Tips for Objective Evaluation of Composition

Tips for Objective Evaluation of Composition

Composition is one skill within photography that we can probably never master, but just continually develop.  The composition we choose when taking a photograph, i.e. where we choose to place the boundaries of the frame, the perspective we choose to employ from the chosen focal length, how we choose to arrange objects within a scene etc, all influence the way a viewer interacts with the image, and so are all crucial to the success of any given image.

When a composition of an image is broken down to the most basic level, it can almost always be considered as the balance and interaction between different shapes, patterns and light within the scene.  It is very easy to critically assess the photographs of others in this way within a couple of seconds of laying eyes on them, however, how often do we apply that objective critique to our own images?

Here I've outlined the major components that contribute to the composition of this image, namely the three stones leading in from the foregound, the two blocks of dark tone acting as triangles drawing in from the right, and the movement in the clouds leading the eye in from the top of the image

Here I’ve outlined the major components that contribute to the composition of this image, namely: the three groups of stones leading in from the foregound, the two blocks of dark tone acting as triangles drawing in from the right, and the movement in the clouds leading the eye in from the top of the image.

Personally, there are times when I find it very difficult to ‘see’ my own images in this way as I can have a strong emotional attachment to the image that can cloud my judgement.  What do I mean by emotional attachment?  One of the big draws of photography for me is to be outside, amongst nature, seeing scenes unfold in front of me that no-one else is witnessing at that point in time.  Therefore, after photographing an awe-inspiring sunrise across a landscape, it can be difficult for me to separate the resulting image from the experience of being there whilst taking the image – I can end up seeing my images through ‘rose tinted’ glasses and not judging them with the objectivity that others will.

One effective way to overcome this is to not process images immediately, but to leave them for a few days or weeks until the memory of that moment of taking the photographs isn’t quite so fresh in your mind.  That way, you will see the image with fresh eyes, as others will.

Another method I find very useful is to rotate the image by 180°, i.e. turn it upside down, during post processing.  When you do that, the image in front of you no longer resembles the landscape that you captured, but instead resembles the series of shapes and patterns the make up the composition of the landscape.  When the image is upside down, it becomes very easy to be objective about how well balanced elements within the landscape are and to see the distribution of positive/negative space; therefore it becomes easier to decide where to crop an image or to see where you may need to dodge/burn to help direct the eye to the points of interest.

An image from the Lake District, UK, straight out of the camera.  It is a very busy landscape, with a lot going on

An image from the Lake District, UK, straight out of the camera. It is a very busy landscape, with a lot going on, so I needed to whether the composition works as is, or if any additional processing could help lead the eye of the viewer.

By turning the image upside down, it is easier to distill the key components of the composition, namely: the cascade of water running towards the bridge, the road over the bridge to lead the eye further into the scene, and the hatched circle of interest in the background, being pointed towards by the triangle of well lit trees

By turning the image upside down, it is easier to distill the key components of the composition, namely: the cascade of water running towards the bridge, the road over the bridge to lead the eye further into the scene, and the hatched circle of interest in the background, being pointed towards by the triangle of well lit hill side.

The final image, with processing influenced by the upside-down evaluaiton

The final image, with processing influenced by the upside down evaluation.

So, if you haven’t tried this before, give it a try the next time you’re processing images and I think you’ll be surprised how useful it can be, and not just with landscapes either.  Do you have any other tips for ensuring you are evaluating the composition of your images objectively?  If so, please share them in the comments.

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Elliot Hook is a wildlife and landscape photographer based in Hertfordshire, UK. Elliot loves being outdoors with his camera, and is always looking to improve his own photography and share what he has learnt with others. Elliot also can be found at his website, on Twitter, Flickr and 500px.

Some Older Comments

  • frisinger May 2, 2013 12:41 pm

    Then Mr. Coates, we should be seeing master pieces out of our five year-old grandchildren running amok with old digital cameras and iPhones. But it does not happen.

  • Lee Coates May 2, 2013 01:08 am

    The camera records what is in front of it, therefore composition(as a process) is already objective, the actual arrangement of objects in the view is non inportant(with regards to objectivity).

  • Elliot Hook March 25, 2013 01:06 am

    harold k - sure, a brief summary: increased exposure on the triangle of water leading into the scene. Decreased exposure on the rocks either side. Increased exposure on the road. Increase in exposure/saturation/contrast on mountains/lake in background. Soft neutral density filter applied to sky to decrease exposure further and increase saturation. For the crop (on flickr), i used a 5x4 landscape aspect ratio, and cropped to the edge of the road on the right hand side, removing one of the trees, making the road more prominent in the frame and bringing the bridge away from centre.

  • Harold K March 19, 2013 11:00 pm

    It seems to me that the modifications made in this landscape are pretty subtle. Could you list just what changes were made between the original and second and third (on Flicker) images. I am seeing slight increases in brightness and saturation in the distant mountains and sky as well as increased saturation of colors but not much if any cropping. I don't mean to be critical, just trying to learn from your article. Thanks for the tip about flipping the image to visualize the compositional features of a picture.

  • Cal March 19, 2013 04:20 am

    This is a great starting point and one could learn a lot about the human emotion and what viewing concepts spark those emotions...
    When you desire to capture an images, ask why do you like it: does it make you feel "Passive State" or does it bring some "Conflict and Tension"
    For example, using the above image of the water and sky. This images has both emotional states in it, when we see a "V" (valley) view between the mountain tops.. we feel nature in a passive state, nothing moving just the majestic view...
    For the lower part of the image, the Creek, it forms a triangle and the water is raging down the mountain, This creates the conflict or tension, for we all know the power of moving waters.
    Therefore, think of what emotion, you want your image to give and consider your blocking. I for one would have cropped to expose one of those emotions and see the power of your image come to life.

  • Owen March 16, 2013 03:46 pm

    Personally I'm not fond of objective evaluations. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. And how can we innovate if we always have some definitions in mind.
    Let go of all thoughts and rules and shoot without thinking.

  • A.Spong March 16, 2013 05:56 am

    Thank you for an informative article and another tool to put into the toolbox. The one thing that most likely would improve the image further would be a smoothing out of the dynamic range - HDR gently used. While one tries to use the rules of composition, most often I tend to not over think the shot and go with gut instinct. Working the scene and then editing on the computer when I have more time to evaluate each image. Ansel Adam's method was to pre visualize composition and exposure - using a view camera. Wonder what work flow he would have followed if he had being using a digital camera? I have used a view cam and it is a huge pain in the rear but forces a slow down with more time to think. Using a tripod is essential and a key part of the process of old time photography. Do not make the mistake of dismissing a tripod for digital use, it is another arrow in the quiver. Most good tripods can be used from ground level to standing height. Laziness is the only limit to great images and I am guilty as charged.

  • marty golin March 16, 2013 04:04 am

    Your rotation techniques is an excellent & easy way to break the immediate bond of what we saw & what the image is. Often converting to B&W does the same thing. & the comment above about the time-delay of getting slides returned is a lesson those of the digital-only generation should learn. The immediate feed back of digital is not to be discounted; it is a great learning tool. But our immediate reactions are not always our lasting feelings.

    My two cents on cropping (to emphasize what I think was your intention):
    *Crop on the right between the two trees. Gives a cleaner edge of light (top) & dark (bottom).
    *Crop on the left the tree profile; distracts than frames.
    *Maybe crop a little on the bottom.

  • branson March 15, 2013 12:00 pm

    edit your photos NOT in chronological order. arrange them based on size, name, etc. and the "story" of your shooting experience does not interfere with your editing... after editing you can change them back to be arrange based on time. after a trip in borneo i arranged photos by subject and it killed the "holiday timeline." i fell out of love of the majority of the photos as my memories became random and not attached to the story. terrible for viewing your holiday, but great for editing!

  • Elliot Hook March 15, 2013 05:28 am

    Jan, good point, being able to use this technique may e very helpful when actually taking the shot. I believe with some Llarge format/medium format cameras, the view through the viewfinder is actually either flipped horizontally or is upside down, depending on the model. Just another reason to lust after one!

    Russ/Frisinger - maybe you're right, that the road is only drawing my eye as I was there. However in terms of scootching the bridge, if I actually crop the image to move the bridge towards the right hand, lower third, the road becomes more prominent in the scene and may help that eye-drawing that I am after.

    Valkyri - I'm sorry to hear you find some articles discouraging due to the nature of the images, you can guarantee that that is never the intention. Even in your mass suburbia, you must be seeing something that inspires you for you to pick your camera up in the first place, so I'd suggest working out what that inspiration is and trying to focus on it. It really doesn't matter what the subject matter is to be able to apply the principles discussed above and in fact using simple subject matter such as a kid in a park, or ducks on a lake, would probably be more beneficial as the composition would not be overpowered by the exotic landscapes that are often chosen to illustrate such articles.

  • Allen Brenneman March 15, 2013 05:11 am

    I found this short article very helpful. I have never seen viewing the photo at 180 degrees but I can see the benifit.

    When I was shooting slides I would have a week or two before I saw the final images. What I expected to be the "outstanding photo" very seldom was, but others would jump out. With digital it is too easy to delete or make a judgement instantly. I am starting to refrain from extenstive deleting in the field and having enough memory cards so that I can wait a few days before viewing the images.

  • Valkyri March 15, 2013 04:14 am

    Although I understand this and it's a great article - as I struggle with composition that is anything but intuition (not exactly reliable), so I'm always interested in articles like this.

    However, I find when reading this, and any other articles here, the majority are taken in wonderful lovely places of wonderful lovely sights that I will likely never see. I can't afford expensive lenses, I'm willing to learn to work around that, but in the same regard - I certainly cannot afford to travel to exotic places and I'm not lucky enough to live in one. I live in a cottage (or more aptly, half way to the cottage) town that grew into a mass suburbia. This is a pretty ordinary place.

    I really wish that some of the photographers that write articles aimed at helping those who are neophyte hobbyists would use more practical photos as examples. I'm lost thinking, that's lovely - but how about a kid in a park, or a dog - or some ducks in a lake - so I can actually get by the awe of the lovely landscapes and actually learn something that I can use in the day to day things I see. I know I should be able to apply the principles to whatever I see, but it's tough when you're a beginner - and to be frank - it's discouraging.

  • Frisinger March 14, 2013 08:49 am

    Interesting article but I think you are stretching to say the road leads my vision or perception to anywhere. You were there and it may do that for you but too dark and discontinuous to do what you want it to. Nevertheless, I love the colors, cliffs, water and bridge it is really nice. I would have scootched the bridge to the left 1/5 to 1".



  • Frank March 13, 2013 12:36 pm

    Note the effect of the light:

  • Frank March 13, 2013 09:05 am

    Look again at this article from an earlier lesson.
    With a little time 'working the scene' an interesting tree suddenly got a lot more interesting!

  • Frank March 13, 2013 08:23 am

    Scott, wonderful color and focus and interesting light in the background, but all that dark empty space to the left bothers me!

    Michal the image of the bell is sharp and interesting, but the blurred wheel to the right is a total distraction probably because it is light and white and blurred just enough to peak our curiosity ' but leaves us (me) confused because I cannot really make out what it is yet my eyes are quickly drawn there. Looking there pulls me away from the wonderful main subject, the bell.

    Mirdula, it is very difficult to draw the same emotion to a photograph that you felt when you were taking the picture. Since the beginning of the camera that has been the daunting task of the photographer.
    Now look at your image of the distant mountains. Why did you take the shot? What were you trying to convey to all who looked at it? I remember a shot I took of distant mountains and I wanted to show the amazing places over which had hiked to get to the spot where I took the photo. Anyone looking at the shot would have no idea that is what I had in mind unless I had specifically pointed it out.
    Obviously you wanted us to share a beautiful view, but how could you get us to react with a , "Wow!"
    For starters, why do people choose early morning or late light? For one, the drama of color. How could you bring out the view of those mountains in some more dramatic way. Maybe look for a scene within the larger scene. Do not try to include all. Leave out uninteresting sky, either all blue or all gray. Include amazing puffy shaped clouds or stormy clouds. Have something large and interesting in the foreground maybe only a few inches away. Look at the photo in the example here. We see distant mountains, but look at the foreground, and middle ground. They are full of relevant relationships pulling us into the frame and back into the distance. Can you believe you are looking at a flat surface!

    Why doe the flipping upside down help? We no longer quickly see or think, river bridge,road and mountains, but rather shape, lines, geometric figures like triangles, color. The labels of the natural objects we recognize are for the moment turned into elements of composition rather than trees, etc.

    Try this exercise. Find a picture in a book, lets say a lighthouse. Now get a pad of paper and pencil, turn the picture upside down and then draw it. Draw it as you see it, upside down. I bet you will discover that you are a better artist than you thought you were (unless, of course, you are indeed an artist) But, why? You will no longer be thinking of drawing a lighthouse, but you will be looking and trying to draw the lines and shapes that you see.

    One more thing. Next time you are composing a landscape scene, instead of thinking, "tree", think shape and then how best to include that shape (Triangle?) into your composition.

    Who am I to be writing this? Just a guy trying to learn how to be a better photographer and who has read some books on the topic as well.

    Mirdula, one more example. I remember once looking out a hotel window at the Matterhorn and thinking, "Hmmm...what is so great about that?" When suddenly clouds parted and the true summit suddenly emerged from behind them. Wow...what a view! But ,suppose I had snapped off a photo? It would have been just another oh-hum picture of that famous peak. None of the emotion that I felt. Remember, too, when we take a photo, we are not seeing what we see, but what the camera sees. We have the emotion, the camera has , well....a sensor.

  • Jan March 12, 2013 09:04 pm

    Thank you for this tip. It is a very good idea, turning it upside down makes the image more abstract, which I guess allows to focus more the composition.
    I just did not understand how the upside-down-evaluation influenced you for the retouch. I mean, I am sorry, but I don't see the difference between original and processed image (well it's hard to see when not having them side by side).
    This technique is surely very helpful, especially for the cropping phase and probably also to decide if parts should be lighten/darken. But obviously if the original photo is badly composed, there is no hope :). Too bad we cannot use this technique when composing the shot :).

  • Mridula March 12, 2013 03:50 pm

    I have the reverse problem. I hate almost all my pictures if I see them immediately because they are always somewhat lacking to the actual scene.

  • Michal France March 12, 2013 11:00 am

    Very helpful article! I have to try the rotation, it seem a really good idea.
    But how will I evaluate the composition for example by this picture?

    Feel free to comment and don't hesitate co criticise!

  • Scottc March 12, 2013 07:26 am

    I think that using a crop tool can teach quite a bit about composition, improving it in post can be a learning experience that translates to the field.

    I also think that composition can be very subjective, and that anyone looking to evaluate it "objectively" needs to considers the photographer's intent.

    This one was criticized for the position of the subject in the frame relative to the light, but I intended it this way.