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Learning to Compose (1): Observation

Martin Turner (Martin Turner)

Keywords: learning_to_compose, martin_turner

This is the first part of a series on Learning to Compose.

In a previous series, I shared 21 principles of composition. I thought of revisiting and expanding on them in this series, but I feel it’s been said. What I want to focus on in this series is about how to become the kind of photographer who composes perfectly, without having to think about it. Memorising the principles, of course, is part of it. But memorised principles often don’t help in a real life situation. So I am going to offer five practices.

These are:

All of these may seem either obvious or unattainable, but I will try to share one specific technique for each which should take the obvious to the next level, and bring the unattainable within reach.

We talked in the previous series mainly about studio images. In a studio shot, you can compose however you want. But, for most of us, the true joy of photography is about going out there and capturing what we see as compelling images. But how is it that one person can go out with the same camera and lens and capture something which is nice enough to share on Facebook, and someone else can capture something on the same day in the same place that burns its way into the soul?

Clearly, we don’t have the ability to move lights around, rearrange scenery, and ask models to pose in a different way. If you’re photographing birds in a nest, or a deer in a forest, you typically get one go at the really perfect image. Then the birds have moved, the deer has gone, the light has changed.

People often tell me that it’s all about patience. Quite often, when a nature image of mine gets traction, someone will post “and how long did you have to wait to get that image, Martin?” They seem to want me to teach other photographers a lesson. But the self-same images they think were arrived at by waiting were most often, quite literally, snapshots. The scene was there. There was a moment in time to focus, frame and shoot. Then it was gone.

Patience does not, of itself, bring you better pictures. You can wait all day for something interesting to come along, but when it does, you have to move rapidly. You can fix the exposure, to an extent, afterwards in post-processing. You can even change the position within the frame by subsequent cropping. But you can’t expand the frame, and you can’t, with a DSLR taking a single shot, refocus it.


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Samuel Lane (slaneusa) on October 28, 2020

Fairly new to photography and found this article to be very enlightening thanks

Ken LaForce (KenLaffy) on October 19, 2020

I came to the same realization not too long ago, having grumbled for years about some shots being "perfect" except for the focusing. Except for action shots, MF has become my standard and my success ratio has gone up quite a bit and fits my shooting work-flow better... compose, expose, frame, focus, shoot. Great article, looking frward to reading the rest. Thanks!

James OConnor (Jim4328) on June 15, 2020

I have forever kept my camera on autofocus, you've provided a very nice thought to better see what is around me. Thanks.

Paul Cassidy (PCassidy) on June 7, 2020

Looking forward to reading more. . . Thanks for all the hard work. Paul