Composition Is The Key To Good Photography
Modern digital cameras include all sorts of technical wizardry to help us take brilliant photos. Features such as auto focus, intelligent metering, image stabilisation, depth of field preview, continuous shooting, noise reduction, live view, auto ISO and more, all help with the technical side of capturing an image.
Then there is the editing software to help rescue poorly exposed, un-sharp, colour cast, low contrast photos and turn them into perfect pictures.
However, there is one aspect of photography that can’t be controlled by a camera function or corrected on your computer, and that is the composition. Apart from a slight crop, there isn’t anything you can do about the camera position, the placement of subjects, the lens choice, and the overall look of the scene.
Some people find the technical side of photography, such as shutter speed, aperture, ISO, depth of field and editing raw files rather confusing, but can “see” a good photo quickly. While others, including myself, like to go through the menus and adjust the various settings, but struggle to find a picture to take. If you are in the second group there are some tips and tricks which can be learnt to help with composition.
Like art, sculpture, poetry and music, photography is very subjective, and what may appeal to some will be disliked by others. However, there are certain rules, recommendations, guidelines and advice that will help you take photos which are more aesthetically pleasing. Like all rules, they won’t work for every situation and can be broken, but they are a good starting point, especially for beginners.
Rule of thirds
The rule of thirds works by dividing the scene into nine equal rectangles using two horizontal and two vertical lines. These can be imagined or if your camera has the option, viewed on the rear screen. Try placing your subject on one of the four intersections. This should work for most scenes, unless they are 100% symmetrical, where a central placement may be better. If you are taking a landscape photo, try putting the horizon on one of the two horizontal lines (use the lower one if you have an interesting sky). When shooting a scene with a strong vertical element, place it on one of the vertical lines, rather than in the middle.
The purpose of a leading line is to help guide the viewer towards the subject. They don’t have to be straight, as curved or winding lines will work just as well. Natural lines to look out for are cliffs, dunes, shorelines, waves, trees, rivers and streams. Man made lines include roads, fences, bridges, walls and hedges. Try to find a line that comes in near the bottom or from the side, and heads in and up towards the central area or wherever your main subject is located. This may prove difficult at first, but it will get easier with practice.
Triangles & diagonals
Diagonal lines can be used as leading lines, but are also good at adding depth to an image. They can help draw your eye from the foreground to mid and rear points in the scene. Diagonal lines are sometimes used to divide an image into two or more parts, to help add interest. Where a diagonal line meets a horizontal or vertical line, or a second diagonal, triangles can be created. Triangular shapes and angled lines make the photo more dynamic and edgy, and can work well in black and white.
Sense of scale
If you photograph a natural scene such as a hill, waterfall, tree, or a river, which contains no man made elements, it can be difficult to judge the scale. However, if you add a person, car, boat or some other recognisable item, it instantly helps the viewer understand the overall image in terms of scale.
Leave space to move into
Taking photos of anything moving can be quite challenging, but if you can remember this one extra point it will make your images look a lot more professional. If a person, animal, bird, car or whatever is moving from left to right, try to position it in the left part of the scene with space to the right of it. This gives the impression that the object has room to move into. This also works with people or animals just looking in a certain direction.
This process will help your main subject stand out from distracting backgrounds. You need a lens with a large aperture such as f/2.8, which will give a shallow depth of field. This will blur the scenery behind the main point of interest, making the subject more obvious. If you don’t have such a lens, try one with a long focal length, as this will give similar results.
I don’t know why, but items placed in odd numbers seem to be pleasing and interesting to look at. If you take still life photos and have the option to add or remove items, try placing three, five or seven to get good results.
Keep it simple
If you study photos taken by professionals, you may notice that many are quite simple in terms of composition. This is often done to help keep distractions to a minimum, so the main subject is obvious and stands out. When taking a landscape or even a still life or portrait, check around the edge of the frame to ensure there are no protruding items which will be difficult to edit out.
Although this can apply to any scene, it is most relevant to landscape shots taken with wide angle lenses. It is very easy to get distracted by the whole scene and not pay attention to what is, or more importantly what is not in front of you. To help draw your eye through the photo and give a sense of depth, it is important to have some foreground interest. This could be something simple like a rock, a stream, or a bush, but anything would be better than nothing at all.
This is where you try and shoot your subject through a natural or man-made frame. It doesn’t have to be a complete frame, but the more complete the shape is, the better. Also, it doesn’t have to be a rectangle, so look out for squares, circles, ovals or even triangles.
Fill the frame
Don’t be afraid to get in close or zoom in on a distant scene so the subject fills the frame. It might not seem natural at first, but by hiding the background with the main point of interest, it can make quite an impact.
Change your viewpoint
It is very easy to always adopt the same stance when taking photos. However, by varying your position you can often find more interesting compositions. Try getting down low and taking a worm’s eye view, or lie on your back and look directly up. Depending on your location, you may also be able to get up high and look down on a scene, which will give a different viewpoint.
But don’t forget to experiment, as rules are meant to be broken!