I am often asked about the thought process I go through when I am setting up an image.

This is a tricky question because often I don’t think at all. I feel.

It is only when I show someone a photo and have to explain the image do I realise why I did what I did.

But when it comes to teaching that approach doesn’t really help anyone.

One of my favourite teaching tools for understanding vision is to dissect the image by drawing on it.

I am looking for how many different elements went into building a shot.

We are working with a two dimensional frame and it is our job as photographers to build on that canvas with depth, balance, feel and emotion.

So let’s look at a recent image of mine from my Vietnam Photo Tour and see why I did what I did.

Firstly, the image itself.

Hanoi Train

Depending on the scene, the elements we have to balance and work with can be few or many.

In this simple looking shot of a girl on a railway line there is actually a lot of things that need to come together to make the image as strong as possible in my opinion.

Firstly there is the obvious lines or shapes, the leading lines of the trees and railway actually create a series of triangles that lead to a certain space so it makes sense to place your subject within that.

Obvious Shapes

Secondly, this shot was taken in the rain in late afternoon with the light fading fast. I shoot Canon and they tend to produce cold images in these situations so the blueness of the background is actually a failing of the camera to produce the colour of the actual scene however we use this to our advantage to create a colour contrast between the cold scene and the warm tones dress.

Colour contrast is a powerful tool to use in our images as our eye will always be drawn to warm elements before cool elements so our subject stands out boldly in the scene.

Colour contrast


Next up is another form of contrast, the juxtaposition of the old, run down buildings and bright, colourful dress and model.

This juxtaposition is powerful as the image would have a vastly different feel if those buildings were modern high-rise apartments.

Old vs Young, Poor vs Rich, Dirty vs Clean - so many contrasts

Old vs Young, Poor vs Rich, Dirty vs Clean – so many contrasts

The last thing to work on to strengthen the image is the balance between the two key elements. The buildings and the model.

Balancing scene elements

Balancing scene elements

Using the wrong focal length of lens produces different feels in the balance of the image. Shoot with a wide angle lens and the buildings are pushed further back into the scene and no longer become a key compositional element, they just become stuff in the background and we lose that great juxtaposition.

Using too powerful a lens means the buildings are compressed and pulled tighter in the scene so that they overpower our subject and more than likely lose the feel of buildings as a whole and become just a series of shapes and tones once again ruining that great juxtaposition.

We want the balance to be ‘Goldilocks’ – not too far away, not too close ‘juuuuust right’!

As you can see from the cut out of the girl overlaid on the building I didn’t quite get it right, the building is just a bit bigger than the subject but I prefer it to be a bit bigger than a bit smaller.

So, a simple shot of a girl on a railway line becomes a lot more when we have to figure out why a shot worked or didn’t work.

What other elements do you see?

There is so much more to creating an image than the old ‘Rule of Thirds’ !

What is your story, what are you trying to show?

How do you balance the elements to tell the story in the simplest manner?

Until next time!