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02-08-2019, 02:16 AM - 7 Likes   #1
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What's your approach to composition?

A thread in the film sub-forum about preferred focusing screen types has got me thinking about different approaches to composition, and it seemed better to start a new thread rather than hijack that one.

I take photos by framing the shot first, and only really think about focus after I've got the overall composition pretty much sorted. I almost always use manual focus, even with autofocus lenses, so this means that I'm usually thinking about composition while looking at a more-or-less out of focus image. Of course it can't be so grossly out of focus that everything is just one big blur, but I actually seem to compose best if it's out of focus enough that I can't see too much detail. Then, when I'm happy with the general composition, I focus just by looking at wherever on the focusing screen the most important element happens to be. I might then tweak the composition slightly to get some particular detail where I want it, or I might not.

Perhaps this works for me because I tend to think about composition in terms of geometric shapes and relationships between colours, so I guess seeing too much detail just gets in the way. Similar perhaps to the way that painters will scrunch their eyes up to make the scene look blurry, so they can think about the compositional elements in more abstract terms.

So now I'm wondering about how others approach the problem of composition. Do you prefer everything to be in focus first, then think about composition after it all looks sharp? Do you concentrate on the composition and let autofocus decide what to focus on, only overriding it if it gets it wrong? Are you a strict rule of thirds guy, or do you it all by instinct? Do you think about composition without even looking through the viewfinder, or do you find that you need that viewfinder frame to help you get the elements in the scene organised?

I certainly don't think there's any one approach to composition that's "best", but I'd definitely like to learn about any tricks that anyone uses that they find especially helpful.

02-08-2019, 02:19 AM - 7 Likes   #2
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My approach is the one fast and furious recommended by Sony/Nikon, to need a fast auto-focusing and fast frame rate camera and blast my surroundings taking 500 shots into fast expensive XQD cards (also randomly moving the AF points joystick with my thumb why pressing the shutter release continuously, and let the camera do the rest). Then I go home and try to find a usable shot.

Last edited by biz-engineer; 02-08-2019 at 02:25 AM.
02-08-2019, 03:08 AM   #3
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QuoteOriginally posted by biz-engineer Quote
My approach is the one fast and furious recommended by Sony/Nikon, to need a fast auto-focusing and fast frame rate camera and blast my surroundings taking 500 shots into fast expensive XQD cards (also randomly moving the AF points joystick with my thumb why pressing the shutter release continuously, and let the camera do the rest). Then I go home and try to find a usable shot.
Maybe partially a joke (or not =)?), but I have to admit mine is perhaps "fast and just a bit furious"...many times I don't have time for "quality photography", so while I mix AF and manual focus and don't have a focus screen, I generally make sure that what I want is in or out of focus first, but then shoot wider if the lens/footzoom admits it and do the most of the "framing" in post to save time but also be a bit on the safe side in case I miss something or will want to have another framing later because of details in the shot I didn't notice when I took it. Yes, it means I crop and loose resolution, but I feel from the 36mp in the K1 and to the 4mp in a "high-quality-but-not-for-print"-output, there's a lot to take from. (I rarely print)
02-08-2019, 03:20 AM - 1 Like   #4
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I also use a lot of manual focus, so I compose the shot first, then choose the proper aperture to get the DOF I want.

While everyone likes to see bokeh, a landscape shot or a street scene with everything in focus is also very appealing.

I previsualize the shot, I also consider whether or not I want blurred motion. and panning (or not) of course if taking in an action scene.

I shoot more slowly now , and take fewer shots, when the situation allows.


Last edited by robgski; 02-08-2019 at 03:26 AM.
02-08-2019, 03:35 AM - 1 Like   #5
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For me it’s always been focus on my subject, then compose the shot. Somewhere in there I’ll decide what and how much should be in focus. As far as the rule of thirds... I will compose my shot by what I “feel” I want the ahot to be/encompass, and at times I’ll take a second shot composed by the rule of thirds. This may or may not give me a better shot, but it became something I practiced when I was being paid for my work.
02-08-2019, 04:14 AM - 1 Like   #6
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QuoteOriginally posted by robgski Quote
I also use a lot of manual focus, so I compose the shot first, then choose the proper aperture to get the DOF I want.

Not thinking enough about how much depth of field to use is definitely one of my own biggest compositional weaknesses. I tend to either stop right down or open right up, and I should really think about using intermediate apertures to control the DOF more. I always admire photos where someone has obviously thought very carefully about using just the right amount of DOF to control what's in and out of focus, without going too far either way.
02-08-2019, 04:24 AM - 2 Likes   #7
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QuoteOriginally posted by Igor123 Quote
Maybe partially a joke (or not =)?)
At first I tried the spray & prey method, but after getting mostly rubbish out of it , I slowed down, read books, watched video and observed that pros are doing. And now I doing the slow method, researching the best view point, noticing the light direction, using guiding lines, perspective of frame objects position and importance relative to each other, my photographs are improving dramatically. Quote from Hanri Cartier-Bresson: "To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It's a way of life"

Last edited by biz-engineer; 02-08-2019 at 04:31 AM.
02-08-2019, 05:33 AM - 1 Like   #8
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I always think about the composition first, then I worry about focusing on the subject (whatever that may be), or maybe de-focusing if I want to achieve something more artsy. I think there are advantages and disadvantages in doing that. For landscape shots I usually end up with a decent composition. For candid and street shots, sometimes the scene changes before I focus or the subject moves out of frame or something else happens. Maybe I should try to focus fast and get the shot and then try to sort out composition by the way of cropping. Anyway, I don't do street photography that much.

It's a bit weird I pay so much attention to composition considering the only composition rule that I know is the rule of the thirds. Sometimes I have a gut feeling telling me a photo is good or bad but I don't know to explain why is that. I think my photography would improve if I were to read more detailed stuff about composition, but unfortunately I am quite lazy

02-08-2019, 05:38 AM   #9
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I find I'm a rule of thirds guy and pretty much compose like that without having to think about it.

My photography does benefit a lot when I slow down and take my time thinking about composition though.
02-08-2019, 05:44 AM - 2 Likes   #10
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QuoteOriginally posted by Dartmoor Dave Quote
Not thinking enough about how much depth of field to use is definitely one of my own biggest compositional weaknesses. I tend to either stop right down or open right up, and I should really think about using intermediate apertures to control the DOF more. I always admire photos where someone has obviously thought very carefully about using just the right amount of DOF to control what's in and out of focus, without going too far either way.
I think that also (about myself), but how can one have time to carefully think about DOF when doing street photography for instance? I'm just trying to decide really fast if I want the background in focus or not and how much. If i want it really blurry I go for f/1.8, f2/0, otherwise I go for something like f/3.5, f5.6. If I want more DOF I just throw in f/8 or bigger and dial up the ISO. I think you need a tremendous amount of experience to decide the ideal DOF on the spot, considering you're using more than one lens, focal distance, distance to object etc. Sometimes I had people commenting my photos like "great choice of DOF" and stuff like that, but in reality it was just a wild guess taken on the spot and then I got lucky and the picture looks pleasing.
02-08-2019, 06:57 AM - 2 Likes   #11
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QuoteOriginally posted by Dartmoor Dave Quote
Perhaps this works for me because I tend to think about composition in terms of geometric shapes and relationships between colours, so I guess seeing too much detail just gets in the way. Similar perhaps to the way that painters will scrunch their eyes up to make the scene look blurry, so they can think about the compositional elements in more abstract terms.
Also similar to how large-format photographers often say that seeing the image upside-down on the ground glass is helpful in abstracting the subject matter. Sometimes I do the eye-scrunching trick; I find it especially helpful for identifying distracting strong highlights. Or I'll use DOF preview, not just for its nominal purpose, but again to see the tonal relationships more easily. Closing one eye is helpful for flattening the scene.

Last summer I had my K-5 converted to IR, and while I've mostly used live view for focusing, I had a recent outing that was all hand-held with preset focus, and with this particular lens that meant the view through the finder was blurry. I found that helpful in the same way you have.
02-08-2019, 06:57 AM - 1 Like   #12
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An interesting thread, Dave

With my Pentax gear, I mostly use autofocusing lenses and compose through the optical viewfinder. I always use back-button AF, and typically a single selectable AF point. I like to be in control of what the camera and lens are focusing on and when, especially as I'll often focus and re-compose.

I like to have the scene more-or-less in focus while I'm composing, so I'll initially pre-focus on an element in the scene, compose, then perhaps re-focus as necessary before taking the shot.

I generally (though not always) shoot a scene with a little bit of space around it, so I can crop slightly in post to get exactly what I intended. I also find this helpful if I'm using a lens that requires distortion correction, as elements at the very edge of a tightly framed scene can sometimes be lost due to that correction. ..
02-08-2019, 07:03 AM - 1 Like   #13
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I see the composition before I put the camera to my eye. I also set the f-stop and and ISO as well. All I want to do when I'm looking through the viewfinder is frame and snap the image.
02-08-2019, 07:23 AM   #14
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I usually decide on the framing of the subject first, then how much of the environment I want to include. Select appropriate focal length, focus on subject, frame subject how I want, then adjust position for a complimentary background paying extra attention to creating the amount of visual contrast I want between the subject and the environment. Choice of DoF is sometimes tightly constrained by the subject (i.e. I've already decided I want all of it in focus), sometimes more loosely and I'll adjust to make the surroundings more complimentary.

As to composition rules/guidelines, I'd say I'm mostly going by learned instinct if I have to be fast, but if I have time I will recall similar photos (mine and others) and think about what worked or didn't work before. If I have time to pre-plan, I will sketch out the photo on paper in my notebook, even better if I have past photos in front of me as reference.

What I mean by "learned instinct" - when I was first starting, I read many books on composition. I would take a bunch of photos, then review on the computer, playing with different crops, and trying to understand what worked and didn't work in terms of the visual language I was trying to learn. Then go take more photos keeping in mind what I liked and didn't like from last time and go through the review process again. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. For better or worse, there are a bunch of composition guidelines that are now pretty automatic when I pick up the camera and quickly get me to (what I consider) a decent starting point that I can adjust if necessary, actively throwing away any of the guidelines if the situation warrants. It's probably a good time for me to (re)read a few composition books then spend a weekend doing a thoughtful review of my favourite images from the past couple of years.

If there was any one composition guideline I actively consider it's an aim towards 'clean' photos, where anything that's not important to the image doesn't belong in the frame. I'm also aiming to apply this guideline to my writing, and as you can see I tend to fail, rambling on unnecessarily, with the point of my post getting lost in the clutter.
02-08-2019, 07:24 AM   #15
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Buildings and spaces I compose by taking tiny little steps to align things in space. The raise the camera/position the tripod when I'm in the spot. The camera is always level.

Headshot type portraiture (always candid) I try to adapt composition to the light person and mood. Less of an issue here.

Wide angle un-posed portraiture is the most demanding. Particularly kids can have limbs and body any direction in space in all sorts of environments. Bringing all that into a composition is quite satisfying. Not consciously following rules but I spend my working day with visual compositions so I guess its almost hardwired.
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