How to Improve Your Photos Using Micro-Composition

How to Improve Your Photos Using Micro-Composition

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One of the most fundamental elements of photography is that of composition, or how your subject, foreground, background, light, and other elements work together to produce a complete picture. While understanding how this works is fundamental to mastering the art of photography, the underlying principles behind composition go much deeper than just getting all the big things right so they look good in the frame. Masters of the medium are able to balance many different techniques of composition at the same time ,and put them together to launch their work into the upper echelon, and one rung on that ladder is a concept known as micro-composition.

microcomposition-engagement

This involves not just getting the big things in your picture set up and aligned properly, but making sure to capture your image in such a way that the smaller elements work together as part of the cohesive whole. It’s a technique that can be tricky to learn and take years to master, but through practice can elevate your photography to a whole new level.

To understand how micro-composition works it’s good to start with one of best examples of this technique which can be seen in National Geographic photographer Sam Abell’s image Cowboys Branding Cattle, Montana.

Photograph by Sam Abell, National Geographic

At first glance it seems like an ordinary picture of some ranchers in the western United States, but the reason it looks so perfect is because everything in it is masterfully composed. All the elements come together to form a complete picture that works at the foreground, subject, and background levels. It invites the viewer to linger, not just on the calf being branded, but on the cowboys wrangling cattle behind them, and the rider on his horse in the background. Even the red bucket helps add a sense of action and mystery to the picture, but what makes this image work so well is how each of the elements is composed, not just on a macro level but on a micro level as well. The heads and shoulders of every person are above the horizon line, the horse in the background is perfectly framed between the two ranch hands, and the red bucket occupies its own space and does not overlap the man’s hat or even break through the horizon line. This was not a lucky one-in-a-million shot, but one that was carefully composed by Abell as he positioned himself in the midst of the action, kept the various elements composed in his camera’s viewfinder, and waited until just the right moment when the red bucket was just past the cowboy’s hat to take the shot. It’s the result of a master micro-composer at work.

Micro-composition is all about focusing not on just the major elements of a picture, but the minor ones as well, and putting each element in its own space, while keeping it as a clear part of the whole. While I am certainly no Sam Abell, and probably couldn’t take photos like his if I practiced for a hundred years, there are many ways the techniques of micro-composition used by him and others, can be applied to even the most mundane photos. As a bit of a case study, the following image of a tulip is not composed well on a macro- or micro-level, but it can serve as a starting point for illustrating how these concepts work together.

microcomposition-tulip-1

What you see here is a good start but ultimately not a very pleasing image. The red tulip is in the center of the image, when it should be off to the side, and it has a green stalk protruding vertically which creates a jarring distraction. To fix some of these issues I re-framed the tulip with a better overall macro composition and the results, while not perfect, are certainly much better (see below).

microcomposition-tulip-2

From a macro sense the picture has improved, but look at the small details and you will notice several things that don’t work. The tulip itself no longer has a strange green growth on top but the flower now protrudes through the horizon line and into the steel bench in the background. The stalks on the left side don’t go quite to the corner which leaves a strange empty space between them and the edge of the picture. Finally, the yellow bulb on the right side is cut off. As you can see, even though the image seems fine at first glance, looking at these micro-level compositional elements reveals a host of problems that could easily be fixed, and would result in a much better picture.

microcomposition-tulip-3

Finally, a photo that works! Even though it’s not perfect (as I mentioned earlier, I’m no Sam Abell) we can see how micro-composing the photo has dramatically improved it over the original. The red tulip now occupies its own space, and does not break through the horizon line into the bench. The tips of the green stalks go almost to the corner, and the bulb on the right side is fully intact without being cut off at all. All this was completely intentional, not the result of some random photographic accident. I spent several minutes poring over the composition, and looking at the scene from different angles, in order to get as many elements as possible right where they should be. The result of this extra time is a picture that is much better than just a simple snapshot.

microcomposition-construction-site

It took a bit of work and patience to get this shot, but I wanted to make sure each worker was in his own space. The final shot is not ideal, but much better than others I took, in terms of micro-composition.

Learning the principles behind micro-composition takes time, observation, and lots and lots of practice. It also involves quite a bit of patience, so if you are used to snapping photos with your phone, throwing on a filter and some text, and tossing them up to a few social networks, you may find the idea of micro-compositing a bit frustrating. For another example take this photo of a sundial (below) which seems okay at first glance, but when I shot it I did not want to settle for something decent. There is nothing especially wrong with the overall composition, but on a micro-level there are several elements in need of fixing.

microcomposition-sundial-improper

I liked the idea of framing the sundial with a path and some greenery in the background, but studying the smaller elements and taking a new picture led to much better results. This required not only repositioning myself just a few inches over to the side, but also waiting about 15 minutes for the sun to move across the sky so I could get better shadows in the background. I could have just left this garden with the initial picture, but the next one, which is properly micro-composed, is far better.

microcomposition-sundial-proper

 

While this second image is not perfect it works far better for a few reasons:

  • The tip of the arrow stays within the path and does not intrude on other background elements like the stone borders on the side of the path.
  • The near side of the sundial arc does not overlap the far side.
  • The fletchings on the rear end of the arrow sit within the the shadow on the path, which leads to a nice sense of contrast.
  • The rear side of the sundial does not overlap the shadow of the stone ledge…except for the very tip of one arc. (Sometimes no matter how hard you try you just can’t quite get everything how you want it.)

Masters of the art like Sam Abell will sometimes sit for hours waiting for the ideal conditions to line up, such that the resulting shot is composed beautifully from virtually all possible angles. While I have years to go before I can even hope to come close to that level, this most certainly is a technique that has helped me improve my own photography.

microcomposition-guitar-pond-dog

Each element of this picture exists within its own space: the musician’s head is positioned between the branches, the bench is contained within the pond, and even the dog’s head does not overlap the bench.

If I had to distill my advice regarding micro-composition down to just one simple phrase, I would reiterate one thing I mentioned earlier – have patience. Take your time when preparing a shot. Consider all the elements in the frame, not just your subject and the light. Ask yourself if there is another angle, another position, or even another focal length you can use to get the various elements of the photo, from the major to the minor, to all work together. You don’t need a fancy camera or expensive equipment to learn micro-composition, but once you start to get the hang of it, you will see a dramatic increase in the quality of your images.

Have you found the concept of micro-composition to be useful in your own photography? What other tips and tricks do you have up your sleeve when it comes to composing pleasing images? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and if you have any examples that we can learn from feel free to share your photos too!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

  • Archie Macintosh

    Mmm… Maybe. Here’s how a real photographer describes how it actually works:

    Alex Webb’s best photograph: Mexican children playing in a courtyard

  • ColYoung

    micro composition, or as I like to call it… composition.

  • Gail

    I am speechless! I went to look at some the photographs that I took, and they all appear flat to me now. Thank you so much for the eye opener! I love the photographers that share their knowledge. Thank you, and to all the other writers of articles. My Best, Gail

  • Gail

    That is one awesome photograph! Wow!!!

  • Gail

    LOL

  • Thank you so much, Gail! I’m glad you enjoyed the article 🙂

  • Gail

    I liked it and loved it even more! Thank you again! 🙂

  • Genevieve Laurin

    Well! Thank you for giving a name to all that nitpicking and fussing I do when I take pictures. I sometimes thought I was really worrying about insignificant details that nobody else but me would notice, but now I see this is a thing. You have really put into words the process I go through intuitively.

    Here is an example of picture that took several tries before I was satisfied with it. I wanted the droplets to be the main focus, but as the fruit were also interesting to me, i wanted them to be at purposeful locations within the pic. I’d be glad to have your comments/critique of this!

    Thank you again!

  • Enrique

    I agree with all that was mentioned in this article. The micro composition concept has to deal with framing desireable at the camera and not after, in processing. It has do to with improving the location of each element in the rectangle/visor/frame. Some called them visually ‘distracting elements’. If you are in the quest for the essence, less will always be more (with few exceptions). Simplicity and elegance, removing what is not necessary until reaching the minimum.

  • No problem at all, Genevieve! And your image is a great example of micro-composition. Macro-composition would involve getting the drops in the center and the red berries on the edge of the frame, and then micro-composition involves making sure the individual drops are precisely where you want them in relation to the berries, as well as making sure the berries are in frame and not cut off by the edges. Some might say it’s all really just the same thing (i.e. composition) but for me, calling it micro-composition is a way of helping make sure I pay attention to the little details. Keep up the good work!

  • Jeff Johnson

    Good tips for composing the picture within the picture. Having been to one of these cowboy activities, I can confidently state that the calf in the picture is not being branded as mentioned in the article. There could have been some branding involved at some point, but at that given moment, the cowboy with the scalpel in his mouth and blood on his hands is taking something from the calf and putting it in that red bucket. Probably a BBQ later with “oysters” unfortunately.

  • Sarah Kreutner

    Wow! I have always instinctively tried to keep elements from touching and moved around to get a “perfect shot” with teeny adjustments, but I never knew it was a specific technique. Now I will be more aware of my microcomposition.

  • Thanks for the info, Jeff. I have never been to anything like that so I just used the description of the photo provided by Mr. Abell, but you’re probably right. I’ll make sure to watch out the next time someone offers me a plate of Rocky Mountain Oysters 😉

  • Glad the article was helpful, Sarah!

  • Jayne

    That calf is not being branded, it’s being castrated. The cowboy in the foreground is holding a scalpel between his lips. Notice the blood on his left hand. He is cutting the testicles off of that calf, which are then collected in the red pail that the other cowboy is carrying. It is ironic that we’re talking about the minutiae of micro composition, while we haven’t got the slightest idea what is actually going on in the picture.

  • mike walling

    awesome tutorial. Thank you so much!

  • mike walling

    Jayne, Finding negatives is a survival skill. Say you are a hunter gatherer strolling along with a full belly enjoying the beauty of pre civilization and BAM a lion kills and eats you. You cease to breed and your ability to appreciate beauty is lost to the world. Had you been more incline to look for negatives you would have been aware of the lion and possibly lived to have children. Don’t blame yourself for always zeroing in on the negative, blame your ancestors, or the lion.

  • You’re welcome Mike! I’m really pleased to know you enjoyed it 🙂

  • Rick Parnell

    I have been reading a lot of articles on composition this has opened my eyes and mind to grasping what I have been reading great job Thanks for the insight.

  • pete guaron

    Always love reading articles on composition – I don’t think there’s any “end” to this road – we just keep trying to move further along it.

    One thing which needs to be mentioned from time to time is working out what it is that we’re shooting, and shoot that. Don’t try to include the whole of the rest of what you see in front of you. Most experienced photographers worked that one out long ago, but the people who are joining in need to be encouraged to concentrate on this. Work out exactly what the “target” of the photo is, and junk as much extraneous stuff as you can. It creates noise and distracts from the composition of any picture. In fact, it’s capable of leading the viewer into a state of confusion, where the viewer has to actually ask “what is it a photo of?”

  • Glad to hear it, Rick!

  • That’s such a good bit of advice, Pete. Thank you for sharing. If, as the viewer, I can’t figure out what your picture it about in a few seconds then I’m going to just ignore it and move on to something else. All the compositional tips in the world won’t amount to anything if I don’t even know what it is I’m supposed to be looking at.

  • Izral Izar

    Not a tips actually, just a simple fact… If someone having disorder like keen to perfection or in medical term called OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), its really easy for them to practice this micro composition, or any other compositions… I know cause I’m one of them. Before reading this article, i never heard of micro composition, but I already practiced it in my every shot…

  • feralchick

    Appreciated the tips! I look forward to more.

    Note that another site has ripped off (and mangled) your article: http://www.stockntips.com/how-to-improve-your-photos-using-micro-composition

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