“I Don’t Do Composition”

Today’s Post by Joe Farace

The above the words were spoken by a young photographer while a friend of mine was trying to offer constructive criticism. I hate to break it to them but the moment you place a viewfinder to your eye or look at the LCD’s live view, the choices you make affect the photograph’s composition. Of course, they may be bad choices, but there you have it.


Artists have always made choices affecting the composition for their artwork; heck, I’m sure Jackson Pollack was aware of the composition of his paintings. As was Picasso or Salvador Dali, let alone photographers like Ansel Adams. This ennui, I believe, because throughout photography’s history, there has been much written about the “rules of composition.”

One of the best books on composition is The Command to Look by William Mortensen which was published in 1937 but a recent reprint is affordable ($17.42) and should be in the library of everyone serious about photography. Sure it’s a hard slog and the reprint includes a bizarre Afterward, so please read my review before jumping on Amazon’s website. You won’t find anything like the ‘rule of thirds’ that divides an image into three slices and dictates specific intersection points where subjects should be placed for maximum impact. Nope, Mortensen applies a psychological approach and as I’m re-reading it find some of his comments have an invisible “if you want your pictures to look like mine” component to them. Nevertheless this is a fascinating way of approaching the subject.

mortensenMy personal philosophy of composition is based on how when looking at a pictures, your eyes see the image in the following order: sharpness, brightness, and warmth. On the simplest level if your photograph’s subject is the sharpest, brightest, warmest object in the image, you’ve got a winner but if the subject is not sharp—tilt! Surprisingly I find some of this same approach in Mortensen’s writings.

The same thing happens when a sharp, bright object is placed near a similarly, sharp bright and warm object; you’re eyes are gonna go to the warmest object, whether it’s sharp or not. So waddaya do? You can’t say, ““I don’t do composition…” because like it or not the second you press the shutter you are doing just that.