Six Remarks on Composition

No one is an artist unless he carries his picture in his head before painting it,
is sure of his method and composition.

Claude Monet

Composition is an important aspect of good photographs. I have written about it at length in my books and my essays, and I continue to do so.  Here I want to offer some remarks about composition that I wrote recently.  These are not organized the way my essays or book chapters are.  Instead, they are simply numbered and they are not necessarily related to each other.  Read it as a loose list of items written as they crossed my mind and that I wanted to share.

1 – About Photographers
A great photographer has, above everything else, a great eye.  Camera gear is important but secondary. Great photographs are the result of acute seeing abilities.  If anything, the best gear is the one that frees the photographer from thinking about technique and lets him or her free to concentrate on seeing.

In landscape photography the photographer must be able to follow changes in the light, the weather, the clouds, the shadows, etc. as they happen.  This means being able to shoot continuously while exposing, focusing and completing other technical tasks accurately.  Only then can the photographer follow his inspiration and work his way through the multiple opportunities offered by the subject, the light and the weather.

Blue Mesa Cottonwoods
Horizontal composition

Sometimes trying both vertical and horizontal compositions of the same scene can lead fruitful results, as in this photograph of a row of cottonwood trees in fall colors set against a shaded mesa.  The horizontal composition allowed me to fit more trees in the foreground than I could in the vertical composition, resulting in an image that has more ‘breath’ and spaciousness than the vertical composition. The tree that is the ‘hero’ of the vertical composition is only one of the characters in the horizontal composition, further adding variety and interest to what is my favorite of these two images.

Blue Mesa Cottonwoods
Vertical composition

2 – About Upgrading Gear
It takes time to get used to new equipment, software and other tools.  Doing so is not automatic.  Even though there are many tutorials available, we need to practice in order to get used to new gear.  This can take weeks, months or even years.

If you constantly change your gear you never become fully familiar with it. You may also miss some new and important features.  You have to work with tools for a while before you become fully conversant with them. You have to ‘make friends’ with your tools before you can become intimately familiar with them.

This is what mastery is all about.  Mastery is not only knowing what to do or how to do it.  Mastery is also, and primarily, knowing why and when to do something.  Mastery is focusing on the why, on the motive, instead of the what, the technique.  When one seeks mastery one is no longer concerned with not knowing how to do something. Instead, one is concerned with knowing why something needs to be done. Mastery is using specific tools for specific reasons, not just using tools because they are ‘new’ or ‘better.’

Mastery is often counterintuitive.  It often goes against common sense or has an iconoclastic side to it. There is often a unique or unexpected aspect to the choices made by masterful practitioners.  However, a common characteristic of the masters is that they can explain clearly and convincingly why they made specific choices.  In other words their choices are not accidental. Rather, they are deliberate, thought-out decisions made for specific reasons.

In art, these specific reasons are  related to the desire to express a personal vision.  The goal is to make this vision visible to all instead of keeping it in our mind. The goal is to use gear and tools to make our vision a reality that everyone can see.  The goal is to make what is in our mind’s eye visible in our photographs.  The true artist falls in love with his vision.

3 – Processes and variety
Using a variety of processes is nice, but variety of vision is more important than variety of techniques.

So what if the techniques you use are always the same? As long as they serve the needs of your images well, what need is there for more? In the darkroom we used nearly always the same processes and techniques. Variations were introduced only when dealing with recalcitrant images. The process was otherwise standard.

What changed was our vision for each image,   The processing variations introduced as we went from one photograph to the next consisted of altering the process slightly for each image to make the images match our vision.  For example what changed was how long we exposed the paper, or how long we developed the image, or the timing of some other aspect of the process.  What did not change much at all was the process we used to go from vision to final print. That process, for all intended purposes, was pretty much standard.

Today there seems to be a focus, indeed an obsession at times, with using new techniques.  While refining the process and introducing changes is important, what we are talking about here is something quite different.

What we are talking about here is change for change’s sake, not change for vision’s sake.  The changes we see today do not necessarily make the process better. What they do essentially is make the process different.  More often than not they do not bring significant improvements.  In fact, occasionally they bring a degradation of image quality.

Using different techniques because of novelty alone is therefore something to watch out for. Just like new cameras do not necessarily mean better images, new digital techniques do not necessarily mean better master files or better prints.

As is often the case in art, the artist and the artist’s vision are what needs to be improved and worked on. The artist’s tools, for the most part, are rarely the issue.  Most artists have tools, or software, whose capabilities far exceeds their vision.  It is depth of vision that is most deserving of our attention.

4 – About printing
From a technical standpoint raw captures are characterized by being low contrast, low saturation and somewhat blurry.  Starting from a low contrast,  low saturation and blurry original file requires having a vision for the final image.  The original raw file alone cannot act as guide.  The  final image has to exist first in the mind of the artist, second in the final optimized file and third in the fine art print.

The ability to translate what one sees in his mind onto a piece of paper is directly related to the artistic and technical virtuosity of the photographer. Achieving a fine art print involves much more than moving sliders and adjusting “things” in LR3 or other software!

Zabriskie Point Sunrise #1

In this second example the difference between the two photographs is essentially the amount of sky present in each of them.  The photograph above has less sky than the one below.  However, it is my favorite of the two.   I spent a long time deciding why until I realized that including more sky took my attention away from looking at the badland formations in the foreground. By including a lot of sky, the photograph became primarily about the sky.  By including less sky, the photograph is both about the sky and the land.  The outcome is a more balanced photograph, one that is more pleasing to look at in my opinion.

Zabriskie Point Sunrise #2

5 – About field work –
When I get to a location that I want to photograph I do not unpack my camera gear right away.  Instead, I put my bag and tripod down and spend a good amount of time looking at the landscape, taking in it, studying the colors and considering different compositional possibilities.  Before taking photographs I first want to view the scene without a camera.

This is because I hardly ever find the strongest composition right away.  Instead, I find compositions that I like by walking the scene, by stopping to study the possibilities offered by different viewpoints and at times by stopping and letting the scene ‘soak in’ so to speak.  I do this until I see a specific angle that I find particularly inspiring.  Only then do I unpack my gear and set up my camera and tripod.  Because of experience and familiarity with my gear, doing so takes only a minute or so.  I can’t remember an instance in which I lost a shot because I waited to set up my gear.

I follow this process because I like to keep the possibility open that there may be an image here.  At the same time I also want to keep the possibility open that there may not be an image here. Therefore, to find out which of these two possibilities is true, I wait patiently until the image reveals itself to me, or not, as the case might be. There isn’t always a photograph in a location, not matter how promising it may be.

6 – Creating simple images is not simple
The most simple images are often the most effective images. However, creating simple images is not necessarily a simple process.  To be able to simplify a composition one must have acquired a variety of ‘visual reflexes.’  These ‘visual reflexes’ consist of things that one does automatically, without thinking, because these things have been practiced so many times that they have become intuitive.

Sometimes this means proceeding quickly through the construction of the image, and sometimes it means proceeding slowly and moving through each step carefully.  Sometimes it means using finesse, and sometimes it means moving forward intuitively.

It may also mean finding out what is the weak area of an image and looking for ways to strengthen it.  Or it may mean having the patience necessary to wait until everything comes together, until the light and the subject are balanced and become equally interesting.

Sometimes it means letting things be, for example letting objects fall where they may without worrying if they are in the right place or not.  On the other hand sometimes it means controlling the position of each element until everything looks right.

Sometimes it means taking one photo after another while fine tuning the composition, until the perfect image is found.  Sometimes it means working quickly, knowing that there will only be enough time to take one photograph, two at the most, because the light is changing very quickly and there is no time to waste.

Sometimes it mean finding ways of making the subject come alive.  Sometimes it means letting the subject speak for itself.

About Alain Briot
Alain Briot creates fine art photographs, teaches workshops and offers DVD tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing and marketing. Alain is the author of Mastering Landscape Photography. Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style and Marketing Fine Art Photography. All 3 books are available on as printed books and as eBooks on Alain’s website at this link:

You can find more information about Alain’s work, writings and tutorials as well as subscribe to Alain’s Free Monthly Newsletter on his website at To subscribe simply go to and click on the Subscribe link at the top of the page. You will receive information on downloading the table of contents, plus over 40 free essays by Alain, immediately after subscribing. Alain welcomes your comments on this essay as well as on his other essays available. You can reach Alain directly by emailing him at

Alain Briot
Vistancia, Arizona

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