Learning to See, Part VII

Learning to See, Part VII

Whereas photography is about vision, composition is about aesthetics.

In our previous readings in this series we learned how colour,  contrast and tonal range have a dramatic effect on the overall result.  Some teachers may say the first important rule in making successful pictures is composition, and indeed that may be so.  However,  I also like my intrepid readers to be unique and true to themselves.  Therefore, let’s argue that colour impact is more important than composition  ( remember folks, this series is for the novice and beginner  so please let’s not start a raging debate and muddle the waters. I want our beginners to have fun and explore for themselves – they will figure it out.) 

              I had the good fortune of being raised in the country, on a twisting gravel road that followed a meandering river. Not far from the family farm was one of those old-styled triangular framed bridges that crossed the river, and just beyond that was a drumlin where one could sit and breathe in the unfolding landscape below.  It was idyllic, and a magnet for artists’ easels.

When my daily chores were finished I would often climb aboard the 28-inch hand-me-down bicycle, with worms in pocket and alder fishing pole, and peddle to my secret fishing hole. Sometimes I would arrive at my destination, other times I would be sidetracked by an artist standing atop the Lloyd Hill (as we called the drumlin), adorned in beret with brushes in hand.

Invariably each artist would add the S-curve of the river leading in from the bottom right corner of the blank canvas following a diagonal until it exited in the upper left corner. The triangular bridge was always in the bottom right-hand corner of the canvas, our farm in the upper right hand corner.  The distant pine forests would create the far-off horizon line. One artist who often visited the same location would place an elm tree in the left foreground of the scene to add balance and colour, reflecting the season. Ironically, the elm was not in the vista lying before her eyes, but was a creation of her imagination.


Many of the elements of good composition can be found in this image. Can you locate the diagonal lines, the various "C" and "S" curves, and triangle forms in this image?
Many of the elements of good composition can be found in this image. Can you locate the diagonal lines, the various “C” and “S” curves, and triangle forms in this image?

I liked this artists work best; she was not only painting the scene as it lay before her, but she was also adding her own elements —the elm tree— and expressing her mood and thoughts at that particular time. By breaking the realist rules of the day, she was making a statement with her art.

Some twenty-five years later I would often reflect on those early lessons that had registered by way of an artist tolerating the relentless gawking of a kid with worms escaping his shirt pocket.

What I found particularly intriguing, however, was how the artist would start with a blank canvas and then add elements as their imagination desired. By comparison the photographer starts with a full canvas and eliminates those elements that are undesirable.  Consequently we can say that a painter’s art form is an additive one, whereas a photographer’s is subtractive.

Over the next few issues let us explore some of the basic rules of composition by identifying the elements of pleasing aesthetics: the S-curve, the C-curve, how to create motion by using diagonals, forcing the viewer into the scene by way of using contrast and selective focus, how the use of triangles keep the eye moving within, and of course the time-honoured favourite of teachers everywhere … the Rule of Thirds.

Once we have explored the possibilities these guidelines can bring to our photography, we will then become rebels and toss them aside. Only by understanding the “rules” can we then effectively break them.

A newly hatched Blanding’s Turtle, identified as a species-at-risk, is only about the size of the largest coin you have in your pocket. When taking portraits of just about all living creatures, a good rule-of-thumb is to position the camera at eye level of the subject.


In the interim, what I want you to do is start making pictures with an awareness of where you are placing your subject, and objectively pondering why you made that decision. There is no substitute for actually being out there enjoying the craft that made us acquire a camera in the first place. As you study your results ask if the image translates the message you were trying to make in the first place. This is not philosophical rhetoric – there really was a reason you made that picture in the first place.

What was it?

Study and analyse your picture, and learn from your exercises. First and foremost, keep your picture making fun.

And remember, if you are having fun  you are doing it right.

See the Full Learning to See Series

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Dale Wilson is a freelance photographer based out of Halifax, Canada. He has been a regular staff writer for a variety of Canadian photo magazines for 18 years. Wilson has also published or co-published four books and was the photo-editor on the Canadian best selling Canada’s National Parks – A Celebration. His practice concentrates on commercial work and shooting natural history images for four stock agencies. After a 10 year hiatus Wilson will once again be offering eastern Canadian workshops with his teaching partner Garry Black.'

Some Older Comments

  • John J March 19, 2013 01:14 pm

    Thanks Dale,

    After a lifetime of mentally composing without a good cam, I bought a 7D last year. 3 months later I lost my vision. But now, after a year, it's fixed enough to shoot again. I can't tell you how inspiring it's been to read your series, magnified on the screen. I don't think "How to See" is beginners' stuff. It should be required reading for every pro to rekindle the muse.

    Cherish sight and shoot every day, eh?

  • Dale Wilson March 18, 2013 11:22 pm

    Hi John,

    Thanks for your confidence and enquiry. You are not the first to enquire, and despite having authored several books I have not written one on "Beginners Basics."

    However, it is something I am considering and making available as an e-book. There are many challenges involved with such a project, not much different than traditional print, but let's just say the desire is there.

    Again, thanks for your enquiry and when this happens I would imagine it will be distributed through the dPs website.

    In the interim keep shooting and having fun ... that's what it is all about!

  • John J March 18, 2013 08:36 am

    Has Dale Wilson published a book of his "Learning to See" stuff. If so, I'm buying. Anyone know? Thanks.

  • KSW March 12, 2013 04:41 am

    I am enjoying this series a great deal. Learning to see is a art i yearn to grow my visual skills at. Thank you for the series.

  • Ronaldgjohnson March 2, 2013 04:17 pm

    Very interesting & well written. It proves the greatest attribute to be a good or great photographer is YOU not the equipment you are using.

  • hammjackk March 1, 2013 10:29 pm

    This article is very inspiring. Moving on to other composition articles. :-)

  • Mridula March 1, 2013 03:33 pm

    For me S and C curve are new concepts.


  • Dale Wilson March 1, 2013 12:20 pm

    As my favourite television anchor says during these moments: We seem to be having some technical difficulties. Please stand by.

    PS: That really is a small turtle.

  • Scottc March 1, 2013 11:34 am

    The link to the second photo is busted and there's no link to the author's work in this article.

    I agree with several of the concepts presented here, but I think this has begun to stray from the theme of the "learning to see" series.


  • Hal March 1, 2013 07:23 am

    Nice article, but the picture of the turtle is missing. The article lacks something without all the pictures.