A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it.  It is, in a word, effective.

 – Irving Penn

There are as many things that DO matter in photography as things that Don’t. This is true in photography as much as it is in life. In fact, there’s a book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff . . ., by Richard Carlson (1997) that was meant to help people put things in perspective, figure out what matters and what does not. This is something worth considering because many of the small things, when placed in the bigger picture, really don’t matter.

So, when I ask, “What does it matter?” in our images, it’s usually the little things that can have great impact in one direction or another. I find that three factors play a part in helping us create stronger, more impactful or expressive images: Composition, Light and Focus. There are a lot of little things within these categories that can make a big difference. So, we might want to sweat more of the small stuff by paying attention. As I cover these elements, I am mindful of sharing what DOES matter and what DOESN’T.

In photography, very often it is the small things that can make a difference in an image – what is included in the frame, what is not, the lighting, and what is or isn’t sharp. Even the schmutz on your sensor, while very small, becomes a big distraction. Clean your sensor and be on the lookout for those spots in your images. They generally don’t show up at wide apertures, but they will be those little things one cannot “unsee” once spotted (similar to lint on a sweater, and so on). Be on the lookout for things that poke into your frame or trash, bright spots or black holes. These “small things” are what compromise your images, and they matter.

Notice the top corners and the little leaf.

Now notice the top corners – big difference


Beauty can be seen in all things, seeing and composing the beauty is what separates the snapshot from the photograph.

–Matt Hardy

To begin, let’s “define” composition in photography simply as the art of arranging elements within the frame. The way we arrange those elements (what’s in the box) contributes to how an image is received by the viewer in terms of story or emotional impact. (Reminder: YOU are the first and most important viewer of your images.) It doesn’t matter what your subject or message is as long as it is clearly presented.

In most images there is a “STAR” (main point of focus/attention) and any number of “supporting characters.” Our job as the creator is to make those elements clear. What is the image about (a landscape, portrait, macro or abstract)? What do we want our viewers to see? More importantly, what do WE see and what do WE feel? When we slow down and consider those questions, the answers we insert visually into the frame will be clear. Clear subjects lend themselves to stronger images, regardless of what they are. This is also true regardless of whether your approach is more documentary or more interpretive. Sometimes our images are simply about colors or shapes or lines. Other times the subject matter (people, buildings, mountains, waters, trees & flowers) is more concrete and specific.

Learn about Basic Composition Tools – Give yourself a head start on moving into the creative zone by learning what makes compositions work and how to make them more emotionally impactful. An awareness of the elements will give you things to look for in your subjects and scenes. Consider design elements such as line, shape, color, texture, perspective, angles and such when composing. Think about how you arrange your subject within the frame to create a “feel” such as calmness or tension and more.

Who’s the “Star”?

What is this image “about”?

The “tools” we use often fall under the heading of “rules,” and they include: Rule of Thirds, leading lines, balancing elements, golden spiral, frame within a frame, patterns, symmetry, and more. (I prefer to call them guides vs. rules.) These are all meant to help us arrange the elements in OUR frame to communicate OUR “message.”

In addition to these practical tools, I believe that emotion also plays a part – our own emotional state as well as the emotions that are prompted by our subjects. How we feel about a subject can lead us to create images that communicate those emotions visually. For example, my love of flowers and color and details (my passion for them) makes it easy for me to create more expressive and evocative images and more challenging for me to create the documentary ones (“this is a _______”). How I make those images begins with a commitment of time, focus and intention, and the use of the composition tools I mentioned above. If I am just “phoning it in” and rushing through the shooting, it is most evident in the images I produce.

Azaleas in Balance except for subtle pink bloom on left with Lensbaby Velvet 56 – a small thing …

Balance achieved by removing the bloom on left with Lensbaby Velvet 56 – big difference …

With any subject, I try to identify first what I find most interesting. Why did I stop? That question helps me build the images – arrange the frame. Typically, I will stay with a subject as long as it takes for the answer to reveal itself within the frame (on the LCD screen). I remove as many distractions as possible in the field, getting all as “right” as I am able and accepting that some things will need to be addressed in post processing.

Think of composition this way: Have you ever walked into a room or space and something felt “off”? I think we all have. Sometimes we can see that with a few changes, some rearranging, the room would feel much better (or rather, we would). Our images are like those rooms. Do we want to create comfort or un-ease? You decide. Whatever my goal, my work is not done in the field until I’ve put in the frame and arranged the elements in such a way that it “feels” the way I want it to. Since photography and flowers are my “Calgon.” I’m usually looking to create calm and delight and to highlight beauty within the colors, curves and light.

Composition matters, first to you as the artist/photographer and then to the viewers you choose to share the images with. If the arrangement of the elements is cluttered and busy, and your “star” is lost in all the chaos, you’ve missed an opportunity. Spending time to consider your choices for what is and isn’t in the frame matters. Slowing down and paying attention matters. Removing distracting elements matters. What your subject is matters less. Making your subject clear matters more.

Notice the distracting dark branch behind the breeding pair?