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The Myth of Being Born with It

To many just starting out, achieving good composition can seem like an unfathomable mystery. Resigning themselves to the idea that they're just not good at it, the assumption often is that one has to be born with it. But nothing could be further from the truth.

There's a tendency among many casual photographers not to look at their own work very objectively. Functioning mainly as mental queues, a glance at one of their own images brings back memories of being there when they shot it. The photograph doesn't stand on its own but functions instead more as a reminder.

Children's birthday photos work this way. The kids could be most anywhere in the frame. So long as you can see the expression on their face as they blow out the candles the image serves its purpose of triggering fond memories for the parents. The family vacation photos my parents took each summer worked much the same. The family lineup in front of the scenic vista or national park entrance sign was all that was needed to remember the entire visit.

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that kind of photography, but making "serious" images needs more. Unless your viewers were with you when you shot an image and thus share your memories, they won't have the same automatic connection to place and circumstance that you do. The first hurdle to overcome in improving your composition is to look at your images for what they actually are, not for what you may remember nearby when you took it but didn't make it into the frame. What you see should be what you get. Yes, some subjects can be archetypal and can engender emotional reactions in a wider audience, but keeping your own specifically personal recollections separate from this will help you view your own work more objectively.

Once you do, you can start to consider and improve your compositional skills. There are countless ways of looking at composition and I recommend you become familiar with as many as you can find that seem to make sense to you. I've written extensively on the topic here and of course there are countless other websites and books on the subject. I find it helpful to reread my favorites every few years as there are always nuances I can pick up on that I hadn't picked up on previously.

No matter how many automated features your camera may have, it's still up to you where to point it and when to press the shutter release button. There's no escaping that the images you take are your images. But you aren't a constant. As you learn and grow, your images can improve. Perhaps taking good images may come more easily to some than to others based on what they did before they took up photography, but everyone can and should improve the more they shoot and the more they think about what they are shooting and why.

The more you shoot the more natural the use of your camera gear will become. When first starting out, you're stuck with two choices: you either leave all the technical decisions to your camera or you obsess over them yourself so much you lose focus on your subject and your surroundings. With practice, you'll find it easier to know where and what all those knobs and dials do. With continued practice you'll find yourself making the needed adjustments almost instinctively. When you encounter a situation that would benefit from a certain lens, a certain aperture range or other choice you may find yourself making the needed adjustment without giving it much conscious thought. And this means you'll be able to focus more of your attention on composition rather than technology and tools.

At the heart any improvement you make in your composition skills though is your interest and openness to improving. If you go out shooting and come back discouraged you may be unlikely to look forward to your next photo outing. But if you return with images you like or at least images you feel taught you something you'll be more apt to want to shoot more in the future. If you let it, your enjoyment of your own photography will become the drive that pushes you toward improvement. Let it guide you.

Those of you who have been shooting for some while can probably relate to this. I still have some of my early images from years ago that, at the time, I thought were good. Indeed the reason I still have some of these is that I liked them enough at the time to frame them and hang them on my wall. A rare few still hold up after all this time, but most of those early images now don't look that good to my eye at all. I can see numerous flaws in some. But what I can see now was thankfully irrelevant back then. What did matter was that I was enjoying photography.

The same should hold true for you. If you allow that process to aid you, it will help you improve. Just like other skills, composition can be learned. Nobody is truly born with it. And even if they seem to be, they too can get better.

Date posted: October 7, 2012


Copyright © 2012 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
Permanent link for this article

Previous tip: Lessons Learned While Passing Time on Puget Sound Ferry Crossings Return to archives menu Next tip: Why Shutter Speed and Aperture Numbers are Upside Down

Related articles:
Composition: What Do You Want To Say?
Composition: Thinking Graphically
Composition: A Look at Color
Composition: Putting Things in Perspective
Composition: Some Thoughts on Subject Matter
Composition: Equipment Notes
Composition: Pre-visualization
Composition: Putting it All Together
My Favorite Images May Not be Your Favorite Images
You Must Have a Really Good Camera
You're in Control
Giving Thanks
Lens Myths

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