Notes on Composition

How to Shoot Great Handheld Photos

  1. Move your body. Go some place interesting. Drive. Go on a hike. Sacrifice your time and energy.
  2. Move your feet. You will likely find a better way of looking at the subject, or additional elements to add interest or fill voids. Best of all, you will likely see the subject in new and clearer ways, or see new subjects that will blow your mind even more than the original subject. If it seemed great when you stopped moving, imagine the view from 10 yards up the path! Spot a subject of interest while you are in motion. I find while driving I'm constantly composing and seeing compositions reach peak interest as I move through a certain point, but moving your feet can have the same effect. Visualize how to share your subject with the viewer, sans camera. Think of what about it strikes you. Put the pieces together. Think square, triangle, circle, crossing diagonals or opposing fields of color. The worst subjects are often straight lines, either horizontal or vertical, with blank space around, or small or distant objects surrounded by void. How can you add more "full", roughly "square" interest by getting closer or adding other elements into the picture (hint: by moving your feet).
  3. BORING, NECESSARY EVIL: Optimize your settings, like exposure and white balance. Get these good enough for later tweaking on the computer (or dark room). Try a few test shots. If your subject is moving, try Shutter Priority. If your subject requires lots of depth of field, use Aperture Priority (for a near subject with blurry or sharp backgrounds, depending on what you want). Get it good enough, set it, and forget about your camera. (Change this when you go someplace new or when conditions change. After each shot, return the settings to a "safe" default in case you need to act quickly on later shots.)
  4. Move your head around. while looking through the viewfinder. Don't fall off the trail! Move around so you can see how perspective can improve your photo. Crouch more, stand taller, step on a rock, shift side to side, lie on the ground. Check your corners and foreground. This is where you turn a great photo into a marvelous photo, balancing everything, obscuring irrelevant details, and clearing up overlapping or confusing elements. Compose through the viewfinder with the camera off. Try it. I was low on batteries all day, so I began composing with the camera off (using manual focus if needed). I took fewer photos because I thought the next photo would be my last and I wasn't playing around with settings as a distraction. Try leaving your camera off!
  5. Finally snap the shutter after focusing (if you haven't already). Turn the camera on if needed. Maybe snap a few to get a sharp shot, since you took so much effort to create your masterpiece.

Note that your camera only comes into play in step 3. And if you leave your settings to smart and automatic defaults, the camera only "enters the picture" (pun intended) on step 4. If inspiration strikes you just right, you only need the camera for step 5: just lift and shoot!

Also note that you will constantly be starting this process over, sometimes all the way back to step 1 (go to more, new scenic places!), sometimes back to step 2. Move your feet! Climb around! Explore! Be curious, like a child!