Composing tight in the viewfinder

One of the tough choices when peering into the viewfinder is deciding how much of the scene we see is important.

The striking colors and graphic nature of a cheerleader’s decorated back “caught my eye” while I was on campus. I don’t know if they used the image but I liked it enough to make a picture.

It’s often overwhelming.

If you stood in front of the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls (insert your choice of natural wonder or manmade structure), you’re likely seeing something massive.

Our eyes function like a camera but we have a brain attached to them.

The camera requires “us” to decide, to choose.

If we can’t decide, we end up sticking a wide angle lens and taking everything in.

Then when we print the image the size of a 5 x 7, we are expectedly disappointed at the loss of impact in our final image.

If you think about how our brain allows us to see details in small areas of the scene from the darkest shady areas to the brightest parts, it really is quite remarkable, isn’t it?

Our eyes are doing Photoshop on the fly.

We can adjust our iris to compensate for the highlight and shadow areas of the scene depending on what we want to see.

The one thing our brain doesn’t do is “crop”.

Our eye sees the scene in its entirety because the focal length of our eyes is about 50 mm.

So, when it comes to zooming in, I’m going to guess that all our brain can do is put up some internal blinders to block out areas which we’re not interested in.

Whether it’s the beautiful solitary flower in a meadow, a shirtless Fabio look-alike on a crowded beach, we somehow are able to block out the unimportant stuff.

Such is the power of our brain.

Not so with the camera.

The operator has to do that part.

Boy, am I long-winded or what? Next time, Peter, just say, “Simplify”

Deciding how much to “capture” doesn’t come naturally.

Some of us have good instincts because we drew or painted as kids so it might seem instinctual or innate.

For the rest of us, if we’re lucky, someone will have to point it out to us in a nice way.

Shot wide open at f2.8 with a 200 mm focal length to create a shallow depth-of-field makes this a graphic. Tell me in comments which you like better.


Simplifying or eliminating clutter isn’t enough at times.

When a subject is so far away from the camera that it’s close to infinity, it becomes almost one with the background.

Hold a finger up. Focus on one of your fingers at 2 inches, note how blurry the background is.

Then move it away to arm’s length, maintain your focus. This time note how much sharper the background is.

So, to make your subject stand out from the background, you need to bring it forward of the closest object behind it. This is especially true in situations when the background and your subject are in the same lighting.

So if no concerted effort is made to control the depth-of-field, composing tight will not save your picture either.

Peter Phun Photography

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7 thoughts on “Composing tight in the viewfinder”

  1. Hi Tom & Paul,
    Thank you both for stopping by. It’s always nice to hear from “pros” even if that term doesn’t quite have the same recognition it used to.

    Paying for a 21 Mpx camera and using only a small portion of its sensor is decadent. It’s exactly like you said, Paul.

    Tom, I appreciate your input as usual. In my previous life as a news photographer, darkening the background by cloning out the white area would be unacceptable and unethical.

    I still believe that btw. I’m only doing so in this instance to make a point. 😉

    From the looks of things even blowing the focus won’t matter very much anymore down the road. This camera developed by Lytro will have a tremendous impact when it trickles upward to professional models.

  2. Ahhh, well said Peter.

    I think in today’s world, too many togs prefer to “edit” in Photoshop rather than compose in camera. Especially the cropping tool.

    Remember the old adage “Tight is Right?”

    Here’s a new one for today’s photographer: “You paid for the whole sensor, use the whole sensor.”

    Sort of a paraphrase from the movie “Mystery, Alaska” when the judge was telling the kid to keep his elbows in so the whole blade of the hockey stick is on the ice.

  3. I was drawn to the portrait (vertical) from the beginning because I feel it gets me more involved in the emotion of the cheerleader and the moment. Taking out the white band at the top definitely helped. Thanks for sharing Peter.

  4. Hi Michael,
    I agree with you but I still like the horizontal better but only because the lighter background in the vertical makes the pretty ribbons not as eye-catching.

    I darkened the white out-of-focus areas in the picture. Take a look.

  5. Hi Jo,
    Another great benefit of composing tight? When you fill the frame with your subject, you’re giving your meter a bigger target to acquire a more reliable exposure.

    If you ever put together a show of your pictures and you compose tight, you won’t have to do much cropping. You’ll save a lot of money because you can have just one size of mattes.

  6. Peter, I’m surprised this hasn’t come up before as I think it is one of the more universal challenges photographers face every time they pick up the camera. Of the two pictures in this post, I prefer the wider capture because I feel the inclusion of the hair ribbon more strongly conveys the intentional color coordination of her outfit.

  7. NO, Peter, you are not long-winded. I could read a LOT more of what you have to say on this subject. Please elaborate. I am fascinated by composing in the viewfinder. I would love more advice.

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