What is “Intuitive” Composition? Part 2

Decided I was spending too much time reading and not enough actually taking photographs and trying to understand my own photography. So, I went for a walk with just a few ideas about taking images of a second-hand car lot and various allotments against the lines of the Edinburgh Tramway. They were going to be images of horizontal layers without any other message. In other words, these images are all about design and have no other meaning for me. That is a weakness. Without having a specific message or emotion to convey, composition becomes more of a technical exercise.

None of these images have been processed except for occasional and limited cropping.

These first 2 images are pure “intuitive” composition having seen the container, the camera mast and the horizontal tree shadows.


Looking at them later I feel the first one has a nice balance of size / weight / lightness / darkness of the elements. However, I now think a lower viewpoint, with the container breaking into the sky and the horizon at the ½ way point would result in a stronger image.


I did NOT see this at the time but this image is only about the 6 vertical white lines either side of the horizon and getting larger from right to left. It is almost graph-like. The small white, blue and yellow goals on the far right form an end-stop.



The first 2 images here show my initial idea for layers of view using the rail tracks as a base but neither has any strong form or interest.

dscf3187-copyI think this 3rd version works a lot better. The autumnal colours of the leaves are echoed in the car lot signs resulting in a strong line of colours with the tree providing height and weight in the centre. This image is certainly closer to what I had imagined I would achieve.

Below are 2 more attempts at layers but neither works due to the complexity and jumble of the various elements. I need to simplify the composition as in the image above.



The first the “intuitive” shot below has strong curving lines in from the bottom right leading to the Castle. Poplars on right echo the pylons on the left. Brushes and hillock on right echo the curve of the tracks and power lines. The small street lamp on left is a nice end-stop.

dscf3198-copyOverall, a reasonably balanced image.

dscf3199-copy Moving a step to the left and zooming slightly in has resulted in a tighter image with some of the messy power lines now out of shot. The castle is now a stronger element.

However, for me the image now feels too constrained. It needs more space around it.


Moving the horizon up to the centre line now gives too much weight to the dark tones of the foreground tracks. It has also lost some of the curve of the power lines around the tops of the poplars.

The cyclist does add a little interest to the left side of the image.


Moving again, this time to get a clear view of the castle has spoiled the flow of the image. The curves of the hillock, poplars, power-lines and even the tracks are far less obvious.


Finally zooming further in and slightly to the right. It’s tight, the castle is a strong feature, the power line supports form interesting box and parallelogram shapes, the tracks appear sharply from the bottom right and their curves are again strongly shown.

Overall, I think my first, intuitive, composition is still the one I prefer but this is a close second.



I was attracted by the 2 flags and, again, the idea of layers.

The first composition is OK but the second, with the strong central path has more design about it. The brambles and fence at the base are now very much more obvious as they form an inverted T with the path.

What is “Intuitive” Composition? Part 1

It is taking an image without conscious, analytical thought about the image construction.

This is the first of a series of posts where I will deconstruct several of my images to see if I can find intuitive rules that I am following.


The main element is on the 1/3rd.

The “weight” of the image (darker areas x size of areas) is at the centre & bottom half. However, the dark of the chairlift seems to balance it around an axis through the centre of the image.

The chairlift enters the image on a diagonal from the top right corner and its line of travel links to the top of the hillock on the left. Most lines point to the centre of the image where the chairs disappear into the mist.

The fence blocks the eye from leaving the image on the right.

In the image below, again, the focal point is on a 1/3rd and all strong lines point to the focal point.


The fence (left) and the hill ridge (right) form a strong continuous diagonal through the focal point and separating the dark and light halves of the image.

The other chairlift elements (top right) and the cable coming in (bottom left) provide interest in these areas.


The focal point is on both upper right 1/3rd’s. There is a balance of lights and darks roughly around the centre of the image. The horizon and then the darker block of rocks provides a continuous horizontal line across the centre of the image.

The brightness of the light on the focal point and the clarity of the water both give a sense of purity.

The image below is an example of a more deliberate rather than “intuitive” composition. It was the contrast between and the juxtaposition of the concrete bridge with the mountain that attracted me.


I deliberately moved to have the bridge looking straight on to the camera. I did this to have it look more like a barrier (along with the road) to anyone trying to reach the mountain. I was thinking of Edward Hopper’s paintings “The house by the Railroad” and “Early Sunday Morning” when taking this image and both have influenced the composition.

Coincidentally, the bridge and the mountain peak are roughly on the 1/3rd.


Retrospective Journal

I have been a photographer for 40 years. How have I made my Landscape images up to now?

  • Locations chosen largely from books on photography and Google searches for images and “apparently” like-minded photographers.
  • I deliberately choose open locations with wide views. I think this comes from a visceral wish to be able to see what’s coming. Conversely, I rarely take images in woods, forests, canyons or anywhere that my view is restricted. Hence my love of the West of Scotland, of Iceland and the Prairies of North America, all famed for their lack of trees.
  • On location compositions chosen intuitively based upon an emotional connection.
    • I cannot explain this “emotional connection” yet!
    • Influenced by quiet, sublime as in Robert Adams images.
    • Only rarely do I choose an oblique viewpoint for the main subject. The usual viewpoint is straight on as often seen in the work of American Realist painters like Wyeth and Hopper.
  • Weather & lighting
    • I prefer low contrast, overcast conditions to achieve the mood I want. If not available at the time I will use post processing to achieve it. Consequently, I take fewer images in the summer.
    • Subdued lighting often results in richer colours.
    • I prefer simple, uncluttered skies that provide a backdrop to the scene. Plain blue or overcast is good. White, fluffy, high contrast clouds are to be avoided as they compete with the landscape.
  • Trees rarely appear as focal points unless devoid of foliage.
    • Green is not an easy colour!
    • Skeletal trees also fit with the mood I want to create.
  • Equipment used?
    • Both full frame and APSC digital cameras almost always on a tripod.
    • A right-angle viewfinder that allows me to disconnect with my immediate environment by enabling me to look down onto the scene. This preference is a throwback to my days with a Medium format camera.
    • Two main lenses used – an 18-35mm and a 24-85mm. I have tried longer lenses but have found little use for them in my preferred compositions.
  • Many images taken of each scene? Why – to be safe, just in case?
  • How were best images chosen?
    • 2 cycles – those I know at the point of pressing the shutter are good
    • Those I return to a year or so later with a more considered eye.
  • How are images processed?
    • Colour palette, Luminosity masks, etc.
    • Influences – Dutch still life for mood and colour palette

Ski Resort Out of Season – 12/10/16

Objective – To take images of man-made constructions is a remote environment whilst actively analysing and deconstructing the processes I used to achieve the compositions. This is to try and get beyond my reliance upon my compositional intuition alone when trying to capture the mood and narrative in a scene.

Background – Ski resorts are man-made constructions, usually in remote environments. “In season” ski resorts are blanketed with snow, which disguises a lot of the necessary equipment and the consequences of construction and maintenance. It is also full of people who give the scene energy and human interest. Out of season, without snow, all the functional paraphernalia is visible and there is no human activity to soften the degradation of the supposed “natural” environment. Is there “beauty” to be found here?

Location – At the top of the first chair lift of the Glen Coe ski resort, elevation 720metres. The weather was cold and windy with rapidly moving, low cloud restricting the views to between 10 and 100metres.

Equipment – Given the weather and terrain I decided to use a small, CSC camera, hand held, with a mid-range zoom lens and leave the full-frame camera and tripod in the car.

Strategy – Given the conditions I could not spend a lot of time contemplating each composition before deciding on the “one” perfect shot. Instead I allowed my intuition (for mood and narrative) to find the initial composition and then worked around the subject, reviewing the results after each shot. I then included and excluded elements depending upon the results of the previous shots. Once home I could then choose the images that most closely captured the mood and narrative. These images are then finalised in Photoshop with little more than cropping, dodging and burning.




Is the “natural” scene enhanced or destroyed by the chairlift and the tiny element of fencing?

The river gorge is, essentially dry after the summer. If it had water and waterfalls it might look more traditionally “beautiful”.

Would that have added to the message of the image or distracted from or softened it?

The low cloud was a real bonus in adding to the sense of loss as the mountain and chairs disappear into nothing.

Compositional Exercise

The next 6 images show the active process I used to experiment with and then refine the composition.


I saw the pile of discarded palings, etc. and intuitively knew the scene contained the kind of narrative I wanted to explore.

I chose this initial composition as it included an existing snow fence as well as the pile of palings from old fences. A sort of before and after message.

The muddy tracks and oil slick are also by-products of the necessary maintenance work of a ski resort.

Whilst each element was appropriate, upon reviewing this image I found it too complex with the individual elements failing to connect with each other. It does not flow.

This closer view of the pile has improved its presence.


However, the muddy tracks, the light coloured grasses (lower, right side) and the left side puddle are all a barrier to your eye moving around the image. Consequently, the central puddle is now disconnected from the pile. Again the image does not flow.


Moving to the left is an improvement. The puddles are better placed and the oil slick is included again. However, the lighter, gravel areas, bottom left unbalances the composition. It needs to be stronger and darker.


I have now lost the fence and the oil slick but this composition is far tighter with solid, dark lead lines heading towards the main subject. The ruts are now showing a circular effect and act like a stage for the pile of palings to sit on. The small puddle is an important visual element as well as indicating the wet boggy nature of the ground.


Taking a slightly wider view has now included an element of current fence whilst keeping the other benefits of the last composition. For me, this works!


This final composition strongly shows the pile and its environment but loses a lot of context now that the tracks, fence and other elements have been excluded.

Conclusion – The 5th composition is the most effective at conveying the narrative at the same time as producing a balanced image.