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Deciding What to Photograph

How to Decide What to Photograph?

Composition is basically the way you frame your photograph.

Beyond this, and more importantly, it is the way you arrange the elements of the subject in the frame so that they take on a particular meaning.  If a naked body is photographed in repose, with the face lit to attract our attention, we will notice the subject’s expression and then interpret the frame in relation to how the person appears to be feeling.

The photographer's choice to include the face in the frame alters its meaning.

To carry the example further, suppose the camera had focussed only on a close up of the shoulder, upper arm and one breast.  This, depending on the lighting and the actual subject’s gender and physical condition could create a visual impression of strength, health, age, masculinity or femininity, which would lead us to place the photograph into a category of meaning which could vary from the sexual imagery of Playboy to the hard realism of an anatomy text.

In any case, the photographer has the control of such meaning by:

• Choosing the subject.
• Lighting the subject to suit and enhance the impression desired of the viewer. For example:

  • Soft and hazy for Playboy.
  • Hard edged for a study of wrinkled age. Showing contour and shadow to emphasize muscle shape in a weight lifting magazine.

• Placing the subject in the frame:  e.g. Consciously isolating breast, shoulder and upper arm in the example depersonalises the image.  (It is in fact not an image you would find in Playboy because of this very fact   without the face the body becomes mere anatomy.)
• Choosing the medium for recording: e.g. Digital, colour film or black and white. A high speed grainy film or a low speed film of great detail.


In any photographic situation these basic four elements must be considered by the photographer to be dependent on one final ingredient.

This final factor is time.

Time is vital to composition.  If you are shooting for a specific purpose and have time to set up and consider all of the above elements then those four elements are the chief consideration.

However, all too often, we need to capture a vital moment which can fade or disappear if we are not ready to shoot.  In these cases the vital thing is to be proficient and confident enough with your equipment to be ready to shoot.

Good ways to be ready for "the composition that might otherwise get away” are:

  • Always keep your camera loaded   preferably with a medium speed (say 200 ASA) colour negative film which will handle most photographic situations from relatively poor to very bright light. Colour negative also allows the option of black and white prints or colour slides using colour dupe printing film to make transparencies.  This is practically a universal film   but remember other films do specific jobs much better.  Always plan and decide ahead if at all possible.
  • Practice, when the camera is not loaded, the art of aiming, setting, focussing and shooting as rapidly as possible.
  • If the camera is manual, leave it set to a suitable aperture/ shutter speed combination for a cloudy day with reasonable sunshine.  (eg: about 125th at f5.6 for a medium speed film).


You should have a focal point, a centre of interest in the photograph which the eye is drawn to. The other things in the photo should complement that central focus. (e.g.: a large tree, surrounded by less awesome vegetation; a grand building surrounded by garden, or by less dominating architecture; a person surrounded by the furniture in a room).

Things to Consider

• The elements which go to make up the picture should not detract from each other.

• RULE OF THIRDS can be a useful procedure. This is applied as follows:
o Imagine the viewfinder divides the picture into 3 equal sections horizontally and 3 sections vertically. There would be 2 vertical lines and 2 horizontal lines, intersecting each other at 4 points.
o Locate the centre of interest centering it over one of these 4 intersections. Supporting elements should be arranged at other points.  This rule is used mainly in landscape photography.

• Give due consideration to the power of colour; red objects for instance draw attention more than dull colours. (A red object can appear more prominent and closer than it really is).

• If the horizon is placed low on a photo, it creates a feeling of spaciousness. If high in the frame it creates a more confined feeling.

Camera Techniques to Help With Composition

The photographer is governed by the camera mechanism in what they can creatively achieve.
Dealing with the basic camera only   no accessories   you have two creative controls   control over movement and control over the depth of field or focus.

Controlling movement is simple   just decrease the shutter speed to less than a 125th of a second for any movement across the frame (e.g. left to right) and to less than a 60th for movement toward the camera. 
Movement can also be arrested by using a panning motion with the object (e.g. moving the camera lens to scribe an arc following roughly parallel to the track of the subject).
Don't forget that blurring, due to subject movement during exposure can also suit many subjects.
Also remember that blurring and rock solid clarity can be combined if working with a long shutter speed and a tripod.

Two examples:

  • Headlamp trails on a night time exposure.
  • Blurred white streaks of water and a time exposed water fall.

Depth of field or focus
Depth of focus reduces the wider or larger aperture used to admit light during exposure.  In other words, if you take a photo of a man at a focussed distance of 10 ft. then at f16 everything from 3 ft. from the camera to 50 ft. behind it will be in focus.  But at f2.8, again focussed at 10 ft., only objects between 9 ft. and 12 ft. will be in focus. This fact allows us to effectively isolate a subject from its background by using a large aperture and rendering the background as a blur.

Using a small aperture several different planes of the image, each of which can contain compositional elements, can be drawn together in perfect focus and great depth.
Final Notes
Remember that deciding what fits in the frame is largely a matter of deciding where to put the camera.  We do not always have the luxury of being able to physically shift the composition around.
Lastly a note on angles
The angle from which a camera views any subject changes the viewer’s relationship to the image.  High angles suggest a dominance of superiority of the camera, and therefore the viewer over the subject.
A low camera angle allows the subject to dominate and can even create or enhance a sense of fear about an image.
To achieve a feeling of relaxed equality, particularly in portraits, always try to keep the camera level with the subject.

These notes are an extract from one of our Photography Distance Education courses.

[13/08/2022 10:50:00]

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