What Is Composition

The two most important photographic tools a photographer has in his tool box are lighting and composition. They work together in the creation of an image that tells a story.

In this post we will talk about composition. You can read books on composition and learn all the rules or you can live by this simply definition: Good composition is the pleasing arrangement of elements in an image such that the removal of anyone of  the elements will render the image incomplete. Once again all rules in photography are meant to be broken. Composition creates movement, defines space and guides the eye to where the image maker wants the viewer to go.

Elements of Composition:

1. Line  2. Shape  3. Form  4. Color  5. Space  6. Texture

The simple placement of the horizon line in a landscape can create a varied sense of space:

The most common discussion of composition will always include The Rule of Thrids:

What is the Rule of Thirds?

The basic principle behind the rule of thirds is to imagine breaking an image down into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) so that you have 9 parts. As follows.


As you’re taking an image be aware of where these lines intersect because they represent visual hot spots

With this grid in mind the ‘rule of thirds’ now identifies four important parts of the image that you should consider placing points of interest in as you frame your image.

Not only this – but it also gives you four ‘lines’ that are also useful positions for elements in your photo.


The theory is that if you place points of interest in the intersections or along the lines that your photo becomes more balanced and will enable a viewer of the image to interact with it more naturally. Studies have shown that when viewing images that people’s eyes usually go to one of the intersection points most naturally rather than the center of the shot – using the rule of thirds works with this natural way of viewing an image rather than working against it.

Using the Rule of Thirds comes naturally to some photographers but for many of us it takes a little time and practice for it to become second nature.

In learning how to use the rule of thirds (and then to break it) the most important questions to be asking of yourself are:

  • What are the points of interest in this shot?
  • Where am I intentionally placing them?

Once again – remember that breaking the rule can result in some striking shots – so once you’ve learned it experiment with purposely breaking it to see what you discover.

Lastly – keep the rule of thirds in mind as you edit your photos later on. Post production editing tools today have good tools for cropping and reframing images so that they fit within the rules. Experiment with some of your old shots to see what impact it might have on your photos.

Bottom line is listen to your heart and make compositions that tell your story. Rules are meant to be broken.

Below are some images taken by Jamey Stillings (http://www.jameystillings.com/) who I feel really use the power of the Rule of Thirds.


Concept Is Everything

Concept Is Everything!

There must be a distinction between style and content. Content is the hardcore message, the concept, the story, the idea… which should have impact, finesse, grace and simplicity. Style (technique in this case) is the wrapper, the package that holds the message and should be subordinate to all of the rest. It should support the concept, idea, etc. So many photographers get caught up in the latest flavor of the month in terms of the technique applied to the surface of the image. In the commercial world this is a challenge that’s hard to break away from. The technique applied to an image quickly becomes part of pop culture and some how denotes what is COOL!

Initially a great concept is created and photographed and the technique or visual style that’s used is in support of that particular concept. That technique or style is seen as something that people responds to and therefore art directors try to apply that recognizable effect to all the photography assignments they have…hence I have clients that hire me and say…I want the Martha Stewart look, or the Real Simple Magazine look or the Sports Illustrated portrait look. Technique is just that, something that is repeatable and defines the surface of the image.

No matter how good a technician you are if your photographs don’t have a vision, a concept or impact you have nothing. In this post I’m going to discuss some techniques to help get your mind working in a visual context.

Photography is all about symbols and icons…in a sense we need to create a visual language. Words are concepts and they help create images in our mind that begin to build the essence of a story.

The objects, textures and environments are the props in your photograph. They have to be meticulously chosen. Lets say you have a photograph you want to create and you need…

1. a person.
2. a coffee cup.
3. a dog.
4. a table

A nice group of items, but depending on what you want to say the person could be tall, short, fat, thin. He/She could be wearing dress clothes, swim suit, clown suit or be dressed as a duck. The coffee cup could be an antique, clear glass mug, paper cup with a logo or a tin cup. The dog could be a Mastiff, Basset Hound, Mexican Hairless or a three-legged Saint Bernard. The table could be made of marble or tin, or it could be a big butcher block with fat round legs.

What I’m suggesting is that just like the movie studios cast talent for the right part all the elements in a photograph have to be “cast” in order to have meaning relating to the story you want to tell.

Words are the journey to finding visuals for your concept. Ian Summers a well-known painter and creative coach came up with a list of themes he feels are universal. Ian believes anyone of these themes can be seen in any ad that’s produced.
He looks a these words as a jumping off place to help in the brainstorming process. We will review this technique in class.

Pick any one of these themes and create a circle path of words branching off from your chosen theme. Any words that come to mind. As you add words let the new words help you create other words until you can’t think of any more. You can begin to put the words together into sentences that will help you form visual ideas. By putting odd combinations of these words together you’ll be surprised at the ideas you can develop.

This is called Brainstorming.

Besides using themes to generate ideas you can use the concept of “Sames, Opposites and Comparisons…Metaphors.”

The Miracle Filter

The most essential tool to own other than your camera is a polarizing filter. This thing is amazing! I use it all the time when shooting food and product. Typically it is known as a filter to simply clean up unwanted reflections or deepen a blue sky. Photoshop has really eliminated the necessity to own a case full of hundreds of filters. The filters for color correction and color balance can all be simulated in Photoshop. The polarizer is the one filter Photoshop can’t touch, the effect has to happen at the time of capture. The filter is made up of to pieces of glass that rotate on one another to reduce reflections. The only down side is that the glass acts as a neutral density filter and cuts the light down about 2 stops. No big deal open up or kick up the ISO.

You can read all about the physics and math behind the workings of this wonderful tool or do what I do “put it on the lens and rotate it until it looks good!”

I want all of you to buy one of these magic filters. B & H Camera or Adorama both out of New York City or Tempe Camera will have them.

Click the link below to go to the B & H filter page.


Here’s how I use the filter when I shoot product and food images.

1. Camera on tripod.

2. If bracketing, only do so with shutter speeds while shooting tungsten with strobe don’t adjust f-stops between exposures because this will make aligning images next to impossible.

3. This technique requires blending two or more images together by using a layer mask and the brush tool.

When I’m shooting food or product I will put a polarizing filter on my camera which will allow me to essentially move highlights around. I will make two or more exposures with the highlights in different places. Buy shooting this way I don’t have to settle on where the highlights naturally fall based on where the lights are placed. In the film days compromises always had to made regarding highlights. This technique requires that the camera is mounted on a tripod and a hands off method of releasing the shutter has to be implemented either by tethering the camera to the computer or using a remote device. Any slight movement of the camera can be a challenge when blending files together.

Here are the two images I’ll use for this demo:

The next step is to drag the image you want on the top of the layer stack. Hit the “V” key for the move tool and then hold the “SHIFT” down while you move the image to be assured that the images line up.

Now take a look at the image at 100% and turn the top layer on and off to make sure the alignment is dead on. There will be times that the use of the polarizing filter may cause a slight shift and cause a pixel or two miss-match. This is easy to correct by using  AUOTO-ALIGN LAYERS. Be sure to have all the layers in the stack highlighted!

If you’re still having problems with alignment highlight the top layer and select the“DIFFERENCE” blending mode.

Difference basically turns the top layer into a negative. Using the arrow keys overlap the layers until the screen is mostly dark. It’s a bit like a video game…it takes a little practice…move back to the normal mode to check alignment by turning the top layer on and off…repeat if necessary. Hint: The arrow keys move the image a pixel at a time, add the shift key to the equation and the image will move 10 pixels at a time.

My goal is to keep the best highlights from both versions of the shot:

The red circled areas indicate what I want to work on. The highlights on the plate and the sauce are to heavey. I want to minimize and eliminate some of these areas. I will do this by creating a layer mask on the top layer and use a soft brush and various opacities of black paint. If I want to correct an area I can go back in with white paint and correct the changes.

This is the image in progress.

Below is what the mask looks like. You can see the different areas of paint where I adjusted the opacity or went back and edited areas with white paint.

Here’s the final retouched image.

What’s Left For Us?

This is an FYI post for all of you. The technological boom has made it very easy for your average individual to record and publish music…make films and become a Vimeo director extrodonaire…make images of wonderful quality with an i phone and instantly publish the creations for free. This is great for the world. We can all express ourselves and share our vision with people from all cultures.

As commercial photographers we use the medium of photography to make a living. Lots of competition to say the least. That’s why we have to be better thinkers with unique vision and have the ability to sell ourselves.

I thought I’ve heard everything…How much easier can photography get if we don’t even have to focus the camera!!!!

Check this out…Click link below screen capture:



The Printing Challenge…Wow That Doesn’t Look Like It Did On My Screen!!!!!

In a perfect world you would have the ideal digital darkroom set-up:

1. Large calibrated monitor and all the ram you can stuff into your computer.

2. The Epson printer of your dreams and an unlimited quantity of the papers you love to print on.

3. And last but not least a profile that has been built for every single paper type you want to have on hand.

But you are students living on fumes and Top Ramen and don’t have the funds to get all this stuff done.

Before the digital darkroom reached the sophisticated level it’s at today we relied on the wet darkroom to make prints. Once we loaded the negative into the enlarger our first step was to make a test strip. A test strip is a series of exposures made on one sheet of paper. A black card was used to cover the paper that we didn’t want exposed, we’d make a series of 4 exposures across the paper each exposure was 5 seconds long. The result would be 4 exposures at 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 15 seconds and 20 seconds. From this we could tell what the proper exposure was and we could also see how to adjust the color.

Because you may not have the right tools at this point and can’t always control where and who will make your prints here’s something you can try. Once you’re ready to send your file off to be printed (if you’re not lucky enough to have your own printer) send one you feel comfortable with…if it comes back great no problem…if not try this technique.

The image I want to print:

The first thing you want to do is create a new Photoshop document…COMMAND “N” will allow you to this…

Fill in the fields to a size that will accommodate three images.

Push the “M” for the marquee tool…draw a selection around the important part of your image hit the “V”  key for the move tool and drag the selected area to your new document.

Use the short cut, COMMAND “J” to create two duplicate layers. Now you’ll have a total of three layers.

This is what you should have:

Now you can begin to use some adjustment layers to adjust color. In this case I used selective color. Since I’m dealing with skin tones I worked with the reds. The cool thing about selective Color is that you can adjust all the color components that make up the color you’re working on…both primary and secondary color.

I adjusted each layer so there would be warmer and cooler variations.

You can also add a curves or levels adjustment layer to get various densities on the test strip. Make sure you group the adjustment layers with each layer of the image so you are only appling those adjustments to the intended layer.

Once you’ve seen the test strip and you’ve selected the adjustments that are giving you what you want… go ahead and select them in your layers palate and drag them to the image to be printed…all done!

Unsharp Mask Means Sharpen…Some Tools.

The exercise below has to do with sharpening your files…1. Sharpen to De-Fog a file 2. High Pass sharpening and 3. Selective sharpening.   What sharpening does is create more contrast between pixels which then gives the appearance of making an image seem sharper.

Below is the dialog box for the Unsharp Mask FIlter:

Amount: Controls the overall intensity of the sharpening.

Radius: Controls the extent of the pixels effected by the sharpening.

Threshold: Is the middle man…it basically backs off the effect in smooth tonal gradations like skies, skin, smooth backgrounds and smooth tones inside of textured areas. The bottom line is that this filter does increase noise…be careful.

Because this filter increases contrast you have to be very careful on how much you use. Too much will begin to create halos around edges where the effect occurs.

The amount of unsharp mask you use is dependent on the file size…smaller the file the less is needed and of courses the larger the file the more is needed. When working with this tool periodically view the image at 100% in order to monitor the effect.


Most digital images have a tendency to be flat because the chip has a large dynamic range. To help remove this overall haze a slight bit of unsharp mask clears it up.

Start with these settings for high res files:

Before and after Defog:

The details:

High Pass Sharpening

Sharpening is all about controlling the edges. The high pass filter works miracles. There’s really no magic here…it’s learn as you go in terms of what works for you.

Simple Steps:

1. Duplicate the background layer.

2. Run the high pass filter.

3. Change blending mode on the top layer to overlay.

Here’s our image before using the High Pass filter:


The Details:

Selective Sharpening:

This is an ideal way to control what you want sharpened or just left as is…this is a great tool when dealing with large areas of texture and smooth graduated tones where you want maximum sharpness in texture and very little in smooth tones like skin for example. This can be accomplished by using the history palate and painting with the history brush or by using a mask and painting from one layer to another.

First I’ll duplicate the background layer. I’ll apply some unsharp mask to the second layer, attach a mask to the top layer and use a soft brush and black paint at an opacity of 50% to paint in the areas that I want to sharpen.  I start at 50% opacity so I can slowly build up the effect, this gives me more control. When working with skin tone you want to leave the skin alone and just paint sharpening into the hair, eyelashes,teeth and eye brows.

The curves adjustment is just for overall tonality because sharpening changes contrast. The top layer is the straight image and the bottom layer is the sharpened layer.
This is the mask used to pull the sharpening from the bottom layer.

Before and After: