Composition: Small Things Make a Big Difference

By Geoff Harris

How Checking Your Viewfinder Before Releasing The Shutter, Will Pay Dividends.

I’m continually astonished at how small things can have a big impact. Take the humble comma for instance. The placement of this relatively insignificant little mark can make all the difference to how legible a sentence is. Not adding a comma into the relevant place in a sentence will produce a stream of words that never seem to stop and can cause much anxiety in the reader of said sentence as they wonder how long they have to keep reading before they can draw breath and actually take in just what the sentence is actually trying to say. Too many commas, and, the, sentence, becomes, choppy, and, too, staccato, by half.

Cheeky child, Stone Town, Zanzibar

I made the classic mistake here of not looking to see what was behind the subject. Fortunately, in this instance, the results aren't too unpleasing.

Photographic composition is a lot like writing, in that small things like commas can make a big difference to how successful, or not, a piece of work is. A classic example of a small thing in the wrong place, is placing Aunt Matilda in a photo so that it looks as though a tree is growing out of her head. This sort of thing is so easily done; in the same way that it’s easy to forget to apply correct punctuation to a sentence.


Using a very shallow depth of field is a good way to hide any potentially distracting elements.

So what to do? In the case of a sentence, once it has been committed to screen or paper, the first thing to do is to read it through. Does it make sense? Is a comma needed to make the words flow naturally? What would the sentence sound like if read aloud?

Statue of George Hardwick outside Middlesbrough Football Club's Riverside Stadium, Teesside

With a photograph, it's useful to have a similar mental checklist before pressing the shutter button. The first item on the checklist should be: have I looked all around the viewfinder and not just at the subject of the photograph? Are there elements around the edge of the viewfinder that really shouldn’t be there. And, if so, will they disappear or be less distracting if I move position slightly? Does Aunt Matilda really have a tree growing out of her head? What can done about it if she does? Answers on a postcard please.

Sunset over Lochan Na Stainge with the Black Mount behind on Rannoch Moor in the Scottish Highland, Argyll & Bute, Scotland

For this shot, as my tripod legs were in the water, I had to wait until all the ripples had dissipated and the loch was still once more.

The same thing applies even if you're using the LCD to compose with. In this instance however, there's a sub-clause: have I temporarily turned off all those distracting camera icons so that I'm seeing everything without being...distracted. It's amazing how those icons and figures that camera manufacturers litter screens with can cause you to miss something in your composition. It's those little things making a big difference again.

Limestone Pavement near Inglebrough in the Yorkshire Dales, England

Waiting for the softer light of sunset means that distracting shadows are less of a problem.

Taking care with your composition obviously takes more time than pressing the shutter button and hoping. It also requires a certain amount of discipline. However, after a while you'll find the process becomes second nature. And you will be astonished just how much difference taking will make to your photos. Just as the humble full stop makes a satisfying conclusion to a well crafted. sentence.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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