Using Compositional Elements

Every photograph is built from the elements the photographer sees through their lens.  On the surface, it is a subject like the ocean, bird or person.  Beyond the obvious, our photographs consist of lines, patterns, shapes, color, textures and more.  What goes into our compositions is what we see, and how we arrange it in our viewing space.

The photograph below is of the incoming tide along the Oregon coast.  The ocean is lit by bright sunlight, and the waves are crashing over the rocks.  Other people like this photograph, because of the subject.  What I see in this photo is its subject.  Then, I see the lines, texture and color of the image.  The waves create diagonal lines.  Splashing water and the rocks create texture.  The colors of the water are vibrant greens and blues, due to the sunlight.

copyright Karen UlvestadMany of these concepts are the basics learned in an art class.  A photograph, like a painting, is made up from the same principles.  With the painting, the artist has the choice of brushes, paints, color and artistic license of subject placement.  The photographer is working with different tools.  Being based on light, a photograph at different times of the day or different weather, will affect the photograph.  Our brushes are exposure, lens choice and camera choice.  Our color is dependent on the amount or quality of light.  Subject placement is limited only by our ability to move or observe a subject.

In the photograph below, both the rocky shoreline and the wave make powerful lines.  Between the two, they meet creating an arrow pointing to the left and out of the frame.  The perspective is from the cliff top.  A lower perspective would have changed the relationship between the wave and rocks.  It’s up to the photographer to decide how to place the elements in the frame.

copyright Karen Ulvestad

With landscapes, many of the elements are stationary.  Waves do have a short life-span, but they will repeat themselves.  Birds perch, swim or fly.  They may not repeat an action.  A bald eagle will catch a salmon out of the ocean.  If the photographer misses the shot, he/she may not get another chance to take the photo.  Living beings add some unpredictability to any photographic scenario.

The photograph below is of Stellar Sea Lions.  At the moment of the photograph, they were sleeping on the shoreline.  This can make a static photo, since they are not doing anything.  In this case, I used the environment to bring in interesting elements into the composition.  The sea lions are on the left side of the photo, yet a small whirlpool sits on the right side.  These three elements make a triangle for the viewer to look at.  The texture and color of the water complete the composition.

More later, and happy shooting. . .Karen

copyright Karen Ulvestad

8 thoughts on “Using Compositional Elements

  1. I was never formerly schooled in photography or art. I just know that I like to take pictures, know what I like, and have come to learn that it’s not only about capturing an image, but capturing light through said image is the true challenge and part of what makes photography fun for me. I especially love photographing lines and textures. Well, after all that, I just wanted to send you a “quick” thank you for the lesson above. It hits the nail on the head for me in an easy-to-understand manner.

  2. I’m with Sarah. Never schooled, but it for me it ‘comes naturally’. A friend of mine tells me that’s a gift because if she stood next to me with her camera, my photo would look great and hers would suck LOL. I love your Sea Lion image. Beautifully composed and the action of the sea really does give it a life of it’s own.

  3. Thank you for discussing composition.. With all of the advantages of Photoshop, it can not do much for a lack of good composition. I live on the Oregon coast and love your photographs. Thanks!

    • Thank you Mary. I love the Oregon coast, and am heading down there in a couple of days. I’m going to be teaching a workshop at the Sitka Center, and doing a lot of photography. Happy shooting. . .Karen

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