The Secrets of taking good pictures: Composition

Photography expert Tom Langford gives his advice on how to turn an average shot into the perfect photograph.

Tom Langford photo examples GALLERY 311 (photo credit: Tom Langford)
Tom Langford photo examples GALLERY 311
(photo credit: Tom Langford)
Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.
Photography was invented in the early nineteenth century and was heavily influenced by the prevailing conventions of the Art world. Early photographs tried to look like paintings by using classical composition - the action or interest radiates from the center and stops short of the frame giving them a perfectly balanced and almost timeless quality.
By the turn of the twentieth century small, inexpensive portable cameras were being mass-produced that brought photography to the masses. It was now possible to capture live action and spontaneity that extended beyond the frame. Photography began to develop its own visual language that challenged the conventions classical composition and significantly influenced the development of Modern Art.
The photographer's eye
Many years ago, when I first became interested in photography, I was thrilled by the creative way in which composition was used. Pictures could be marvelously unbalanced, full of life and insight, and yet feel perfectly balanced and complete. Photographers seemed to have an intuitive gift for composition that didn’t follow any obvious rules.
It was only when I went to art college and was introduced to Visual Awareness that I began to understand the secret of their success. Visual Awareness is the essence of good photography and practicing VA exercises is the most effective way to develop your eye as a photographer, so lets practice one right now.
Visual awareness exercise
Start by leaving the camera in your bag or pocket. Take a couple of minutes to look around and spot an interesting combination of shapes, textures, lighting, objects, perspectives, etc.
Photo; Tom LangfordPhoto; Tom Langford
Do not look for an interesting thing to shoot; instead try to spot some sort of pattern or spatial relationship you can use to make a strong composition.
Only now take out your camera and experiment composing the shot. Instead of holing the camera in the normal horizontal or vertical fashion try twisting and turning it, moving it around, raising and lowering it, tilting it, zooming in and out, going closer or further away until a little bit of magic happens on your screen or in your viewfinder. Trust your instincts and feel the composition rather than think about it. Only when you have found the most interesting possible picture take a shot.
This simple exercise will concentrate your attention over the whole frame and help you to experience how the composition itself can create interest and movement in a picture.
Photo; Tom LangfordPhoto; Tom Langford
Keep practicing these exercises to develop the skills that photographers use intuitively when taking pictures in the real world. Since VA exercises don’t depend on photogenic situations you can do them at any odd moment. I often use my handy cellphone camera when I have a little time on my hands.
I tell my students not to practice VA exercises unless they have nothing else better to do! Try them when you’re bored waiting for a train, waiting to pick up your children from school, waiting in the supermarket, the post office, the bank, or just sitting around, anytime, anywhere. They’re really fun to do and once you get the hang of them are quite addictive.
Photo; Tom LangfordPhoto; Tom Langford
You could try one right now from where you are sitting reading this article. At first you might find it difficult to spot anything even remotely interesting, but once you understand that you are not looking for interesting things to shoot it will become easier and easier to create a compelling composition. See lots more examples here:
Send me your picture
If you are aspiring to develop your photography skills, send me a picture and I will publish one at the end of my next article with some constructive feedback.
Send one picture only, at a reduced size to [email protected]’t know how to send a photo by email at a reduced size? See my Brief Guide to Picasa: