Composition is not independent of exposure

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Here’s a non-obvious thought: composition should be linked to exposure. On the face of it, this does not make any sense at all: how can something which is a technical property of the camera (exposure) control what we do with an artistic and subjective (composition) one? There are two things we need to take into account here. Firstly, our eyes and our cameras work differently, so there will be some gaps in translation. Secondly, photography – composition and all – still ultimately boils down to light, since a photograph is nothing more than a record of luminance, color and spatial position in two dimensions. The starting position is what changes the appearance of the recording even if everything else in the scene is static.

I’m going to start with the first point: our eyes and cameras work differently. This has two consequences for photographers: since we only see one exposure, we actually need to either imagine how a darker or lighter scene would look, or use the camera’s live preview to see it. Here, mirrorless obviously has an advantage: the live image which you use to compose accurately reflects the final image – any sort of optical viewing system does not; you see the exposure determined by your eyes. This complicates things further because there is no such thing as over or underexposure unless there is very, very little or an enormous amount of light – the rest of the time, our eyes adjust automatically, and almost never clip.

On top of that, a photograph has a hard, defined edge. The human field of vision does not – you can’t concentrate your attention on the edge of your field of view because your eyes will move, and then that former ‘edge’ will become the new middle. The closest you can get to visualising this is staring in the middle and moving your hands slowly into the periphery of your vision – they never suddenly disappear, but rather become less distinct as you move them outwards. (We see and interpret a continuous field of view because our eyes are always scanning.)

In summary, a) it is difficult for our eyes to simulate a different exposure; b) we aren’t really conscious of the edges most of the time. Park that for a moment.

I think it’s not difficult to understand that by changing the amount of light on a scene, we change what is visible: turning on the lights in a dark room reveals the contents of the shadows. Unfortunately, it is not so easy to visualise what an increase in intensity – but no change in direction or diffusion – will do. (Turning on the lights changes both direction and position of the source, not to mention color temperature, intensity and throw.) Regardless, the fundamental tenet is the same: what is visible has changed. And since what is visible in the frame has changed, we therefore need to take this into account when composing with a different exposure to what we see with our eyes.

Let me rephrase this slightly: if we intend to present the scene with a different exposure to what we see – whether this is local or global, high key or low key, then we need to take this into account when considering which compositional elements are visible and prominent, and adjust the balance of the frame accordingly. Note that this is not limited to just a change in global exposure: if you change contrast, that also affects what is visible in shadows and highlights; more contrast will increase prominence of certain areas because fine tonal differentiation will disappear.

Complicating things further is the necessity of exposing to the right to maintain optimum image quality: the highlight areas contain the most data and therefore least noise. Even if you intend to make a low key image, you’ll still want to expose to the right (and start with a much brighter image than the output) to preserve as much latitude for smooth shadow and highlight rolloffs as possible. The easiest way to take this into account if you can preview exposure is 1) compose with an accurate exposure preview, then 2) without moving the camera, take the shot but exposed to the right. Make a mental note of your final intended exposure after postprocessing, or actually shoot 1) and use it as a reference. (The Venetian Cinematics were shot this way, and though the final output is extremely low key, the starting point looked almost like daylight.)

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

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These two images are different in both exposure, and resulting mood. All that has changed between them is exposure; I have optimised contrast in both cases with a curve but made no local adjustments otherwise. From an idea/intent point of view, the darker of the two is somewhat ambiguous and more dramatic; the bassist is an idea of a generic bassist rather than a specifically identifiable individual, as in the brighter image.

However, it’s also clear that the darker image feels as though it is biased towards the left – the right portion is dark and ambiguous. It doesn’t have a particularly defined shape suggestive of something missing or open to interpretation by the audience: it’s just imbalanced. This is not surprising given that the image was exposed for and composed for the lighter composition: you can see in that version, the background has been filled with low-contrast and darker elements to provide context – a second musician, the accoutrements of a stage, light beams. Yet since these elements are darker, smaller, out of focus and therefore less visually prominent, they do not stand out as primary subject in the same way the main guitarist does. In actual fact, even this brighter exposure is somewhat darker than reality as there were even more extraneous elements visible in the edge shadow areas – those added nothing to the image other than a degree of messiness; at the time of composition I determined that a slightly darker exposure would be needed to clean up the edges.

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Here is an example where the original image was composed to be low key and be slightly brighter than the actual scene as perceived. There is a leading line created by the form of the foreground buildings drawing the eye from lower right to mid-left; the anchors are the lit windows. Though these are on the far left side of the frame, there is a bright (but spatially larger) building towards the upper right to prevent the audience from wandering out of the left side of the frame. It is less visually prominent. On top of that, there are small bright details of increasing frequency as you move upwards through the image – this layering creates a sense of relative scale and distance receding into the background.

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A darker – in this case true to life – exposure is clearly biased to the left again; the lit windows are really the only elements that stand out, and worse still, they form a sequence that pulls you out of the frame. The right side of the image does not hold sufficient visual prominence to counterbalance.

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Curiously though, an even brighter exposure has similar balance to the first (intended) image, though what is lost is the mood and dynamic – there is no more ambiguity or room for interpretation in the shadows; the highlight anchors do not stand out as much because their relative contrast to the rest of the frame is lowered. It is unclear if this is meant to be night or evening or very late afternoon.

You’ll note that for both of these examples, overall global dynamic range/contrast is pretty high: it’s possible to clip highlights and/or shadows depending on your hardware and postprocessing. I chose these deliberately because the effect of exposure on compositional balance is far more pronounced than with an image whose tonal range fits nicely within the capture and output dynamic range; the perceptual shift would not be as obvious. However, it’s worth noting that it’s possible to make images that feel balanced and ‘complete’ in each exposure case presented here: the cameras needs to be panned or tilted accordingly to take into account the now-empty areas. We’ll discuss the concept of balance in more detail in a future article, but in the meantime, make your final exposure choices conscious ones. MT


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  1. Coming from a comparatively (for some) long history of analogue, 35mm, ovf equipped, manual cameras, and having had my own darkroom, the whole effect of exposure on the impact of the final image is not alien to me, but I still found this article very informative.


    It’s all about light and contrast, which make up the final composition.

    Aspiring for the the ultimate sensor/camera/lens combination which lets you register EXACTLY what you is futile, if at all possible.

    Pre-visualising the image, the composition, the exposure, aperture, shutterspeed, focusing distance, all essential, even in the fleeting sort of photography that I dabble in.

    So I prefer the darker one of the bassist images (something inbetween might be even better).

    And I love the discussion on bass guitars! As some will know, there are musicians that play their bass like a guitar, and the other way round. Any examples? 😉

    • You’re going to have to ask the musicians on that one…I was just looking at light and contrast.

      In the OVF days it was a lot harder to previsualize simply because you were looking at the actual scene rather than a preview of your intended interpretation of the scene. Whilst this has made it easier, I don’t see that much evidence in general that standards have improved because of it…

      • Michiel953 says:

        Possibly. I’ve only very briefly used an accessory EVF on an EP-2, six years ago. Can’t remember liking it much.

        Pre-visualizing using an OVF just takes practice; you learn to come to expect what an image might look lime, mainly through being disappointed lots of times and fretting over that.

        • What throws the spanner in is the rendition changes somewhat from camera to camera, depending on dynamic range and native tonal response. So it isn’t safe to assume that just because the OVF view and exposure parameters are identical between say a 5DSR and D810, the raw material output is going to be the same…

          • Michiel953 says:

            Which is why it takes thorough familiarization with each camera and lens one uses to understand what it’s output – roughly – will be in any given photographic situation. I’m using my F2AS with Tri-X this week, and I really have to reacquaint with myself with centreweighted metering, compensating for light and dark etc.

            I never understand these people floating around the net (not being professionals) that buy every new model that comes out – because it’s better than the previous model – (look at Sony product cycles). How do they ever really get to know a camera?

            Oh, and I was thinking of Marcus Miller (who plays his bass like a guitar) and that guy form Level 42.

            • I think it depends on how you shoot. I have to put through a few thousand test shots under controlled/ known conditions before I know if it’s going to ‘stick’ or not, and before I publish anything. That may be more than some shoot in an entire year…or less than a day for a busy pro.

              • Michiel953 says:

                I’ll never achieve those numbers; my day job prevents that.

                My FM2n, that’s been with me for over 25 years, still feels most familiar, even though I don’t use it all that often. Simple, predictable, every control falls nicely to hand. Of all the cameras I have (FM2n, FE2, FM3a, F2AS, D810, RTSIII) this one feels the most like an extension of eye and hand.

                The recent switch from 800/800E to 810 still has a bit of a learning curve. I’ll get there though; I’m using it a lot.

  2. What a wonderful Article. You solved a mystery of mine! Why do I prefer to shoot with an LCD viewfinder (terrible ergonomics) versus the optical viewfinder ( I am blessed with a really good one). I love to compose and frame accurately when shooting and rarely do any cropping in post processing. When shooting with the LCD viewfinder my keeper rate is much higher than with the OVF. You finally made me understand why. In the EVF I can consider exposure (and depth of field) when framing / composing. What a lovely eureka moment. Thank you so much!

    • Glad to be of help!

      • I am curious: You shot with Canon 5D and Nikon, both have good OVF. You also shoot with Olympus OM-D and and the Sony 7RII, both have good EVF. Did you experienced same relationship that framing with OVF to be more accurate?

        And to continue this train of thought: Aperture will change composition in exactly the same way as exposure, as depth of field changes, and e.g. removes elements in the background visible at f/8, but no longer visible at f/2. In the EVF you can see this and consider this, in the OVF you can not.

        I noticed in your street shooting you have a lovely use of depth of field. Is the EVF why you use the OM-D for street shooting?

        • I’m fine with either, but there comes a point especially in challenging light where an EVF is better for getting exposure spot on the first time. The problem is al of them are not going to be as fast/fluid as an OVF for fast situations, so I think there are still reasons to have both – at least until EVFs improve a bit more. It isn’t so much resolution as lag time – the 120Hz EVFs are much better than the earlier ones in this respect.

          I use everything for street shooting, there’s no preference towards any hardware.

          • Thanks for your reply. Very enlightening!

            I was not considering the EVF lag. Thanks for pointing this out. Though for my kind of shooting it is not relevant, but good to know it exists in case I would change to shooting action.

            I am impressed you can use anything for street shooting!

            Thanks again for this lovely Article and your replies. It makes it worthwhile to keep coming back to your blog, hoping another one of these comes along.

  3. This article is what puts you head and shoulders above any other photography site. Excellent, just excellent stuff.

  4. Totally unrelated: it is disconcerting to fill a comment box at the bottom of the thread (which is temporally the top), and realize that the post jumps at the top of the page (temporally the bottom). I would find it natural to either write at the bottom and stay at the bottom, or write at the top and stay at the top. Just a thought…

  5. Great insight, Ming. Sometimes Columbus’ egg needs a Columbus to sit straight!

  6. A super useful little masterclass Ming, thank you!

    “if we intend to present the scene with a different exposure to what we see… then we need to take this into account when considering which compositional elements are visible and prominent, and adjust the balance of the frame accordingly.” Lightbulb went on here!

    Thanks, Linden

  7. John Brady says:

    Great article Ming. I remember you talked about this in Outstanding Images Episode 1 and it gave me a lot of food for thought. These examples really help to bring the idea to life.

  8. A stunning set of examples. Thank you!

  9. Kenny Younger says:

    I think this is also very apparent in timelapses. The light that the artist sets out to capture changes over hours, but the camera and/or rail is set in motion, and the composition over time can definitely suffer, and I’ve seen this happen in more than a few timelapses.

    • Indeed – and with timelapses you introduce one additional complication: your light source itself is likely to change over those few hours.

  10. Great post, good read.

  11. I remember that this was one of your first lessons for me in the email school. At the time, I was baffled about how I’d keep all of this stuff in mind. Nowadays, it’s not exactly an automatic consideration (I still have to remember to think about it), but the interaction of the 4 Things especially light and composition kind of naturally leads one to thinking about this. And when I think about the photos that I really like, most (all?) of them use this principle. And that makes sense if one thinks of the etymology of photography as “writing with light.” So I guess at the same time it is the most basic thing one can do, and also a pretty subtle thing that many of us have not thought about.

  12. John Nicholson says:

    Like others I found this an enormously refreshing and instructive post. I will certainly have my attention in the future. You’re a very good teacher! Thanks (from Denmark) .

  13. liramusic says:

    Hi, Well it’s just me for sure but I think this is the best thread I’ve ever read. What coudl be more profound than saying that the eye is not like the camera. Here simplicity is wisdom. The camera’s disadvantages can be exploited to portray the mind. BTW, that is a 5-string bass. A nice one actually. It’s a bass.

    • liramusic says:

      BTW once more, it can be little “stressful” to a musician to not know if something is a bass or gtr. In the final photo I would have felt that the top should show in the light and sacrifice the elbow or back of head. We know its a bass but not knowing– if the end photo was the only one– would have not been a strong photo to me. On the other hand seeing the top would have changed everything. Hope it is ok to feel that way.

      • liramusic says:

        I ended that way (last entry ended on a down note) only because am working and have little time to “feed my mind,” which I what I am doing when I read this. Ming knows, -I adore this blog.- I am truly humbled by the generosity that is evident here. But the strange world of a musician– if I may digress– is so micro-managed and over thought that details on top of more details would be what it feels like; having blank space represented by black is exactly what it feels like. It is as much about silence as sound; fixation on gear or the impossible tangled mess of wires… the body as an instrument; the body as an extension of the instrument and the other way around, too; color when it is not real…

        • …and idea and a feeling rather than a transparent reproduction? Isn’t that what a lot of music is about too? 🙂

          • liramusic says:

            Maybe I imagine in my mind that music is a sort of conflict zone between the player and mental challenges, but it is also about being in love with those same difficulties. If I can recommend a TED talks?, this one shows the mental game with its overwhelming difficulties. Sometimes as a child I would wonder why some famous players close their eyes. There is also this irony that musicians are often somewhat relatively poor and yet they spent thousands on their instrument; this TED talks is about the surreal mental game or music. On a deep level (or Zen level) it matters not what the exact style is is. I don’t think we give url links here (which is nice for simplicity), so the title is: “Music as a window into the Autistic mind.”

      • An interesting perspective, actually – this is a good example of where not understanding the subject that well can compromise the image…mea culpa!

        • Probably what Capa really meant – not necessarily that you must have a wide lens.
          Huge thank you for – being forced – to make the Cuba video free to all of us. Though I had the same feeling as liramusic when I saw the boxing photographs.
          Lately I’ve felt the other side of it too, lately more acquaintances have noticed me and my camera and that’s nice, but I find it harder and harder to photograph subjects I am not interested in..

          Good read, informative post. Will be especially good to keep in mind as the long, dark winter is coming.

  14. Wonderful article, thank you. Got to give these ideas more active thought while photographing.

  15. That produced a small “d’oh” moment – many things become so much easier when someone explains them in simple terms.

    Articles are much like photographs. Some are to the point and deliver the message efficiently, while some are explorative and intend to leave the audience wondering. In any case the important thing is to have something to say, otherwise it just feels bland. This post was delightfully easy for the reader considering the topic.

  16. Interesting article, never really thought about it since I’ve always used an EVF until very recently. I’ll have to keep this in mind next time when composing through an OVF.

  17. Christoph says:

    But Ming, this is not a guitarist! It’s a bass player. 😉

    Anyway, great article as always. I really enjoy reading your blog for years now.

    Best regards from Germany

    • My bad, musical luddite here 🙂

      • liramusic says:

        What a great thread. Not at all with not knowing about the bass. I tis not easy to get to know and some basses (a little rare) have six strings. What a great thread this is.

    • Nope…it’s a 5 string bass. The position of the player is the first obvious giveaway, guitarists don’t finger pluck that low down. 😉
      (4 string bass player myself, like complicated cameras, 4 strings are more than enough to handle thank you!)

  18. had been thinking about same recently , but you have really present them very clearly with great images . loved 2nd and 3rd images. Great work as always

    • Thank you.

      • liramusic says:

        You are amazing. Just now I saw your youtube channel for the first time. Thank you for all you do.

        • Ming has a youtube channel? Gotta check that soon! Long time reader and lurker here. I am just amazed how good a teacher you are, Ming. There are a lot of good photographers but are not capable of passing down what they know. You are an exception, Ming. Every article is just wonderful – exploratory but concise, brief, and direct to the point!

          • It’s just a free host for video trailers – don’t get excited. The HTS 5 Havana episode in the sidebar link on Vimeo is much more exciting 🙂 Thanks for your compliments!

  19. Kristian Wannebo says:

    I like your examples, eye opening!

    Also (although you didn’t mention it), to my eyes the blue lit window (was that what triggered you?) gives the strongest contribution to the composition in the first of the photos (by being visible enough and contrasting the yellowish walls better).


  1. […] – then the rest of the scene changes accordingly since exposure affects the entire image. (Changing exposure of course also requires adjustments in composition so that balance is adequately maintained.) The challenge here is that it is is quite unusual for […]

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