This week I thought I would address photographic composition – a subject that seems swamped with rules, do’s and don’t which sometimes confuses people learning to improve their photography.
What is Composition?
Composition in photography is how all the elements in a scene are arranged within the photograph. These include the main ‘focus’ of the image – the primary subject – as well as the other elements in the scene that comprise the picture. Using these elements in a certain way can lead to a more compelling image, one that appeals to the viewer and intrigues them and keeps them looking at the photograph.
Composition can also be used to add emphasis to the key elements in your photograph in such a way that you can guide the viewers eyes around your photograph and keep their gaze for as long as possible by leading from one element to another. Sounds complicated but the following guides below should help.
Rules of Composition
So, what are they? When do we need to follow them? Do we have to? …no one really likes rules and being told what to do!
We have seen that there are certain techniques that help us take better photos – such as using a wider aperture for a blurred background or a faster shutter speed to freeze the action in a frame. However, when it comes to composition, many people just point the camera towards the scene they want to photograph, choose the necessary settings (or the green square auto mode!) and take the picture. The end result is usually an average photograph and one that can often lead to disappointment. Adopting a few simple guidelines in framing and taking your photographs will help turn them into something special.
I will set out some of these compositional guidelines for you below, but with the disclaimer that not one rule works better in a particular scene and sometimes you don’t need to use them at all!
Our eyes are naturally drawn along lines and therefore thinking how you place lines in your photograph can control how someone looks at your photograph. These lines come in may types – curves, straight, diagonal or twisting and all of these can be used to enhance composition and guide our viewer to the most important elements in our picture. Looking at the examples below, you can see that your eye is naturally drawn into the scene as it follows the natural lines in the scene.
Rule of Thirds
Photographing your scene with the main subject in the centre often produces a static image. Your viewers’ eye will look at the subject but then be fixed and not able to easily move around the photograph to the other elements and therefore will want to look away. (Note that sometimes this can be an effective technique to add emphasis to your subject and works well in minimal photographs where there are not a lot of distracting elements such as in the image below).
The alternative to this is to use the ‘rule of thirds’, where you split the image into 9 sections (3 rows of 3) with imaginary lines as set out below. The idea is that you place your main element(s) on these ‘lines’ or where they intersect, which will add balance and interest to your photograph. Usually the avoidance of having your main subject right in the centre of the photograph leads to a more compelling image.
An alternative approach to the ‘rule of thirds’ is the golden triangle. See the image below. Here the photograph is divided by diagonal lines, one of which splits across the whole photograph and the other two from the opposite corners to this line at right angles to the longer dividing line.
Leaving space in an image is a simple yet effective compositional technique. It allows freedom of movement for the composition/main focal point inside the image itself.(please see the above ‘tree at sunset’ under the rule of thirds section).
Where a person or animal is looking a certain direction – leaving additional space for them to look into adds an extra dimension to a photograph as you can see from the examples below – it allows the viewer to be drawn into the scene and think about what it is the subject is looking at or thinking about. A simple uncomplicated image can often be more striking as it is clear what the viewers attention should be focussed on.
Looking at the two images below of the vulture where the first has been cropped leaving no space to the left of the frame. This makes the image unbalanced and closed as there is not sufficient space in the frame for the bird to look toward. The second image is far more balanced and appeasing to the eye as you have the empty space to the vultures’s left which allows for your eyes to move across the frame through the bird and out to the left side, rather than abruptly stopping like the image on the right.
Filling the frame
You often hear that you should fill the frame with your subject and that you can never be too close to your subject.
This contradicts the previous rule but it is different to overcomplicating the picture – it really means focussing on the subject to remove distracting and irrelevant elements from the photograph. Obviously often you want the subject to be captured in their environment rather than in complete isolation.
Cropping will also help eliminate too much empty space so that your subject does not get ‘lost’ in the photograph.
The background of an image can quite often make or break it as a fantastic image. Sometimes it is crucial to use a small aperture to ensure that all elements from front to back of the image are in focus as they are all relevant to the composition of the photograph. However, as we have also seen, use of a wider aperture (small F-Stop number) can cause the background to blur – creating separation from the subject and enabling it to stand out as the main element that you want the view to focus on.
Be sure to check ands see whether the background over complicates your image and if it adds anything to the overall picture in deciding whether to include it.
Sometimes when you place your image off centre, it can leave a large empty space in your photograph that can make it feel empty and unbalanced. It make be worth considering changing your framing to include another element to balance out the image and fill some of the empty space. In the image below, the water drops on the upper left add some additional interest to the eye in this macro close up of a feather and help to balance the image.
Symmetry and Patterns
Patterns and symmetry are common in both man-made and natural environments and can help to create very compelling and eye catching images as our eyes are drawn into these reoccurring patterns.
It can also be highly effective technique to break the pattern introducing a focal point to a particular scene.
Creating depth in an image is a great way to lead a viewer into an image and convey a sense of the scene in a three dimensional way. Placing an element at the foreground of an image or overlapping parts can help a viewer naturally separate the layers in the image and relate more to the scene creating depth that they commonly see themselves.
Framing your image with natural elements such as trees or buildings can be an effective want to isolate your subject and draw your viewers eyes towards it. Whilst this can be an effective technique it is also very good practice to look around the borders of your image once you have framed it to see if there are any elements that actually detract from the scene and would pull the viewers focus from the subject – if so maybe a few steps in a certain direction reframing would improve the composition.
Changing that your perspective and viewpoint can affect the way the view sees a scene in radical ways and alter the size of objects in our photographs. People are used to seeing common scenes from a certain height so changing these viewpoints will add an additional dimension to your photographs.
Don’t forget that photographing when looking down on the subject makes things look much smaller and photographing from below to emphasize the size and height of something.
Hopefully you will find these guidelines are useful in helping you create more dynamic and engaging images.
Once again please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments about this post (or anything else on my website), and to pass this tutorial onto any photographer friends you think may benefit from it.