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Composition: organizing pictures as communication: create visual order out of chaos by carefully structuring your images.

Photographic composition is not, as some may think, purely a matter of aesthetics. When it comes to communication, making an image that follows the so-called rules of composition is counterproductive. Instead of looking at composition as a beautifying force, I see it as essentially organizing, simplifying and structuring an image to express an idea. Our cameras see unselectively. We must force them to see selectively, eliminating visual chaos and making our ideas coherent.

I made the first example (right) in a Chukchi fishing camp on Siberia's Kamchatka Peninsula. I play the horizontal poles of the drying rack against the row of vertical fish, contrasting rhythmic horizontal and vertical patterns. I organized this image around these contrasting rhythms, creating a "musical manuscript" of headless salmon. The heavy fog made a perfect backdrop.

My second example (right) was taken on a crowded commuter train connecting the Japanese cities of Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto. I shot from my seat, holding the camera low and using my flip-up LCD viewing screen to good advantage. I organized the image on a diagonal arc, beginning by emphasizing the woman at lower right and then moving the viewer's eye up and across the frame. The image came together for me when the woman at left lifted her head, repeating the upward thrust of the train's ceiling.

My third example (facing page, top) comes from Austria's Abbey of Melk. The abbey's most famous feature is the spiral staircase connecting its library to its chapel. Looking up at a spiral staircase can be disorienting, and I wanted my viewers to feel that dizzying pull. However, I also wanted to make sure that the picture was organized simply and cleanly. To do this, I launched the spiral from the lower left-hand corner of the frame. The spiral gradually curves diagonally up and to the right, until it embraces the decorative orange dome just to the right of center, the focal point of the image. The dome is much smaller than the stairs that lead to it, and its relatively small size shows us how large this staircase must be. By placing the dome just off center, I add tension and avoid the trap of static imagery.

My final example (above) was made as I approached the Great Pyramids outside Cairo, Egypt. I wanted to organize this image to express the majesty of the most massive and famous tombs in the history of mankind. My wide-angle lens creates a layered sense of depth and provides maximum depth of focus from foreground to background. I used our tour guide as a foreground layer; he was walking just in front of me, but the wide-angle lens makes him seem farther away than he really is. The tiny figures in the distance are much smaller than the guide, adding great depth to this picture. The converging parallel lines of the road and the wall at left, called leading lines, carry us to the pyramids themselves. A context layer of clouds rises from the pyramids, resembling mysterious plumes of smoke soaring into a deep blue sky.

Instead of using a set of rigid rules to compose these photographs, I simplify and organize them by using repeating and contrasting patterns and rhythms to communicate certain feelings or thoughts: diagonal thrusts that dynamically pull the eye through the image, off-center placement to avoid static imagery, variations in scale that create the illusion of depth, and leading lines that draw us to the most significant point in the image.

take your best shot

Send photos for possible use in this column to The Douglis Visual Workshops, 2505 E. Carol Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85028 USA.

Philip N. Douglis, ABC, directs The Douglis Visual Workshops, now entering its 36th year of training communicators in visual literacy. Douglis, an IABC Fellow, is the most widely known consultant on editorial photography for organizations. He offers his comprehensive six-person "Communicating with Pictures" workshops every May and October in Oak Creek Canyon, near Sedona, Arizona. For registration information, call +1 602.493.6709 or e-mail

You can view Douglis' multi-gallery cyberbook on expressive digital travel photography at
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Author:Douglis, Philip N.
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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