Zombie Response Kit: Composition

Last week I opened a big can of worms with my article about the current state of online critique. The worms were so big you could probably catch a world record bass. Mmmmmm, BASS! If you missed “The Plague of the Digital High Five”, please read it here before continuing: http://www.chriskayler.com/photographers-focus/the-plague-of-the-digital-high-five

All done? Feeling depressed? I understand. It’s a complex subject without an easy fix. The current state of online critique can best be summarized as a “Digital High Five”. The pursuit of quick likes, favs, and meaningless comments is stunting the growth of the entire photography community. Don’t fret, though. I’m not here to depress everyone with my tales of woe. I want to help! I offered a solution in my previous article. We must do our best to comment on other’s images in a productive and thoughtful manner. This helps the person giving the critique as well as the person receiving the critique. In the pursuit of this solution, let’s discuss the first essential component of a constructive critique. Let’s retrieve our zombie response kit and fight the plague of the Digital High Five.

Our first weapon against the plague is to talk about composition. Compositional choice makes or breaks an image. Simple as that! One could argue that an image with god-tier epic light taken deep in the Patagonian backcountry might become popular even though the composition is utter garbage. I would argue, however, that an image that relies solely on the crutch of wow factor light and location lacks any lasting appeal or message. Like a gimmick, it will attract likes and favs. And like a gimmick, it will lack depth.

What is composition, then? The composition of an image is the arrangement of every visual element within the frame. I believe that everyone is born with their own sense of composition, and that we also learn it through the process of photographing, viewing other artwork, thinking critically, and through critiquing other’s work. When I give thoughtful critiques to other’s work, I am forced to think about what works and what doesn’t work within a composition. By bringing these thoughts to the forefront of my mind, I make them available to use on my own photographs.

When critiquing composition, keep the following key words in mind to help jump start your brain.

  • Shapes – What broad shapes do the elements in the frame create? Triangles, circles, squares, it’s all fair game. How do these shapes lead the eye around the frame, and what visual weight do the shapes carry?
  • Lines – Lines are similar to shapes, but I consider them more organic in nature. When thinking about lines within the composition, think about the broad path that your eye takes through the image.
  • Color – What colors are present within the image, and how do they interact with each other? Are there color contrasts? Complimentary colors? How do the colors lead your eye around the frame?
  • Brightness – In the same vein as color, how do dark and light areas of the frame compliment, offset, or otherwise influence each other?
  • Power points – Think about where important elements are placed within the frame. Is the horizon of a landscape image in the dead center? Is a bird placed in the top right? Talk about how these decisions effect your experience of viewing the photograph.

Now that you have some key words to keep in mind, let’s jump into some sample critiques that focus solely on composition.

"Losing Control" - A great blue heron standing next to wild whitewater along the Potomac River, Great Falls National Park, Virginia. 

“Wow! Sweet image, Chris. You really are a master! I love the composition in this image. The way the water begins its long and winding flow from the upper right, darts back to the left, and exits to the right creates a series of diagonals that really lead my eye fluidly through the frame. All the while the heron is tucked into one of the corners of these diagonals, anchoring the whole thing. The dark bits of rock serve to further anchor the image and provide a nice contrast to the immense swath of bright water. The shutter speed chosen gives the water some texture, which is nice, as otherwise it might overpower the rest of the image with negative space if the water was too smooth and featureless. Nicely done.”

There you have it! I talked about lines and how my eye moved along with the flow of water, about the brightness when I mentioned that the dark rocks anchored the image, and how the bright water benefited from having texture, and about power points with the heron tucked away in the upper third and along a diagonal. Typing this up took maybe 3 minutes. In those 3 minutes I am able to provide a depth of insight greater than the photographer has probably ever received before. In those 3 minutes I am also able to add to my compositional vocabulary which I can later pull from when I am creating my own images. Now tell me, is it better to spend 30 seconds and gain nothing, or spend an additional 2 and a half minutes to gain everything?

Let’s look at another example.

"Fire Lizard" - A lizard on sandstone in a remote slot canyon, Arizona.

“Wow! You’re at it again … another masterful image, Chris! The composition is just stunning with the sweeping lines in the sandstone stretching across the frame diagonally. I particularly like the way the lines curve downwards at the bottom, and sweep upwards towards the top. It makes the image feel much less stagnant than if they were perfectly straight and parallel. It almost has a kind of warped look to it that sucks my eye right into the frame like a black hole. I love the subtle gradients of color going from ever so slightly cooler in the bottom left to warmer as you progress up the image. The slight shadows along the bottom right, left middle, and top right also act as a bit of a vignette to really focus the eye on the lizard, which, by the way, is placed perfectly in the bottom left third to anchor the image and keep it from being completely abstract. Even the curve of the lizards tail keeps my eye moving back into the frame and bouncing around the image. Killer!”


Again, this was a simple 3 minute effort that I just spewed forth onto my keyboard. With practice, you too can accomplish simple but thoughtful critiques like this that will help the photography community as a whole. Notice that I utilized my keywords again. I talked about line by mentioning the sweeping sandstone grooves. I talked about color when speaking to the subtle transition from cool to warm. I mentioned brightness when I spoke about the vignette and how the lizard is highlighted. Finally, I talked about power points when pointing out that the lizard occupied the lower left third of the frame.

Now that you know how to write a constructive critique that can talk successfully about composition, l challenge you to spend those extra 2 and a half minutes on your critiques. Utilizing our weapon of compositional knowledge is the only way we can fight back against the Plague of the Digital High Five. Let's do this, for ourselves, and for our community!

The Plague of the Digital High Five

We live in a difficult time. A time of superfluous likes and favs. A time of shallow critiques. A time of stifled growth and innovation. A time of the Digital High Five.  Like a plague of undead zombies, the Digital High Five is slowly but surely spreading its virus into every crack and crevice of the internet. It cannot continue. We must fight back.      

You see, back in my day I had to walk five miles uphill just to get to my sunrise location. Wait… that's not right. You see, I come from a better time. I come from a time when in-depth discussion of images occurred regularly. It was just the way things were. As I posted images to various online forums, I received thoughtful critiques. In turn, I made a point of giving back to the community by giving my two cents. It did not matter that I was relatively inexperienced, it only mattered that I formed an opinion and wrote it down for others to read. Things operate quite differently now. Quick “likes”, “favs”, and short comments such as “Nice contrast.” are the norm. They are the dreaded Digital High Five, and ultimately, shallow and useless.

Just like high fives alone don’t foster deep relationships, likes, favs, and brainless comments don’t foster growth for an artist. Whether on the receiving or giving end of the Digital High Five, nobody wins. When we succumb to the Digital High Five we are nothing more than junkies looking for the next quick fix without a single thought towards our future. We post and post away. We boost our saturation and contrast to eke out a few more likes. We hope to reach the front page of 500px for a few hours of fame, only to be forgotten the next day when a new set of images take the top spots. And all for what? Nothing. The race to online popularity is, in my opinion, the greatest hindrance to growth in the photography community today. Like a horse with blinders on, we focus only on the finish line and lose track of everything and everyone around us.

“But, Chris!” you say, “Why not just embrace the new way of doing things?” To which I must reply, “I’m sorry, Kathy, but my old soul just refuses to believe that the new way of doing things is any good for the photography community, or our attention spans, for that matter.” In fact, I wonder where I would be as a photographer if I had to begin my career in today’s environment. Would I have become, excuse my French, yet another attention whore? Would my images be created solely for others instead of for myself? Would their saturation be turned up to 11? I’d like to think not, but it’s an interesting, if scary, idea.

So what can we do? Is it hopeless? Are we all just traveling towards our own version of Terminus? If I’m honest (Momma didn’t raise no liar), it’s an unbelievably, impossibly, crushingly difficult task to change the way the system works. The sharing of media and how we connect with others is going to continue down the path that it has already forged. But, there may be a way. All you need to do is help yourself, which in turn, helps others. Here’s the plan, so listen up, alright? Put some effort into commenting on other’s images. The more effort you put in, the more you learn yourself. Think about what you like and dislike about an image. Think about the composition. Visualize how the lines, patterns, and shapes within the image interact with each other. Take note of the color, contrast, sharpness, and exposure. Think about how it makes you feel, and what it must have felt like to be there. Whatever you do, think! That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now, type it out so that others can view it and benefit from your unique point of view.

In the end, we may not be able to “break the internet” Kim Kardashian style, but if even a small change comes from this article, that feels good enough to me. Photographers have enough road blocks to deal with as it is, so let’s not hamper ourselves any more than we have to. For yourself, for the photography community, and for all who get to view our inspiring images, let’s all summon our inner Rick Grimes and do our part to defeat the plague that is the Digital High Five. We owe it ourselves.

"Losing Control" - Great blue heron among wild high water, Great Falls National Park, Virginia

The great blue herons are still as active as ever and really putting on a wonderful show at Great Falls Park. "Losing Control" is perhaps the image I'm most proud of so far this season. I just love the way the water looks truly menacing and overbearing compared to the diminutive heron. And yet, they seem so completely comfortable in this habitat! The morning air was full of mist as high winds whipped up spray and sent it flying hundreds of feet. That hazy thick atmosphere contributed even further to the depiction of powerful water.

Here's a little tip for photographers ... I took dozens of photographs of this exact scene for two reasons. First, taking many images insures that you will come out with at least one where the heron is sharp and detailed. Second, the water is constantly pulsing and changing shape. Out of all of the frames I captured, this one was a clear winner because of it's smooth and powerful looking flow, which just plain worked with the composition. So remember, always take a bunch of frames when photographing any scene with water in it!  

"Losing Control" - A great blue heron standing next to wild whitewater, Great Falls National Park, Virginia.

Techs: Canon 7D, Canon 70-200 f/4 @ 184mm. 0.5 seconds, f/16, ISO 100. Polarizer. Tripod.

"Ghostly Echoes" - Great blue heron fishing, Great Falls National Park, Virginia

I've been chillin' at Great Falls National Park over the past week. Hard. The great blue herons have returned in abundance and are really putting on an amazing show. They line up along the shore of the Potomac River and test their luck at plucking various species of fish like shad and bullhead out of the churning whitewater. I know it's easy for them, but as a human onlooker, the line between life and death here seems so startlingly thin. One slip and it's over!

In this image, I utilized one of my favorite techniques of leaving the heron small within the grand landscape. I also chose to use a relatively long shutter speed to blur the water while the heron stood perfectly still.

"Ghostly Echoes" - Great blue heron fishing along the Potomac River, Great Falls National Park, Virginia.

Techs: Canon 7D, Canon 400 f/5.6. 0.4 seconds, f/16, ISO 100. Tripod. Polarizer.

"Skyward Gaze" - Wintry sunset, Bear Rocks, Dolly Sods, West Virginia

I'm going back through the archives this afternoon and found a gem that I never got around to processing. It was early winter when I managed to drive my Toyota Rav4 up a snowy and muddy forest road to the top of Dolly Sods. I knew I might be in for a treat with the sunset, but in West Virginia the light can change very quickly and often ends in a blocked out sun. Nevertheless, I managed to get some truly beautiful light with a wonderful beam rising towards the sky. If you look closely at the potholes in the foreground, you will notice that they are the same ice formations that I photographed for the image "Celadon", seen here: http://www.chriskayler.com/blog/celadon-cracked-blue-ice-atop-dolly-sods-west-virginia ... Thanks for looking, as always!

"Skyward Gaze" - Wintry sunset atop Bear Rocks, Dolly Sods, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia.

Techs: Canon 7D, Canon 10-22 @ 10mm. 1 second, f/13, ISO 100. Tripod. Blend of two exposures.

"Striking a Balance" - Marsh marigold flowers, northern Virginia

Here is another of my interpretations of the carpet of marsh marigold flowers located in a local floodplain here in northern Virginia. The day was sunny and warm, and I wanted my photograph to sort of reflect that and all that spring feels like to me. Happy, bright, warm, and full of promise and growth. I utilized a longer lens, the 70-200 f/4 with 1.4x teleconverter, plus a 500D closeup filter to really decrease the depth of field, smooth out the backgrounds, and create a nice warm, soft, abstract look. I carefully shifted my camera until the blooms lined up just how I wanted them. I liked the way the out of focus flowers and the in focus flowers carried different visual weight, and how they ultimately balanced each other out within the composition. Until next time!

"Striking a Balance" - Marsh marigold flowers, northern Virginia, United States.

Techs: Canon 7D, Canon 70-200 f/4 + 1.4x teleconverter + 500D closeup filter @ 280mm. 1/100th second, f/5.6., ISO 200. Tripod.

"Celadon" - Cracked blue ice atop Dolly Sods, West Virginia

This simple image was taken on the top of Dolly Sods Wilderness Area in the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia. With only a few inches of snow on the dirt forest roads to the top, I managed to make my way up there for sunset. The sunset was colorful and intense, but most of all I enjoyed these potholes filled with water that had frozen into interesting patterns. The radiating cracks out of the center really were interesting to me, and the blue sky reflecting above helped make the ice look even more blue as the light faded to dusk. The image reminds me of a type of glaze known as celadon that originated in China. The glaze can be anywhere from pale white to cerulean blue to slightly green, and often is often crackled extensively with "crazing". I think that viewing other types of art and then incorporating those ideas into my photography is very important to help keep things fresh for me.

"Celadon" - Crackled ice atop Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia.

"Celadon" - Crackled ice atop Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia.

Techs: Canon 7D, Canon 70-200 f/4 @ 104mm. 10 seconds, f/16, ISO 400.

One of my celadon teapots. A small 180ml (6 oz.) Longquan Ge Yao "Ice Veins" from China.

Techs: iPhone :)

"Sol's Keeper" - Marsh marigold flower in spring, Virginia

I haven't photographed a flower in a couple of years at least, but the urge to stop and try while driving by this carpet of marsh marigold shimmering in the warm spring sun was quite literally irresistible. I knew that I wanted to approach them in an abstract manner, so I got low and used my 70-200 f/4, 1.4x teleconverter, and an extension tube, to really throw the background out of focus. While looking through the viewfinder, I came across this bloom seemingly cradling the out of focus flower in the background. I moved the camera and lens up and down a few inches until I came up with the composition I was seeking. The final result reminds me of a keeper guarding the setting sun. This image serves as an important reminder to always keep an open mind when out in the field.

Techs: Canon 7D, Canon 70-200 f/4 + 1.4x teleconverter + 25mm extension tube. 1/160th, f/6.3., ISO 400. Tripod. Polarizer.

"Inner Workings" - Ice patterns, Mason Neck State Park, Virginia

It's weird, spring is finally arriving but still I'm digging back through some images captured this winter. It seemed wrong to let them sit there on my hard drive unused and unloved. The following was taken after a very long and deep freeze (by Virginia standards). I loved the way these bubbles took on unique shapes and how they formed both above and under the beech leaf. The image reminds me of some sort of inner mechanics of a watch or something. I'll be out in the field later today to search for some flowers to photograph ... perhaps you all will get to see them soon!

"Inner Workings" - Ice patterns, Mason Neck State Park, Virginia.

Techs: Canon 7D, Canon 70-200 f/4 @ 70mm. .6 seconds, f/22, ISO 100. Polarizer. Tripod.

"Gus" - Portrait of a gopher tortoise, Florida

The simple portrait that follows is one of my favorite images from Florida. Not because it is the most inspired image I created on the trip, but because of the circumstances that led to it. This species, the gopher tortoise, is endangered and has long been on my list of most sought after reptiles to photograph. Every time I visited Florida I hoped to find one. On this day, out riding my grandpa's old Trek with my cousin (she was on my grandma's Huffy), we came across a beat up dirt path behind some motorhomes in my grandparent's retirement community. Quite a setting, right? I'm sure the images swirling through your heads are stunningly beautiful. Anyways, we head down there on our old bikes, and right in the middle of the trail is this big old gopher tortoise. After watching him from afar for a few minutes, I raced back to the house to grab my gear. When I got back, he remained in the same location nibbling on some grass. I focused on creating close-ups to emphasize his amazing scales and texture. After spending about 10 minutes with him, he went happily on his way. Now, I know I may be a little crazy over cool reptiles, but it was really an amazing experience. Thanks for looking.

"Gus" - Portrait of a gopher tortoise, Florida.

Techs: Canon 7D, Canon 70-200 f/4 @ 168mm. 1/8th second, f/9, ISO 400. Tripod.