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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!