How To Photograph Unique Compositions Like Sally Mann, etc.

Capturing composition is easy to learn but a challenge to make unique. Drawing inspiration from classic photographers is helpful to elevate your photos.

Justine kurland

Most people can identify a satisfying image when they see it. That is the interesting thing about the aesthetics of photography – you don’t have to be an expert to understand them because they’re based on the natural desires of the human eye. Many non-photographers have a deep love for photo books, photo exhibitions, and – of course – just getting high quality family photos done by someone who knows what they’re doing with a camera.

Solely understanding composition does not make for a good photographer, but it is an important set of guidelines to keep in mind when making an image. They say that shooting with film forces the photographer to slow down. But whether you’re shooting film or digital, the way you choose to compose your shot should always slow you down.

There are moments of luck, but most of the time it takes quite a bit of patience and thought to nail a successful composition.

The Rule of Thirds

Perhaps the most famous of the compositional rules, the rule of thirds instructs us to visually separate the three sections of the image into left, center, and right. Including something in each quadrant creates a more interesting image. You can place the main subject in the middle, but could also opt to stick them to the far right or left. You’ll just want to ensure that the viewer’s eye is being guided there no matter where the subject is.


The focal point is typically going to be what you want the viewer to understand as important. If the focal point is a person, try to ensure the focus is on their eyes. When we’re interacting with people in daily life, we’re looking them in the eyes. The same goes for when we’re interacting with a person within an image. We want to see their eyes – even if they’re not looking straight into the camera. My biggest pet peeve is when I scan a roll of film and notice that I’ve accidentally focused on their forehead or nose instead of their eyes *facepalm*.


A lot of this is your eye’s intuition when creating an image, but it lives in the same family as symmetry. Of course, making every image symmetrical is not necessary (and impossible), but you want the layout to make sense. Too much going on in an image can be confusing to the eye – “where do I look?” In the inverse, nothing happening at all can be boring. Achieving balance is finding a middle ground for activity in the image. Negative space can complement the subject or trees can break up a landscape, for example.

As mentioned earlier, these rules do not define “good” photography. They are guiding points, and they can be taken on in incredibly unique ways or even be successfully broken.

Some of my favorite photographers create images that I have studied as successful compositions. These are images that I can’t help but go back to – they are magnetic, drawing me in, and I think a lot of that is because they are so successfully composed and thus pleasing to the eye.

From Sally Mann’s “Family Pictures” series.

This photograph brings in all the elements that create a successful composition. The focus is on the girl, and her bent elbows lead our eyes to the center point – her braids. The bend of her arms mirrors the way the trees descend from left to right above her. She looks off to the right as there is a bit more negative space to her left.

From Justine Kurland’s “Girl Pictures” Series

This image is nicely balanced as the girl in the middle reaches up while the girls on either side of her mirror each other’s hand gestures almost exactly. We see a fading pathway near the center of the image, filling in the middle space alongside the girl in yellow. The girls are the important part of the image so they are in focus. Their eyes gazing upward allow our eyes to naturally travel from the bottom of the image to the top.

Imogen Cunningham’s Photo of Martha Graham

Well, the lighting of this image probably couldn’t be more perfect. Martha’s closed eyes amidst (what I imagine to be) the brilliant sun totally capture what it feels like to bask in the sunshine. The way light is used here communicates a universal experience. Martha’s hands bring interest to her face, and the central point is her eye. The completely dark background allows Martha to be the one and only point of interest.

From Nelli Palomaki’s Siblings Series

This image uses hands as a framing tool. The subject’s sibling frames her face with her hands, guiding the viewer’s eye to look there first. The subject is slightly off-center to allow her sibling to be an important part of the image as well. Light fills the space to the left, balancing the image to have a gradient from white to black moving horizontally across.

From Doug Dubois’ “Avella” Series

This is one of my favorite images ever! There’s so much happening but it isn’t messy. My eye sees first the little boy in the bottom center. From there I look to the bike, then to the woman holding her child. The subjects behind the boy create a semi-circle of sorts around him, and they are quite evenly spaced so they’re not overwhelming. Each subject has some breathing room. The composition of this photo tells a story about child-rearing and domesticity. We learn so much just from one moment.

From Larry Sultan’s “Pictures From Home” Series

Larry’s father is not perfectly centered or perfectly kept to the right in this image, but the floaty and window frame make it work. I love the way the floaty carries us from the right side of the image into the center, and then the image is broken up by the window frame. The window frames his father, and we gather that he is what we’re meant to look at.

Though reading articles like this can help, I firmly believe composition is something we learn through practice and study. Studying the work of successful photographers and going out to shoot are the best ways to understand composition. Lucky for us photographers, studying the work of other photographers is often fun, interesting, and life-giving. It is a joy to experience their images and learn from them. The same goes for the process of shooting. Even if you get home without a single usable image, the experience of making photographs is fruitful. You learned something new through troubleshooting and it’s very likely that the next time you go out with your camera, you’ll make something beautiful.

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