Are you sitting comfortably? No, really, sit down! Because this could take a while. Even though we’re only on part 3 of 26, it’s quite possible that this is going to be the longest part of my entire A to Z reference guide to photography, because no doubt about it, but composition is one of the most important and wide ranging concepts in photography. It’s also, perhaps, one of the harder ones to grasp, and most definitely the hardest to perfect. So whether you’re a novice photographer or an experienced one, there’s probably no harm in taking time out to go through some basics concepts, rules, suggestions and guidelines that underline a well composed photography. And when I say “taking time”, well let’s just say that pretty much this entire blog post makes up a lecture I give four times a year to Dublin Camera Club’s beginners’ course – a lecture that takes an hour and a half. So you have been warned. The good news, though, is that there are lots of photos below. Lots and lots of photos in fact. Let’s get started.
What is composition?
The composition of a photograph simply relates to the way the photographer composed the image – i.e. how he or she positioned themselves, framed the shot and captured the shot so as to freeze a moment in time, and to choose to freeze it such that the subject or subjects is at a specific point or points within the frame.
To put it more simply, it’s the decision-making process where the photographer decides what part of the world in front of his or her eye is going to be captured on film or by the sensor of his camera. It’s not so much what you photograph, but how you photograph it. Is that abstract and wishy-washy enough for you? Yeah, thought so. This area of photography isn’t as technical and as hard and fast as something like, say, aperture. The ideas, rules, guidelines here are intended to plant seeds in your head that will grow and develop as you grow and develop as a photographer, and hopefully, the more photos you take, the more these will make sense (and, to some extent, the more you might disregard them too). And with lots of concepts about to be mentioned below, let’s start with the most common one.
Rule of thirds
Lots of you will have heard about the rule of thirds and some of you will understand it. But if you don’t, or if it’s new to you, let me tell you this – of all the things I’m about to mention, the rule of thirds is the one concept that is guaranteed to improve your photographs beyond those that any of your Facebook friends are likely taking. It’s an easy stepping stone on the road to better photos, so worth experimenting with.
So what is it? Well it’s a rule to guide you as to where to place a subject within your frame in order to create an aesthetically pleasing photograph. Consider the following photograph:
Now with an image like this you could ask why I decided to frame it with the duck at that particular point of the frame. The answer is that I framed it in accordance with the rule of thirds.
The rule is this. Divide your frame into three vertically, and three horizontally. That leaves a 3×3 grid like this:
The rule then suggests that a good place to position your subject (or a key part of your subject) within the frame is along any of those four lines, or even better still, at any of the four points of intersection.
The duck is where the left-most vertical line meets the lowest horizontal line, and so this photo conforms to the rule. Why would you want to? Well, it’s generally accepted that adhering to this rule gives more aesthetically pleasing compositions, and creates images that are less static. By keeping the duck to the left, and lower in the frame, there’s a suggestion in the photo – a visual one – that the duck has space to “swim” into, and it makes for a more dynamic photo than if, say, I had centered him in the frame.
Speaking of centering in the frame, that’s what a lot of novice photographers do. And while for some subjects this can be best (more on that later), for many it can, again, be a bit unappealing to the eye. It screams “snap” instead of “picture”. But it’s understandable. After all, the focus point on all cameras is, by default, in the centre. So if you want your subject in focus (and who doesn’t?) your camera is pretty much telling you to centre it. Half-press for focus, get the green box, and then complete the shutter press to take the shot. We’ve all been there. Now I’m telling you to do something a little different. You have two choices.
The universally applicable one is this: half-press with your subject in the centre to achieve focus, and once achieved, move your camera left, right, up or down to put your subject somewhere as suggested by the rule of thirds – along a line, or at an intersection of two lines, in the grid above. Some cameras will even optionally display such a grid to help, but it doesn’t need to be so precise that you can’t get a feel for it. With the subject duly repositioned, you finish the shutter button press to take the shot. That’s called “focus and recompose”.
The second option, if your camera allows, is to move your focus point left, right, up or down, so that you can focus on the subject and have it well positioned in the frame at the same time. Most cameras give you the ability to do this, and I often leave my focus point to the left of centre as a matter of course, if nothing else so as to make it harder to frame a centered subject than not, because usually I don’t want it centered.
This rule, or guideline if you prefer, works for subjects other than ducks:
This photo above might confuse you – after all, isn’t she centered in the frame? Horizontally, yes – though note that the frame now is in portrait orientation (the black chunky border is just to make its presentation here look better). But vertically, she’s framed so that her eyes – the most interesting part of any portrait – are a third of the way down the frame, along one of those lines that divides the frame in three.
Ok, so that’s that rule. Let’s move on. (If you want more info on it, there are literally thousands of other sources of information about the rule of thirds on the web, or check literally any photography handbook).
The importance of timing
So if I told you that it’s kind of important to photograph something interesting, you probably wouldn’t argue with me. But not only that, it’s also important to photograph it when it’s interesting. In a nutshell, what this is all about is not just necessarily taking the shot just because you’re ready to take it. Just because you’ve figured out the technical aspects such as the exposure, the focus and even our new friend above – the rule of thirds – doesn’t mean the very next thing to do is press the shutter immediately. You know that concept in rugby of crouch, touch, pause, engage. The pause is important. It’s to ensure the integrity of the scrum, to make sure the players on both sides are settled and ready to get a good bind when the scrum comes together. It’s the same in photographs – frame, focus, exposure, pause, shutter release. That pause is long enough to make sure that what it is that you are about to photograph is interesting, amusing, engaging, action filled, well lit… you get the idea. Here are some shots which work because of the timing of the shutter press:
Note also that the first two conform pretty well to the rule of thirds. The third one used looser framing because I couldn’t be sure where that ball was going to end up, and wanted to make sure I left enough space up top to have it in the frame. You can’t win them all!
Filling the frame
A common mistake amongst novice photographers is that they don’t fill the frame. Playing it safe by framing wide can have it’s merits, but the final image usually works better when the frame contains all the information you need to tell whatever story it is you are trying to tell, but no more.
For instance, here’s an example where I probably got it wrong – this is framed too wide and the white space on either side really doesn’t enhance the portrait:
but this, although quite a tight crop, has no unnecessary elements:
If you are framing tight, make sure the intent is clear. For instance, chopping off the left babyfinger tip of a baby that’s just a few days old is not very kind:
A good idea is to do a scan around the edges of the frame – ideally before you take the shot, but even afterwards, to make sure you’re not chopping any bits off you don’t mean to. This, for instance, is more considered framing:
Also, filling the frame can allow you to find a shot in the most unlikely of places:
Framing within the frame
This is where you use elements within the photo to frame other elements in the photo. Best illustrated with some obvious (and not so obvious) examples:
The idea here, if there is one, is to frame the newer town on the island of Crete (whose name escapes me) in the old window of the fort that overlooks it. Here’s one closer to home – possibly the most photographed bridge in the country:
This compositional technique serves one of two primary purposes. It can add a little context to a scene (which is kind of what’s happening in both of these to some extent), or it can be a more subtle visual means of holding the viewers attention, or even encouraging them to zone in on the image. To varying degrees the following three photos are examples of this:
A well composed image will often make use of lines and shapes that are present (or implied) in the the photograph to help draw in the viewers attention, and/or direct their attention around the image. Learning to see these features in the world around you can help you to tie down a composition that is pleasing to the eye. Some examples are warranted, starting with leading lines. These should, as the name suggests, lead you into the subject of the image:
For leading lines, the aim is typically to add depth to a photograph. Photographs are inherently two dimensional, but are an attempt to capture three dimensional scenes. The dimension you lose is depth, and so anything that helps to infer depth in your image is a good thing. But the geometry need not be about adding depth but can be more fundamentally about the aesthetic of the image, creating a graphic element, or about leading the viewer’s eye around the image:
The following image is, I personally think, one of the strongest images (compositionally) that I’ve ever taken. What’s working here is the concentric circles, the leading lines, the rule of thirds and, of course, the cute subject, all of which combine to hold your attention:
Patterns and texture
There is something inherently interesting about a photograph of a repeating pattern, especially a scene that is familiar to us, but not in the way that it is photographed. At the same time, texture can help to give an image a 3 dimensional feel, and to perfect it can be as much about the lighting as the framing. Look at the world around you and find patterns, textures and other such graphic elements, frame them in your camera’s viewfinder or on its screen, and you could well have found an interesting photograph in the banal and everyday world around you:
The positional relationship between the camera and the subject dictates what perspective the photographer offers the viewer, and can influence the viewer’s interpretation of the scene in front of the camera. Here, there is a very modern road between the cobble stones and the VW Beetle, but my choice of camera position and angle hides it from the viewer:
At a technical level, the choice of lens can alter the perspective – a long lens effectively compresses the distance between the foreground and the background, for instance, and can skew how the viewer perceives distance. Take this example from a rugby match where the Irish team are almost two thirds of a rugby pitch away from substitute Peter Stringer warming up on the dead ball line, photographed with a long lens:
That compression of the foreground-background distance makes a long lens (or a lens that’s ‘zoomed in’, for want of a clearer term) the lens of choice for many portrait photographers. It equally results in a shallower depth of field for a given aperture.
Equally, perspective is about looking for a view on the world that is different to what everyone else is photographing. It can be as simple as getting down to a child’s level when photographing them, or perhaps pointing your camera up or down rather than the usual parallel to the ground, as illustrated by the following two images:
Light (and the absence of it)
Light, quite literally, is what puts the ‘photo’ in photograph, and without it you have no image. Careful management of it is, of course, absolutely key to a good image, but compositionally it’s worth at least knowing that a viewer’s eye is usually drawn to the brightest part of an image first. This can be used to your advantage if your subject isn’t in the obvious place in your frame, or to isolate a subject from a busy background.
The absence of light can be equally effective, and at its most extreme, the silhouette can create striking images. With a silhouette removing all detail from an image, it is essential that what you are left with has a form that can be interpreted and understood by the viewer:
Colour can either enhance or detract from an image – for instance the colour red catches the eye first, and that may not be what you want (there’s always black & white for those situations). I’m quite fond of trying to find (or create) contrasting colours – oranges and blues, greens and yellows – or of using colour to set a mood.
It’s human nature to look at what other people are looking at, so you can use this as a compositional tool to direct a viewer around your image if a subject in the frame is looking at another subject. Just make sure the subject’s eyeliner doesn’t lead your viewer out of the image.
Balance, scale, juxtaposition and symmetry
These all relate to how the elements in the frame interact, visually, with each other (or indeed with themselves) and can make or break a photograph. They say that three is a better number of people to photograph than four for instance, or generally that odd numbers beat even numbers. Also, how the different components of the frame interact with each other can give the image a sense of “feeling right” or, indeed, “feeling wrong”.
Some examples, to try to put this in context.
The bridesmaid on the right visually balances the bride and her mother on the left:
This could be a very small cat or a very large shed:
The youthful energy of the boy and the exertion of the not-so-youthful man, one flying down the slide, the other climbing up the steps, adds a bit of humour to this scene:
And finally, symmetric subjects (either found or created) are one example where the rule of thirds is best forgotten:
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is your whirlwind tour through just some of the compositional rules, guidelines, suggestions and ideas that can help to lift the standard of your imagery. Now feel free to break the rules, ignore the guidelines, forget the suggestions and reinvent the ideas!