A Viewfinder Darkly

Photography tips and tutorials

Storytelling with composition in photography

November 1 2016

by Philip Northeast

Every picture tells a story and part of the art of photography is using composition to clearly tell the story.

The key to a great photograph is understanding what it is about the scene that compels you to take the photograph.  This is the underlying story of the photograph. It may not be  action; it could be a mood a texture or just the beauty of a landscape. There are many stories to tell so photography is a rich art form.

My approach is thinking of a possible caption for the photograph before  pressing the shutter button.  Then I use the compositional tools, including  framing,  depth of field and exposure, to  guide the viewer’s eye to the  main point of the scene.

water and bridge

Photographed with a 35mm lens. This is a bridge leading to the building.


An important aspect of composition is seeing beyond the obvious. Photographers use the camera to capture a different view of the world to make the viewer stop and think. Photography is a visual language and an effective photograph creates its own reality.

According to John P. Schaefer* in  The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography “The ability to visualise a scene as a photograph is one distinction between a “snap shooter” and an accomplished photographer.”

Understand the Camera’s View

The eye and the brain create their own composite image of the world while the camera captures its own version of reality. The photographer needs to understand how their camera and lens alters the perception of a scene. The process of visualisation is bending that view to suit the photographer’s creative purpose.

The same scene, but using a 50mm lens makes the bridge the clear story

The same scene, but using a 50mm lens makes the bridge the clear story

The photographer needs to understand how the limited angle of view of the camera lens frames a scene and priorities parts of it.

Then the impact of the variables, such as aperture and shutter speed, and how they can enhance the photographer’s visualisation of the scene needs considering.

Choosing the focal length of the lens gives a very different view of a scene. Shorter focal lengths tend to exaggerate the depth of objects in a scene, while longer focal lengths tend to compress the distance between objects.

Shutter speed is a critical factor in portraying a sense of motion in a still image.

Positioning the subject in the frame

The physical arrangement of items in  photographs is the keystone of composition, but this is not always under the photographer’s control.  If the objects cannot move then use the positioning of the camera to either directly or indirectly indicate the important areas in the image.

Composition tools such as the rule of thirds,  are  guides on positioning  critical aspects of a scene that support the photographer’s visualisation. Another device is using lines and patterns in the scene to lead the viewer’s eye to  important areas.  Even compositional techniques that are not intentionally used, they need consideration to avoid creating distractions from the story.


Lens choice affects the angle of view of the camera. A short focal length lens has a wide angle of view  while  longer focal lengths have increasing restricted angles of view.  Us the appropriate angle of view to include the main element in the photograph and leave unwanted elements outside that angle of view. You get a  second chance in post processing with the cropping tool to further refine the inclusion versus exclusion  divide.

Part of the framing is positioning the important elements using the Rule of Thirds as a guide.  Arranging the framing so that the main element is not always dead centre of the image. The intersection points of the rule of thirds grid convey more importance to objects there.

Depth of Field 

This controls how much of the image appears to be in focus. This is a useful tool for isolating elements in the photograph  so the most important element is in sharp focus with background and maybe foreground out of focus. This clearly indicates the important image in the scene.

woman with microphone

Using shallow depth of field to show the important person in a crowded scene.


When there is a wide range of light in a scene photographers can ensure the main element is exposed correctly with less important element over or under exposed.

woman in a dress

The dark background clearly shows the well dressed woman as the main point of interest

This can also be done with selective editing in post processing, even as extreme as leaving important elements coloured in a black and white background.

Hidden Meanings

This can be the most difficult and complex part of composing an image. There can be many subtle meanings and connotations conveyed by the image created by the cultural context of the viewer. The viewer’s interpretation is the final judgment of the meaning of an image.  This meaning derives from the viewer’s perception rather than the photographer’s intention so where the image will be displayed needs to be a factor in its composition.

A simple example from our stories is typically good guys wear white, while the villains wear black. Some viewers may interpret the choice of colour and exposure levels as a value judgment of the subject.

Semiotics, the science of signs, is an important tool for deeper analysis of the hidden meanings in images.

*Schaefer, John P. The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography, Revised Edition. New York; Little Brown and Company, 1999.


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