Photo Tips: Composition

Learn how to frame a photo so it tells your story.

Learn how to frame a photo so it tells your story.

By Jon Deck

Creating a well-lit, properly focused photograph at the right resolution doesn’t mean much if the scene you’ve shot is unclear to the viewer. A photograph that is too far away, lost in a cluttered background, or features huge hands or tools but no action isn’t useful. The composition of your photo needs to communicate to your audience. This is especially true of step-by-step photos. The photos should tell the story of the project independent of the text.


Choose the background carefully

I can’t say enough about this basic element. A poor choice of background has ruined more photos than poor shooting skills. Simpler is better. Avoid bright colors and patterns. Resist the temptation to shoot against carpeting or sheets. (Fabrics are tough to control, and lines and creases will never disappear.)

Paper is a popular choice for amateurs and professionals alike. You can buy long rolls of photo paper or look for wrapping paper, craft paper, or butcher paper in white or neutral colors. Roll and store the paper carefully between shoots so it doesn’t get crumpled. You can also use your tabletops, countertops, and even floors if they are neutral colors and not overtly patterned or textured. Just be sure the area is large enough that nothing else will show behind the object when you’re photographing it.

Try to create contrast between your object and its background. If your subject is small and shiny, like jewelry, you can consider a textured background. Intricate fretwork is better photographed on a smooth background. You could consider photographing bowls, vases, and boxes in a kitchen or living room setting. Then again, if those rooms are full of dishes, newspapers, chairs, and lamps, then no—it will be hard to pick out the project against the cluttered background. The camera will “see” things that might not be apparent to you.

For a step-by-step series, shooting on paper may not be practical, especially if you need to show your saw or drill press. I suggest you choose the best area of your shop to shoot in, even if you have to rearrange things a little bit. If you need to, invest in a fresh piece of plywood to use as a clean benchtop, and remove any background distractions. Nobody wants to see how many tools, license plates, and calendars you have on your walls. A clean, organized shop is a perfect background for your images.


Clean up your photo area

I’ve often heard that a clean desk is a sign of a sick mind. (Judging by our desks, our staff is very sane!) While it’s true that any industrious person lives in a bit of clutter, your photos shouldn’t show it. Remove anything from the photo area that distracts from the focus of the image and its message. Show only the tools and supplies used in the step that you’re capturing. Don’t let any items overpower the image—they are only props. If they add too much clutter, remove them or move them to a background position. Tidy up between scenes. If your first shot left a considerable amount of dust, sweep before setting up the next scene. Keep your project the focus of the series from start to finish.


Demonstrate the procedure

We often receive photos that show the workpiece after each step has been accomplished. Although the progression is helpful, it’s far better to show the tools in use. Sometimes showing just how you use a tool to perform a task can make the difference to the student learning from your images. Hands give scale to the project as well, showing if a project is handled in a palm or between fingertips.

Speaking of Hands… If you do show hands in a photo, make sure they are not a distraction in themselves. Make sure your hands are clean, with fingernails trimmed and cleaned. And if safety is an issue, make sure you’re wearing the proper gloves for the step you are illustrating.

As much as we like hands, however, they can get in the way, obstructing the step they are performing. Be sure the camera sees the work that your hands are doing. Don’t try to both demonstrate a step and photograph it by yourself (I speak from experience on this). You will never be satisfied with your photo. It’s better to get someone to shoot your hands in the process, or ask a “hand model” to sit in while you take the shot. If you’re working on machinery, it’s usually best to turn off the tool when taking the picture. Whatever the procedure is, make sure the camera has the best angle to see the action.


Get closer … but not too close

Traditional photo composition advice will tell you not to visually amputate your subject. That means you need to pay attention to which parts of the subject appear in the viewfinder when you take the photo. In the case of a finished project, be careful to include the entire project in the photo—don’t visually cut off the edges. At the same time, be sure you’re close enough that the subject fills the frame. You don’t want the project to swim in an oversized background.

On the other hand, when you’re shooting step photos, you do want to crop out everything that isn’t the action of the step. A photograph of you at your saw will not show the action of cutting a project; the photographer needs to get closer and show your hands guiding the wood into the blade. Watch the focus at this point—it’s easy to focus on the hands and end up with blurry wood, pattern, or blade. However, if you take photos with “too much” background surrounding the action, don’t crop them—just send them as-is. We’d rather do the cropping ourselves.


I hope these tips help you create clean, simple, meaningful images for sharing your projects. We look forward to seeing your photographs!