Photography Composition Tutorial

Tutorial – Photographic Composition

by Jonathan Bourla (

Photographic composition is a funny thing. It’s something that comes intuitively to some, whilst others rely on widely held rules.

Years ago, when I was a teenager, I was a member of my local photographic club. Regular competitions were held, both within the club and with local “competitor” clubs. There were very firm rules on Composition, and I found if I wanted to do well in these competitions I would have to abide by these rules. The rules were absolutely set in stone, with no room for interpretation. One of these rules was The Rule of Thirds, which stated that the subject had to be located a third or two thirds into the frame. Placing the subject centrally was a big no-no. Blindly following these rules led to competition success, but later to disatisfaction.

Another no-no was cropping. Amongst the club-mates who printed their own pictures, several followed the custom of filing out their enlargers’ negative holders. When printed, this made it clear that the entire film area of the negative had been used. I thought this rather silly – painters produce paintings in a variety of different formats: square, mildly rectangular, very long skinny rectangles, even circles. Why then should photographers be limited to the format of their particular camera? It’s a good thing to try to use as much of the film frame as possible, but surely some images suit a square format, while others suit different degrees of rectangleness (if that’s a word?)? At the time I was shooting 35 millimetre colour slides. In one competition I had a slide that I felt strongly suited a more squarish format than the full 35mm frame, so I cropped out the unwanted element of the slide with a piece of tin foil. The judge hardly looked at the image itself in his disapproval of the fact the slide had been masked.

In 1997 I attended a fabulous workshop by American photographer Howard Bond. Howard recalled an occasion when he showed to a group of students a collection of fine art photographs by master photographers, including Ansel Adams. The students were horrified and bemused to see photographs by these master photographers which clearly flouted their strongly ingrained rules of composition. One photograph had the subject placed centrally in the frame, and the students couldn’t believe this highly revered artist would do such a thing. The fact that this composition was effective just caused more confusion.

I have a book by photographer Bruce Barnbaum which has a section on composition. In it he breaks down the elements which contribute to good composition. It was a good read.

Clearly, however, composition is an intuitive act for good photographers, and the risk of providing rules to follow for less confident photographers runs the risk that their photos look formulaic.

I think it’s a good thing to look at the work of the photographers you like or admire. Have a think if you would compose the photos in the same way as the photographers? If you find shots where you think “I would do that differently”, I think that’s a positive thing. That’s part of developing your own photographic “voice”.

When looking in the camera’s viewfinder or screen, or later on, say, the computer screen, be aware of where your eye looks when it views the photo. Does it, perhaps, get sidetracked to some distracting element on an edge of the frame. If this is distracting because it is lighter, perhaps, than the subject, maybe this can be corrected in Photoshop or similar image editing software. Or maybe it should just be removed by reframing the camera, or by cropping in Photoshop. You want the viewer’s eye to “enter” the photo, move around the different elements and stay interested.

I think a big issue is seeing a subject from afar, and taking a photo at that moment. Obviously it depends on the circumstance, but in my opinion you are far better to approach the subject and take the image with a wider angle lens.

Do see if you can get the Bruce Barnbaum book I mentioned, maybe from your local library?

I think my composition ability improved when I started using a view camera. The reason will probably sound strange to most non view camera using people. The image on the camera’s viewing screen is upside down, and left/right reversed. We’re not used to seeing the world like this, and it has the effect of making the scene more abstract. I read a long time ago of a photographer with a regular camera who had a special prism finder made that mimicked the view camera look. Obviously for most photographers this isn’t possible – the best advice is to try to be aware of how the eye moves around the image/photo, get rid of distractions by changing camera position, or other controls, and keep the eye interested in your photo.

Good luck

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Gitzo Tripod Experience

Gitzo Tripod Experience.

By Jonathan Bourla (

gitzo-closeFor those photographers who use a tripod with their camera, that tripod is an essential part of their photographic kit. For my fine art photography and large format view camera, keeping the camera absolutely still on a tripod is vital. I do recognise that not all photographic persuits suit the use of a tripod. I recently came upon some fantasic photography online of farm and other animals by New Zealand photographer Cally Whitham. Cally later commented to me that she would lose “the moment” taking the time setting up a tripod for her photography. For my own photography, my main camera is a tripod-only piece of equipment, so there’s no option of hand-holding the thing. But in general, with the long exposures I tend to use and the contemplative style of photography, this necessitates the use of a tripod, and I think a tripod is essential to achieving the best results the camera and lenses are capable of.

When I started with my big camera, I bought a large and heavy Manfrotto model tripod. It was certainly stable but was really so big and heavy that I didn’t want to carry it very far. My wife and I were planning a trip to Australia, and so I investigated getting a lighter, smaller tripod. One thing I was keen on was a tripod without a centre column. I had read opinion saying these tripods were the most stable. Apart from some wooden tripods made by the American firm of Ries, the French company of Gitzo seemed to offer what I wanted in their Systematic line-up. Gitzo had the reputation as one of the best, if not the very best, of tripods available. I soon became the proud owner of a series three G345 aluminium Gitzo tripod (the move towards carbon fibre as a tripod material hadn’t really taken hold at that stage).

For the first few years, the tripod behaved itself and I was pleased. This was, after all, an expensive, high quality piece of mechanical equipment that I expected to last indefinitely. But then it started misbehaving. It may have been around this time that I took a photograph of a water fountain in Devonport by removing my shoes, and climbing into the water and setting up my tripod with the lower leg sections in the water. Well, when I was home I washed, cleaned and dried the tripod. I had seen photographs in magazines of photographers with Gitzo tripod set up deep in water, so I didn’t expect any issues. But I found some time later that, with the camera set up on the tripod, one of the tripod’s lowest leg sections would collapse. Fortunately this collapse was a relatively slow process that I was able to grab camera and tripod, stopping the whole lot tumbling to the ground. As I found on subsequent photographic trips, I would have to be vigilant and not turn my back from the camera and tripod for more that a moment so I could catch the camera and tripod in those moments of collapse.

I wrote to Gitzo, and received a reply recommending I replace the “leg bushes”, and put me in touch with the dealer stocking Gitzo products in my home city. I bought a bag of different size bushes, and installed the appropriate ones in my tripod. Feeling confident, I went on a photographic shoot, only to find the tripod misbehaved as before. Over time I sought out the advice of others via the internet, finding that others had had the same experience I had with my Gitzo tripod. Over time I tried different things I read about on the ineternet, such as sticking pieces of thin sticking tape to the bushes, but the results weren’t long lasting or effective.

Then, when visiting a different city, I asked the advice of a Gitzo dealer there. The helpful young man swapped the plastic collars on the lowest leg sections, and then proceeded to demonstrate how strong the legs now were. What I didn’t realise until a minute or two later was that he had tightened the leg collars with almost superhuman force. It took a huge effort on my part to loosen these collars. I couldn’t believe it was necessary to apply so much force in tightening the tripod’s leg collars.

Using the tripod revealed, with the collars tightened as much as I could, that the problem remained.

I was really disillusioned. I was contemplating buying a new tripod, as I clearly couldn’t trust my Gitzo. Investigating the different tripods available, I found only two makes that filled the bill. One, not surprisingly, was Gitzo itself with their carbon fibre Systematic tripods. What became clear was that Gitzo had changed the design on their tripods. Did they change their tripod design due to deficiencies in the earlier models?

The alternative was a tripod from American firm Really Right Stuff, which seem to be based on Gitzo’s designs with improvements. The model I would want was listed as not in stock.

In terms of getting another Gitzo, I felt quite resentful, thinking my original Gitzo tripod shouldn’t have gone wrong. Despite not trusting my tripod, I kept putting off buying a replacement.

Then I had a brainwave. I had always been under the impression that since the lowest leg sections, with their smaller diameter tubes, were only to be used once the larger diameter tube sections had been fully extended. So I would usually have the lowest sections only partially extended. But what if I did things the other way around? Fully extending the lowest leg sections, I found the tripod was finally stable and secure. After all these years.

For the moment, I will stick with my old Gitzo tripod. Largely out of mistrust of the brand, I baulk at spending a lot of money on a new Gitzo replacement.

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Fine Art Photography: Technique and Effort.

By Jonathan Bourla

'Dead-Leaf'-by-Jonathan-BourlaFine Art Photography: Technique and Effort.

To my mind, a Fine Art photograph must be both artistically inspired and also technically excellent. To be technically excellent, I think there should be excellent shadow detail, and the photograph be tonally excellent too, with a wide scale of grey tones. This is quite unlike the ‘soot and chalk’ tonal distribution which is quite common in black and white photography.

I use the Zone System to calculate appropriate negative exposure and development. The famous photographer Ansel Adams used the Zone System to great effect, and wrote about this technique in his book ‘The Negative’. Unfortunately many photographers who tried to get a handle on the Zone System from his guide books found this a very difficult task. I understand that many gave up, and then rejected the Zone System as impossible, and even unneccesary. There was also criticism that photographers using the Zone System produced similar-looking photographs. There is some truth to this last criticism as the photographs of photographers using the Zone System do tend to have very good rendition of details in the shadow areas, and they tend to have a nice tonal distribution. Looking at the photographs of the ‘greats’ such as Ansel Adams, John Sexton, Howard Bond and others will reveal the tonal distribution that I am talking about. Having a grasp of technique allows the photographer the capability, the freedom, to create photographs according to their unique vision. Instead of it being down to luck. I think of it as akin to needing to learn a vocabulary and grammatical rules before writing a novel.

I was one of those photographers who found it hard to understand the Zone System from Adams’ writings. I thought I was doing well, muddling through, until I attended a workshop run by photographer Howard Bond. The attendees at this workshop had the treat of being shown a good number of photographs by Master photographers. Then, showing our own prints to the group, it was clear to me that my own photographs really were lacking. Thankfully I then learnt from Howard Bond how to make sense of the Zone System. As with difficult things in general, once I understood the system it all made sense, and since then has been central to my photography.

The Zone System was important because photographers tended to make overdeveloped, and consequently overly contrasty, negatives. These negatives didn’t suit the printing papers available. I remember reading a recommendation from Kodak that countered the prevailing film speed/film development data given by all film manufacturers, Kodak included, but obviously they didn’t make enough of it to cause a change from the standards that were leading photographers to create negatives too high in contrast, and lacking in shadow detail.

I use a one degree spot light meter, to measure the light values of the different parts of the image, and consequently determine film exposure and also what development to give to the negative. A view camera using sheet film is ideal for this, as you can give the optimum development to each negative, as each negative is a separate sheet of film. You can use a more limited version of the Zone System with roll fim cameras, which make you develop all images on a roll for the same time. Some have two or more film backs for their camera. Ansel Adams, later in his life when he changed from the larger, more cumbersome view cameras to the smaller Hasselblad camera, used quite a number of backs with his camera, each destined to receive different development times. For my second camera, a Mamiya 7 rangefinder, I recently added a second camera body to give a limited Zone System flexibility.

So what use is the Zone System in my hybrid process of film negative, followed by scanning (and then followed by ‘interpretation’ on the computer)? Well, by chance, like traditional printing papers, film scanners work best with negatives of low or moderate contrast. So the Zone System is still useful for me.

My style of fine art photography is to some extent self-defeating. One aim of what is known as “straight” photography is that any changes or tonal manipulations made in what I call the “Interpretation” stage should be invisible to the viewer. In other words, if the viewer says “has that building been darkened?” or “I can see where the photographer has lightened that tree”, then the fine art photographer really has failed. I say self defeating because you may have been really creative and technically proficient in the interpretation stage of a particular photograph, but it isn’t allowed to shout to the viewer that all this effort has gone into it. I had an instance I remember when I was showing some of my fine art photographs to a gallery owner, someone apparently knowledgable about, and familiar with, fine art photography. Looking through my collection of photographic prints, he stopped to pause on one in particular. This photograph, like all of my photographs, was the product of considerable work to interpret from the camera negative to the finished fine art photograph. He studied the photograph, and then asked me something to the extent that the photograph looked very simple, and there clearly wasn’t much effort needed to produce it. I was really quite taken aback. And did the wrong thing – I started mumbling about the techniques that had gone into the making of the photograph. After talking for a few seconds, I think I realised I wasn’t getting anywhere. My opportunity was lost. I should simply have just thanked him for thinking the photograph had looked simple to produce, and taken this remark as a measure of my success. It’s easy to say that after the event, but at the time I was quite frustrated that all my work I had done to create this photograph was so easily dismissed, and by someone so supposedly knowledgable. And what of the not so knowledgable viewer? To quote my brother-in-law, pretending to hold an imaginary camera in his hands, “what’s involved in making a photograph is …click”. The average person has no idea the interpretative work that goes into the making of a fine art photograph. Strange to be producing artwork where the apparent difficulty is inversely proportional to the actual difficulty.

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Photography as Fine Art

By Jonathan Bourla

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Photography as fine art

'Muriwai-colony'-by-Jonathan-BourlaPhotography as fine art. To some, this statement just doesn’t add up. Consider this – take an average person, give them an easel, some paints and brushes, and ask them to paint a picture. Would they consider themselves a painter? In fact, most would produce something similar to that of a two or three year old.   But  give that same person a modern automatic camera, and they would probably feel comfortable calling themselves a photographer.

With the proliferation of 35mm compact cameras, and then more recently their digital counterparts, focusing and approximate exposure seem to have been demystified. Of course, the photographs produced by the average snapshooter are just that – snaps, mere records of family groups and holiday destinations, not photographs of artistic merit.

Some seventeen years ago I attended a photographic workshop run by one of America’s top fine art photographers.  He recalled an experiment he had taken part in with his circle of artist friends. They had a go at each other’s chosen media, be it painting, sculpting, photography and others. The non-photography artists had expected photography to be easy, but were surprised how difficult it was.  Of course, this wasn’t snapshot photography; it was fine art photography of the highest order.

So what is fine art photography, as opposed to other forms of photography? Well it refers to photography pursued solely to fulfil the creative, artistic vision of the photographer.   Compare this to Commercial photography, whose raison d’être is to sell a product or service. Or Photojournalism, which aims to record events or activities. Here the shot is usually a direct representation of the action being photographed, with no artistic element, and where technical quality is not paramount. Fine art photography, however, needs technique to be excellent, so that the photograph is fully capable of capturing the artistic vision of the photographer. Fine art photography has traditionally been in black and white, but more recently has grown to encompass colour.

An extremely important fine art photographer of the twentieth century was Ansel Adams. His photographs and teachings have been the inspiration for many aspiring fine art photographers, myself included.  Adams coined the term “previsualisation”, which takes place before the camera’s shutter is released.  It refers to the process of visualising the desired final print, and then exposing and developing the film accordingly.  This method particularly suits photographers using large format cameras with sheet film, as each sheet of film can be developed individually. This is in contrast to the shots on a roll of film, which all receive the same development. A large format view camera, in principle, is like the plate cameras of a century ago, and although not a common sight, are still the camera of choice for those who aim for the highest in quality. Incidentally, these cameras are highly suited to fine art photography, as despite the difficulties posed, they encourage a slower, more contemplative process from the photographer.   My camera always provokes interest from the general public, and one young boy asked me if I had a proper camera hidden inside!

I digress. The fine art photographic process can perhaps be split into two parts: the negative and the ‘performance’.   Adams, a highly accomplished pianist, had an analogy between photography and music, saying that the photographic negative is akin to a musical score.  The musical score has the musical notes, but the final interpretation is left to the musicians and conductor involved. Likewise, the negative is the start of the photographic performance.  If the photographer has done his/her job well, the negative will contain all the information needed, in a form that is easily accessible.

The ‘performance’ has traditionally been carried out in the darkroom, but more recently is being carried out on a computer. The basic techniques are the same, and some of the computer tools even have the same names as their darkroom counterparts. Dodging and burning are two such tools.  Dodging refers to making an area of the photograph lighter, while burning makes an area darker. This ‘performance’ is where the main creative, artistic input from the photographer comes in, and the process can be lengthy, taking several hours or often days to complete for a single photograph. The finished print, however, should look natural and seamless – if manipulations are obvious to the viewer, then the photographer has failed.

I know that some people think of this ‘performance’ as cheating, but they fail to understand that fine art photography is a creative process – the photographer is not aiming for an accurate representation, but rather a creative, artistic interpretation.

The American market in fine art photography is well established. Numerous photographers and galleries have contributed to this over time, but I think Ansel Adams played a significant role.  His images of Yosemite and Yellowstone were used to promote conservation of these areas, and became American icons.  He was also a great educator in photography, teaching workshops and writing a series of technical instructional books.  Although the books were aimed at photographers, and some concepts were hard to grasp, they gave an insight into the creative and technical processes involved in making a fine art photograph of the highest standard.  The galleries, and then the photography-buying public, became aware that the photographic process was complex, both creatively and technically.

Adams wrote a book called “The Making of Forty Photographs”. Although aimed at photographers, it is worth getting a copy from your library. Even if you do not understand the techniques described, the book gives an insight into the photographic process. If you ever get to travel to San Francisco, take the opportunity to visit the Ansel Adams Gallery.  Inside you will find that his photographs in the flesh are visual masterpieces.  With your newfound insight into the photographic process, you will know what technical and artistic masterpieces they are too.




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My dream camera

By Jonathan Bourla


Clearly if you were to ask a number of different photographers what their dream cameras were, you would get a variety of responses as everyone’s needs (and wants) are different. My primary camera is a four by five inch field view camera, made by the English firm of Gandolfi, which sadly ceased to trade in recent years after a very long history of production. I scan the negatives produced on the Gandolfi and create a digital file to be interpreted on the computer. I then print the fine art photographs on cotton rag paper with pigment inks.

gandolfi-cameraI also have a second camera, a Mamiya 7 medium format rangefinder, for those occasional times when, for example, the weather is too extreme for the bigger and susceptible Gandolfi.

I have been a staunch film user. In general with film, the bigger the film size the better. Of course with the bigger film size usually comes a corresponding increase in camera size, and cumbersomeness, so different photographers may find their ideal camera is a compromise between film size and camera practicality. Four by five inch is the most commonly used large format size, although there are much bigger cameras available, from five by seven inch up to a whopping twenty by twenty four inch! Not exactly a pocket camera! So what of the digital world? In the small 35mm-like digital single lens reflex models, the pinacle is the “full frame”. The next step up is to a medium format digital back, and the “full frame” models here are approximately six by four and a half centimetres in size. There are larger backs than these, intended for large format cameras, but they work in a different way. Known as scanning backs, they apparently produce excellent results but are not ideal for use in the field.

So how do the medium format digital backs compare to a good scan from a four by five inch negative? Going just on the number of pixels produced I had assumed the scanned negative would be the easy winner, but I started reading online from photographers that said the results were comparable. Since I didn’t know of these photographers I was rather sceptical, until I read an article by Charles Cramer, who from magazine articles I knew to be very exacting and demanding of very high standards.

phase_one_iq260_achromaticI understand that for a given digital sensor size there will be an optimum number of pixels. The manufacturers can squeeze on more pixels per inch, but there are quality compromises like increased noise. Looking at the medium format backs, the current state of the art is sixty or eighty megapixels. I made the assumption sixty was best. One digital back really caught my eye – the Phase One IQ260 Achromatic. This is a black and white only device, and I thought this would be the most similar to what I am used to with black and white film. There is also a supposed resolution advantage to using such a digital back. Colour sensors have a special built-in filter to create the colour image. This is known as a Bayer filter, and although it does its job admirably, it is said to cause a loss in resolution. I have read a couple of reviews of these achromatic backs, one which reported this advantage over a similarly sized colour sensor, whereas another report said there was no measureable difference. So who knows?

So what camera body to go with the Achromatic back? You might think I would want a high end view camera. The one that springs to mind is the Japanese-made Ebony brand, which has a reputation as the ultimate wooden field view cameras. But I’m happy with my Gandolfi. After I had bought it, I found two areas of its operation to be problematic. I decided to effect some DIY modifications – with hindsight really quite a sacrilege for such a lovely new camera – but the modifications did the trick, and I find the Gandolfi an effective tool.

ALPA_max_wooden_handles_largeNo, I would love a camera that was in some way a melding of my Gandolfi and Mamiya cameras. My choice is an Alpa Max. Alpa is a Swiss company that produces specialist cameras, built to very exacting tolerances. They even have a system of shims, to get the digital back in perfect registration. The Max has camera movements of rise & fall, and left & right shift. There is an adapter to offer tilt, but with wide angle lenses this isn’t really necessary. The Alpa cameras were, I believe, originally intended for use with medium format film backs, in particular modified Linhof models. Now one can also use them with medium format digital backs, like the Phase One Achromatic I mentioned. Another possibility of the camera movements, in addition to image perspective control, is to make photo stitching possible. Using the camera’s stitching adapter you can keep the lens stationary and perform stitching movements on the camera back only – an ideal situation. The movements offered by the Alpa Max would seem ideal for a medium format digital back, and combined with the Achromatic would seem to make an ideal camera system for me.


Of course, a camera system isn’t a proper camera without a lens (or lenses). I have been loyal to Schneider Kreuznach with my Gandolfi camera. I have three lenses I use all the time, from a very wide angle, a moderate wide angle, to a mildly long lens. I also have a longer telephoto lens of much older vintage which I thought at time of purchase I could use, but find in reality it is left at home most of the time. Schneider make a range of lenses geared to digital sensors, called Apo-Digitar.  They also produce an exclusive range of lenses for Alpa called Apo Switar and Alpa Helvetar.


So there you have it, my dream camera of Alpa Max body; Phase One IQ260 Achromatic digital back; and Schneider  Apo-Digitar lenses and Schneider/Alpa Apo Switar and Apo Helvetar.   Hopefully one day I will be lucky enough to have first-hand experience of this dream camera system.

Jonathan Bourla

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