Composition is arguably the single most important aspect of good photography. If every other technical skill is expertly applied, but the photograph is carelessly composed, what might have been a memorable image becomes fodder for the delete button. Several elements combine to create a strong image, yet none of them makes or breaks a photograph like composition. I define composition as “the deliberate arrangement of all the elements within the photograph.” The key word is deliberate. When you put into practice these few basic precepts, you will take the necessary steps toward creating stronger, more compelling imagery.
The first and most fundamental principle is the rule of thirds. I briefly discussed the rule of thirds in my Photo Tips post, Photographing People–The Informal Portrait. To review, divide the picture area into thirds both horizontally and vertically. Place your subject along one of these imaginary grid lines, rather than automatically plopping them dead-center in the viewfinder. Avoid running the horizon line through the middle of the frame. Place it one-third of the way up from the bottom or one-third down from the top. If you’re photographing your child riding their bike, have them riding into the photograph. This implies forward motion and is much more visually interesting.
Many elements contribute to a balanced composition. The rule of thirds is only a guide and should not become an automatic exercise. Ultimately, composition is intuitive–a feeling based on all the ingredients visible in the view finder. Light and dark objects carry visual weight and affect compositional balance. Strong converging lines are very effective in drawing the eye in a particular direction and creating interest. When photographing people, survey their surroundings. Is a tightly cropped portrait most impactful, or does placing the subject in the immensity of the landscape make a stronger statement? Don’t cut your friends off at the feet. Most often, it looks accidental and is aesthetically disconcerting.
Pay attention when looking through the view finder. Scan the edges of your potential photograph for unwanted and distracting elements–branches, telephone wires, etc.. Try different shooting angles. Lay on the ground and shoot upward. When taking your girlfriend’s portrait, try looking down from her second story apartment. Sometimes moving your camera position a few feet one way or the other will yield a more pleasing background or eliminate any lens flare. If you’re using a zoom lens, zoom in and out. How does the scene look? Is it most dramatic when shot tightly, or does the scene require a wider view? Maybe each is particularly compelling, but for different reasons. Does a horizontal or vertical camera orientation make for a stronger composition? Look for interesting textures and repeating patterns. They can add visual impact and are often striking subjects in of themselves. Placing objects in the foreground gives a sense of scale and immensity to landscapes. Strong contrasting light and shadow is effective in creating tension, particularly with portraiture. Shooting on overcast days can impart a feeling of melancholy. I always strive for simplicity in my compositions. The fewer objects competing with one another, the better. Ask yourself, do all the elements work together to enhance the photograph? What distracts from it? Critique your work. Get together with friends and critique each others’ work. The feedback is incredibly valuable. See what other photographers are doing. If your interest is portraiture, see what new and exciting things are being done there. When you encounter a photograph that grabs you, what is it that catches your attention? Innovative work often challenges current notions about photography. Experiment. Have fun. And most importantly, get out and shoot!
I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions.
Until next time, happy image-making…