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TIPsy Tuesday – Composition

Welcome to TIPsy Tuesday, my weekly posts of Tips to get better shots. Every Tuesday I will post a Tip on topics such as: camera functions, composition, coordinating, post processing and many many more. So if you haven’t as of yet, be sure to subscribe to the RSS feed. You don’t want to miss out on this great new series. And if you have ANY questions or suggestions please comment below. I promise I will get back to you, because this series is all about sharing and interaction.

Today’s Tip: Composition

There are many ways to approach this idea, but being an artist with degrees in Studio Art and Art History, I like to examine the greats of the past for my inspiration.  How many of you look at masterpieces and see the lessons to be learned for your photography? I love walking through the museums or picking up a book. So much to consider, but for today let’s start with one of the most famous paintings of all time. Hey, if we are going there, let’s really go there!

The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci has many secrets and perhaps some that might make us smile a little when we step behind the camera.

Composition example - Mona Lisa

Image from

What can we learn from such a painting? How about the composition of the model? Hand positioning? Eye contact? Background? The list goes on and on so let’s look a little closer. And mind you, this is one way to compose. I’m not suggesting it is the only way, but when you contemplate the art of posing we should start with the basics and this masterpiece is just that … a master in showing us the art of composition.

When posing the subject/model to camera we should strive NOT to put them square to the camera. Ideally the shoulders should be our guiding angle. The back shoulder should be higher then the front and pushed further back from the camera. To help achieve this you need to be aware of feet positioning. The back foot should hold the weight of the subject, which means the feet should not be parallel to each other. Of course, this image shows Mona Lisa sitting, but if your subject is standing, start with the leg position because this will help you get the body alignment. Once you have the shoulders in this layout, work on the hand positioning. You want to create a triangle from the subject’s body. Do you see the triangle created with Mona Lisa’s hand placement?  How about now?

The triangle - Mona Lisa

How about head position?  Through all of this you need to be aware of light position. Where is the light coming from? Is it all ambient or will a strobe or flash be utilized?  Why do I bring up light when talking about head position? You want to pay close attention to how light falls on the face of your subject. The most flattering is when the shadow from the nose does not cross over the lip.  Ideally, you want to position the subjects nose between the light source and the camera lens. This is referred to as the sweet spot … okay, I refer to it as such. I could go further into the positioning of the light, what angle, how high, etc., but that would be railroading this topic. Best left for another week, but I promise I will get into it.

Okay, now that we have posed our model, let’s talk about something that should have been considered at the start of the session: background. Leave it to me to discuss things backwards but let’s face it .. many a photographer doesn’t always think about the importance of the background in their composition. Especially when the photographer is a portraiturist and is more focused on the subject.  But the Mona Lisa gives us a great opportunity to discuss this. If Leonardo da Vinci had taken this with a camera, I assure you this would not have been done with an f-stop of 1.8.  Don’t think I’m knocking wide open … I love wide open lenses but sometimes we get so caught up in the bokeh that we forget to consider that sometimes we should give a new chapter to our images. Would The Mona Lisa had been this captivating if Leonardo had blurred out the background that she sits in front of?  Sometimes the scene dictates a different approach, so before throwing that puppy into our comfort zone, look around at the scenery and ponder if a small f-stop with a narrow DOF would make a better shot. Don’t be afraid to try.

I hope you enjoyed exploring photography through art history and I hope this encourages you to look for inspiration in many places.

Thanks for checking out the Tuesday Tip. If you have any topics you want covered please leave a comment below. Have fun and I look forward to getting to know you as we venture down this road of ‘Tipsy’ Tuesday. Cheers!


Deborah Chetwood is an award winning, published photographer in Austin, TX who specializes in stylized children's, senior's and glamour photography. To find out more about the artist click HERE.

Please visit our other website for information on the Texas Vogue: Contemporary Glamour.

lauren flores - December 27, 2011 - 11:14 am

Awesome tips! learning proper composition can improve a photographer’s work ten fold. It’s one of the first aspects I teach my students too.

Sarah - December 27, 2011 - 1:30 pm

Fantastic tips! I’m def. going to try to think a little harder next time on this

Danielle Dutta - December 27, 2011 - 6:47 pm

Fantastic article! This is one of the reasons why the hubby and I go to museums all the time, to look at the masters and study the lighting, the position of the subjects, etc. You are absolutely right about taking the time to explore different f-stops and your background as they relate to overall message you want in your photo.

PS: Whenever I think of background settings I think of Zack Arias yelling on creativelive “Head in a clean spot!” :-)

Jo Reason - December 28, 2011 - 3:57 pm

great stuff, thanks for the reminder.

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