The Secret of Finding Compositions in Photography

On some days, we can see one composition beside another, but on other days, it is hard to find just a single one. What is the difference between those days, and how can we increase our chances to find outstanding compositions all the time?

In my latest YouTube video, I talk about why it is sometimes so hard to find compositions in landscape photography, where I share maybe one of the most important lessons I have learned in over 30 years of photography.

I always understood landscape photography as a product of hiking in nature, visiting fantastic places, thinking about compositions, and coming home with photographs I absolutely like. The ability to hike was always one of the most important requirements for me. But because of an accident last year, I have lost that important requirement temporarily. I could not hike for months at all, and today, I still struggle with walking in steeper terrain, although that accident happened more than a year ago. I can’t walk wherever I want. But the thing is: the last year was one of the best photography years I have had in my life. How can that be?

Changing Habits in Photography

Planning, hiking to a spot, thinking about possibilities, taking some test shots, returning home, planning the weather, and returning with the right light and weather conditions to get a masterpiece: this is how landscape photography worked for me for years, and I got some really great photographs by doing it that way. But because of my accident, which caused a complicated knee injury, I could not hike anymore. So, I had two options: giving up my beloved landscape photography or changing the way how I photographed. Ultimately, I decided on the latter one.
Because of the changes in my photography over the last year, I got much more sensitive to seeing compositions. Today, I see many more potential compositions around me than before my accident.

This is one photograph I got last year, and I absolutely like it. There is so much storytelling in it, there is mood conveyed, and it has a high impact on the viewer. But to be honest, I had never thought about taking this photograph without my injury, because the thing is: I photographed it straight from a dirty parking place beside a loud road.

There is nothing wrong with that. Lots of photographers take shots straight from the road, but as a landscape photographer and nature lover, this was never an option for me. This was simply far away from my personal concept of landscape photography. Without my injury, I would have never spotted this composition. We could say I had to break my knee to get this photograph. So, what isdifferent?

Looking in the Right Way

Have you ever looked at a cup? I am sure you have. But have you really “looked” at it ,or did you just determine that it was a cup, shortly before you used it to drink your coffee?

Creativity is nothing we have to learn. It is a base skill that is given to each human already at birth. Whenever a baby looks at any item that it has never seen before, it engages with it. If a baby looks at an older cup, it might see all the damage on it, maybe it will find a crack, and maybe it will be interested in the color or the pattern on it. We also did this when we were babies. But the older we have become, the more we have learned that we need to categorize things by their names to be more efficient. Efficiency is an important requirement in our world to survive.

So, when adults look at a cup, they rarely engage with it; they even stop thinking about it straight after they have determined that it is a cup. The same happens with all the objects in our world, also with the beautiful elements in nature: mountains, lakes, trees, rocks, or whatever. We stop thinking about them after we have determined them by their names and don’t engage with them deeply.

And I ask you: what could be worse if you want to find a composition out in the field? You want to find something special, but you can’t find it because you stop thinking when you have determined that the thing in front of you is a tree.

The only way to get rid of that is to pay attention to the environment and to engage with things in a way as we would look at them for the first time in our life. In my experience, photographers do that automatically and without thinking, but on those days when everything seems to be so easy and we find one composition after another. I also did that for years, but with my injury, I have learned to understand that it doesn’t matter if I do this just at places where I experience pure nature or at a dirty parking place where I can hear the cars driving and honking.

So, whenever you struggle with finding compositions, just pay attention to the environment and engage with all the surrounding details. It also often helps to forget about the obvious subjects. 

But think not only in that way when you are out for finding compositions. It is an enormous advantage when you can think in that way and to engage with things totally automatically and without thinking about it consciously. You can try to do some of your daily tasks in an engaging way. This could mean that whenever you are polishing your shoes, don’t just do that to get them clean. Engage with what you are doing: look at how the cloth gets compressed when you are rubbing. Look how the polish gets spread over the shoe, and look at how the surface of the shoe changes with each stroke. Engage with things you would usually ignore and get used to paying attention to them. And whenever you are out for photography next time, you will know automatically what you will have to do with the mountain, the lake, the trees; you will know what you have to do to get a strong photograph.

Many more tips about how to get more creative and how you can even train your ability to think creatively are revealed in the above-linked video.

Christian Irmler's picture

Christian Irmler is a passioned landscape photographer from Austria who comes from a line of artists.
He engages already his whole life with the compositions of the paintings of his family. In 1990 he began with photography and started to implement all his knowledge from painting into his photography.

Log in or register to post comments

How often do great things emerge from adversity. I hope your knee is improving.
I often visit the English Lake district which is not far from my home. Recently, I have been trying to avoid the 'honey pots' in an effort to get more inspired and original images. It's forced me to rethink my approach and learn to accept 'poor' lighting (now I know there in no poor lighting, just poor photographers 😂 ) and get out and shoot.
This article has further adjusted my thinking and creativity. Thank you.

Good points.

I spent a bunch of years scratching out a living as a musician - although I wasn't too great. A more experienced guy once said something to me that really resonated: "your style is shaped by your limitations".

As a photographer, I had a realization one day: I get better results after I've just sort of given up. I wrote a blog post about that idea in case anyone is interested:

Great article. I have a chronic illness that greatly affects my walking. I'm now limited to flat,easy trails and cannot go over two miles. I also need trekking poles. However, this has made me a better photographer because it forces me to find diffrent compositions from my old, usual ones. This illness also causes Cognitive problems and photography helps manage that symptom because I now have to think longer and harder (exercising the brain more) about all that goes into taking a photograph.