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Photography 101 – The One Best Composition Tip

Author: Collaborator - Printique by Adorama

By John O’Connell
Not to brag, but this is the most important tip you’ll ever learn to make your photos better.
Words don’t write stories, nor pianos songs, nor colored oils paintings. Even if the words are vocabulary-quiz $10 words, even if you’ve got a Steinway, even if the oils are the purest and most expensive, they can’t create “The Lord of the Rings,” “Piano Man,” or the “Mona Lisa.” These works owe their existence to the minds of J. R. R. Tolkien, Billy Joel and Leonardo Da Vinci. So here’s the best photo tip there ever is: Cameras don’t make pictures, people do.

Sure it’s important to have good tools: cameras with helpful features and lenses with great glass; sturdy tripods, effective flash attachments, and useful post-capture editing software running on fast computers. But my point is that even the best kit won’t make outstanding images without you and your mind behind the equipment.
So before you select a shutter speed, or decide on an f/stop, or choose an ISO number, or even if you turn all the dials to Auto (figuring that the camera will do everything for you), think. Think about what you want to capture for others to see.
Photography, like writing and painting and other arts, has an implied sharing built into it. If you want good pictures — defined as images that effectively communicate what we saw and want others to experience — we must first decide what we want to communicate.

When you take pictures of your family on vacation, think about what you want to capture. “Easy,” you say, “the faces of my family members.” Well, that’s wrong. You could have done that at home, right? You want to say something about your family on vacation. You want to share the laughter when Bobby tripped and got gelato all over his face in Venice. You want to show how hard it was for everyone to make the steep climb to one of the overlooks in Rocky Mountain National Park. You want to communicate the exhilaration wife Jane was feeling when parasailing in Aruba. You want to capture the playfulness on husband Tom’s face while hoisting your daughter on his shoulders.

You’re at your organization’s food drive, where members are sorting canned goods and filling boxes for distribution later that day. You’ve been asked to record the event to send pictures to the local paper. You could just get everyone to stand in a long line in front of the camera, tell them to say “cheese,” and snap the picture. The newspaper prints it with everyone’s names and mission accomplished, right? No! What a wasted opportunity to demonstrate the good your group has done! Did you all gather that morning for a line up? You gathered to serve the needy in your community but no one can tell that from the photo. Take pictures of people sorting the food into nutritionally balanced meals, filling boxes, loading the boxes onto trucks. Show the joy on their faces as they do their good deeds.
An analogy to writing: “Line-up” pictures are like a string of nouns all in a row. Images of folks doing things are nouns and verbs, action words that make a sentence mean something. Sure you need the nouns, they’re the subjects, but (other than straight-up portraits) without verbs the sentence doesn’t engage the reader (picture viewer). The very best portraitists would say that even headshots can be “verbs” if you have the talent to coax out the deep, inner emotions in expressive eyes, telling smiles or great pains.
Your shutter speeds and apertures, your lens choices and composition techniques must be determined by what you intend to photograph. Don’t let the green Auto setting produce the image, take charge and be the one who decides what the picture will be; only you know what you want to say with your camera. Make sure the person looking at your picture knows what you wanted them to see; make them feel it.
If you liked this article, check out some of my other guides to photography:  Aperture Exposure Shutter SpeedsRight ISOFocal Lengths