Composition 101, Pt.1

Cheap or free is good sometimes and in the case of our lo-fi aid to getting your head around composition, this is 100% true: it’s free and it’s good.

We’ve all been there: massive chunk of scenery or a portrait subject in front of you and you’re a bit lost for what is the best crop, the best angle or what to leave out and what to keep in the frame. What do you do? Probably shoot a bunch of different angles to cover the bases or sit there for a while looking through your camera to try and brain it all out.

Let’s face it, composing a picture is what it’s all about. Forget about having the latest DSLR body or most expensive, nano-coated, whizz-bang of a lens. If you can’t compose for shit, it’s all wasted.

Composition is the bedrock of a good picture. Learning the camera and then the basics of iso, aperture and speed are integral too. Even with all of that though you are stuck if you can’t compose. Back to square-one. Or, in this case, rectangle-one as we will deal with squares later and in another post.

How does one unblock this particular form of photographer’s block? How can we aid your understanding of what works, what fits and what should go where? Here are the ingredients:

  • One A4 sheet of thick card
  • An inkjet printer
  • One sharp knife [have an adult present, please]
  • A cutting mat [don’t want to get in trouble with the missus for cutting this out on her favourite dining-room table]
  • One human arm
  • Eyes; preferably two although this also works for one-eyed people. We don’t like to marginalise our readers.

So this, folks, is what you are going to download.

The A4 version for those not burdened by small photographic bags, handbag limitations etc.

The CompoAid aid to composition

The A6 or postcard version, for those on a tighter cardboard budget or those who like a bit of portability.

The CompoAid aid to composition

I’ll admit that the A4 one is best. That bigger border of card around the hole cuts out more of the world immediately bordering your ‘crop’ and that’s good for seeing where your proposed picture is. I carry the A6 one around with me wherever I go. I use it too, frequently

Download four extra JPEG templates here:


Yes, they are bits of card with a hole in them. But…. they are important pieces of cardboard with holes in them. Read on.

Admittedly, I used to use this more when I was shooting large format cameras. Setting up a massive 10×8 or 5×4 inch format camera is not like putting an slr up to your eye, panning around, up, down and looking for angles. You can’t. Large format is, well, large. It’s unwieldy and unless you have a field camera version with rangefinders, there is no viewfinder; the camera is basically a lens, a bellows and a piece of ground-glass at the back with a view of the world which is back to front and upside down. You scope-out the scene through the card, then set up the camera. Saves a massive amount of time. But, it’s valuable for all types of shooter, not just those with large format.

So here’s what you do:

Print it out on the thickest piece of card you can get through your printer. Set your printer, if it can, to print full-bleed or edge-to-edge. Then cut out the grey rectangle and you’re good to go.

Then head out and give it a whirl.

For example: you’re in a great scenic spot, like the Bunkyou Civic Hall with its great city view [see below] and there’s just too much city to get your head around, especially as you only brought an 85mm lens with you.

Help your composition with this downloadable free aid

Whip out your CompoAid [catchy name, huh?], extend arm fully, move around and view various bits of city through the hole, choose your crop, pick up camera, replicate framing, shoot.


What arm extension fits which focal length of lens? Aha, I was wondering when you’d ask that. The answer is that you’ll soon figure it out but with the A4 version a half-bent arm equates to roughly 50mm on full-frame or film.

How has this helped people in the past? Think back to the 1700s for starters. See the dude below? He used the jazzy version of our CompoAid; one  made out of wood and brass, on a tripod and with lines of wire running through it to further aid him. Posh sod.

He’s the draughtsman, as seen in Peter Greenaway’s movie ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’. If you haven’t seen it, do. It’s good. Typical Greenaway. Loads of sex. Good old fashioned, 18th century sex. However, I digress.

The draughtsman used this type of frame to view his scene. The wires helped him cut the scene up into blocks which made it easier to paint. It was also a help for his initial choice of composition and framing.

See, retro. Retro’s cool….. especially when it’s 300 year-old ‘going back to painting for my photographic technique’ inspirational retro. That’s way cooler than your digital crowd going back to film.

How can it help me? It can get you out of a jam. Everyone gets those moments with a camera where you just aren’t sure which bit of the world to cut out and make into a photo. Let’s face it, the world is a big and busy ‘full of loads of photogenic shit’ sort of place and trying to figure exactly which chunk of it is gonna work well for your shot can be tricky sometimes.

Well, why not just look through the camera, stoopid? Main reason is when you are shooting an SLR  – as most of you reading this probably are – you have one eye shut and rammed up against the back of the thing. Then, you’re looking through a tube which is giving you a particular field of view of the world. You can’t see the world around the bit you are looking at through the camera. This is another reason why large format [view] cameras and medium-format cameras with a waist-level-viewfinder are cool. You have both eyes open and, with the large format camera, are literally looking at a projected view of the world that – if you stand back – you can see with the rest of the world around it. With the cardboard, sorry… with the CompoAid [branding, branding, branding] you can do the same thing:

  1. You have both eyes open.
  2. You can see the whole world, not just the bit you’d be seeing if you were looking through your camera.
  3. That border of card around the hole blocks out just enough of the world so you can see your crop but still see the world. Just like the crop tool works in Photoshop, when it greys-out part of the frame to let you focus on the rest.

Clever, innit?

It also helps those of you with issues getting things straight in the frame. Fixing a line by looking through the CompoAid can actually translate to your keeping things straighter when you shoot with the camera. I know, students have told me so.

Won’t I look stupid? Yes, maybe. But you might just get some respect from people too. I was with a student one day, in the grounds of the Imperial Palace. She was looking through the CompoAid, I was standing behind. We were chatting, she was digging the way it was helping her find the shots. Oldish, distinguished-looking Japanese gent walks up.

‘What’s that?’ he asked.

‘It’s helping her find the shot,’ I replied.

‘Eh?’, he grunted.

‘Give it a go yourself if you like,’ I suggested.

He did. He dug it. He said he’d go home and make one for himself.

‘Never seen that before,’ he said as he was leaving.

‘This is what I had for the first couple of weeks at art college. No camera, one of these. Omoshiroi, ne?’

‘Nnnn, omoshiroi.’

Two weeks later my student was in Bhutan. She took the cardboard with her. It got her some funny looks but she came back with some great shots… and everything was straight too.


Try it for yourself. I swear, it works.

About Japanorama

Japanorama is run by British professional photographer, Alfie Goodrich, and provides practical photography teaching in Tokyo. Weekly workshops, group and one-to-one lessons bring together photographers of all ages and abilities.

We also welcome submissions of photos and articles for this site, so please get in touch via our contact page. Thanks. © 2015 All Rights Reserved

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