Basic Composition for Photography

Aug 20, 2010 at 0:09
Aug 20, 2010
by Ian Hylands  
 
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Basic Composition for Photography, a tutorial...

Several months after I started creating this tutorial as a video I've decided it's way more important to just get it done. So I've ditched the video idea and just written it out.

Inside you'll find more information than you probably wanted to know about considerations in composing a photo...

How we see...

Visual Perception has been studied for years and in the 1930‘s and 1940‘s Gestalt Psychologists raised questions about vision and perception that are still being studied today. According to the Gestalt Laws of Organization there are several main factors that determine how we group items based on our visual perception of them. These laws of organization have played a significant role in studies of how we see things, and how our eye moves through an image.

When we first look at an image we notice certain things before others, and our eye follows a predictable path through the image. This path is influenced by compositional elements, and the better our understanding of these elements the better our ability to influence how people view our images.
This type of study is way beyond the scope of this tutorial, however it is important to know that it exists.

Techniques for good composition

1. Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds draws two horizontal and two vertical lines equally spaced through an image. This creates three vertical and three horizontal stripes in our frame. Placing items in our image along these lines helps to create a pleasing composition.

The lines also create 4 points of intersection where the lines cross. It has been discovered that these intersection points correspond to areas that our eyes tend to move to first. By placing our subject or an object of interest on one of these intersection points we can create a better looking image and know that the viewers eye will be drawn to that point.

Rule of Thirds
Rule of Thirds

2. Golden Ratio

Golden Ratio is a rule based on the ration phi which is 1.618:1 The golden ratio was first studied by ancient greek mathematicians and has been since been studied by mathematical minds of every era. It has been used to define proportions and composition in art and architecture throughout the ages. The fibonacci sequence is a numerical view of phi. It is a sequence starting with zero and one and each remaining number is the sum of the previous two. Phi can be used to describe triangular/diagonal lines as well, and the Golden Spiral is a graph of shrinking proportion based on phi. In composition these can be used to define the different areas of an image as well as to place diagonal lines and curving lines in an image. In the image below the squares become smaller in the ration of 1.618/1 and the spiral they create is a golden spiral.

Golden Spiral Lines
Golden Spiral Lines

Golden Sector lines are similar to thirds lines but are a little bit closer together.
Golden Sector lines are similar to thirds lines but are a little bit closer together.

3. Rule of Odds

The rule of odds simply put states that an odd number of items is more pleasing to the eye than an even number of items. It is better to have 3 items in a photo than 2 or 4.

4. Depth of Field

Depth of Field is the amount of a photo that is in focus. Normally most of us try to keep as much in focus as possible, and it’s usually advisable to have the subject of our image in focus. However out of focus elements can help to draw our attention to the in focus subject of our image. If the out of focus (OOF) elements are a certain shape or color they can help to improve the composition of our image as well.

The out of focus foreground and background create separation with the subject and draw us to it
The out of focus foreground and background create separation with the subject and draw us to it

5. Triangles

Diagonal lines though an image create triangles, and triangles and diagonals help to suggest movement and create a dynamic and exciting photo. There are several different ways to position triangles in an image, and using the thirds lines or golden ratio to describe triangles works well.

Triangle Lines
Triangle Lines

Triangle Lines
Triangle Lines

6. Direction/Space

Direction and Space in an image help to dictate how easy it is to look at. If the subject of our image is traveling from left to right then it should normally be on the left side of the image, moving into the space on the right. And vice versa. An object or a subject that is moving off of the page creates an uneasy feeling as we don’t know where it is going.

Curtis Keene rides into the frame on a triangle line
Curtis Keene rides into the frame on a triangle line

Kym Grosser, darkside out of the photo...
Kym Grosser, darkside out of the photo...

Principles and Elements

1.Proportion - The proportions of an images composition

If the subject of our image is disproportionately small or large it draws a lot more attention to itself. Our angle of view and our choice of lenses can change the proportion of items in our image drastically, so we need to be aware of the proportions of objects in our image and how they look.

2. Balance - An image should be balanced, it shouldn’t feel heavier on one side or the top.

Images should have some sort of sense of balance to them. If our subject is on one side of the image there should be something to balance it on the other. And keeping in mind the rule of odds if we have an object on one side of the image it probably will look better with two objects on the other side.

3. Harmony - There should be some sort of harmony between the various elements.

All of the elements in our image are interacting in one way or another, they share the same space and moment in time and we’ve chosen to include them. A strong image should have most of the elements in harmony with each other.

4. Orientation - Horizontal or Vertical, Up of Down?

The way that we orientate our image is important. Some images need to be vertical and some need to be horizontal as dictated by their use, but some scenes also lend themselves better to one orientation or the other depending on their lines and elements. If in doubt try both and see which looks better.

5. Path - The path that your eye takes when looking at an image.

When we look at an image our eye travels through the image in a certain way. It takes a while to recognize this and every image is different, however most peoples eyes follow a similar path in the same image. Knowing what influences how our eyes travel and being able to predict how they will travel in an image allows us to create stronger images.

6. Negative Space - The space between the other elements in our image.

Negative space is the space that is not part of the subject or other recognizable elements in an image, the best example is just white space or blue sky. Negative space can have shape and lines that influence our image just as much as the subject does, so we should be aware of it when we’re shooting.

7. Geometric Organization - Is there a certain geometry to the elements or shapes or their arrangement in the image?

Triangles are the strongest geometric shape in imagery, and they create diagonal lines between three objects. Whether we use them in our negative space or our composition of other elements triangles help to create strong images. Other shapes can occur in images as well, it’s good to be able to recognize them.

8. Repetition - Repeating lines and shapes can add to composition.

Repeated objects whether they’re lines or other objects can create patterns and add to the feel of our image. Repeated objects can form a line as well and lead the viewer into an image.

In this image the line of posts on the left side draw the viewer to the right and into the image. The depth of field also draws us in and our eye initially wants to come to rest at the  junction of the posts and the ledge.
In this image the line of posts on the left side draw the viewer to the right and into the image. The depth of field also draws us in and our eye initially wants to come to rest at the junction of the posts and the ledge.

9. Light and Shadow - Light and shadow are compositional elements and all of the principles apply to them.

Light and shadow create lines and shapes and negative space and all of the other principles apply to the shapes that they create.

10. Perspective - Both the perspective of the viewer and the arrangement of perspective lines in our image.

As a viewer we have a perspective, whether it’s looking up or down at something. The perspective we choose for our image influences how it looks and how people react to it. Perspective also creates converging or diverging lines depending on our choice of lens and our orientation to our subject. Perspective Control or PC lenses (also commonly know as tilt-shift lenses) can change how lines in our image converge or diverge, and also control out depth of field.

11. Symmetry and Convergence - Symmetry can create balance and converging perspective lines or shapes.

Symmetrical photos can be very appealing even though they tend to break other rules of composition. When we have an image with a subject in the center that is balanced by symmetrical objects or lines on either side we are drawn into the middle. Such images often have an odd number of elements and quite often make use of converging lines.

That's really all I have to say about the basics of composition, and even this is probably treading on some more advanced stuff. If you think about the points above when you're taking photos your photos should end up looking better.

Good Luck!
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73 Comments

  • + 27
 Nice. Great stuff. Ken
  • + 8
 very well written, gonna help me alot!
  • + 3
 Awesome, thanks for this!
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  • + 49
 Like YOU need THIS! :L

Edit: *facepalm* just saw it was his article
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  • + 9
 Great write up as always Ian!
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  • + 9
 Well written Ian, should help alot of people!
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  • + 4
 Well this is handy Razz However I never really think about composition in technical terms, I move around until I find a spot I like that pleases me compositionally. Sometimes the outcome works, sometimes it doesn't... I do know however I can't stand having the rider exiting the frame but I have been playing with this idea anyway recently. Also I have been thinking alot more about depth of field and this article just further reiterates the points of experimenting and composition. Great article Salute
  • + 4
 Yeah, composition is an intuitive thing & I don't think about the technical side while I'm shooting 99% of the time either, but if I struggle & am not feeling it that day it's good to be able to fall back onto so you can make it work. Rules are also there to be bent & broken now & again if you know why they're there in the 1st place Wink
  • + 6
 I like what you said about rules being made to be broken. It's totally ok to break a rule if you understand it and know what happens when you break it, or why it's there in the first place. The biggest thing I see in teaching college level photography is people say "rules are made to be broken" but they can't explain to me what the rule is or why it's there in the first place. So they're not really breaking a rule, they just have no idea what they're doing and they use that as an excuse. And with composition they're more like guidelines instead of rules anyway.
If you know about the rule of thirds and odds and evens and all that other stuff and you put something dead center in your shot understanding the effect it has on the image and the way it's viewed, and that's what you want, then that's ok.
  • + 1
 Definitely. I think the photo is much more effective when a rule is broken (when that is the intent), versus just poorly composed. Of course anyone can argue that their intention was to break the rule, as was mentioned.
I find that many of my missed shots are late shots where everything is perfect except the rider is going off screen. If it was moved ahead to give a sense of direction and where they're going, it would be perfect, but because I was late or bad setup or whatever, it just doesn't FEEL right. I think these rules are natural; the rules were written after people decided what they liked to look at, so breaking them does give that sense of uneasiness, as you said.
  • + 2
 yeah, a lot of the rules are there to create balance & harmony which make a strong shot & now & again it's good to get a bit of tension. I always use horror movies as an example, where having someone look out of frame makes them feel trapped & then zoom out to see a monster inches from their face. It's all about what you want to say & it's all built on basic composition.
  • + 2
 I also like breaking the rules in a good manner. but I prefer to be very careful with it, it has to be clear why you've done it, which basicaly comes down to: having a good argument why to break them. There's too much averageness in art these days caused by lack of craftmanship, and too many artists that say: "you have to have balls to break the rules", "this is the way I see it"...

My favourite teacher from hand drawing, an old guy professor at fine arts always said:
1.I don't care what you tried to express with your drawing, I judge only what I see you drawn
2.If You want to break the rules, learn them first, for how can you break something you don't know how to follow

Great article! During my studies I only touched composition in photography or drawing. Good to see some wrap up finaly!
  • + 1
 I wonder how is it these days in your jobs of photographers Ian and Eric. As an architect I see more and more people trying to throw all my knowledge of composition into garbage. They neglect urban composition: landmarks, sight lines, accents in space: they say it is not important. Perhaps that's why our cities start becoming more and more boring...
  • + 5
 Composition to me is the weakest point in most ppls photography. A lot of ppl that I teach tell me what a good eye they have & that composition is not that important because they "have it". Basically in my own work all I really focus on is lighting & composition. It kills me to see top photogs with super amazing lighting & then they cut a models toes or fingers out. If you want to have good pictures & not just pictures of something good you'll study composition till it comes out of your ears!
  • + 1
 "composition is an intuitive thing & I don't think about the technical side while I'm shooting" Thats becuase the "rules" are based on natural intuition. People with good composition will naturally follw them without even knowing it. Everything natural and intuitive usually has a mathematical formulae, after all, we are all just walking, riding mathematical equations!
  • + 2
 yea stuff is intuitive, but some very clever people spent a huge lot of time researching human intuition to find rules which drive it. And above all no one can deny these. Many people believe that you cannot measure a quality of some piece of art. Yes you can.

I saw an excellent documentary about how did art got degenerated after WWII by huge art galleries in London and NY. (I mean the art, proper art, huge art, big guys,: Salvadore Dali, Mies Van Der Rohe - not this "modern" beige we see today with some who-the-F-is-this bold shaved guy with a scarf and wire round glasses) How these guys driven by lust for money turned art into lucrative business, finding sponsors in national companies, and huge corporations (sharing the income ofc). Then pushing enormous amounts of money into promoting some excentric "artists", making paintings from sandwiches, setting prices of paintings of a bloody circle for hundreds of thousands $. Just so that people start to believe this is art, and then you find a rich snob to buy it. A cost of circle or rectangle can get to 100 000 bucks: it costs 10$ to produce it (wierd artist needs food, alcohol, drugs and an atelier at some falling apart attic) and a 1000$ to promote it. Did I mention there is no tax on these things in most countries? Then you get guys like Damien Hirst who do sort of "art industry": many ateliers around the world, thousands of employees. These guys sell their stuff like "Great White cut in half" for millions.

After digital camera revolution, when SLRs got cheap, we have so many "photographers". Among bikers I know so many who believe it's so trendy to race and shoot pics afterwards! I'm special! oh... so u done your race tun, and you have time to set 5 flashes carry 10 lenses two SLRs... you came 159th?!

That's why we need rules, people that know rules and spread them forward. So our children don't end up in this beige.
  • + 2
 very well said, there is a huge difference between commercial art and art for art's sake, just as there is a difference sometimes in the photos I shoot for clients and the photos I shoot for myself. At the end of the day is it really "art" or just decoration? You can say the same with architecture and photos, everything really. I would love to live in a world where everything is art...
  • + 4
 mah, if everything would be art there would sort of nothing to appreciate or to admire Smile for it's fine and absolutely normal that some stuff is just "ordinary" or average. I use lots of that in my creative work, sometimes there's not much extraordinary you can do with a garage. Though you can screw it by painting it pink for example Razz But I get angry when people call art, some whatever stuff... it's more of a "don't add higher ideology" to crap, rather than destroying the good name of art. But I guess it mostly the fault of media, tabloids and MTV, beige reality shows. Just like Tila Tequila talking about love...
  • + 1
 Art is an abstraction of your expression. I agree with Ian "every thing is art" Photographs are an abstraction of reality. A personal view. There is no right or wrong just personal expression.
Art in galleries is about intellectual expression through what ever media you choose. Music is art do we all like the same music?
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  • + 2
 Mr. Hylands, terrific write-up. I have taken a few photography courses, and the essentials of composition (to me) is the most important skill to have; especially considering a lot of people using this reference as a tool will be shooting with digital cameras on an auto or semi-auto mode.
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  • + 2
 It was once said that there comes a great deal of respect when a fellow magician shares some of his magic. Thank you, these tips will certainly come in handy for me and others, from amateur to pro. Your work is always a pleasure to look at.
  • + 1
 thanks, and you're welcome!
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  • + 5
 so happy to know about this! only knew about the rule of thirbs before this aritice. thanks "ih"
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  • + 1
 thanks a ton ian! i just got out of my first year in highschool and heading into my second one, i chose communication tech (photo editing) as one of my chosen classes. im super stoked and learning about it and this will come in handy forsure! appreciate it!
[Reply]
  • + 1
 I loved this... but i think its above the 12-16 year old kids heads. I got my degree in fine art from ucdavis, and have gone through all this. But the younger kids... the ones responsible for the crap photos are going to read three lines and quit. Its just over their heads. I think you need to dumb it down a lot. For example 30% of all photos are just snap shots. Don't just jump off your bike a snap a shot, we need to explain different angles, let them know its OK to get dirty and lay on the ground climb a tree, play with the angle, get into taking a picture. Don't just stand there. Find that angle that makes the jump look even bigger. know where your rider is going to be and where the distractions are. You don't want distractions competing with the subject matter. Explain to them don't have the sun behind your rider or you'll be dealing with bad shadows. Let them know about the best conditions to shoot in, I like cloudy days for my pictures. Another helpful education tool would be have more example photos done right and wrong explaining why they are good or bad. Don't get me wrong this is a great thread rich with information but we have to look at our audience, and write to them. only about 15% of pinkbikers will read the entire article, and that 15% is not the problem. On the other hand its good to have a refresher. I do thank you for that. Its just my thoughts I am not saying I am right. because it is subjective just like art.
  • + 5
 You are pretty much right, but I'm not going to dumb it down that much. If someone wants to be a photographer they'll take the time to learn about photography, if not they'll never learn much and just take snapshots and occasionally luck out with a good shot.
Not sure about your point about shooting into the sun, I do it all the time, way better that shooting front lit in bad light. I'll be doing 2 different tutorials on light in the next few months, one on basic natural light etc, and one on advanced lighting. I do like your comment about shooting from different angles, it's a really key point that I missed in this. Shooting from a standing position is the way we normally see things every day, so it's not very interesting most of the time...
As for the 15% of pinkbikers that will read the entire article, that is my target audience, I've taught photography long enough that I'm over teaching to people that aren't interested. If 15% actually read this and learned something I'd be stoked!
  • + 1
 You are right to not dumb it down. I just misinterpreted basic composition. it is incredibly difficult to jam three months of information into one thread and I you did a great job. no way I could of done that. I took your thread out of context. We were talking about different target audience. Victims of miss-communications (that sounded like a band name). Anyway I love your thread and I am in that 15%, and I did learn so thank you for your time and i would love to see that video you were going to do...if you find the time. where you teach at? Thanks again
  • + 3
 Well i am 16 and yes i read the entire article, i have taken 1 basic photo class at my high school, i really appreciate it not being dumbed down because that is the reason i stop taking classes at my school because that is what the teacher did and it pissed me off. I may be young and not as experienced but i am not stupid. Anyways It would be awesome to get into photography but i just got a new bike so i am broke. maybe next year.
  • + 1
 That's awesome, stoked to hear that! Sheffy7 keep at it and you'll learn, like you said, you're not stupid... dirtcool, I will do some more video's probably this winter when I'm not as busy. I teach at the Vancouver Institute of Media Arts, they have a pretty great Digital Photography Program.
  • + 1
 all I can say is thank Mr IanHylands, because nobody in this world is capable of transmitting experience and knowledge without getting something in return, and Ian does, take the time to do tutorials for those who want to read it, do not think if children or professional photographers, I think the only thing that will happen with this, is an evolution of our sports photography and professional photographers as dirtcool have to worry about the talent that is because of this.
I think things like where and when taking a picture, angles etc, are the subject of creativity, and if you know some rules and have talent, sure we have good photos, how many riders have the best bike and the best equipment and simply do not know use it, and how many riders with a simple equipment do what they want? the same goes for everything, just pure talent and passion.
Ian thanks for the tutorial, few take the time to do something like this,
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  • + 5
 too bad we can not favorite articles ... i would favorite this for sure
  • + 1
 at least there is a "like" button up top Wink
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  • + 1
 I have been taught these things over the course of my education, but it's nice to see that a professional is actually consciously putting them to good use. It's always nice to see that theory isn't just theory. Great article!
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  • + 1
 Thank you thank you, please put out more write ups on the photography part of pinkbike. Not only is this site for bikers, but photographers interested in the biking scene. Keep pumpin out great stuff
[Reply]
  • + 1
 tup best thing to hip PB! Nicely written too Ian. Funny how you go through stages of composing, I'm finding myself composing with the rider on the exiting edge a lot lately for some strange reason.
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  • + 2
 this is sweet ian. hopefully it will help a lot of the aspiring photographers out there that havent taken classes or anything
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  • + 2
 Your photos are awesome Ian! Always a pleasure to look at. Tutorial was great too.
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  • + 1
 THANKYOUUUU!!! Smile I love your photos by the way. And will there be a video version in the future, or have you completey ditched the idea?
  • + 1
 I'd love to do a video version of everything, but I think I'll try to get lighting tutorials up and maybe a few others before I spend time on videos...
  • + 1
 a lighting tutorial would be very helpful for me. Not only explaining natural lighting, but flash photography as well. That is what i have trouble with. Thanks alot for the tutorial!!!
  • + 1
 stay tuned, they'll be coming in October sometime. Have to shoot Windham WC Finals, Mt Saint Anne World Champs, Rampage, and a few other things first...
  • + 1
 awesome, can't wait!!! Big Grin
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  • + 1
 Everything you wrote about can be applied to all forms of art from painting to graphic design to photography and more. Great article. Great person!
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  • + 3
 Great write up. Should help a lot of people with composing an image.
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  • + 1
 Perfect! I really need something like this... this will help me a lot.. Perfecto pibe!! a meterle fotos nomas que camara hay para rato!
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  • + 1
 Thanks for taking the time to write this Smile I remember being taught most of these at school, it's nice to have it refreshed and collected in one article..
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  • + 0
 PAN oh for the love of God please pan with the rider. Too many pictures out there of clear crisp sceenery and a blurred rider. Great write up and learned a few new things. Thanks
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  • + 1
 You managed to cover a lot of ground quite effectively. My favourite book on the subject is The art of seeing by Freeman Patterson.
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  • + 2
 Its just like my photo class at school but you talk about things i want to read about BIKES
  • + 1
 yees thats all we have to know, about bikes, I think very few places teach you photography applied to cycling, mountain biking I mean
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  • + 1
 Thanks for the great refresher, Ian. Will try to remember these in my humble attempts at "photography"
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  • + 1
 Most useful blog I have EVER read! That was fantastic, it definately shows that you're a professional!
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  • + 1
 Thanks! I love these tutorials, always a good reminder to pay attention to what you're shooting.
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  • + 3
 well explained
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  • + 1
 thats really good!! cant wait to go out and try take some of them into perspective !!!!
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  • + 1
 absoloutely love it. ian hyland makes so much sense to me in everything he does im absoloutly stunned.
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  • + 2
 Outstanding Ian!!! Thank You...
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  • + 1
 that was some great info. good stuff.
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  • + 1
 great write up and great pics
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  • + 1
 wow! impressive tutorial! and really good advices.
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  • + 1
 Love the photo blogs. Keep 'em coming!
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  • + 1
 Thanks a lot for the guide Pinkbike could use more of this
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  • + 1
 excellent. your work is amazing to say the least.
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  • + 1
 excellent tips for photos..I was aware only of the rule of thirds..thanks!
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  • + 1
 another outstanding article Ian, keep 'em coming!
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  • + 1
 thank you !!! u r the best
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  • + 1
 Interesante guia de composición . tu trabajo es incre'ble. Te admiro.
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  • + 1
 Thanks for that
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  • + 1
 thanks for sharing
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  • - 2
 complicated stuff
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