Composition Tips from world renowned photojournalist Don Rutledge

Don Rutledge took this in 1967 inside the Arctic Circle. People are so comfortable with Don that he is able to be apart of the woodwork.

This is my favorite photo that Don Rutledge took. I have enjoyed seeing the world approximately 150+ countries and all of the United States without ever leaving my own home.  Most of the traveling was done with the help of The Commission Magazine and Missions USA.  Both of the magazines have won some of the highest awards in the country.  The Commission Magazine has placed third in magazines in the “Pictures of The Year” contest sponsored by the National Press Photographers Association in 1989 and 1990. CommissionStories a newer version of the magazine just won as Finalist for Magazine division of the Pictures of the Year contest behind National Geographic Magazine for 2014. Missions USA has earned similar awards.  These Southern Baptist magazines are in a league with National Geographic and Life Magazine for their photography and design.

The reason for their success can be tied greatly to Don Rutledge.  Prior to coming to work for these religious magazines Don was one of the staff photographers for the elite photography agency Black Star. During the 1950s until 1980s if you were to look for the credits of the photographers in the major magazines you would find Black Star the agency that handled getting their work published.

The shoeshine man had to be told by Don that John Howard Griffin was white and not black.  He could hardly believe that this man was really white. [by Don Rutledge]

One of the biggest news stories, which Don covered, was following and documenting John Howard Griffin who transformed himself with drugs and makeup from a white man into a black man. He would later write about his experience as a black man in the book Black Like Me.

“Don discovered these two youngsters who proudly displayed the results of their morning hunt.  In that section of Cincinnati, rats were not particularly difficult quarry to locate.” [Walker Knight, See How Love Works]

Don’s story is really a series of stories. Using the storytelling model I introduced in the last blog here is a short story of Don.

Don Rutledge knew he loved to take photos and looked and noticed the Black Star agency in all the magazines. He wanted to learn more and work for them. He contacted Howard Chapnick, the president of Black Star.

Howard asked for a portfolio, but Don didn’t have one. So Don pitched story ideas which Howard liked. Howard pitched these to his clients and told Don one was interested. Before Howard had a deal Don had already shot the story and sent it to Howard.

Howard wrote back and told Don his mistake and also told him what was wrong or missing from that coverage. Don went ahead and went back and filled in those holes in the story and sent it to Black Star.

The client loved the package and requested Don for more coverages.

Volunteer Mike Edens taught these two pastors Mikhail Shehata Ghaly and Anwar Dakdouk MasterLife Discipleship training in Cyprus during 1984.  [photo by Don Rutledge]

When I got the chance to work with Don I jumped at it. This was for me the Luke Skywalker and Yoda opportunity for me.

Within the Frame

One of the lessons I learned from Don was to scan the edges of the frame. Make the most of the entire frame from edge to edge and from front to back.

If you look at the photos I have posted so far of Don’s pay attention to two things: First how the edges include details and do not make sloppy by cutting off legs or other things in the frame. Second see how much layering is from front to back in all these photos.

Do you see all six people in the photo of the Eskimo family in the first photo. Notice how these are all over and Don has introduced the family, the social status and where they live in that one photo. He also has captured the excitement and happiness that they experience.

Take each photo and notice the edges and how people are anchoring the photos. Their feet are included, but not too much. The people are placed in context with the environment. The environment tells you a little about the people. The expressions of them show how much they love life.

Notice that had Don cropped in tighter to the shoeshine man and Howard Griffin you would not know he was a shoeshine man. You need the shoe polish and the foot rest to help tell the story.

In all these photos there is also just a little tension. Each photo has the reader asking some questions. The photos make you want to know more about each situation.

In the Philippines families cluster together for meal. [photo by Don Rutledge]

One trick Don used often was just including a sliver of light just to see beyond the initial scene. With the Eskimo family it is the tundra to the right. With the family in the Philippines it is the door and the floor that give you a sense of there is stuff beyond them. The photo of the men walking in Cyprus you can see beyond them the man walking away.

Notice in all these photos you have a sense of a problem facing the characters. The boys holding the rat is probably the most obvious, but each one you can feel the tension. You can also sense a victory over their situations.

Surgeon Tim Pennell was able to get five of his colleagues from Bowman Gray School of Medicine to commit weeks of vacation time and thousands of dollars to meet their Chinese counterparts. [photo by Don Rutledge]

Editors and presidents of organizations sought out Don to help tell their stories. They saw in Don’s photos more than just a pleasing photo—they saw that Don was capturing the inner souls of people in ways others just didn’t.

Don captured moments. President of the Foreign Mission Board Keith Parks said,

Although Don took hundreds of pictures, I hardly noticed because he did it in such an unobtrusive way.  When he put it all together he had really caught the highlights of the meeting and the impact that he wanted.  I just think that he is a first rate fellow from every measurement professional.  Of course, he can and does meet the highest standards of the secular world, and yet his deep spiritual commitment has caused him to give himself to the spiritual cause he believes rather than selling his skills to the highest bidder.  I just think that quality and character come through in his pictures.

Dan Beatty, the design editor of The Commission Magazine commented,

Don is the one person who has completely influenced the direction of the magazine. Before Don came we knew that there was a certain way we wanted to present the missions material in the magazine.  None of us had a firm grasp on what direction we should go to achieve our goals.  Don really provided the direction for us to go.  Don never expressed any strong feelings about—in a critique type way—on the magazine.  Just Don’s presence and constant example of someone who always strives for the best is what guided us along. He was constantly putting us into contact with different individuals in the field of photojournalism and layout and design.  He felt these would be good influences on the magazine or influences that would help us along the road where we wanted to be with the publication.

I would not be doing what I am doing, at the level I am doing it if it hadn’t been for Don. He is an example of consistency and integrity in a field where that is not always a constant with the different people that I’ve met.  He represented something that I wanted to achieve myself.  He has been the biggest influence that I can think of on me personally and the different photographers that I have worked with along with Don.  The thing that impressed me most with Don is his sensitivity and his regard for human beings.  I think that is what made him the asset that Dr. Parks was looking for in communicating about Foreign Missions to Southern Baptist and other people as well.  The dignity of the human being no matter what the situation is so very important to Don.  To me that is the real strength of Don’s work.  


Don Rutledge spent his career photographing more than 150 countries and all 50 states.  He was published almost every single month of his career in magazines. Few photojournalists were more published on a regular basis in magazines more than Don. He died February 19, 2013 at the age of 82.