The process of composing

Much of the process of composing an image is intuitive and second nature with experience, but like any other tool, we can become complacent in its use. Composition needs to be forefront in our minds while we are capturing light to make good or great images.

It starts before you raise the camera to your eye. Evaluate your potential image, what compels you to focus on that particular scene? Does your eye travel through the scene? Does your eye return to one part of the scene repeatedly? Talk to yourself about what you see. Our goal is to visualize the end result, with practice, we will be able to see the final image before we sue the camera.

Sometimes this phase happens in seconds, sometimes it has to happen in seconds or the shot is lost. Other times it takes days or months or even years.

Eventually, it’s time to bring the camera into play, this is where we frame the shot. Does it still look like the image you visualized?

What’s in and what’s out? What you leave out is often as important as what you leave in.

Is it the right time to take the shot? Is the light still good, has the weather changed, etc.

Next we’ll look at the elements of composition.

Let there be light

In the beginning, we think it’s all about the camera.

Then we think it’s all about the lens.

Eventually, we know it’s all about the light.

The bottom line is this, we need light to make an image. Everything else is technique, it’s all in how you use the light.

We can use light to enhance your composition or we can use light as your composition.

Let there be special light

Light has different qualities at different times of the day:

  • Before dawn and after sunset – the blue hours
  • Just after dawn and just before sunset – the golden hours
  • Mid-day – the bright hours – light can be harsh, creating extreme highlights and shadows

Direct and indirect light have unique qualities. Direct light, say on a sunny day, throws distinct shadows increasing dynamic range, shade or indirect light is softer, throwing muted shadows.


The golden hour begins. The silver hull of the fishing boat has taken on a golden hue.


Intense golden hour light illuminates a train near Winnipeg, 2012. The golden light is so intense that it overpowers the colours of the containers.


Evening on the Mississippi River in New Orleans, 2012. The golden hour giving way to the blue hour. Still some of the golden glow.


The blue hour. Looking to the west near Winnipeg, we can see the remnants of sunset colours in the lower part of the sky.

Let there be front light

Front light can be very dramatic or really dull. It is good for portraits as long as we avoid the harsh hours from 11 AM to 3 PM.

Front lit images can be boring so we have to step up our compositional game with front light. Direct front light can be used best to add vibrancy to an image, making colours pop where diffuse light would mute those colours.

Note: Directionality is based on the angle of light according to the camera, not the subject.


The Guard House at Machu Picchu, Peru 2008. Direct front light emphasizes the colours and texture of the fitted stones.


Zion, Utah in 2018. Direct front light at mid-day adds high contrast to this black and white image.


The same image in colour shows the effect of stark mid-day direct lighting on colour saturation.

Let there be side light

The creative side of photography lives here. Side light brings out texture, direct side light gives deeper, longer shadows, indirect side light softens and flatters in portraits.

Side light can be the most dramatic light, but we need to be careful how we use the tool as it can emphasize flaws.


Father Cam, 1968. Shot on Ilford HP4 film with one flash in front of the subject.


Side light at Yosemite Valley emphasizes the rugged landscape.


Diffuse side light flatters the subject with soft shadows.

Let there be back light

Back light is popular for creating drama and makes for good silhouettes. Indirect backlight can add depth and dimension to an image. Drama lives here, but we need to be careful with exposure to avoid overexposing the light source, a blown out sun never looks good, meter carefully to expose for the highlights.

Like any other light source, backlight can be direct, indirect, or diffuse.


Evening in Bagan, Myanmar, 2016. Diffuse backlight.


Sunset sailing in Tamarindo, Costa Rica, 2017. Strong direct backlight overwhelms foreground objects throwing them into black. Good silhouette potential in these conditions.


Silhouette tree at Kin Beach Park near Comox, 2017. Indirect backlight illuminating distant clouds and airborne smoke from forest fires.


Monk contemplating many things, Myanmar 2016. Direct backlight illuminates the monk without causing silhouetting.

Natural light

Natural light comes from the sun, even if it comes from the moon. Mid-day light has a colour temperature of somewhere around 5600 Kelvin, what our eyes and brain interprets as white. Our digital cameras work best in the “white” range even though Auto White Balance is turned on.

We need to pay attention to white balance because our brains have the ability to correct for white under many different lighting conditions but our cameras don’t share that ability. Auto White Balance comes close, but can fail spectacularly under some circumstances.

Electronic flash guns pump out clean white light, but it’s not “natural” light because parts of the spectrum are missing.


Clean mid-day white light in Queenstown, New Zealand, 2008.

A little bit of trivia – daylight colour temperature varies with latitude. At the equator mid-day light is slightly “warm” as we approach the poles, north or south, the light becomes progressively “cooler.” In the film days colour film was calibrated for the needs of the main market for a particular film type. Agfa colour film was balanced for northern latitudes to warm up the cool light.