme stewart

    OK. I will probably get told off or banned by the editor of this site but if a photography teacher puts up their work then they should be willing to accept criticism, constructive or otherwise. Does criticism have to be constructive to be valid?

    So, here goes, pic by pic:

    1. Hillside. Not very interesting subject matter. Sunrise. As hillsides go in Tuscany, I would give it a 2 out of 10.

    2. A stream with moss. And not a very interesting stream.

    3. Uninteresting Tuscan landscape. You could rent or borrow a car and find many better nearby.

    4. Absolutely boring shot of a boring cemetery. At least put a tombstone in the foreground.

    5. Semi-silhouette of something that is not really interesting enough to be silhouetted.

    6. Path, OK. I would be only interested in this if I wanted to drove my sheep on it.

    7. Silhouettes. Why? My 8 year old could vision and take this.

    8. Detail. Er… What?

    9. Build with the elements? OK, work with what you have.

    10… I am getting boring now. A road to nowhere is the implied title and sums up what I think of this article and the next few shots are just as boring as the previous ones. I think a realtor trying to sell the house could do better.

    Stick to street photography.

  • graeme stewart

    Dear Editor: are you blocking me? It is fine if you are, but I am simply expressing an opinion. I am not being abusive and all criticism does not have to be constructive. I would suggest that if someone calls themselves a teacher and puts up their work as instructive then they should be open to thoughtful and non-abusive questioning on if it is any good or not and therefore whether their instruction is worthwhile.

  • graeme stewart

    Miss Editor: why have you blocked me? I am not criticizing for the sake of it. I do not think his photographs are very good and am saying so. Why just happy clapping? Surely there is room to not just accept everything someone says? Maybe some of your readers would agree with me that these photos are dull and boring and the author might even appreciate feedback that is not fawning.

  • amtop

    I’ve been having difficulty with this lately and it really helped– thank you!

  • You are welcome. Glad I could help.

  • Your welcome and good luck. Happy shooting!

  • Thank you Martin

  • Steven

    Great article!

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