Composition in the Field: Stay Focused with Doug McKinlay
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Composition in the Field: Stay Focused with Doug McKinlay

October 15, 2019

Hi I’m Doug McKinlay and you’re watching AdoramaTV. One thing I continue to come up against, even after all these years of shooting, is information overload. When I come up on a scene I sometimes find it difficult to see where the composition lies. It looks all jumbled up to me. But relying on a little trick that a friend of mine taught me years ago, I use a cutout card which really helps. It’s about as low-tech as you get but it really works. Basically, what we’re trying to do is create order among the chaos. In landscape or cityscapes it’s always a problem. In the urban setting you’ve got buses, light poles and wires. In the country setting you’ve got trees, you’ve got landforms, you’ve got rock forms all creating visual mayhem. What we’re trying to do is create order and that’s where the cutout comes in. It’s an easy and cheap thing to make yourself. Although, I’m sure there are some that are ready-made. However, I just picked up a couple pieces of heavy cardstock, glued them together and there you go. The next step in the process is to cut out your opening. Now, as I’m using a full-frame 35mm digital camera, my aspect ratio is 3:2, so I just double that to 6×4 inches and I’ve got my opening. From there you’ve got your own cutout card. Just remember it’s the point of view that creates structure in the photograph, the lens choice comes later. That’s why you’ll see good landscape photographers studying a scene before they ever lift the camera to their eye. Without studying the scene, you get hung up on the subject and forget about composition. That’s where the cutout card comes in really handy. Even the great Ansel Adams was an advocate of cutout cards. It’s simple, stand on the spot where you’re going to take your picture but instead of lifting your camera use the card. It can be as close as your nose or arms-length. Both mimicking a telephoto lens and a wide-angle lens. Pan the card subtly left to right, move it up and down or in and out. Take note of the changes and determine which composition will work best for the image you’re trying to achieve. Keep in mind you’ll need to remember elements in the scene that will act as anchors when you look through the camera into place. Things like rocks, trees, buildings, bridges. Just remember where they are so you can repeat it with a camera in place. The great thing with these cards is they divorce you from all technical aspects of photography. When looking through the card you’re no longer a photographer, you’re a viewer and in that regard you’ll need to ask yourself one important question, does this composition stack up? Now, the calibration is not an exact science. Matter of fact, about four inches from your face equals about a 50mm lens, six inches is about 70mm. It doesn’t have to be millimeter perfect. What is important though is you see the changes to the composition. So that’s cutout cards in a nutshell. Thanks for watching. I’m Doug McKinlay for AdoramaTV. Don’t forget, you can subscribe to AdoramaTV for more great videos and tell us what you think. You can like, comment and share this video and please stop by the Adorama Learning Center for more great tips and tricks.

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  1. If my memory serves me well, Leonardo Da Vinci used the frame method to focus on his drawings. Great advice! I actually quite like the work in progress pictures with the hand holding the frame in the foreground

  2. My grandfather teached me this method…..around 1965. Still works very well. Every beginner should know it…..

  3. Good video
    How often don't we see pictures with lotsa stuff going on but you don't know what the subject is.
    thanks for sharing

  4. The one thing that helped me the most with composition was when we had to shoot using a 4×5 view camera in photo school. It forces you to slow down and LOOK. You have to pay attn. because the image is upside down.

  5. Hello,
    Thanks for many good ideas on this channel. and a little comment.

    Long ago, when I started taking diapositives for use in a projector, I learned to do this with a 24*36mm frame. We used a thin cord fastened to the frame, and with knots for the lenses we had. Take the frame, look thru it and find the composition, then measure with the cord to under the eye, and find the nearest knot, then you know witch lens to use.
    A zoom lens would have been good, but in the 60'ies it was not for my economy.

    Best regards, Bent Boehlers, Denmark

  6. Man it is so easy to get caught up in the details and technicalities.. one tends to forget a picture is ment to be seen, and you have to see the picture before trying to take it.

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