Most of the time composition is a pretty simple thing- it is a matter one short question and a few more easy rules (firm suggestions). The question is “what specifically do I like about what I am seeing” and the rules are 1. Answer the question with a phrase (no using the word ‘and’), keep your subject out of the center of the picture, try not to merge objects, watch your edges for bright spots, fill up your frame, don’t cut off feet, ears or hands and keep your background from being distracting. Do these simple things and your photos will usually be pretty darn good.
Composition is especially straight forward when there is one main, obvious subject. Find a pretty flower, a sailboat, a bird, an urchin put it at the old one third intersection, be aware of your edges and background and press the shutter. Viola, a pretty picture!
But there are lots of time when we are out photographing when we come upon a subject that really captures our eye but there no obvious singular strong subject or point of interest. Think of a pile of bright autumn leaves, or a field of flowers or a stack of colorful vegetables at a farmer’s market. Our eye catches on the bright colors or neat textures or strong lines and we want to fill the entire frame with the subjects but…how? Where is the best composition?
We can’t just pick any portion of the pile or field or whatever and blast away. Well, we can but its not the best solution. Have you ever found a neat something and been excited about the picture you took and then when it gets to your computer been disappointed by the result? Most of the time when this happens it is the composition that leaves you flat not the subject. Compelling subject + no clue to the composition = dull photo. What is a photographer to do?
Sometimes if you look closely there is a subject to base your composition around. It might be subtle but that is okay: an unusual little texture, a brighter than others color, a subtle line cursing through can all be used as your main compositional subject. And even when there is no small detail you can a shadow or a cluster of light or even an odd wrinkle or an unexpected smooth area or out of place color. Remember, the more subtle the composition the more you have to fill the frame with it to make it more obvious to your viewer.
One of my teaching colleagues, Brenda Berry teaches about using ‘soft eyes’ to find subtle compositions and another, Jeff Wendorff, talks about ‘getting a feel for your picture’ when nothing is obvious. I simply say, ‘pay attention’ to all the less than obvious parts of your photo. It may take a bit longer to study and take your shot but your results will be much much better.