Zeroing In:  5 Tips to Find the Subject for Your Composition

You’ve arrived at a gorgeous location and you take your camera out of the bag.  What do you shoot?  What, precisely, is your subject?  If you’re like many, you’ll be awed at the beauty of the place and try to capture it all in one big, wide shot.  Maybe you’ll take a bunch of photos.  Oh, this is cool!  Wow, that’s really cool!  This is really neat, too!  Look at the light over there!  When you download your photos to your computer and take a look, you’re disappointed.  They don’t move you.  They don’t reflect what you felt when you were there.

Mountains outside Jackson, WY.
Wyoming panorama. The mountains are too small and there's too much wasted space in the sky and foreground. Not the feeling of awe you get when you're there.

In the opening image, I was outside Jackson, WY, a few years ago and had a clear view of the mountains.  It was beautiful and awe inspiring.  I could shoot a panorama and include all the mountain range but, as you can see, the photo isn’t compelling.

So, what happened?  The photo is technically correct.  It’s well focused and exposed.  The lighting is OK.  Maybe I should have followed the “rules of composition,” and included leading lines, the rule of thirds and such.  But there isn’t any feeling to this: the photo just isn’t delivering the goods.  Are your images packing the emotional punch you felt when you were there?

A professional (or, maybe, an advanced amateur) photographer can approach a scene and immediately see the subject and the composition.  Whether they were born with a natural eye for it or developed one by dint of hard work and constant practice, they can extract the beauty, mood and emotion from a scene in a few, or even a single, image.

Don’t have that finely tuned eye for the shot?  Well, you could approach that beautiful landscape with a “spray and pray” mentality.  After all, it doesn’t cost anything more to take 500 photos than it does to take five.  And you could look for S curves, frames, complementary colors and seek out shots that use the other “rules of composition.”  Sure, you might wind up with a good shot or two, but you won’t know why and you won’t be able to repeat it.  If you can't identify your subject and the feeling you want to share, all the rules in the world won't help make a good image.

So, let’s consider, instead, a process for honing in on a subject.  Something that makes your shots deliberate, thoughtful and repeatable.  For me, that starts with five steps that are part of my process for finding my subjects, and then my compositions.

1) The Three Questions

When I arrive at a location, I ask myself three questions.

  • What is interesting here?
  • How does it make me feel?
  • How can I convey that?

This helps me center myself and sets a framework to exploring the scene.  If I know what I want to do, I can eliminate a lot of distractions that aren’t helping composition while I look for things that suit my purpose.

Two examples:

I’ve been to Great Falls National Park, outside Washington, DC, many times.  Last week, after lots of intense rain, the Potomac River was just past flood stage and was roaring and raging through the Falls.  I wanted to go out to Olmstead Island, in the middle of the river, and see what I could see.

Potomac River raging past Great Falls.
Potomac River raging past Great Falls.

When I got there, I felt the raw power of the river.  There was a roar and a rumble as the Potomac sped through the gorge.  Large tree trunks had been pushed up against some of the rocks.  Spray was flying.  The river gods were angry!  How can I capture that?

The spray and speed and flow of the river were interesting me, especially where the river ran into and over big rocks.  How can I frame that?  What can I do to make someone seeing this on Instagram or my website feel the rumble of the raging river?  Or be awed by its speed and power?

A few weeks prior, I’d gone out to Cascade Falls, off the Patapsco River.  This was well before we got the recent deluge and the falls had only a moderate flow.  The pool at the base of the falls was fairly calm and still.  It felt more peaceful than I expected, but there was still the sound of a waterfall, an abrupt and violent interruption to the lazy flow of the tributary.  So, I’m looking for both violence and tranquility.  Can I capture both in one shot?

Cascade Falls.
Cascade Falls.

2) Don’t Put Down Roots

I like to walk around a place before I take off my pack and set up my tripod.  If the first thing you do on arrival is set up your tripod, you’re likely to grow roots there, shooting from that spot and no other.  By walking around, I can often find several places I want to shoot from, see angles that might be more appealing, discover little things I couldn’t see from where I started.  It gives me a chance to absorb the atmosphere and figure out what I'm feeling and what's making me feel that way which, in turn, helps me figure out what my subject(s) will be. Then, when I do put down my pack and set up for a shot, I know it’s just one of several spots I’ll want to visit.

A side channel in the river.
One of the side channels between Olmstead Island and the Maryland shore had possibilities.

I walked all the way out to the viewing platform on Olmstead Island and then half way back again before deciding I wanted to start back  at the viewing platform.  I was feeling the power of the river and ready to start shooting as I took off my pack and started setting up.  But I knew there were two other spots on side channels of the river that I wanted to hit on the way back.

At Cascade Falls, I walked all around the edge of the pool at the bottom of the falls before I took off my pack and set up my tripod.  I could have stopped and shot from the spot where I first had an unobstructed view of the falls, but the far side of the pool was definitely better than anywhere else.

One tool I sometimes use is a piece of matting for a 2” by 3” image.  I can hold that up and look through the hole at a scene, framing it, so to speak.  I can hold the matting closer or farther away, vertically or horizontally.  Mine is 7” x 6” overall, with the 2” x 3” cutout in the center.  You can get one in the framing section of craft stores.  It is a convenient size for my bag and has enough of a border to really block me from seeing beyond the cutout.  I find it really helpful for finding my subject and seeing if it will work in a composition.

3) Isolation

Our natural inclination is to capture the entire scene before us.  Slap on the widest lens we have and take a shot that includes everything we can see.  Those are usually uninspiring images, like my shot of the mountain range, because there isn’t anything drawing the eye, nothing guiding the eye through the frame and nothing for it to rest on.  What was the subject?  A mountain range?  What did my photo say about the mountains?  Not much.  So, go ahead and take that super wide shot but then ask yourself “what’s interesting inside that frame?”  Sometimes you’ll see two or three separate compositions waiting for you.  Almost always you’ll find a lot of wasted space that doesn’t really add anything to the photo.  And you’ll often find a better way to emphasize your subject.

Analyzing the scene.
Analyzing the scene.

In a wide shot from the viewing platform at Great Falls, there’s a lot of wasted space where the roiling water contributes little or nothing.  There are no patterns to the water, no guidance for the eye, no subject to rest on.  It’s chaotic but monochromatic and not that interesting.

When I started shooting, the sky was gray and added nothing.  Best to eliminate it.  Later, some puffy clouds added interest and including a bit of sky gave a sense of scale, so it could play a meaningful role in the composition.

There might be something in those rocks in the upper right.  And maybe some patterns if I get in close to the water towards the lower left.  I’ll bring out the telephoto lens and explore them as subjects later.

Tighter shot of Cascade Falls
Tighter shot of Cascade Falls, with most of the pool at the bottom eliminated.

At Cascade Falls, the calm and still pool does contribute to a more peaceful mood, but the power and violence of the falling water does not convey.  I needed a wide-angle lens to get the pool, but that made the falls seem smaller and less powerful.  I decided I needed to isolate the falls and eliminate most of the pool.

Cut. Cut. Cut.  Eliminate everything that doesn’t contribute to the image.  Then shoot, review, and cut again.  This is one of those times when less really is more.

4) Zoom, Zoom, Zoom

Wherever I am, I like to zoom my lens to different lengths and see if I can either hone in on a subject and a composition that supports it or find a new subject.  I’ll switch lenses from wide angle to telephoto and do the same thing.  Somewhere in all that, there are subjects and compositions waiting to be discovered.  And it’s a great way to eliminate nonessential stuff from your shot.

Putting on my 70-200 lens at Great Falls, I could zoom in on one area where the raging water was crashing over and around large rocks.  I could zoom in on that area of the river that might have some interesting patterns in the flow.  Either could make interesting subjects.

Patterns in the water at 1/6 second exposure.
Patterns in the water: 185mm, 1/6 sec., f8

At Cascade Falls, with my telephoto, I liked the triangle formed by the rocks at the bottom of the falls.  Zooming in on that brought back the power of the waterfall that the tranquil pool had muted.

Detail of Cascade Falls.
Detail of Cascade Falls.

Often, zooming in changes the perspective, compressing things.  That can be handy when you’re working with layers of stuff, like repeated ranges of hills going off into the distance.  Your telephoto can also isolate a part of that kind of pattern, giving it a bit of an abstract feel that can do interesting things to the mood of the shot.

5) Expose Yourself

Well, not really.  But do play with exposure.  Try different shutter speeds.  Different apertures.  Sometimes that can make subjects visible that you can’t see with your eyes.

Example of fast shutter speed.
A fast shutter speed (1/150 sec.) helped freeze the water crashing over the rock.

At Great Falls, I thought a fast shutter speed might freeze the action of the speeding water and show the force it generated.  I also thought it might better show the inexorable power of the river to shape the land if I used a slow shutter speed.

In the end, the fast shutter speed mostly didn’t work.  Our eyes don’t see water in stop motion and it looks unnatural.  So, I mostly used an ND filter and shot at around 1/5 second.  There was one shot where the fast speed worked—a triangular shaped rock being pounded by the water.  It was something I didn’t see until I put on the telephoto lens and started exploring.

If you’re shooting a field of wildflowers and the subject of your photo is color, try a long shutter speed to blur the colors as the flowers wave in a breeze.  You get a sort of abstract study in color, which may do more to transmit your feelings than a tack sharp exposure would.

Maybe you want to isolate a flower against a busy background with a shallow depth of field or use it as a foreground in a multi-layered landscape with infinite depth of field.  Try it both ways.

You can also set a longer shutter speed and move the camera, generating a blur that way.  Or zoom your lens during that long exposure.  Either technique can lead to some really interesting abstract images that could highlight movement, color or shape.

Example using slower shutter speed.
A slower shutter speed (1/5 sec) worked better to show the gushing torrent of the river.

What is it you’re trying to convey?  Will a different exposure or camera technique help you make that point?  Try it!

Rules of Composition

Once you’ve found your subject, it’s time to consider applying the “rules of composition.”  If you want to take a deep dive into rules and methods of composition, Jim Harmer has a tutorial on his Block Method of Composition over in the Improve Photography store.  Kevin Jordan covered many of these “rules” in exploring 12 tips for landscape photographers.  There are also lots of reasons to break the rules .  Finally, Nathan St. Andre has a nice explanation of color theory.

Every photographer should know the basic “Rules of Composition.”  They are important guidelines and will help you structure your shot.

Yet, knowing the rules simply isn’t enough.  There are a lot of curving roads that are boring and lead nowhere, many dull patterns and colorful nothingburgers, and odd numbered groups of lackluster objects. Before you get to the point of applying rules, you have to have a shot in mind and you have to know what you’re trying to accomplish.

I hope my five-step process can help you hone in on your subjects.  Then you can start applying, or breaking, the rules!

15 thoughts on “Zeroing In:  5 Tips to Find the Subject for Your Composition”

  1. Thanks for sharing your ideas and experiences. I do some of these things, but I definitely need to slow down and view things from different points before taking pictures sometimes.

    1. Glad you found it helpful. It really is hard to slow down when you’re in the moment and excited by the location and the adrenaline is flowing! I have way too many wide angle shots encompassing an entire viewshed but without a subject. It took me a long time to learn this lesson. Happy shooting!

  2. Marilyn Hyronimus

    Thank you very much, I think these helpful questions and ideas are already helping me plan my next photo opportunity.

  3. Good stuff Frank! You are the second person I’ve heard from this week to speak about the use of a “framing card” to look at things when determining a composition. Such a simple, but effective idea… I need to try that! I also heard of one person using an old 35mm slide frame (the frame with nothing in it) for this purpose. That would give you a pocketable version.

    Overall, the article is a great reminder, even for more seasoned shooters, of how to take time to really see and feel what is there before deciding on a composition.

    1. Thanks, Rick! Since I’ve been taking a little extra time to think about what I see and feel at a spot, I find I enjoy photography more. It helps me notice all the little things, be more attuned to where I am. And I love the idea of the old slide frame!

  4. Amazing stuff, Frank!
    I’ve always loved traveling and recently left my routine job in order to become a full time travel photographer. I’ve already planned my first trip to Europe next month, and these composition tips were something that I needed before that.
    Just one question, I have my kit lens and wide angle lens ready for the trip. Would they be enough for landscapes or do I need a zoom lens as well?

    1. When I’ve been in Europe, particularly in the cities, I’ve had far more use for wide angle lenses than telephotos. For a full-frame camera, I carry a 15-30 and a 24-70. I usually also have my 70-200 but, as I say, it gets less use. (For a crop sensor body, those would be roughly an 12-24, 16-50, (and 50-135 telephoto). Some people swear by the Canon 24-105 (for full frame) as a great travel lens. Others like the all-purpose 18-300 (for crop sensor). A lot depends on what your plans are. If you’re taking most of your shots during the day, any of the kit lenses with variable apertures (f3.5-5.6, e.g.) would work. If you’re going to be shooting a lot at sunrise, sunset and the blue hours, fixed aperture f2.8 or f4 lenses will be a big help.

      However, I’ve seen some great travel photographs from smart phones and from low-end cameras with kit lenses. Like the old saying goes, the best camera and lens combination is the one you have with you at that moment!

  5. Good article! I generally have more time for photography in the morning, and it is hard to take the time to wander around when the light is changing really quickly and highlighting different parts of the landscape. “FOMOPO”- fear of missing out on photo ops? takes over, and the tripod gets planted.
    Thanks for the great tips.

    1. FOMO can be a powerful force! I like to get to a place well before I intend to shoot so I can explore, but with summer sunrises around 5:30 AM, that’s getting harder and harder!

  6. Good stuff Frank! You are the second person I’ve heard from this week to speak about the use of a “framing card” to look at things when determining a composition. Such a simple, but effective idea… I need to try that! I also heard of one person using an old 35mm slide frame (the frame with nothing in it) for this purpose. That would give you a pocketable version.

    Overall, the article is a great reminder, even for more seasoned shooters, of how to take time to really see and feel what is there before deciding on a composition.

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