Ideas to park in your photo-brain

4. Zone Composition

Where's the Wall? D'oh!

Got comp? Got framing? Got an image that speaks to you? These are questions that should be running through your brain/eye/critic (in your own words, of course) every moment you apply face to viewfinder.

It's aMAZing to see how many images are gathered by perfectly fine equipment in the hands of photographers who aren't thinking about composition. It's as if the questions running through their minds were, "Is it in focus?" "Is her nose in the middle of the shot?" "I wonder what's for lunch?"

Yep, the photographer is often out to lunch all right. Results range from gagg to spew, spiked by the occasional accidental gem. Picking up a camera and shooting images of friends and family, interesting vista or monument, breathtaking scene or vital documented event, should be done with more understanding than aiming a laser pointer.

Of course, this invective isn't aimed at you or me. It's for that person reading over your shoulder.

The solution to this is about as difficult as remembering what a verb is. In other words, it's a plague of bland caused by vast empty spaces rather than by denying some radical belief.

People don't shoot bad pictures because they're rebelling against some irritating teaching they've heard or to get back at their abusive parents or insulting teachers; they shoot bad pictures because they haven't gotten The Word on how to avoid them.


Not everyone is concentrated on Visual Thinking as their main focus in life. I know a guy with 20/20 vision that is a total Verbal Thinker and someone with 20/500 vision (exceptionally poor) who is a Major Graphic Designer at the highest level.

So it isn't a sight thing. It's in the sense of That Which Looks Good that one may discover their personal zone of visual achievement.

What looks good to you? You might say something like, "That depends..." and everyone would have a different answer from that point on. But the general response of human preference, cutting across all cultures and reaching thousands of years into the past is this: "What looks good to me is something that pulls my thoughts into a new appreciation." If you can let that attitude wash over you, then with a few extra phrases of support, you can take better feeling pictures.

What will they contain?

A story of some sort. A construction of elements that steers the viewer into a logical or emotional understanding that communicates the existence of something(s), its relationship to something else and/or its action(s) within that context. Sounds complicated. But a story can be real small.

For instance here's a small story: It Is. That's it. Just two words. The It can be anything and the Is is validation of its unambiguous existence. CSI photographers tell this story with their pictures all the time. A basic paparazzi flash from the camera gets rid of all that irritating lighting and shows the true colors of the subject in question with a minimum of distractions.

What's the story here? The Dime? No, more than that. The Big, Honking Macro Shot of a Dime?
This is a Dime Seen Very Close? Even against a plain white background the story grows:
Here's a Worn Dime on Paper That Has Texture. Intuitively we scan the image for visual sub-plots. Scratches, lighting, metal patina all contribute to the visual story. Hey, nobody said these stories had to be big.


Of course, it's almost impossible to isolate a visual story down to just two words since a subject is generally in some sort of environment, even if it's the simplest of all.

Variations of It Is include: This Is It, This Is What It Looks Like, Here Tiz, It On White, It Floating In Black, and so on. By the time the story becomes A Flower Emotionally Posed Against A Sea Of Out Of Focus Vegetation the communication of the story contains quite a few visual sub-plots.

The "It is" story is perennial and timeless. From cave drawings to photos of Aunt Mini in front of the Eiffel Tower, that same base level image will be taken about 700,000,000 times today alone by human kind. At least 699,999,000 of them could have been improved with a little whisper in the ear of the photographer.

Do you hear these whispered questions? "Framing? Composition?" Of course, in order to know how to respond to these whispers, the photographer has to know what each term means and how to apply it.


Putting a line around the subject. Cropping the world. Holding up your hands with thumbs and index fingers suggesting a frame. Deciding what's out of the picture. Framing must be done from one spot. The spot where the lens is at this moment. You can't frame from over there if the camera is over here.


Arranging things, especially within the frame. Putting stuff here or there. Finding the place in space (and often time) from where an image may be framed. You can compose by moving the camera over there if the framing over here isn't as nice as you want.

Where do you put things in a composition? The ergonomic, human-desired place to put things is where our visually evolved brains appreciate seeing them. One classic formula for this is defined by the Rule Of Thirds, and while it helps you more than hinders you, it is far from the whole story.

Both images just above are Rule Of Thirds compliant. Important visual targets tend to hover around the tic-tac-toe intersections one might mentally lay over each image, but other things are going on that complete the pictures.

Each image had to be composed by moving subject matter and the camera to a place from which the subject matter could be seen and understood. Then each was framed to include the important and purposely exclude the unimportant. Each could be easily further improved in all departments, but as is, they each tell a story. Guess which is Ebonies and Ivories and I Want This. Clearly one is a joke and the other is a variation of It Is.

Adding Interest

One image adds interest from its inherent theme and variation of common cuppa coffee elements. In particular the circles of contrasting fluids in contrasting colors of containers is subtilely informative. A white creamer or a square one would be a different story.

The sushi bar's cat figure (an iconic presence in all sushi bars) augmented by a human hand and drawing of a fish takes the shot completely out of a candid capture of a found situation and into a purposely made joke. The story here might be said in words as OK Kitty, Here's Your Fish--And It's Just As Artificial As You Are. Presumably you get the joke without the caption.

Of the two shots here, the cat statue is the most composed, since it took preparation, POV, human intervention and lighting to carry it off. With more preparation the background might have become better controlled and extraneous elements removed, but it's not bad for one minute's work.

It's possible to compose some elements after the image has been gathered. Here's a shot that was composed and framed at the moment of making the original image, then run through additional processes of cropping and strongly adding digital darkroom techniques to produce an emotional result.

It strongly pushes the Rule Of Thirds into exaggerated interpretation, but still adheres to that convention even while forcing it into new territory. You don't need to know that it was take in Beijing's Tian Tan Park to appreciate it, but now that you know, its story expands.

Inner Voice

As images like these come together, it's because the photographer had a different dialog going on internally. I happen to know that he was not in the slightest interested in what's for lunch (the Sushi Bar Cat was taken on the way out, for instance) and that merely throwing a frame around the subject matter was only part of the mental conversation.

An inner mantra was at work. Framing and Composition were mentioned, along with questions like How Far Can I Push This? and What Can I Cut OUT Of This Shot?

Here are some good questions to have on the tip of your cornea as you pull an image together:

Where's the frame?
What's being composed?
What can be eliminated? What can be cut into?
Is it urging me to interpret it symmetrically?
Can I get closer? Farther away?
How are those thirds doing?
Is some other fundamental geometry pulling this together?
Should I move to a different place?
What's the right exact moment for this?
Does this make sense to others, too?
Is there a story here (a caption will do)?

Now go out and shoot some images while these questions are fresh in your mind and let me know if running these phrases around in your head has helped you.

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