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Jim Zuckerman on Composition: Graphic Design


BY Jim Zuckerman September 10, 2014 · Published by PhotoVideoEDU

Photographer Jim Zuckerman explains how to use principles of graphic design to create engaging photographs in the fourth article of his sixteen-part series on composition.

Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.


Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved. 


Graphic design refers to the shapes of things. Some objects have beautiful shapes and some have shapes that are uninteresting, boring, or messy. Graphics are a fundamental consideration in taking great images, because beautiful shapes make beautiful pictures. The thing I look for first and foremost in my work as I assess subjects to shoot is an artistic graphic form. No matter how great the lighting may be, if your subject isn’t graphically pleasing, chances are the picture will be unimpressive.

To illustrate what I mean by “artistic graphic form,” study photos 4.1, 4.2, and 4.3. These three images depict very different kinds of subjects, they have different types of lighting, and they were taken with different lenses. Yet they share one thing in common: a compelling and artistic graphic design.

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.2

Figure 4.3

It’s not difficult to show good examples of graphic design in photographs. I can present to you countless beautiful images with perfect compositions and with subjects that have striking or compelling shapes. The hard part is to go out in the woods, or the desert, or a city, and find graphic designs that are great. The world is, after all, a compositional mess. There are rocks, mountains, buildings, dirt, bushes, branches, and man-made objects all over the place. It's our job as photographers to make sense of it, to find in all the visual chaos a design that is artistic and pleasing.

Finding strong graphic designs is easier to do with a telephoto lens than with a wide angle. This is because telephotos isolate elements in a scene, and elements with good graphics can be selected by eliminating everything else. Image 4.4 is a good example. This section of an agave cactus was one small element in the desert in Baja California, Mexico, and with a telephoto lens I isolated it from the rest of the scene. I did the same thing with 4.5, using a telephoto lens during an outdoor car show. I eliminated the scores of people and other vehicles to separate this beautiful graphic design from the rest of the scene.

Figure 4.4

Figure 4.5

Using a telephoto lens as a macro optic to move in very close is another way to crop out unwanted elements. In image 4.6, I filled the frame with the lines and contours of the tulip, and I captured just color and design. All lenses have a minimum focusing distance, and they won’t let you focus past a certain point. In this case, I used an extension tube between my lens and camera body, and that permitted me to fill the frame with the small arrangement. Later I darkened the dirt in Photoshop, so all of the attention was directed to this artistic layout.

Figure 4.6

Keep in mind that when you do macro work, capturing the beautiful detail in your subjects is crucial. You don’t want part of the graphic design out of focus. As you move in close to a small subject, you lose depth of field, so you need to use a small lens aperture for this kind of work. That means, of course, that using a tripod is essential. The only way that I could get the detail in all of the planes of the orchid in 4.7 was by using f/32, and with such a reduction in light from that small aperture, the shutter speed had to be 1/2 second.

Figure 4.7

A strong silhouette makes an awesome graphic image. However, you should choose subjects that are artistic and usually simple in design. For example, the familiar shape of a giraffe makes a dynamic semi-silhouette in this digital composite (4.8). The geese flying across the morning sun in 4.9 make another effective silhouette because of the simplicity of design, and of course the beautiful lighting.

Figure 4.8

Figure 4.9

When I work in Photoshop, I like to combine silhouetted forms with attractive backgrounds, and the same rules apply. The subjects should have beautiful shapes. Image 4.10 is an example. The perfect form of the female centaur was placed in conjunction with tree silhouettes and a fantasy background. This picture is successful only because the graphic design of the forms is attractive.

Figure 4.10


Go to the next article in this series: Backgrounds

Read the full series:

  1. The Rule of Thirds
  2. Leading Lines
  3. Framing
  4. Graphic Design
  5. Backgrounds
  6. Classic Landscape Technique
  7. Foregrounds
  8. Moving into the Frame
  9. Patterns
  10. Lines
  11. Balance
  12. Distinctive Perspectives
  13. Symmetry
  14. Light's Influence
  15. Negative Space
  16. Breaking the Rules



Composition and Posing

Featured photographer: Jim Zuckerman

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