Riomaggiore Photograph by Nat CoalsonSome photographers believe great shots happen mostly by luck – just keep making lots of pictures and you’re bound to get some good ones. It’s true that when you shoot frequently you increase the possibility of a happy accident; a “grab shot” that works, and regularly practicing your craft as a photographer is the key to improving your skills and the quality of your images.

However, it’s also important to understand that successful photographs most often express clear intentions of the maker. Like other forms of visual art, good photography is fundamentally based on effective design. Composition is part of the photographic design process, but it doesn’t end there. You can learn how to make better photographs using long-established principles of design.

When you’re preparing to make a picture, the first, most important question to ask yourself is “what is this a picture of?”. Clearly identifying the main subject or theme of a photo is key to its success.

Next, you need to eliminate everything from the frame that doesn’t contribute in a meaningful way to the main subject. In photography, usually less is more.

Nat_Coalson_Design_Fig_2Many photos fail to engage viewers because the photographer tried to get too much into the picture. When possible, provide some opportunities for the viewer’s imagination to interpret the meaning of the scene; this engages the viewer in a personal way.

TIP: Always be sure to scan the edges and corners of the frame for distracting or unwanted objects!

Once you’ve decided what it’s a picture of and gotten rid of all distracting elements, the next step is to apply your own sense of visual design and aesthetic style to create the strongest composition possible.

Your choices will be based on the position of the camera relative to the subject matter and how you place the frame edges in the optimal spot to create the best photographic design for the objects in the scene. The frame itself is the most important tool in designing a photograph.

You should also understand how the viewer’s eye will travel throughout the picture and make conscious decisions for how you want this to happen. Where does the eye go first? Where does it come to rest? Do the graphic elements in the picture work well together?

TIP: Generally speaking, you need to make sure that there are no elements in the picture that compete for attention with the main subject matter.

Use the fundamental elements of photographic design to create your composition. The following elements are the basic “building blocks” that combine to create a picture.

Points: places where the viewer’s eye changes direction while traversing the image
Lines: created by points; can be visible or invisible
Shapes: created by connected lines; shapes are flat without depth and dimension
Forms: shapes with shading applied; show depth and dimension with light and shadow
Patterns: repeating, geometric shapes
Textures: random, organic features that communicate a tactile sensation

One way to begin seeing the basic elements in any composition is to draw lines to identify shapes and arrows to indicate direction. This technique will help you understand how the viewer’s eye travels around the frame and can help you identify elements in the picture that may be distracting from the main subject.

These outlines can be real or imagined: you can print the photo and use a pen to trace the shapes or bring the image into Photoshop and use the brush tool to paint the outlines as shown in the example figures. After you’ve physically drawn lines on pictures for a while, you’ll begin to readily see photographic elements and their interactions without needing to actually trace their outlines.

Photographic Design Example

Note: though my examples are scenic images, you can use this technique for any kind of photograph.

In future articles you’ll learn specific techniques to use the photographic elements to their greatest potential. For now, start learning how to see what’s really making up the picture, simply in terms of basic graphics.