Is It Your Challenge Too ?

I’ve read plenty of articles and books about it … but it still isn’t easy. I feel like I’ve learned quite a bit in the past year and I think about it for almost every photo I shoot … but sometimes when I look at my images in Lightroom, I wonder what I was thinking. I’ve taken a class on it and knew about almost every concept the teacher talked about … but I can’t always see the concepts in the real world. What am I talking about? Composition.

Of all the critical skills to learn to improve your photographs, I believe composition is the most important but also the most challenging to see and master. It isn’t that I am unaware of the rule of thirds, the golden mean, visual weight, balance, leading lines, diagonal lines, patterns, texture, and color. I read about them all the time and I like to believe I look for them when I am out on a photo shoot – heck, I even look for them in my everyday life when I don’t have my camera. I feel like I always need to work on doing a better job with my composition, but it seems that even the best photographers see this as a challenge.

There is some degree of subjectivity to exposure but with digital cameras and histograms and post-processing, getting the exposure correct is fairly straightforward. Sure, there are tricky lighting situations but if we use Lightroom we can clean them up. We all have occasional problems with focus when we see that our landscape photo is not tack sharp from foreground to background, or when the background in a portrait is too focused and is distracting. But with composition there is no real formula that leads to a great arrangement of critical elements and the elimination of distracting elements. I’m getting better at minimizing the distractions (and that is quite an improvement for me) but I still have a long way to go … and reading more books and articles probably won’t help me even though I tend to read more books about composition.

Last week my wife went to visit her sister in NY NY so Koty (our dog) and I were bachelor-ing it for five days AND the weather was supposed to be good most days. On Monday we dropped Chris off at the airport before 5:00 am – still plenty of time to see/shoot the sunrise in the park. Tuesday was rainy so we stayed home. But Wednesday and Thursday were beautiful and we were in park for sunrise with plenty of time and weather for some good shots. On Thursday I had a special opportunity to be alongside a really good photographer, Mike Jackson. We talked about photography from before the sun rose until long after the golden color left us and Mike gave me some good advice about composition. It seems to grow on me a little at a time. We talked about balance, how to decide where to crop the mountain range, and a number of other composition topics. I think talking about practicing composition and talking about it with others really helps me. What about you? I have an idea; lets try a more hands-on approach with some examples from my week in the park.

Let’s take a look at three images from each day and see if you SEE my photos in the same way I saw them after a little cleanup in Lightroom. I think I will always believe that composition is fairly subjective – no, not fairly subjective, it is somewhat subjective. But can you tell me why you think one of the images is better than the other two? For each day I will pick out three photos that are OK (I won’t choose horrible photos) but I’d like to hear why you think one is better than the others. Let’s start with Monday’s photos at Mormon Row just east of the Tetons.

Historic Mormon Row in Grand Teton National Park

Mormon Row really tells the story of the history of Jackson Hole Wyoming. John Moulton and TA Moulton built their homestead in 1918 in the shadow of the Tetons. Now the Moulton barns are the most photographed in the world. Which photograph of John Moulton’s barn do you think is the best composition?

Morman Row (1 of 3)

Mormon Row #1

Morman Row (3 of 3)

Mormon Row  #2

Morman Row (2 of 3)

Mormon Row #3

Is it easy to choose one as better than the others because it is “prettier?” But what makes one a better photo? What part of composition makes one photo better? In the comments section of the blog describe why you picked Mormon Row #1, #2, or #3 as your favorite. I’ll tell you my thoughts a bit later.

A much less Photographed … Blacktail Pond

Koty and I took a break on Tuesday. The weather was wet and chilly so we stayed home. But Wednesday was supposed to be clear with warmer weather as the day moved on . We arrived at Blacktail Pond in the pitch-black but it didn’t look very inviting to climb down the bank in the dark (remember, I’m old.) So we drove up to Schwabacher’s Landing, hoping it was open, but it wasn’t. So we drove back to the Blacktail Pond overlook and I carefully walked down to the pond, which is essentially a braided area of the Snake River. And it was accommodating with snow and much of the normally wet grasses frozen enough to walk over. It was past sunrise but the sky was warm with whispy-beautiful clouds. There wasn’t a lot of wildlife (oh, for having a nice moose in the shot) but the sound of the birds was peaceful and there was plenty of views to shoot. It was one of those mornings where it was tempting to take photographs of everything – but I have learned that doesn’t work.

Blacktail Pond 3 (1 of 1)   Blacktail Pond #1

Blacktail Pond (1 of 2)Blacktail Pond #2

Blacktail Pond (2 of 2)Blacktail Pond #3

So which photo is your favorite? Which one has “the best” composition and why? You may have found it fairly easy to choose a favorite Moulton Barn photo (I did) because it was unique and colorful (sorry, I just gave away my choice) but the Blacktail Pond decision is more difficult. What about the composition of your choice makes that photo better? In the comment section, describe why you choice Blacktail #1, #2, or #3.

Schwabacher’s Landing – The Land of Compositions

After talking to a ranger we found that although the gate to Schwabacher’s Landing wasn’t open, it was all right to walk down to landing. So Friday morning we decided (actually I decided, I didn’t ask Koty) to go back to Schwabacher’s Landing and walk down to the river for sunrise. We met Mike Jackson there and walked down to the landing for a beautiful sunrise. There weren’t any clouds but we were there for all phases of the sunrise. Once again the visual and auditory beauty of the environment would have made it a great morning even if I didn’t get any good photos. But with a little help from Mike I think I got a number of photos “worth saving” – what do you think? Which of these three photos do you think has the best composition and why?

Schwabacher's Landing (2 of 3)Schwabacher’s Landing #1

Schwabacher's Landing (3 of 3)Schwabacher’s Landing #2Schwabacher's Landing (1 of 3)Schwabacher’s Landing #3

Choosing which of these three photos has the best composition may be the most difficult choice. I think all 9 of my photos in this blog are “worth saving” but I think some have better composition than others. What do you think? Is your choice, and your reasoning, better than other’s choice and reasons? Is composition just a subjective decision where beauty is in the eye of the beholder?

I believe there are many compositional concepts or techniques that can improve my photographs. Learning to see them and integrate them into my photography “playbook “ will make me a better photographer. But how do we learn these techniques to the point where we use them “automatically” to see the world more artistically? I’m hoping that seeing and comparing a variety of photos from a similar environment (like the three photos from Moulton Barn, Blacktail Pond, and Schwabacher’s Landing) will help you to integrate compositional techniques into your photos.

On April 25th I will launch the Peer Mentor Photography Program (PMPP) for the Teton Photography Group in Jackson WY. If you live in the Jackson WY area and would like to join us, please let me know ( and I’ll send you some information. If you are already signed-up, let me know if the 3-photos approach in this blog helped you to think about and use composition more effectively.