At the beginning of image composition is an idea or vision, the answer to the question "What do I want to say with my image?" It helps you to decide what belongs into your picture and what does not. It gives your image composition a direction and helps you to create consciously instead of shooting randomly.
A good image begins in your mind – with an idea, a vision of what you want it to say with your photo. It gives you a direction for image composition, a destination. You can realise it step by step and avoid getting lost in the countless different ways of capturing a subject. And you get to producing fewer but better photos instead of many random ones.
”What do I want to say with my picture?“ is, in my opinion, the most helpful to get clear about what is important for the picture later. If you find it more appropriate could ask similarly:
It is essential that your answer describes specific qualities that make your subject interesting and should therefore be expressed as clearly as possible in your image composition. Just naming the subject and that you find it nice to look at is not enough.
A notable tree, taken during the day on a walk in April when it did not yet have any foliage. What exactly makes it interesting? Among other things, its shape with massive branches that stretch upwards and over the lake like huge arms.
Taken on the same day in the evening at dusk, it appears as a black silhouette. This reduces the tree to its outline, the bizarre shape is expressed even better. At the same time, the deep blue evening sky provides a beautiful background.
There are other aspects of the tree that you can pick up as an idea for your image, for example how the branches grow out of the massive trunk like fans. You can see this in the next picture, taken a month later when the background was already green. Without the foliage in the back, the tree would have stood in front of quite unsightly undergrowth.
It could also be a picture message to show the structure and shades of the bark, or how individual branches tower over the lake. This leads to other visions of your image and clearly different photos of the same subject. They are other possible answers to the question of the idea, the vision behind your image.
Here is a holiday photo: The big market in Marrakech, taken from a terrace above the market at dusk. And that's is exactly what the picture is saying: the oriental market at dusk.
Taken from the same place seconds later is this second picture. It has a completely different message: the girl in the foreground is curiously looking at the oriental market. The railing and a piece of the awning at the top make it clear that we are on a terrace above.
If you have taken such a photo yourself, it is a more personal memory than the market alone, even more so, of course, if the people in it are familiar. For other, unbiased viewers, it tells a very different little story than the market alone.
The first of the three tree photos above is also already appealing, but nothing special. A shot that shows the tree as a whole, as you would see it during a walk. The other two emphasise individual aspects, are reduced to the essentials of a certain image statement.
The less other elements are present, the clearer the intended message. And the clearer the image statement is, the better your photo will be. If a viewer recognises something completely different in the picture or wonders what it's all about because there's all sorts of other things in the picture, it's not a good picture.
It's like storytelling: If you speak in short, clear sentences, you will be better understood.
In practical terms this means: simplify your picture; remove what doesn't belong to it. The question ”What can I leave out?“ is more important than the consideration ”What else can I take into the picture?“
Experience shows it is far more common that pictures taken with little thought get better when you take something away. Compare the two photos of sleeping cat Fred yourself.
”If your pictures aren't good enough, you weren't close enough.“ is an often quoted saying by the famous photographer Robert Capa. You don't have to take it as literally as he did – Robert Capa was a war photographer and ultimately died for his passion. But there is a lot of truth and experience in the quote, even for ordinary, everyday photography.
Reduction can even lead to cropping the main subject itself and omitting parts of it. You can see this well in pictures of people and portraits, for example, where parts of the head are missing because they are not important for the facial expression. The narrower section then emphasises the eyes and mimic.
However, "reducing to the essence" does not mean that you should rigorously crop all pictures to one main subject; the surroundings can also be important for the picture's message. "Get closer" is no rule that you should follow stubbornly, some subjects need space around them – if it supports the intended message of the picture, e.g. a tree standing lonely in a wide landscape. It all depends on the right balance.
That's why you see another tree photo here that shows more landscape around it. This photo is not about the tree alone, but also about how it stands early on a winter morning on a snow-covered meadow, in still cold, bluish light. You can also consider the snowy morning landscape itself, with the winding path and the solitary tree in it, as the subject of the picture. This picture needs more space around the tree because the surroundings are important for the picture's message.
Your reflections on what you want the picture to say should lead to an imagination that is as clear as possible.
This also gives you a first idea of how much foreground and background should be in the picture – an approximate picture detail and an initial picture composition.
All these considerations are essential for the final effect of the picture. And, very importantly:
Good photos need attentive observation, patience and thought, the camera is secondary.