This week’s blog post is actually going to be two one medium sized one and one short one.  Both have the theme of going to the next level with your photography.  The first is some thinking that I have been giving to the process of learning to compose better images.  The second is an unashamed plug for my “Intermediate Level” training sessions.

The four stages of learning to compose an image

The church of St Stanislaus, Altos de Chavon, Dominican Republic

This has all come out of work I have been doing over the years helping photographers improve their skills.  I have observed in those photographers and in myself four stages that photographers go through when learning to compose photographs.

Stage 1 : Just Snapping

This is where we all start.  We pick up a camera, point it roughly in the direction of what we want to photograph and press the button.  Some of the images created will be reasonable. Most, if we are honest, are will not be very good.

The problem here is that no real thought goes into the creation of the images.  For some that is because they don’t want to think about it, photography isn’t they want to think about.  All they want is a quick image to remind them of a place or event.  And if that is what photography is to those people that is fine.

Some however, will be frustrated.  They want their images to look like those they see in magazines or travel brochures.  These are the photographers who are ready to move on to the next stage.

Stage 2 : Learning the ‘rules’ of composition

Lantern and Window at Altos de Chavon, Dominican Republic

People learn the ‘rules’ of composition in many different ways.  Some will learn them by doing courses similar to the ones I run at the studio, or by attending lectures like the ones I give when I am working on a cruise ship.  Others will learn them by reading online or in books.

Still others will learn them without even being aware that they are learning them.  These people will, almost instinctively, discover what works and what doesn’t every time they view an image.  It might be an image in a book or magazine.  It might be one of their own images.

What characterises a person at this stage is when they look through the viewfinder (or the rear LCD screen) they are thinking about what elements they want in an image.  They compose, and recompose.  They might hold the camera horizontally and then vertically to see what works best.

These photographers are thinking, they are actively composing an image as they view it on their camera.   The images they are creating are getting better all the time.

Stage 3 : Seeing images

Roof and cross at the church of St Stanislaus, Altos de Chavon, Dominican Republic

After a while a stage 2 photographer moves on to the next stage.  Instead of composing an image by what they see through the viewfinder they are now able to look at a scene in front of them and can visualise what the final image will look like.  In the mind’s eye, a photographer at this stage will know what the resulting image will look like, even before he/she brings the camera to the eye.

If asked, the photographer would be able to clearly describe where the image would be cropped, what elements of the scene in from of him/her will be in the image and even where they would be placed in the frame – and all this without ever looking through the viewfinder or a the back of the camera.

If you are a ‘stage 2’ photographer – try this exercise next time you are out with your camera.  Before you pick up the camera think through the scene in front of you.  Try to work out which elements will be in your image and which won’t.  Decide now where different elements will appear in the frame.  Then finally pick up the camera and make the image.

The more you do this the more instinctive it will become – that is when you are moving on to stage 4.

Stage 4 – Instinctive Photographer

Amphitheatre at Altos de Chavon, Dominican Republic

Odd as it sounds, the more often you think about each image you are creating – the less often you will need to.

This is because, the more frequently we do something the more the instinctive, automatic part of our brain takes over.  Think about when you first learned to drive – you were constantly thinking about pressing the right peddles and trying to coordinate that with changing the gear whilst still trying to keep the car travelling on the correct side of the road.  A year after passing your test and you are doing all that, while holding a conversation.  Driving the car has moved from the conscious part of your brain to the automatic/instinctive part.  So it is with composing images.

When you reach stage four you will be creating images without even thinking about the composition.  Sure, if asked, you can explain what you are doing, but much of the time you are just doing.

To you, it has become instinct.  To the outside observer however, a photographer operating at this stage can at times appear indistinguishable from one who is at stage 1.  They look at a scene, pick up the camera, press the button without apparently thinking about what they are doing.  The only thing that tells them apart is the quality of the images they produce.


So where are you on this scale?  Are you actively trying to move on to the next level?  Why not email me and let me know, or post a comment on the blog on my website.

Intermediate Photography Course

Those who receive this blog via email will notice a set of 12 events listed in the email.  These 12 events make up my Intermediate Photography Course.

I will be running one session every third Saturday morning from now till December.  There is no obligation to do all 12 sessions and you can just book for the ones that are of interest to you.  (You will, however, gain the most from the course by doing all of them).

Printed notes are provided for each session.

Each session is 3hrs long and is classroom based training, backed up with homework assignments.  For many of the sessions there will be corresponding practical sessions, and these will be added on to the calendar shortly.

Booking for each session opens to the general public two weeks before the session and the price is just £25.  Before that time booking is exclusive to Academy Members who can book for just £19.

In case you haven’t realised – it costs just £6 per month to join the Academy (less if you pay annually).  So effectively you can join the Academy and get the benefits of being a member and book for the course for the same price that a non-Academy member would pay just for the single training session.

The first session of the course is on Travel Photography and is a 10am on Saturday 8th April.


Until next time, keep MAKING great images,