Intention was to shoot a kid from a upper class family playing with bricks and sand in a not so clean area.

I have purposely not blurred the background. I think adding context is important in this case. However, I feel that the context overpowering the subject. Subject seems to be lost in bricks.

How to compose such that the context does not overpower the subject?

enter image description here


7 Answers 7


[Caveat:This answer reflects how I am thinking about photography, and it is "am thinking" because I may change my mind in the future for the same reasons I did not think this way about it in the past.]


I think there are (at least) two ways of shooting with a camera. One way of shooting is to express an artistic vision. Another way is what I think of as "shooting a crime scene". Photographs are often a mixture of the two. That is the case with the original image:

Original Image Original Image

  1. A willingness to stretch untruths and half truths that are inherent in making a moment in time permanent and projecting three dimensional space onto a flat page or screen.

  2. A desire to provide evidence that might stand up under cross examination. "Aha! So you admit there was a red bicycle!"

Because the question is about composition, the rest of this answer focuses on the artistic vision or lying in the digital darkroom. It's worth noting that this reflects my current limits on image manipulation. Other people's will vary.


Most photographs end at hard verticals and horizontals. These form a strong reference lines for the rest of the photograph. The photograph has strong vertical lines. Rotating the image to better align the verticals with the "frame" formed by the edges removes something that is "slightly off."

image rotated to provide better alignment of verticals

The price paid in this particular image is at the bicycle. Now it is just barely out of frame. Whether the price is worth paying or not is a matter of opinion.


Looking at the image in black and white is a way to examine the effect of relative brightness on composition. This helps when applying the digital darkroom equivalent of dodging and burning. This is the rotated image in monochrome:

monochrome without change

The most important part of the story is the little girl's fancy white dress. It's clearly the core element of the moment the photographer captured. Unfortunately, it is gray (the brightest element in the original image is the sky through the trees). It cries out for burning. 1

black and white with girl's dress brightened

Once the girl's dress is bright, what should be darker? To me, pretty much everything that is darker than the grey point. The resulting image is a "darker print." The limiting element I used is the grey concrete slab behind the girl relative to her white dress, dark hair, and medium skin tone.

black and white dark print

I like how it affects the color image, other people may not. T

color version of dodged and burned print


To me, the right edge of the image contains compositional noise. The diagonal board does not reinforce anything. The horizontal boards don't add anything either. There's nothing interesting there, so it can be cropped out 2.

right side of image cropped

I'm inclined to push it farther and treat the bicycle and sign and trees as compositional noise. My intuition is that this is pretty much what caught the photographer's eye intially. The square format is also more consistent with the strong verticals than the original landscape format. 3

cropped to square

An alternate crop based on @mattdm's without rotation and to emphasize horizontality.

horizontal crop without rotation


  1. Trust your artistic vision. The original image captures a brilliant moment. The use of yellow highlights (dress/bag/sign) is awesome.
  2. Push the vision in the digital darkroom to the limit of untruth and half-truth that you are willing to live with.


1] Technical note: dodging and burning were done with Darktable's "zone system" tool. Burning was done with a mask. Dodging was done globally based on luminance.

2] Technical note: The crop was made freehand rather than to a predetermined proportion.

3] and I like squares (maybe because my first camera used 126 cartridges).

  • \$\begingroup\$ Just an observation: your squared-up image has a very different feel to me. In specific, that little change makes the whole scene seem much more stable and, well, safe. I don't mean that it seems like the child is in danger, exactly, but with the slight diagonals the setting seems more rough, precarious, exciting. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    May 8, 2017 at 2:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ And, the leaning boards (a trellis, or a makeshift ladder?) provide a balancing diagonal. I see why you went right to cropping them out after doing the rotation \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    May 8, 2017 at 2:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm I see what you are saying about the rotation. In the brick structure and slab the rotation supports the idea of its decay and provide leading lines to the girl. The pole, on the other hand is just plain out of plumb. The diagonal board? After the girl and the bricks and the bicycle and the trees and the cement bag and the number 6, it might be the most important thing. I'd like to see more of the stacked bricks, but it takes my eye up and away. \$\endgroup\$
    – user50888
    May 8, 2017 at 2:58
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @bvy One premise of my answer is that the photographer was standing in the right time and clicking in the right place. The basis for that premise is that the the original image expresses the photographer's intuitive artistic sensibility. If the photographer had pondered perfect composition for ten minutes, the moment and the place would have been gone. Another premise is that what happens in "the darkroom " is as much a part of a photograph as the camera. My hypothesis is that composing in the darkroom improves composing behind the lens. Other people may have different opinions . That's okay. \$\endgroup\$
    – user50888
    May 8, 2017 at 18:05
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Ten minutes is ridiculous, but ten seconds isn't. The girl is clearly preoccupied, so multiple shots from different angles was likely possible. And forethought about how to photograph action can happen in advance (e.g. compose the scene and wait for the action). If the OP was happy with the photograph and looking for an effective edit, then your response is a good one. But I didn't necessarily get that from her message. Good composition can't be rescued in post, only enhanced. Learning to think on your feet as a photographer is more valuable than any amount of computer editing skills. \$\endgroup\$
    – bvy
    May 8, 2017 at 19:07

Get closer to your subject. Let's see what she's doing, what she's wearing, how she's responding. That should be the first thing we notice without having to go looking for it (if that's indeed your intention).

As it is, she's kind of a secondary or incidental element in an urban landscape. The background is full of content and context, which affords you the luxury of getting closer without losing its impact. A little blur won't hurt either -- enough to provide separation but not so much as to obscure the environment.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I do not really like this answer because it misses the most important thing in this kind of photography... The moment. Walking even one step can potentially miss the moment. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rafael
    Oct 18, 2018 at 16:51

IMHO the bike doesn't really add anything or the space to the right



For me, it's a matter of seeing what else is overpowering your subject, and then finding a way to mitigate it or eliminate it. In this case, the white on the bicycle and its prominence in the frame overpowers the child's white dress. Moving to the right so that the bicycle was behind her, or to the left so that it's out of the frame might have helped.

But for me, the other main problem is lack of engagement with your subject. She's head down, you can't see her eyes, you can't really see what she's playing with or concentrating on. In this case, simply waiting and timing the shot for a more expressive moment, when her head is up, her hands are moving, or when she's smiling, or you can see her eyes, might also have helped draw the viewer's attention to her. It's just not a particularly expressive moment in telling the tale you want to tell.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ One thing I think the bicycle brings to the semantics of this image is that it disambiguates the context...the bicycle on a kickstand suggests this is not a combat zone. It also provides a semantic middle ground between the industrial/construction site and the formality of the girl's dress...the bicycle is neither rich nor poor so to speak. It is enough of an element to be a character in the story. \$\endgroup\$
    – user50888
    May 8, 2017 at 20:12

The first thing to consider is the overall composition and framing of the shot. A useful rule of thumb here is the rule of thirds. Mentally divide the frame into a 3 x 3 grid (ie nine equal blocks), the eye will tend to be drawn to anything where the corners of the blocks meet.

Equally strong vertical or horizontal lines (ie the horizon) should lie close to the grid lines.

This approach is a simple way to create an overall balanced composition, the eye tends to move naturally between the crossing lines of the grid and will be drawn to a subject lying on any of the intersections.

In your original image the child and the bicycle are both in the foreground and either side of the bottom left focal point and so they are fighting for prominence.

Shooting with a somewhat larger frame than you necessarily intend to use and at the highest resolution your camera provides gives you more flexibility to adjust the composition by cropping.


There are no general rules for this sort of thing.

In this case, I think a tighter shot of the girl works better:

When you think about it, this still gives most of the context of the original. I also like that it leaves the viewer wondering a bit what is going on. The juxtaposition of the girl in a fancy dress playing with bricks in a grimy demolition site (or whatever) holds your attention. In a way, you don't want to "explain" more. Let the viewer see the contrast and wonder.


This question is probably "round 2" of this previous one My attention gets repeatedly distracted by the elements needed for the context in this picture. Where am I going wrong?

I am making a similar analysis, and I see that you are still not applying my wisdom XD

I must say that I do not think you should have to go closer. The timing is right and waiting one step would have risked the photo.


You can not control it but here they are some distractors as elements (not as position)

enter image description here

Rule of thirds

And again here is the rule of thirds applied to your image. And just as the other post, you have already made two cropping decisions, when taking the photo and when cropping it (you can see that it has not the normal 3:2 proportion).

enter image description here

The distracting elements suggest us a new framing. I was tempted to entirely crop the bike but ouch. It also forces us to also crop the nice brick line.

enter image description here

Leaving a bit of the bike frames the girl on the middle of a situation, and preserves the brick line. (This part is a bit subjective tho)

enter image description here

The real story

But you forced the photo too much. The point of interest is probably not the girl's face, but her actions and interactions, so we need a better framing on the shoot.

Don't be afraid to shoot a bit wider on the boring floor.

enter image description here

enter image description here


Of course, that is not the only framing or cropping.

enter image description here

I love that you are putting a lot of effort to understand storytelling in your photos!

Just pay a bit more attention to the rule of thirds. (or other composition schemes) They are your friends!


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