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.

18 thoughts on “Is It Your Challenge Too ?

  1. Tris Dunn

    You have taken some fine photos, Randy. Thanks for sharing! I like #3 of the Mormon Row series, #2 of the Black Pond series, and #3 of the Schwabacher’s Landing series. For what it’s worth. 🙂


    1. Tris, for what it’s worth I always enjoy the comments of folks. But I am interested in one other thing you didn’t mention; would it be helpful in our Peer Mentor program to have people bring in 2 or 3 photos from the same area and then discuss composition comparisons? Would that be a better approach than a simple critique?


  2. Tom Lehrer

    First of all, let me commend you on an excellent article. I enjoyed reading your comments, and even enjoyed them more knowing that my reading and eventual response would further delay the preparation of my income taxes for this year. So, thank you. Seriously, thank you for the thoughtful presentation and the opportunity for us to comment on your work.

    Before I critique your photographs, I attended a Photography Club of Sun City Hilton Head meeting on Tuesday night. The speaker was a retired MD who has spent several decades involved in serious wildlife photography. His submission last year won the amateur division of the Audubon contest, so he’s got some skills. He made lot of helpful comments, but in terms of composition, the one thing that he kept repeating is that we all know the rules, but rules are made to be broken. As an example, he showed a photograph of a shorebird swimming in a pond. The rule would say, in general, that the bird should have an area in the frame to “swim to,” but his example sy opinion.howed the head of the bird somewhat close to the left edge of the frame. The key here was that there was a beautiful stream of wake following the birds progress, and that wake completed the frame on the right side of the swimming bird and really made the photograph. The message was, sometimes you need to break the rules to get the photograph. The operative words are “sometimes” and the phrase, “get the photograph.”

    Mormon Row: In terms of composition, I prefer Photo 1 just for the overall balance. Photo #2 has a great view of the mountain range with the sun through the fog, but it is too tight, in my opinion. Photo 3 is nicely balanced, but I would have preferred a little more leading land on the bottom and less tightness on the left of the frame.

    Blacktail Pond: Photograph #2 is my choice. I had a more difficult time with this one in terms of #2 or #3, but I chose #2 as the pond is the subject and you get it all with nice leading edges on both sides. Further, the reflection of the mountain range in the pond is excellent, and I really like the way the clouds in #2 originate in the peaks and fan away toward the top of the frame. This balances the photograph. In short, #2 has it all.

    Schwabacher’s Landing: I’m going to be brief here as I just lost the previously written paragraph due to some idiosyncrasies with this MacBook Pro keyboard. Photo #3 is my choice. You have a great leading edge. You balance the mountain range with all of the water and it’s features. The reflection in the water of the mountains is very nice. You don’t complicate the image with the sky as you don’t really need it. Photo #1 is out as the trees really block the mountain range. The water is just there and makes no statement and the a wood (dam?) is interesting, but a little distracting. Photo #2 is too tight.

    Thanks, again, Randy. I enjoyed this exercise.


    1. Thanks Tom. In 2 days it will be three years since you wrote that reply. Time for me to get back on my MacBook and get going on the First an Amateur. I hope you choose to follow me again and leave your replies.


  3. Tom, thanks so much for your comments and your reviews of all the photos. Now it’s time to get your income tax done 🙂 I especially appreciate the details in your comments of each of the photos because they certainly take time and they show the subjectivity of composition. You have pointed out the “rules” that each photo possesses, or is lacking. This can make discussions of “which is better” to be more “educational” and lead to a better understanding of when the rules can be helpful or can be broken. Funny how many times I have used ” ” in this reply which highlight the subjectivity of composition. Sooooo, do you think using a comparison of similar photos (like this exercise) is a good way to learn photo techniques like composition? Might it be a better learning experience than a simple critique session?


    1. Tom Lehrer

      Did you ever read the works of Madeline Hunter? In one of her books, she said that we can teach “how to do something” by showing “how to do it” or “how not to do it.” To answer your question, I think that the exercise you provided was a very good one. Comparing three images of the same scene was instructional, but only to the degree that what any of us say is worthwhile.

      It might be helpful to have us respond to a photograph and judge its composition, for example, where a very knowledgeable person has also critiqued the same photograph. We could see how well our critiques stack up.

      All that aside , I liked what you did with this posting.


      1. Back in the day I did read some of Madeline Hunter’s work. I like this 3-photo “experiment” and have found the choices by folks to be interesting. I think it would really work well to do in groups and have each group decide on one of the photos as “best composition” and why. Then bring the groups back together to discuss the decisions they made to see if they can come to consensus. Lots of potential here … LOTS. I always get excited when I come across a strategy that seems like it will work. It doesn’t always work but it is exciting none the less.


  4. Beth Holmes

    Hi Randy,

    I definitely like the idea of comparing three photos of the same subject! It really makes a person think, in my opinion.

    I love all three of your Mormon Row pictures. They each offer something different. Since I have to pick one for the sake of the exercise I’d pick the second one. It’s a perspective not often seen and the colors are very pleasing.

    For Blacktail Pond I also liked the second one the best. I liked the added water and the mountains seemed closer. I also liked the reflection, I guess I’m a sucker for reflections!

    For Schwabacher’s Landing, I liked the third one. To me it took the best elements of the first two and added in the nice warm light. It had the great beaver dam and the reflection as well.


    1. Beth, I’m about to start-up my Blog again, mostly but not entirely for my new peer mentor group. But this blog-post and some of the replies leave me thinking that maybe for the May peer mentor meeting I should ask for 3 photos instead of 2 and put everyone into a group of 3 or 4 people to discuss which one they like. This could be very different … and maybe even “fun” OK, maybe I am going a bit too far but it sure sounds different. You thoughts ? ? ? ?


  5. Beth, thanks for your comments and your interest in the Peer Mentor Photography Program. This 3-photo exercise has shown me the value of comparison and the difference between people’s choices. Composition is so important to photographs but even when we “follow the rules” there are so many options even for places like the iconic locations in the Tetons. And I must admit that I am a sucker for reflections also. They have a huge impact on me getting up at ridiculous times in the morning. See you next Monday.


  6. Ron Swenson

    Randy – Thanks for passing along an invitation and this site’s URL to me via Mike Radke.

    Your focus on composition is exactly what I’m looking for, and the 3 photo challenge concept really resonates with me. I anticipate learning a lot.

    My 2 cents:

    I prefer Mormon Row #2 – There’s this wonderful combination of in-your-face clarity (The subject of the photo is the beautiful barn) and mystery (I can only see the part of the mountain not obscured by the clouds; I wonder what’s behind them.)

    Blacktail Pond #3 won me over because of its point of view – lower than the others. The image made my feet feel wet. I also liked the fact that this image was simpler, having only five elements as opposed to the other’s 7.

    Schwabacher’s Landing #3 – The brightly lit reflection of the mountain peaks in the water in front of the ?beaver dam? forced my eyes to go back and forth between the mountains and the reflection, comparing features and my sustaining interest.

    I’m looking forward to following your group’s evolution from afar (Michigan). Thanks again.


    1. Ron, thanks for joining my journey. Your comments are never “your 2 cents.” Rather they are valued opinions/critiques/experiences and are always welcome. Your critique of the Mormon barn is specific and interesting. Yea, the clouds that cover the mountain in #2 are inviting: what it that in the background? And getting your feet wet at Blacktail Pond would have been likely except that it was so cold that morning that the normally wet grasses were frozen. Schwabarcher #3 seems to be everyone’s favorite, including my favorite. And yes, those sticks/etc are a beaver damn. Thanks for your comments. I’m sorry that you aren’t here to join the Peer Mentor Photography Program but if you find a peer mentor partner in Michigan you can probably kinda join. Let me know how it goes and keep on sharing your comments.


  7. First, you are not old. You and I are the same age. I don’t consider myself old, just mature and wiser. And so are you.

    No comments on the photographs.

    The Barn. I like #2. The barn here is not the center or the most important feature here. It’s the totality of the whole scene which creates a mood. From the barn, the viewer is lead along the fence to the most important element in the photo, nature that envelops the barn. There s color that heightens the mood. There is the rustic lines of the fence that lead upward to the mountains and then to the atmospheric conditions of the sky. It’s simply an unparalleled composition.

    #3 has no character, no interest, bland. What is it trying to convey? At least #1 focuses on the mountains, but still lacking in depth.

    The pond. I like, perhaps surprisingly # 3. It’s right, there are splashes of color. The mountain range is prominent. The pod pulls the viewer to the left as it curves toward nature int he background. The reflections of the mountain throughout the pond as it curves around bring a dynamism to the viewer’s experience.

    The landing. #3 again. I love the light, that golden light of the early morning or early evening that my son says is a photographer’s dream. The zig-zag of the river suggests motion. This picture has many angles, the rustic wood, the sharp point of the mountains, and the clear coloring of everything from the wood, the water, the sky, etc. The other pictures in this series don’t accentuate the mountains. They’re just there, but why?

    That’s my two cents. You’re doing a great job teaching, and it obvious that you are learning as you teach. it’s the hallmark of a great teacher. Thanks for our blog.



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