Kirk Marshall Photography Kirk Marshall Photography


Compositional Ideas

August 27th, 2019


When I started out, I’d get my prints back (this was back before digital) and look at the images and think ‘why did I take this picture?’ ‘What about this scene captured my interest?’ And then I’d look closer and see the tiny speck of the subject that I was trying to capture.  Over time I learned the lesson that Robert Capa said best with “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

If the subject of the image isn’t prominent enough the resulting image is weak and the viewer is left wondering what they’re looking at. Now, as I look at my photographs I find that the ones I like best have a strong, prominent subject that occupies at least a third of the image height or width.

This image from a canyoneering trip in southern Utah illustrates my point. The two rappellers are the subject of the image and so they are prominently featured in the image. I’ve kept them large enough so that it’s clear the image is about them and left enough context so that the viewer get’s an idea of where they are and what they’re doing.


(Nikon AW110, 5mm, 1/160s, f/3.9, ISO 400)

Figure / Ground

Another reason that we might dislike a photo we’re reviewing is due to poor figure/ground separation. The figure/ground relationship can be thought of as the contrast between positive space, the figure, and negative space, the ground or background.  

This image strongly illustrates the figure/ground relationship. The three kids are the figure (positive space) while the water is the ground (negative space). 


(Three Sibs on a SUP, Canon 5DMII, EF70-300 @ 195mm, 1/125s, f/9, ISO 400)

The following image is a more subtle example. 

A few years ago I spent a week Oregon and was fascinated by the moss growing everywhere. (I live in southern Utah; we don’t have much green.) Try as I might I couldn’t get an image that I liked. All my images were of vertical brown tree trunks covered with moss. There was so much verticality in the images that nothing stood out. And then I found this scene.  The horizontal branches break up the mass of verticality and create a figure that has some separation from the ground.  


(Mossy Branches, Canon 5DMII, EF24-105 @ 96mm, 1/40s, f/7.1, ISO 800)


As a photographer we’re responsible for EVERYTHING within the frame of our images. 

If a branch is encroaching on the blue sky in the upper right corner of the image it’s going to create a distraction for the viewer and draw their attention from the subject toward the edge of the image and allow their attention to move out of the frame. Tree branches, road signs, trash, bright objects, etc. can all create distractions and draw attention away from the subject and cause an image to be rejected. 

If we keep these ideas in mind while shooting we can eliminate them by repositioning ourselves or otherwise removing the distraction from the image and thus ensure that the resulting image isn’t rejected after the fact.