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Module 2 - Composition

Module Objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  1. Clearly identify the subject of your photograph
  2. Use any of 3 techniques to focus attention on your subject
  3. Identify and minimize any distracting elements in your photograph.

If practiced consistently and regularly, the knowledge obtained in this module will enable you to:

  1. Produce photographs that capture the viewers attention
  2. Capture the essence of your subjects.


Identifying the Subject

There are four steps that you as a good photographer will take when composing a photograph.

  1. Identify the overall theme for your photograph
  2. Determine the type of photograph you will use to communicate that theme
  3. Determine the physical characteristics of the model you want to accentuate
  4. Determine the personality traits that you will bring out.

Note: Step 4 is the one factor that separates the great photographers from the rest. Being able to portray your subjects’ personality through a 2-dimensional photograph is the mark of an expert, and will bring people flocking to your door.

Identifying a Theme

We’ve all heard the saying "a picture is worth a thousand words." But it isn’t worth anything if the picture doesn’t have a message. The message, or theme, needs to be specific and focused. For example, if the theme of a photo is "A nude girl," it won’t be as powerful as one with a theme of "Innocent girl enjoying an outdoor shower," or "Beautiful woman appreciating the first flower of spring." Spend some focused thinking time nailing this one down, and I can almost guarantee you will come up with at least one shot out of each roll of film that is breathtaking.


Determining the Type of Photograph

In the world of photographing beautiful women, there are at least six types of photograph:

  1. The portrait: focusing on the look and personality of the subject as seen through their facial expression.
  2. Fashion: focusing on the clothing worn by the subject
  3. Glamour: similar to portraits, but focusing on the subject’s (at least partially clothed) body.
  4. Figure art: focused on the unclothed body as a study in shape and texture; frequently using black and white film; frequently without showing the face of the subject; and frequently hiding areas of the subject in shadow.
  5. Playboy style nudes: a more sexually focused exploration of the female nude, exposing most of the body, but normally with little emphasis on the personality.
  6. Hard core, or pornography: focused almost exclusively on the sexual aspects of the body.

I have learned by working with Eolake that DOMAI photographs lies somewhere between type 4 and type 5. It also borrows elements of type 1, and occasionally includes a small taste of type 3! We are capturing much more than the shape and texture of the nude female.

(Note from Eolake: I personally think that a DOMAI nude should be more basic than most of the options Paul outline here. A DOMAI nude is a photo of a pretty woman, nude, and emphasizing the curves of her figure. The model or the photographer do not have sex in mind when creating the photo, and any sexual thoughts are entirely optional for the viewer. The photos might well end up being sexy, but the beauty of the girl (and the photo) is more important.)

Determining the Physical Attributes You Wish to Accentuate

Despite Playboy’s attempts to convince us otherwise with thick layers of airbrush, there are no perfect bodies in this world (although many of your subjects may come close.) And even if someone has what is close to a perfect body, some parts may be more perfect than others, or contribute to your theme better. For example, if your theme is a beautiful girl enjoying an outdoor shower, all you need to show is the expression on her face and a glistening breast to reinforce the fact that she is nude outdoors.

We all have favorite body parts that we like to capture in our art, but frequently it’s worthwhile asking your model what parts of her body she feels are her best attributes. Most often you’ll hear that it’s her eyes, her smile, or some other facial feature, because that’s what truly identifies us. Even if you’re doing nudes, don’t ignore the face, because that is also going to help bring out her personality.

Determining the Personality Traits You Want to Bring Out

As stated previously, this is the distinguishing element of a professional photographer. Having said that, the only way you will become adept at doing this is through practice.

Here are two tips that will help you.

  1. Study women. (I know, this isn’t a tough assignment J ) Watch how they move, the way their personality is projected on their face, and how they react to different stimuli around them. What makes them smile, laugh, react in any way that is uniquely them. When you talk to a woman, watch how she reacts to what you say and how you say it. Practice making people (women, children, men) laugh.
  2. Learn how to become the best listener in the world. People are most animated when they are discussing something that interests them. And with a little practice you can usually find out what aspect of their lives makes them act with passion. This is especially critical with people who haven’t posed for the camera before. By getting them to think about something else, they will forget that they are "posing," they will become more natural, and you’ll get some great shots.

Once you’ve figured out what "turns a woman on" (not sexually, but mentally), use that knowledge to keep them engaged through the shoot.


Focusing Attention on the Subject

Once you’ve completely identified what your subject is, you want to ensure that your photograph draws the viewer to the same conclusion. There are a few basic techniques you can use to do this.

1 - Move in close

One of the biggest differences between a photo that grabs your attention and one that is very boring is how big the subject is in the frame. As we will discuss further in Module 3 — Lighting, the eye sees the world in a different way than the camera.

It is usually advantageous to get the subject to fill the frame, and to make the background blurred (see below).

2 — Move your subject off center

In the first photo above, you can see that the model’s head is very close to dead center. In fact, the only reason it is above the center of the picture is avoid chopping her feet off. There is a "rule of thirds" in photography that suggests you divide your frame into three, vertically and horizontally, and place your subject in one of the cross-sections.

3 — Use Converging Lines to "Point" to the subject

We’re all familiar with how roads and railway tracks seem to converge at the horizon. This trait becomes very evident in a photo taken with a moderately wide-angle lens (around 28mm on a 35mm camera), and can be used to focus attention on a subject that is not up close. Position the subject at the point where the lines converge, and you draw the viewer’s attention to the subject.

4 — Frame the subject

A very effective tool is to frame your subject. This works very well in DOMAI photographs, using windows, mirrors, doors, and other natural frames, to single out the subject in the middle of the frame.


Minimizing Distracting Elements

How often have you received your photos back from the lab, only to find that there was something in the picture that you hadn’t seen before, and which is the first thing you notice when you look at the picture. Again, remember that the flattening effect of a 2-D picture, combined with the fact that the eye is much more selective in what it sees than the camera, brings things out in a photo that we don’t notice in real life. These distracting elements can include trees growing out of our subject’s head, electrical cords and wall outlets that jump out from the picture, or any visually distracting objects in the frame.

Here are a couple of ways to remove those distractions.

  1. Use a wide aperture to throw the background out of focus. A wide aperture (f/2 to f/4.5) means that anything that is not within a narrow distance range of the camera will appear out of focus. The down side to this is that if you don’t focus very carefully, your subject may go out of focus too. When using a wide aperture, focus very carefully on the eyes of your subject. If the eyes are in focus your viewer won’t mind if the edges of the subject are out of focus. This also has the advantage of making the files smaller, when used on the web.
  2. Use a tripod, and study everything in the frame. Ignore your subject for the moment. Look at everything else around, behind, and in front of the subject. If you see something distracting, remove everything you can remove, or shift your camera or subject until the distraction disappears.



You now have your subject properly placed in the frame, in a way that will tell a story to the viewer. You’ve hopefully learned three key elements of success that will set you apart from the amateur:

  1. Establishing a definite theme for your photograph
  2. Bringing an element of your subject’s personality into the picture
  3. Getting in close to your subject, removing anything that doesn’t contribute to your theme from the frame.

Next we look at how to use lighting to make your photographs stand out and take on a three-dimensional feeling.

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