Almost every artist who has ever wielded brush or pencil has also explored compositional ideas when deciding what to paint. Thumbnail sketches, color studies, even framing a composition with your hands if you’re working outside are all good methods for finding the best composition before you start drawing or painting.

In this age of technology, artists have a few new tools to aid them composing artwork. The process can begin with your camera, but it doesn’t end there.

How to Find the Best Composition from Digital Photos on PhotoShop

Today, I want to show you how to use your computer and photo software to explore compositions. I’m using a Macintosh G4 and Photoshop 7.0 for this demonstration. The steps I show here may be different for other versions of Photoshop and/or on a PC platform.

The Reference

Reference photos should be the best possible. Good lighting. Good contrast. Sharpness of image.

I may make changes in contrast or brightness, but rarely adjust color. Since I do a lot of composing through the lens of the camera, most of the images I use for reference already have the best available lighting, contrast, and color.

This image was taken on a cloudy day with relatively flat light. The lighting and color saturation are part of the appeal.

But it’s a pretty boring composition, with the house almost dead center. I want to find the best combination of house and landscape and the computer is the best tool for that job.

Getting Started

Before doing anything else, save the image with a new name by selecting SAVE AS and giving it whatever name you want. This protects the original photograph so if you mess up, you can start over with the original. Choose a name and naming system that makes sense to you and is easy to file AND retrieve.

I named this one Old Stone House Reference.jpg and put it into a separate file dedicated to this project.

Cropping the Image

The best first step is usually cropping the original image to focus on the subject.  Creating three or four—or half a dozen—different crops may be all it takes to find the best composition.

Choose the SELECTION tool from the toolbox on the left of this screen shot. In most versions of PhotoShop, this will be the tool at the upper left of the toolbox. (See the gray box in the toolbox).


Select the area you want by placing your cursor at one corner of the desired area and dragging it downward and across the part you want to crop. The result will be a dotted line outline as shown above. The area inside the box is your selection.

Next, select the IMAGE drop down menu and choose CROP.

Your image now looks like this. Save it using the SAVE AS function and give it a new name. This is now old-stone-house-comp-01.jpg but you can choose any name and numbering system that works for you.

You can make as many compositions as you like by repeating the steps above. Begin with the reference photo each time. I ended up with five different options for this image. Two of the others are shown here.

As you can see, the only limitation is your imagination.

Resizing Compositions

Once you’ve selected your favorite compositions, you can resize them to suit the needs of your drawing or painting.

Under the IMAGE drop down menu, click on IMAGE SIZE.

That will bring up this dialogue box.

Set the size by pixel in the top two boxes. You can also set size in the next two boxes.

Multiple measuring systems are available under DOCUMENT SIZE, including inches, picas, metric, and columns.

You can also change the pixel density in the image by changing the resolution. The higher the number, the finer the resolution and the larger the file. Most cameras automatically capture images at 72 dpi. I save reference images at 300 dpi, but scale down for computer use and/or web site use.

The last thing I’ll mention in this dialogue box is the option to CONSTRAIN PROPORTIONS. When you choose this option, the enlarged or reduced image has the same proportions as the original. If you don’t check this box, you can change one dimension without changing the other and the result will be a distorted image. For the majority of work, you’ll want to check this box.

Once you’ve made you selections, click OK.

Repeat these steps for each of the compositions you’ve created.

Evaluating the Composition

If you compose intuitively or by eye, you’ll be able to tell which compositions are working and which aren’t.

If you follow the rule of thirds, however, or if you want to double check a composition, you can put a one-third grid over your composition to see where various design elements line up.

Chose the drop down menu labeled LAYER and select NEW, then select LAYER.

On this new layer, place a line one-third of the way across the top and another line at two-thirds. Lines should also be drawn at one-third and two-thirds along the side as well.

Hold down the shift key as you draw the line to keep the line straight and on the square.

To make this easier, I set the size of the image to a number divisible by three. By setting the width of the image at 30, for example, I can easily place a line at 10 and another at 20 and have the image divided into thirds.

Change the height to a number divisible by three and place the lines.

When you’re finished, change the size back to the size at the end of the resizing process.

TIP: Select a color for the lines that does not blend into the image. My favorite color for this process is red because it’s easy to see and I rarely use red for any other part of the digital composition process.

Below is the first composition with the one-third grid in place. I can easily see how I might want to tweak placement a little more to improve the composition.

And here is the panorama composition with the one-third grid in place. It, too, could do with just a bit of tweaking to get the subject in one of the sweet spots.

By the way, the sweet spots in the composition are where two lines meet. It applies to the one-third rule, which I’m using here, and to the Golden Mean, which also divides a composition into thirds, but not equal thirds.

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