The secrets of taking good pictures: Composition

Photography expert Tom Langford says that every picture must tell a story.

Camera 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Camera 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Tom Langford is an event and commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.
The schedules for TV programs start with a one-sentence summary of each show called a logline. The art of composing both a photograph and a logline share a lot in common: They both have only a second or two in which to catch your attention, present the essential points, and interest you sufficiently to look more deeply.
Looked at in this way, it’s possible to see that there’s more to composition than just making a nicely arranged picture. The story comes first and the composition has to communicate to the viewer the important elements and the order in which to view them. Fortunately it’s not rocket science and with a little understanding your photography can improve considerably.
Casey's Pass
Here’s a picture taken recently by Marjie Goldberg of a stormy scene at “Casey's Pass”. She has always enjoyed photography but started shooting more seriously last spring and now submits her work to publications.
Marjie is enthusiastic about photography and keen to develop her skills. These are essential requirements if you are to enter the world of professional photography. Picture editors sift through thousands of shots and they will discarded immediately any that don’t stand out. You have to be able to see your pictures as others see them and to do this you need to be able to shoot pictures that communicate clearly. 
I love the craft of visual communication. Every picture tells a story and the photographer’s first job is to decide exactly what story they want it to tell. They then have to choose an efficient composition that indicates the important areas and the order in which to view them.
Marjie’s picture draws attention first to the prominent tourist sign, followed by the waves, then the modern housing development, and lastly to the bright red struts of a bench and the large foreground rocks. It’s not clear what the story is here. It’s difficult to believe this is a picture just about an attractive tourist sign. Neither does it seem to be a picture about the wonderful crashing waves because it doesn’t give a prominent view of the turbulent sea. The composition does not clearly indicate what this story is about.
Composing a story
The words “Casey’s Pass” combined with the stormy ocean are very evocative. There’s the sense of turbulent history, of events and times long past. This location may be historically important but is now overlooked by modern housing. Times have changed but history lingers.
This may not be the story that Marjie had in mind, but let’s see if we could communicate it just by choosing a more effective composition.
I would prefer to emphasize the drama implied by the waves and spray.
To do this I would move further back from the sign and recomposing to include more sea. The perspective would then be altered and the waves would look larger in comparison to the sign. The sign can be cropped too. It’s the heading that’s important and you don’t need more than a few words of the text to suggest the historical theme. I would also take the shot from a slightly lower angle to show less of the modern buildings.
Afterwards I would crop the shot to remove everything that does not add to the story, such as the bench, the big rocks and at least half of the tourist sign. I have roughly retouched the shot below to indicate how the composition could have looked by taking these steps before shooting.
This now tells more of the story that I would prefer it to tell. This efficient composition now puts the sea first, followed by the sign, then the housing.
There are many different stories that you could capture about Casey’s point. For instance, on a sunny day with a serene sea this same picture could be used in an estate agents brochure to sell apartments. The trick is to first decide exactly what you want your picture to convey and then use the composition to specifically communicate your vision.
Remember the analogy with loglines: Be clear, brief, to the point, and don’t include anything not absolutely essential.
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Tom Langford is an Event and Commercial photographer, website designer, and professional retoucher. He teaches photography courses for beginners and improvers. Details at: and