Camera vs Composition

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Once upon a time…

Last weekend I went up to my old stomping grounds with my two oldest daughters.  After carefully packing everything we would need for the weekend (except for appropriate colored undergarments for church on Sunday, which left my eldest scrambling for a white undershirt to wear under her dress rather than her black sports bra), we started driving.

After less than a mile, I realized that I had forgotten my camera!


I was off to visit upstate NY, one of the most beautiful places on earth, and I, a photographer, didn’t have my beloved camera!

You know what I did?

I kept driving.

I thought about turning back.  We weren’t that far out and it wouldn’t have added more than 10 minutes to our arrival time.  But I didn’t bother.  I thought, if I take my camera, I’m going to be a “photographer” all weekend.  This weekend I just want to be a girl who is hanging out with people she loves.  Besides, I have my phone.  If a picture needs to be made, I can make it.


No doubt about it, most of our cameras are freaking awesome these days!  Even the iPhone in my pocket has the ability to take a better exposure than the top of the line DSLR 10 years ago.  Add that to the fact that I can take a picture, edit it, and share it with hundreds of people within minutes, I think it’s fair to say the average person has the potential to have a bigger and better photography portfolio than even the best of the best from the previous generation.

So why don’t we?  Why, with unprecedented picture making technology in our pockets, can’t the average person make a picture that can rival the pros?

Your camera is the least important component of making a good picture!

True story.  And it’s exactly why I wasn’t even a little regretful in my decision not to go back for my camera.

Even though I forgot my 24.3 mega pixels, 1/4000 max shutter speed, 51,200 expanded ISO, and all of my fancy lenses, I still had the most important thing.


The Elephant in the Room

Holy cow, Courtney!  Can you be any more egotistical?

It’s not about ego.  It’s about education.  I’m not going to pretend that I’m the best photographer out there.  I have won no awards, I have been featured in no magazines, and I have yet to have an image go viral on social media.  But I know a lot.  And I’ve made some incredible pictures that I continue to be proud of.

I’d love to be able to say that I could never remember a time in which I was not a photographer.  I’d love to say I live, eat, sleep, and breathe photography.  But I don’t.  I love it (and some days it’s all I can think about).  But I also love a lot of other things.  I love history.  I love running.  I love Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  I love learning new things.  I love writing.  I adore my husband and children.

I would really love to be able to say that had a natural born talent.  But, I don’t.

That is really good news for you!

Because that means that my skill and eye as a photographer was learned and refined, not born.  I don’t believe talent has anything to do with whether or not you can make good pictures.  There are rules in photography just as there are rules in math, language, and science.  Those rules can be studied, mastered, and (on occasion) intentionally broken.

So let’s talk about the one thing that the average person doesn’t consider when taking a picture: Composition.


Composition refers how the elements in an image come together to create a picture.  My subject, the foreground, the background, angles, focus, light, shadows, etc. all work together to make my picture.  It is my job, as a photographer, to create an image in which all of those aspects work together in a way that is pleasing to the eye and heart.

Composition has the potential to make or break your picture and is far more important than the capabilities of the camera you use.

The following pictures were all taken with my iPhone 6 Plus, within the last five days, and edited in Adobe Lightroom.  Because I only had my iPhone, I didn’t have any control over my focal length, aperture, or shutter speed.  I also can’t shoot in RAW with my phone, so getting it right “in camera” was essential.  I kept all of that in mind whenever I took a picture and worked with what I had (it makes no sense to try to create a tight shot with a lot of compression bokah when I’m shooting with an effective focal length around 30mm.  It ain’t gonna happen).


This little boy was devouring a bowl of cherries.  And the mess was incredible!  I really wanted to highlight his freckles and the cherry juices, so I got real close to his face.  You can see from his eyelashes and hair that the focus is still very sharp.  I placed him in the center of my frame, because I like having my subject in the center, and I got in close to reduce distractions.

I backed up a little bit for this image.

This little angel stepped on a leech!  EEEW!  She was so upset and only Daddy could dry those tears.  I squared up, got down on her level and waited until the background was clean.

In this image, I knew I wanted to blur the background.  Since I only had my phone, I knew I needed to be aware of my subject to background ratio and got nice and close to my subject (maybe a little too close, I think the focus is a hair off).

Pool pictures are a little more difficult for me.  I have an iPhone 6 Plus, and it is not waterproof.  I purchased this pouch and have been able to get some really great pictures without worrying about ruining my phone.  I just have to make sure the edge of the pouch isn’t obscuring the camera lens.  Because of the hard light, I have to be careful to watch how the light is falling in my subjects’ faces, so I always watch what the shadows are doing on their face before I take the picture.


Ok, let’s address the second elephant in this room.  Yes, I have edited each of these pictures.  Some are black and white, a couple are in color.  Some of you may think that it’s the edit that makes a picture.  I can promise that it doesn’t.

How you edit your picture serves the same purpose as having a nice camera.  It enhances the story your image is trying to tell, but it doesn’t “make” the picture.  This image is straight out of camera without any editing.

And this is the edited version.  Yes, there is a difference, but it’s more of a “finishing touch” than a drastic change.  The composition (while not perfect, I should have had the negative space in the direction she is facing, and I cut off her finger tips) is the most important part here.  Again, I was careful with how the light fell on her face, and tried to keep my background clean and free of distractions.

Whereas this image was taken with a Nikon D5300 and a Nikkor 50mm 1.8 lens.  Shutter Speed is 1/500, f/2.2, ISO 125.  The light is on the wrong part of his face, so his facial features are in shadow, the focus is off, the horizon is bisecting his head, and there is an innocuous blob in the background.  Oh, and it’s out of focus.  In spite of using a nice camera, good glass, and my best basic editing techniques, this picture is a comparative dud.  Even if I were to pull out the big editing guns to fix the shadow and blob, there is absolutely nothing interesting happening.  Sure, Henry’s a cute kid, but those tufts of grass in his hands hardly constitute a moment worth saving.

It’s even worse in color.  B-O-R-I-N-G.

So, it’s clearly not the edit nor is it the camera that makes a good picture.  That is why slapping an Instagram filter on your picture will not turn a crappy picture into a great one.

Camera technology and editing techniques are kind of like adding chocolate chips and fudge chunks to your favorite brownie recipe.  They help make something that is already really good absolutely amazing, but they aren’t the only ingredients.  They aren’t even the primary ingredients.

Next time you go to make a picture, think about it for a second beforehand.  What do you want to say?  What story to you want to tell?  What is it that you want to remember?  Once you have an idea in mind, be deliberate in your construction of that image.






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