Home    Lesson Plans    #2: How to compose a photograph

Course Pre-Requisites

  1. Before starting this lesson, you should have a basic understanding and know how to operate your digital camera. If you are really new to photography with a new DSLR camera, I suggest you read up on the following articles first:
  2. You should have a basic understanding of how to properly expose a photograph. Refer to Lesson #1: Understanding Exposure if you have not taken the first course or if you would like to understand how to take a properly exposed photograph.
  3. You must have a digital camera.

So you just bought your brand new digital SLR camera and have just finished Lesson #1: Understanding Exposure. In that lesson, you have learned how to take a properly exposed photograph. No more underexposed or dark photos. No more overexposed or photos that are too bright! You have gained the knowledge and confidence to take photos that are just right - not too bright and not too dark either. So now, what's next? This next lesson will teach you how to compose a photographic scene and what to look for to produce a beautiful photograph.

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Basic guidelines for good composition

Experienced amateur photographers and even professional photographers usually know what to look for when composing a scene for their photo. Over the years, they have developed the skill to see the potential of great pictures around them. In this course, I will provide you a few simple guidelines that will allow you to learn what to look for and how to see beautiful scenes all around you. If you take these guidelines to heart and follow them on every photo you take from now on, chances are, your photos will come out better than you'd expect. Today, you can start developing your artistic skill of seeing and composing a beautiful photo by following 3 simple guidelines.

  1. Tell a story. What is the idea behind your photograph? What kind of story does your photo convey? What is your subject matter or theme?
  2. Emphasize your story. Does your photograph focus on your main subject? Does it give importance to the main elements of the story you wanted to convey in your photo?
  3. Simplify your scene. Does your photograph include only elements that are necessary to convey your idea or story? Did you remove (or at least minimize) the elements that distracts or elements that does not add to the idea or story?

By following these 3 simple guidelines, you can now look at your surroundings with a new perspective. You can start developing your skill for the artistic side of photography. Now, let's talk about each guideline in more detail.

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Guideline #1: A good photograph has a story behind it

Anyone can tell a story. There are so many different things all around us that we can tell a story about. So, all around us, there's potential for good a photograph. It is just a matter of conveying the story clearly so that your audience can understand it.

Let's look at an example photograph below.

Photo Story: Child doing his homework
Figure 1: Child doing homework

What does the story of the photo in figure 1 convey? It shows a child doing his homework. It is a simple photo with a simple story but the story is something the audience can easily recognize - Doing Homework. Everybody has done homework at some point in their lives so it is universal knowledge. A good photo has a good story with a standard theme. It can turn into an even better photo if the theme is universal, that is, if the idea is understood by people all over the world instead of an idea that is understood only by a select few. People need to relate in order to understand. People need to relate to the story of your photograph in order to appreciate it.

Let's look at the photo in figure 1 again. How do you know that the child is doing his homework? What elements are in the photograph that indicate that he is doing his homework and not watching television or doing something else? The question may sound silly but it brings us to our next guideline...

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Guideline #2: A good photograph emphasizes the main elements of the story

What are the main elements in the photograph in figure 1 that tells the viewer that the child is doing his homework? First of all, there's the child - the main subject. Then there's the pencil and the paper that is recognizable as a homework sheet. These are the supporting key elements that are necessary to tell the story. Then there's the element of the child's hand holding the pencil and writing answers on the piece of paper. That too, is an essential element of the story telling process.

Photo Story: Child doing his homework (essential elements removed)
Figure 2: Essential elements removed

So what happens if we remove the essential elements of the scene as shown in figure 2? Do we still recognize the story?

The photo in figure 2 doesn't tell us a clear story. It shows a close-up of a child but what is he doing? Do you consider this a good composition? Perhaps, but to me it has no meaning, it conveys no story and presents no theme at all!

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Guideline #3: A good photograph is simple

Let's look at the final guideline. A good photograph needs to be simple. By simple, I mean it conveys a single theme or idea and there are no major elements that distracts you from seeing the main story. Let's look at the photo in figure 3 below.

Photo Story: Child doing his homework (essential elements removed)
Figure 3: Too many distractions

Here we see the child is doing his homework but is that all we see in the photograph? In the background, we see a television. We see a speaker. These elements only serves to distract the viewer from the theme of the story - the child doing his homework. To correct this error, you can either crop the photo to remove the television and speakers or you can use shallow depth of field to blur the background enough to minimize its effect and not distract from the main focus of the photograph.

Photo Story: Child doing his homework (cropped)
Figure 4: Crop to remove distractions
Photo Story: Child doing his homework (blurred)
Figure 5: Blur distractions

A couple more suggestions for removing distracting elements: One, whenever possible, physically remove the distracting objects from the background and; Two, move your subject and choose a better background.

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Assignment 2.1: Compose photos using the 3 guidelines

For the rest of the week, I would like you to spend time taking photos. Before taking the photo, follow the 3 simple guidelines I have discussed above. Experiment... discover... this is the only way to learn.

Assignment Instructions

  1. Set your camera to Aperture Priority Mode, Shutter Priority mode, or Manual Mode. It is your choice. Use whatever you are comfortable with.
  2. For this exercise, make sure to set your exposure settings (aperture, shutter speed, ISO) correctly to get a properly exposed photograph. See Lesson #1: Understanding Exposure if you need a refresher course about exposing photos correctly.
  3. Look around you and with the 3 guidelines in mind, compose your photograph and take pictures - lots of pictures.
  4. Lastly, download your photo and view it on your computer. Review each photo you took and run it by the 3 guidelines we talked about in this lesson. Which guideline did you follow? Which guideline did you miss? How did it affect the photo?

Project 365 or 52 Week Project for the serious hobbyist

If you are really serious about learning photography then I highly recommend that you try Project 365 or 52 Week Project. Both of these projects are great ways to practice and learn photography. For more detailed information about these projects and how to start, read my Project 365 or 52 Week Project blog. I have carefully organized a Weekly Theme Suggestions for this project to coincide perfectly with our step by step Lesson Plans.

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