Kirk Marshall Photography Kirk Marshall Photography


Composition Games

March 10th, 2020

The technical aspects of creating a photograph are relatively simple. It takes some knowledge and experience to craft a properly exposed image with appropriate depth of field to express your mood. But those details are not the challenging part of photography; the real challenge is composition. 

It’s easy to fall into a photography rut, sometimes a game is the perfect way to bounce out and into new realms. Here are some that I use to get me thinking out of my own self-imposed box. 


Most of my pictures are taken with similar settings; I tend to shoot with a 24-70mm lens, use a fairly small aperture and set the shutter speed to ensure no motion. One game that I occasionally play to force me into new territory is to choose something outside those standard parameters and try and make successful images with that alternate configuration. 

For example, I might try and shoot a series of images with the lens aperture wide open (small f-number) or swap out my standard lens for a wide angle (16mm) or telephoto (300mm) lens. These exercises force me to look at scenes from a different and new perspective that stretches my creativity into new realms.

Another somewhat popular self-imposed limitation is the disposable camera challenge. (A quick google search for those three words will provide you with plenty of details.) As photographers we’re usually shooting with the best gear we can afford with all possible artistic options (a focusable zoom lens, aperture choices, shutter speed settings, etc.). The disposable camera challenge takes away all those camera settings and forces us to just point and shoot. And true to the name it can be a challenge, albeit a good one. After shooting with a DSLR for a while using my cell phone with some of its inherent limitations can feel a bit like a disposable camera


I often find myself with an interesting subject of which I shoot an image or two and then I quickly move on. Sometimes I realize I’m not exploring all the options for a given subject and I’ll challenge myself to shoot 20 different and distinct images of it. I quickly exhaust all the angles (front, back, side, top and bottom) and I’m left stretching my imagination in order to get out of my mental box. I have to delve into areas I normally wouldn’t venture (shallow depth of field, long shutter speed, camera panning, etc.). Getting to 15 is hard but I can still do it fairly rapidly. Getting those last five though… whew, yea; that’s a challenge. Give it a try, let me know how it goes.

When I’m trying to capture a preconceived image I frequently find myself waiting for the optimal conditions to arrive (sunset, blue hour, etc.). I’ll get all set up for the shot and then have an hour or more to kill before I press the button for the money-shot. Often, to kill time I’ll play the 20x20 game. 

The rules of the 20x20 game are that from the moment of inception you have to take 20 distinct images within 20 feet of your current location. They can be of anything, selfies, sidewalk cracks, tree bark, whatever. The idea is that since I’m there for the one preconceived image, I’ve devalued the rest of the scene. So the challenge is to make 20 images of the devalued mess, i.e. create something of visual interest out of nothing interesting. Play this game often enough and you’ll be surprised at what you start to see. 

On my way home from a trip to San Francisco, CA I got to the airport a few hours early. To kill the time before my flight I played 20x20 (well, I fudged a bit on the 20 feet) and spent some time in one of the parking garages taking 20 pictures. This is one of them. 


(Fujifilm X100T, 1/125s, f/8, ISO 200, infrared conversion) 


The last game that I want to mention is shooting to a theme. The theme can literally be anything: strength, blue, taste, sound, movement, etc.). The idea is that you take a photograph that conveys or expresses that theme

One theme is the alphabet. The challenge is to take a photograph that expresses ‘A’, then another that screams ‘B’, and so on through ‘Z’. 

Other theme based photography challenges are available on the Internet. One that was quite active for a few years but now appears to be defunct is the Mission 24 flickr discussion group. ( You should be able to find others that are currently active or you could just browse the Mission 24 archives for ideas to explore on your own. 

Composition is the holy grail of photography. Playing these games helps me keep my photography fresh and forces me to explore new realms.