The Composition Challenge That Will Change the Way You Create Images

The Composition Challenge That Will Change the Way You Create Images

I bet that you think that you are pretty good at composing your photos. You’ve been shooting for years, won some awards, nice client list. You got that part figured out. Guess what? Not only are you not “all that” but you really need to work on it. How am I so sure? Check this out.

Can you think of anything in photography that is as basic yet as continually challenging as composition? It’s essentially how we arrange things within the confines of our frame, right? I’m sure that you know a lot about compositional rules already: the rule of thirds, S-shapes, contrasting/complementing colors, visual rhythm, leading lines, and all that.  

Or as my friend cartoonist Ron Ruelle breaks it down, “Hey man, it’s all just circles and lines”.

Sure, but....

Think of this: as we go along building our craft as photographers, we assemble a mental tool kit of things, techniques, and approaches, that we learn and eventually find work for us in our pursuit. This is in one sense the process of building our style. On the other hand, because we usually end up using these tools repeatedly, it is also the process of learning to see and do things the same way. What begins as style can easily become formula.

You know what I’m talking about: the landscape guy who always shoots with the same overly wide lens placed low to the ground pointing up with a single flower or rock in the lower left third to lead your eye to something huge and epic in the background.  Yawn! The portraitist whom always has her subject in the middle of the frame with only the subject’s collar to hairline showing, an 85mm lens wide open so that only the lashes are sharp, not to mention the necessary blank stare.  

Ugh! Is that all you've got? Come on man. Reach. Strive! Treat each subject with its own unique expression of existence and you as an artist should be true to your subjects revealing something special about every one of them in a way that only you can. Look, if you can predict the composition before you have laid eyes on your subject, you may be needing to change it up a bit.

When I was a student my teacher Michelle Andonian gave the class one of the most brilliant, and insidious, compositional exercises to do. It daunted most of our class but I embraced it and it forever changed me.

Over the years I have had many young photographers ask to be my intern/student/assistant. After a brief interview and a look over their portfolio, given that I liked what I saw, I would send them home to do what has been dubbed “The Andonian Exercise”. I told them to take their time and when it was completed send me the results for grading. At last count, fourteen people were given the assignment but only two returned. Those two became my assistants.

Scared? You should be.

So how does it work? It’s very simple. The photographer picks a focal length, any focal length, but cannot change it. Fixed lens or zoom is fine but if you choose, say, 62mm on your favorite zoom lens you may not change that setting. Next the photographer picks a spot to stand. You cannot move away from that place. You can for instance tip-toe or squat, change your height, but your feet can’t move you to a different place. Then you put your subject somewhere but like the photographer, they can not move from that spot. A human is often a good subject but if you normally only photograph bunches of bananas, I suppose that will work too.

Got it? Good. Now following those rules give me 50 completely different compositions of your subject. No, really.

I’ll be honest with you: this is not easy at all. As I’ve said, it’s scared off several potential assistants of mine. I’m quite sure that it will illicit some unsavory language from many of you as you grind your way through. However, bear this in mind: it’s not really as bad as you think. Granted, the first dozen frames will come quickly: these are the frames that you are most familiar with making. These are your “go to” shots. After that you will most likely find a couple more and then completely hit a wall around frame 18 or so. You will only see the frames that you have already shot. You won’t see anything new or different. Go back through your “take” and make sure. Yep, nothing.

Ok then, now what?

Well don’t give up, keep going as this is where the magic happens. What you are trying to do here is get past your established notions of what “compositions” are. This is all about breaking out of your “style” and compositional habits. Over the years you have programed yourself into thinking “I shoot this sort of thing and this is how it’s supposed to look: this part goes here, this part goes there….” Nope, all wrong. Remember that there is no visual rule book to follow. Instead you are seeing the world based on what you have told yourself over the years what isn’t worth consideration let alone exploration.

When you are done frustratedly screaming to the heavens ask yourself “what do I take for granted about my subject right now and how do I feel required to show it?”. That’s the key. Really dig into that as it should lead to a jaw dropping set of realizations.

When you finally crawl over the mental wall you will start to see other, previously hidden to you, compositions. They will come. You will find that certain ways of composing may look good but feel odd. Heck, some will just be odd. You will however find things that you never would have considered. Some will prove to be useful to you and your work while others less so. Regardless, realize that you have opened a huge box of new and exciting visual options. When you get to that point you will find that there are limitless ways to compose a single subject even from a fixed position and angle of view. Yes, minds will be blown.

I revisit this exercise from time to time just to see what I’ve become overly accustomed to doing as we all become creatures of habit. I recommend you do an “Andonian” once a year. On your birthday would be appropriate as it hopefully will bring a new you.

You will note that I’m not showing the results of my last “Andonian” because it will bias you. It will also give away some of the very necessary concepts that will lead to your “Oh, wow!” moment. I can’t cheat you out of that, now can I?

By the way, there is no “grade” for this. If you get past “the wall” then you succeeded. So get off your backside and do this. It’s more than worth the 30 minutes that it takes.

Jonathan Castner's picture

Jonathan Castner has devoted the last 25 years to photographing people for news and editorial clients around the globe. He is an explorer of the human condition and the amazing world that we live in. He is based in Denver Colorado where, when not on his motorcycle, he lives with his wife and three cats.

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Wow! You're a freakin' master!! Can I be your student? Oh wait. I thought you were someone else. :-/

I first read this challenge as an amateur photographer and my first thought was to agree it was challenging. I then looked at it in tems of my day job as an engineer and realised that if you approach it systematically it can be very simple e.g. Photographing a model:

Body (5 positions)
Lean forward
Lean Back ward
Lean to left
Lean to right

Head (5 positions)
Tilt back
Tilt forward
Lean to left
Lean to right

Arms (3 positions)
Above head
Horizontal out to sides
Straight down in front to of body

This gives 5x5x3 i.e. 75 possible poses
Repeat all with eyes open and closed gives 150 and we have not even considered hand position, depth of field or the posture of the photographer.

Am I missing something?

John I appreciate your analytical approach. Most people don't even try to really think through a challenge like this. However in this case by doing so you are missing a lot. I can't quite tell from your descriptions but I believe that what you are proposing would be very subtle changes in framing; especially the modifications to "body" and "head". There is a good possibility that I wouldn't consider them to be truly separate and noticeably different compositions. BTW, eyes open/closed would not be considered to be a different composition.

Most importantly the problem is that you are going into this with a developed method. The purpose of this is to get away from whatever system you have already created in your head that almost instinctively guides your composition. If you can create a check list going into the shoot, as essentially you have, then you are not looking for the new and inspiring.

I would suggest that rather than trying to game the exercise you turn off the brain, a huge problem with many of us, and attempt the Andonian with the open mind necessary to get the most from it.

Thanks again for reading my piece, giving it a lot of thought, as well as your comments.


John, sure you can do that but is the goal to complete the exercise or to learn from the exercise? Just like physical exercise you can find a way to complete the training as easily as possible or you can complete the training to improve yourself. You mention being an engineer. I was an engineer too. In college I could game the classes to pass the tests or I could use the class to learn the subject. I'm happy I chose to learn the subject as are the people who were impacted by my engineering work.

Jonathan & Douglas

I fear I have not been clear. I am not trying to game the system, rather I am suggesting a rational approach to developing an array of starting points that will not be constrained by an individual's preconceptions and prior exteriences. These starting points can then be examined, evaluated and refined in the light of aesthetic judgements.

Taking Jonathan's paragraph:

"Think of this: as we go along building our craft as photographers, we assemble a mental tool kit of things, techniques, and approaches, that we learn and eventually find work for us in our pursuit. This is in one sense the process of building our style. On the other hand, because we usually end up using these tools repeatedly, it is also the process of learning to see and do things the same way. What begins as style can easily become formula.

This can be applied to many branches of engineering including my own (Chemical) where safety issues are a critical factor in effective design. Here there are very real risks if the engineers involved are too narrow in their application of their previous experiences to a novel situation. To ovecome this a structured approach to hazard analysis (HAZAN) has been developed which in broad terms is analogouss to the approach I suggested here.

I do not see this as an alternative to learning, rather it is an aid to reconising the breadth of what is still to be learned.

"a rational approach to developing an array ..." yep just stop there. Scrap that entirely. What I want is for you to be highly irrational, emotive and naturally explore. I want you to be a child again where everything is possible, surprising, and new. You need to get out of your organized engineering mindset. Many of my friends are engineers so I know that they, and I will assume that you as well, are very creative but tend to work with their known laws and guidelines.

I don't want you to "think outside the box" and certainly not "what are the specifications of the box and allowable tolerances that are within guidelines" rather I want you to learn that there is no box other than the one that you have built.

Take a deep breath and jump into the pool with no preconceptions at all. The water is not only nice but fun.

BTW if you think this exercise is interesting wait till you see one that I have coming up and it will make your head hurt but in the best way.

I'm going to try this challenge. But, I have a question. Would using, say, the Rule of Thirds in varying ways be considered only one composition or many? So, for example, if I put my subject at each intersection, would that be considered four separate compositions by this challenge? I don't want to cheat right off the bat, LOL!

Robert I see where you are going. Here's some insight: i abandoned the "Rule Of Thirds" years ago. This was after reading an article by the great Galen Rowel where he said that he used the center ground glass focusing area of his camera, a Nikon FM2, as his compositional aid.

Using the center area whereby as a clock face he would put something interesting at, say 2 o'clock and another element at 7 o'clock. This got me into my "Rule Of Seven" with it also being an odd number to allow for more subtle compositions with greater rhythmic potential.

So again, don't think. Just go see. If you are already thinking about "The Rule Of 3rds" then you won't as easily see "The Rule Of 5ths" now will you? Like I told Mr. Hubble: throw everything that you know out the door and explore. Be willing to defy all the rules and everything that you know.

Ok, no RoT, no Golden ratios. I'll just follow the instructions laid out and see where it takes me.

I hate to be the romantic here, I am a romantic so sue me, but you nailed it with "...and see where it takes me". That should be the single rule that we follow as photographers, artists and frankly as people. If we don't find ourselves caught up in the moments that we are capturing then I wonder what the heck we are bothering with.

oh, Articles that are article. Nothing worse than "blog/journalist/writers" who just link somebody else video.

I often like my results better when I ignore (actually forget to employ) the rules, thanks for reminding me of that. Always seems to be those times where I don't have time and only enough time to compose and squeeze off one shot.

Keith, I think that is when you have successfully turned off your brain and are "shooting by gut". I highly recommend such things. I will be posting an article on that very topic in the future.