Fix a composition like you would eat an elephant


We’ve all looked at a scene before knowing deep down inside that it has amazing potential but the task of capturing it in a single image can sometimes feel totally overwhelming. It is one of the most common feeling expressed by aspiring photographers, that the task at hand is just too big and scary to tackle leaving people to shy away and find an easier target to shoot. I want to change this today in the same way that you would eat an elephant… bit by bit. By following this advice you’ll have an easy structure to gain personal perfection in your compositions and all you’ll need is a little perseverance and to be willing to take your own criticism.

The technique I’m describing below isn’t a fix to get amazing photos all of the time because we need to understand that gaining perfection in the composition of a scene doesn’t always make it a good photo. What we can do however is capture the scene at it’s absolute best, as good as reality allows.

We’ve all heard the saying before ‘how do you eat an elephant? Bit by bit’ and this is exactly how we are going to fix our compositions; multiple versions of the same photo fixing tiny issues until we eliminate them all. This method is going to take longer than your average photo but over time it gets faster with less iterations I promise.

4 steps to follow

Step 1.
Look at the scene and take the most obvious shot and get your combinations of settings correct. Shoot the image and quickly delete it because chances are it’s completely unoriginal (read my ‘Third time lucky, this will never work’ tutorial).

To me this is the most obvious tourist image, not overly well thought out and a feeling that it wasn’t really all that deliberate.

Step 2.
Look for the second angle that catches out eye and take the image again.

We then need to ask:

Me: “What do I like about this photo?”

Me (back to me): “I prefer how the lines lead me into this shot and the off-centre angle looks more deliberate”

Me: “Ok, What don’t I like about this photo?”

Me (back to me again): “The sign board in the lower right corner is distracting, the menu board on the left isn’t prominent enough and the path looks empty”

Step 3.
Fix the first issue that you came up with, in my case it was a small step forward to eliminate the sign and by getting closer on a wide angle lens the menu board was significantly exaggerated. Shoot the image again with the issue fixed.

Ask the question again:

Me: “What do I like about this photo?”

Me (back to me): “All lines lead to my vanishing point without distractions and the menu board is now a prominent feature”

Me: “Ok, What don’t I like about this photo?”

Me (back to me again): “The path still seems a bit empty”

Step 4.
Ok, so waiting for a couple of moments until someone walked into my scene fixed my empty path issue.

So there you have it, my ‘best angle’ for this scene with the big task being solved bit by bit!

Some tips to make minor changes:
1. Eliminating distracting subjects or lining up the rule of thirds – Move left and right so as they line up on rule of thirds points or are removed entirely

2. Increase or decrease the amount of foreground water/grass/path you have in your image – Move up or down

3. Exaggerate a subject – Get your camera lens close to the subject

4. Colour not working for you? – Change up the white balance or shoot black and white

This might sound like an obvious process to go through but the reality is that not many of us stop and take the time to actually ask these questions once, let alone 5 or 6 times as we slowly fix the problems. If you feel that you don’t really have the ‘eye’ to pick what is wrong with the shot but you ‘just know it’s not right’ I would suggest the simple trick of touching your camera screen where your eye starts in the picture and tracing the path that your eye follows, as you trace around your image you will quickly discover the points where your image becomes jarring, or where your eye wanders off course, these are the parts to fix.

So there you are, an elephant of a task broken down into a simple process, being solved bit by bit until there are no more problems to solve. Over time this process becomes fast and you don’t need to even photograph the images between each step, you can just see the issues you solve and create. Like anything in life, perfection doesn’t come easily but with a little perseverance and self critique you will be on your way to profoundly beautiful compositions in no time!

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