An Unconventional Composition Technique to Improve Your Photos


Last month I sat down and reread Michael Freeman’s book, “The Photographer’s Mind.” which I do occasionally. I find that by revisiting the words of other photographers I remind myself of the multitude of tools available to us. There’s so much we can do to create fresh and amazing photographs.

One of those ways is to push our skills and update our thinking. I think I’ve read through Freeman’s book about two or three times now. Every few years I take it off the shelf again. His books are insightful and interesting to read. Freeman offers up unique ideas for composition using both conventional and unconventional techniques. The books are readily available. You can also check out our review of one of Freeman’s other books here; “The Photographer’s Eye”. In this article, let’s journey through one of the concepts he discusses in his book, “Engineered Disorder”.

An Unconventional Composition Technique to Improve Your Photos

The details of the image are broken up into sections by the heavy shadows.

What is Engineered Disorder?

Freeman explains that Engineered Disorder is the active effort of a photographer to use non-conventional methods of composing photographs. Essentially, we are breaking the rules to create interesting images. Engineered Disorder means that we forget about conventional methods like unifying elements within the frame. We might allow ourselves to create uncluttered compositions. In one chapter Freeman talks about different methods of creating Engineered Disorder and bucking the system. He mentions using techniques such as disconnects, disruptive foreground, breaking the frame, superimposed layers and extremes of contrast. Maybe these terms sound complicated and a little too complex to understand, but they don’t have to be.

Let’s break down one of these techniques and see what’s involved in creating Engineered Disorder. We will discuss the use of extreme lighting or chiaroscuro to create disconnect within an image. It’s one of my favorite techniques. I love to include deep blacks and bright highlights in my compositions.


Chiaroscuro – chi·a·ro·scu·ro – the treatment of light and shade in drawing, painting, and photography.

Using this technique means that we employ very hard lighting to break up the unity of a composition. The image becomes a series of pieces that communicate meaning but are broken up by dark shadows and bright highlights. Conventional composition techniques would say that using this type of technique makes for a bad photograph, but remember we are pushing the elements of composition.

An Unconventional Composition Technique to Improve Your Photos

The strong shadows in this image hide some details from the viewer. The leaf can only be viewed in pieces. This means a viewer has to pause and take in each part of the image separately and then piece together the whole scene. Making a viewer stop and study your image is important. Given the number of photographs out there you want to make viewers take some time to digest your images rather than scan through and move on. 


Experimenting with dark and light

Consider my careful experimentation with Chiaroscuro. This image portrays the common Canada goose in a much more unique fashion. In the opening moments of golden hours, these geese become elegant shadows. The different sections of light and dark create interesting graphic qualities within the image.

An Unconventional Composition Technique to Improve Your Photos

In this second image, I’ve used auto tone to create a more conventional image. While the actual shot is very similar, these two different treatments create considerably different photographs. Which one do you prefer?

An Unconventional Composition Technique to Improve Your Photos

A more conventional exposure.

Other examples

Here’s another example of Chiaroscuro. This is a photograph of a unique area near my home. Everyone calls this place The Badlands. The red and gray clay create these beautiful graphic designs which draw visitors to the area. The hills are in danger of being destroyed by visitors, but the area is truly beautiful. The shadows and the light create beautiful diagonal lines in this particular image.

An Unconventional Composition Technique to Improve Your Photos

This are is now off limits to visitors because of the damage caused by walking on the hills.

In this final image, the light and darks highlight different circular objects. Perhaps this image isn’t as disconnected as the others but it still presents a unique treatment for the door of a fishing boat. The image focuses on graphic design elements of the boat rather than the uses of the vessel. The image has been turned into an abstract and most viewers will need to analyze the image before they can determine the exact subject matter.

An Unconventional Composition Technique to Improve Your Photos

Conclusion – your turn

Experimenting with different techniques is never a bad thing. You can learn and improve your photos by playing with unconventional techniques. Creating these images certainly pushed the dynamic capabilities of my camera. Exposing for deep shadows can be a challenge all on its own, but it’s a lot of fun to try out these different techniques.

While we’ve only discussed one of the methods for creating Engineered Disorder, these three examples clearly highlight the technique. It’s better to fully understand just one compositional method rather than scratching the surface of several techniques. Give it a try, and go a little bit extreme. Break away from the conventional and search for ways to compose images that harness the power of Engineered Disorder in your photography. Please share your results in the comments below.

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Erin Fitzgibbon is a freelance photographer, writer, and teacher, from Ontario, Canada. She specialises in portrait, sport, and fine art photography. In her free time, she escapes to the backcountry or the beach with her family.

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  • Daniel Teepen
  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Very cool light and dark effect Daniel. nice work. It reminds me of neon signs.

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  • JR
  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Lovely shadows and look at the way the birds become a graphic element. It makes for a beautiful image. Perhaps mess with the whites a little to make the image less flat. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Thanks so much for sharing. I love the hard line the water makes in the image. It’s almost like it’s two photos.

  • JR

    Thank you Erin. And especially thank you for all the great articles and photo examples. I’m always happy to see when you’ve written something.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Oh thanks so much JR. You just made my day.

  • Taylor Smith

    Thanks so much for the feedback Erin, I will definitely mess with the the whites!

  • bearsfolks

    First, thanks for writing the first article on composition that I have found useful and new in a long, long time! It’s opened my mind to a different way of looking at things. I will forward this to my friends.
    Along the lines of “hat is that”, I was a passenger in a car with a sun-roof, and another passenger had some flowers on her lap, which led to these (obviously the last one has some help from PS)

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Wow thank you for such a kind comment. I am glad you like my articles. Actually, I’m ecstatic! :)) I love these images. They are so cool. I must admit the final image, the photoshopped one is my favourite it reminds of a pile of old photographs sitting on a table. It’s also a little ethereal. Beautiful work!!!

  • bearsfolks

    The last one is my favorite too. It’s interesting, though, that the reaction of many people when I explain what the first picture is, is one of “OK, I kinda get it, but why would you do that?”. But I find that I have exhausted their tolerance for “weird” by the time they get to the third one!
    But that’s ok, as I know that I enjoy the times when I see the world a bit askew!

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Perfect that’s what art is about. The fantastic moments are when a total stranger comes up and they just “get” what you have created. It’s an adrenaline rush.

  • Brianna

    Ha! I literally just wrote a post to this effect (breaking standard compositional rules):

    Now you have me infinitely curious to experiment with chiaroscuro!

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    That’s awesome!!! So glad great minds think alike. !!! Show us what you come up with would love to see it.

  • Leyden

    Didn’t even see the birds until the third look – great pic!

  • Michael Hach

    I remember visiting these badlands when I was a kid and they were called Terra Cotta, I think near Caledon Hills?? Anyway, that was some 45 years ago in high school as a field trip. Ya, we walked all over them.

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    Hi Michael,

    You’re right its the badlands not far from Terra Cotta. You are not allowed to walk on them anymore.

  • wvsasha

    I hadn’t ever heard of chiaroscuro! However, I think one of my favorite pictures from a trip to the arboretum in D.C. may (?) qualify for this technique? I really liked the lighting and how the colors pop then.

    Thank you so much for a great article! I really appreciate all your work and effort!

  • Erin Fitzgibbon

    I’m so glad you found this article helpful. Chiaroscurro is lots of fun. The image definitely has the dark part of the technique down. Now the trick is to get the strong bright parts added to the image. It’s all about extremes.

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