October 29, 2021

What makes a photo composition successful? Part IV: Checking for highlights

By Lars Gesing
What makes a photo composition successful? Part IV: Checking for highlights

This is the fourth part in a six-part online photography tutorial and education series teaching you how to create great compositions with any camera and how to quickly start to improve your photography. Click to read parts I & II & III. Want more content like this? Click here to sign up for my free "Art of Seeing" newsletter.

Okay, so after for the last few days we talked about “zooming in” farther and farther to create impactful compositions and to improve your photography, today I want to talk about another reason why in certain conditions, not shooting at a super wide angle can be helpful.

And that’s because you want to / need to check for the highlights in your compositions. By that I don’t mean the most awesome thing you were able to include in your frame. No, I am talking about the brightest areas in your composition. If you’ve been at this for a while, you probably know that the eye is automatically drawn first to the brightest parts of a photograph. So you want to make sure that they serve a purpose, after all, especially in the digital age, first impressions are super important. You don’t want your viewer to have to move past the brightest area in your frame before they engage with what you really want them to look at.

Let me give you an example.

As outdoor photographers, we have probably all experienced plenty of those conditions where we had hoped for a colorful sky with nice puffy clouds but instead got no clouds and no color in the sky whatsoever, right? Instead of the sky becoming the star of the show, it’s just kinda boring, it’s just there. 

Well, especially in those conditions, you want to rethink your composition. Because chances are, that sky is going to be the brightest element in your frame. Do you really want the viewer to first look at a “boring” sky with no visual interest whatsoever? Chances are, their brain will tell them “boring” and they’ll move on with their busy lives before they even see the rest of your image. Instead of having that happen, try to find a together composition that excludes much of that sky and refocuses the eye on what you want it to see.

Take, for example, this image of Horseshoe Bend. The various nights I visited, I never got treated to a very interesting sky. So instead, I focused as much of the attention on the bend as I possibly could, and included a sun star (a very bright element that immediately pulls the viewer in and further distracts from the bland sky).

Here’s another example, from a recent workshop I led. I took my student to a grove of aspen trees in Southwest Colorado to wander around and look for forest scenes that caught our eyes. As my student was framing his compositions of a whimsical tree stump surrounded by beautiful golden-leafed aspens, he was using his wide lens and included some of the overcast sky in it. I framed up the same scene, but I went much tighter, excluding the overcast sky, which, with its white color, was the brightest element in the scene but didn’t serve a purpose to enhance the photograph.

After all, this image was about the three stump and the golden leafs, right? So I showed the tighter composition to my student, and a lesson on how important it is to check your composition for its highlights was learned.

Long story short: The brightest areas of a scene are your most powerful element of a composition. Don’t let them become a distraction. Use them to your advantage, or exclude them and aim for more subtle transitions of light.

PS: If you have questions about this — or thoughts — post them in the comments. If you found this content by chance (thanks, Google…) and want more like it, CLICK HERE TO sign up for my free “The Art of Seeing” newsletter!