Why are you taking photographs? No really - why?

Take a couple of minutes to think about it.

What are you trying to say, and who are you trying to say it to?

We all take photographs for different reasons. To take a photo we're proud of, to win a competition, to make a walk more interesting, or because we said we'd take a photo every day for a year. Maybe it's to show off, to hang on the wall, or because we want to preserve our children or grandchildren's childhood. It might be just to learn how to use the camera, or to be popular on Instagram.

Whatever your reason, even if it's just because you want to finish this week's project, someone will look at your image. It might just be you having a quick glance on the back of the camera before you delete it. Or, hopefully, at least one other person will see it.

The point is - you have a chance to speak to the person looking at your photograph. You owe it to yourself and to that person to think about what you want to say before you press the shutter.

Composition is the language of photography

Think of your composition as the language you use to speak to your viewer. Your camera might be your voice, and the quality of light (which we'll start looking at next week) the tone of your voice - but the backbone of your photograph is the composition, the common language that you both understand.

Where do you put everything in the frame?

What do you leave out?

How to all the elements relate to each other?

How can you use these principles to reduce a 3 dimensional scene to a 2 dimensional representation that echoes the finished image you see in your head?

Becoming fluent

Of course there's no easy answer. But just as you learn any language, you first learn some vocabulary (everything we've covered in the last 3 weeks), and then you learn some grammar (what we'll look at today). You practise everything you've learnt, and add new vocabulary and grammar. You keep practising and at some point you'll find you are putting everything together in longer sentences without even thinking about it. You are becoming fluent.

One day soon you'll take a photograph where you have unconsciously placed the subject where you want it, knelt down to get a better viewpoint and used a shallow depth of field to blur out the background.


This week I want you to look at some bigger picture composition ideas. In previous weeks you've looked in isolation at techniques like the rule of thirds, using symmetry, having a single focal point. This week I want you to think deeply about why you take photographs generally, why you are taking the particular photograph you are about to take, and how you can use the language of composition to speak to your viewer.

The first thing to do is think about the answer to this question:

"Why do you take photographs?"

You can be as literal or as philosophical as you like. There is no right answer, and I hope everyone will have a different reason.

Next - have a go at some more advanced composition techniques:

Advanced techniques to try

You've learnt a lot of composition vocabulary over the last three weeks. Here are a couple of grammar points you can bear in mind when you're assembling your photographs:

1. Visual weight

This extends the principle of having a single focal point, and thinking about the balance between subject, foreground and background.

How much of the viewer's attention does each element of the photograph claim?

There is more to this than just how big something is in the frame:

- faces will automatically draw the viewer's eye, no matter how small

- anything red will attract a disproportionate amount of attention

- specular highlights (white spots or burnt out areas) will also draw attention

- anything that contrasts with the rest of the frame will stand out - not just colour, but things like a large expanse of shadow next to a more textured subject, or a bird flying out of the frame when all the others are flying in

Look how many things there are in this image to distract you from the blue anemone:

visual weight 1.jpg

The distractions are all caused by elements having the wrong visual weight.

- the red out of focus anemone in the background draws your eye like a moth to a candle

- the pale blue highlight bottom left does the same

- your eye then wanders over the mysterious out of focus pale highlights all over the background

- you eventually get to the blue flower, the subject, but your eye is immediately drawn to the 2 out of place white flowers on the same focal plane

- and overall, the background occupies far, far too much space in the frame

This is a much better composition. All I did was move in closer, and use a bit of cloning in Lightroom:

visual weight 2.jpg

2. What's leaving the frame?

Be very, very careful about each edge of your image. What's leaving the frame, and where is it leaving? Be intentional.

In this image, the third ice chip in the top right leaves the frame on 2 sides. It either needs to be all the way in, or all the way out of the image. As it is, it detracts from the 2 main ice chips.


3. What's overlapping?

Give elements of your image breathing space. Don't let them overlap with each other unless that's what you want. You need to train your eye to spot when an image could be improved if elements were separated. Often you only need to move the camera a couple of inches. This is a critical skill to develop for landscape and still life photographers especially.

I'm not sure which of these 2 images I prefer, but take note what a difference it makes whether the rocks overlap or have room to breathe. The difference in viewpoint was about 4 metres along the beach.

alignment 3.jpg
alignment 2.jpg

The last thing (which is optional) is to take a photograph where you communicate something to the viewer. Post it in the Facebook group and ask what it brings to mind, or makes people feel, or what they think you were trying to say. Please take the time to comment on other people's images as well.

You can do anything you like, but if you need a starting place, try taking one of these photographs:

melancholy, balanced, tired, expectant, happy, impatient, choices, isolation, sinister, abundant