The composition of a photograph is what makes the difference between a snapshot and a photograph, the difference between an ordinary picture, and one that is a work of art. If you’re trying to create art with your photographs, if you want them to stand out from the rest, if you want them to be good, this is an area that you will want to work on
Composition is one of the most important things you need to focus on when taking a picture – and is something you need to think about before, and at the moment you click the the shutter – and not after. This is because, in my opinion, it is very hard to correct a poorly composed shot after it’s been captured. Unlike other parts of the photograph, such as exposure, which can be corrected to a fair degree when post processing, or in the darkroom, a badly composed shot can in most cases be impossible to fix. Sure, you can crop a shot (at the cost of resolution) to improve it, but this may not always be possible, or nor would it always improve the image…and if you really paid no attention at all when composing the shot, cropping or any such editing technique will be of no help whatsoever
So what I’m trying to say is this: concentrate on the composition of the shot while you’re looking through the viewfinder…pay attention to a few details, a few rules…just think about the shot a bit…visualize it…and then click. You will find that even if the composition is still not 100% perfect (it’ll rarely be perfect straight off the camera), you can easily crop it a bit, tilt it slightly, and edit it to perfection afterwards, because then, when editing a well-composed shot with small corrections, it becomes a very possible task, as you will be simply making a good shot better, without having to fix a disaster. Makes sense, right?
Ok…rules…guidelines…sure, they say there shouldn’t be rules in art…right? Well, yeah – but everyone has to begin somewhere! You need to learn HOW to make a photograph before you go out and take good shots. You should try to understand what makes a shot stand out from the rest, what makes it special, before you can go out and make your own. So take all the help you can get when starting out with all this. Rules, guidelines, techniques…whatever…are very useful to the beginner, and really can help develop the necessary skills when you’re new. They help you to see creatively, they open up your mind, they expand your abilities…they broaden your options, really…so that when you’re out there with your camera, and you see a particular scene, you understand how it can be captured as a photograph in an interesting manner, without having to rely purely on your own talent and instinct. Learn these methods, these rules….see how they work, how the results look…and understand how they make your shots look better, more artistic, more appealing, captivating…start from there. They give you a great platform to kick off from. Once you’re comfortable and familiar with them, and down the line you start to find that they’re holding you back, then you will probably be ready to push the boundaries, bend and break the rules, and move further on, using your instincts and all that. But for now, I think it’ll help any beginner to be aware of these guidelines in the early stages of their development as an artist, so don’t shy away from them just to be cool and artsy. It’s all been made to help you. Use it. This doesn’t apply purely to composition of course, but as I’m concentrating on composition in this article, that’s what I’ll be going through now
So what are the rules? Well, they’re pretty basic, and they’re not too specific – yeah, I said it’s good to follow some sort of guideline, but it shouldn’t tell you exactly what to do – they’re more like little details to look for when you gaze through your viewfinder, little things that will hopefully strike you when you see the frame, maybe a little hint at a small correction that you could make, something that’ll give your photo a different dimension, a different effect, another way of showing what you want to show from that scene. Some are more rule-like, others are more like concepts…but anyway, let’s get into it already. Here are ten of these rules that I find help a lot when framing a shot – along with examples
The Basic Rules of Composition
Simplicity – One of my favorite rules, mainly because it’s not really a rule; it’s simply a sort of suggestion. Keep your shot simple. Pick your subject, attempt to isolate it, don’t try to include too much else in the shot, and draw attention to the subject and only the subject. Example: portraits! Think of a portrait you would often see, of a model in an advertisement – the model is there, beautifully lit, all made up, probably holding the product that the ad is selling…but what else? Most likely nothing. And that’s what they want: to make sure your attention is grabbed by the model or the product, or whatever…and nothing else. Sure, this sort of shot is probably taken in a studio, and these things are made easier in a studio, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try to simplify your shot in other situations too. Some of the best photographs I’ve seen are really basic: the subject, nice light, well exposed, and that’s about it. That’s what you want…you want to simplify things so that the viewer is drawn to the subject, and nothing else. Try to work towards simplifying your shots in the future
Look at this shot. There’s the subject. Dark, subdued background.. sharp focus right around the eyes.. centered in the frame…perfect example of dead simplicity
Rule of Thirds – I’m sure everyone’s already heard of this one – it’s everywhere, even in compact camera manuals! But alright, let’s assume you’re not familiar with what really it means. Ok. The Rule of Thirds works by splitting your frame into nine equal segments, by drawing imaginary lines (some LCDs make real lines) across the frame: two horizontal, and two vertical. Once you’ve imagined these lines, or see it on the LCD, you compose your shot by placing your subject on one of the four points where the lines intersect, or at the very least, on some part of the actual lines themselves. What this basically does is it forces you to throw away the symmetrical form of composition that everyone seems to be born with. You see, people naturally tend to place their subject right in the centre of the frame, and that can get old very fast (it already has), and it looks boring, common…and boring! The Rule of Thirds forces you to place your subject in an off-centre position, and this can often lead to some interestingly composed shots. Of course, I’ve seen some amazing photos where the photographer placed the subject dead centre, but this rule is a good way to encourage new photographers to break out, and try to experiment at the start. It isn’t simply a rule for new guys either…lot of experienced photographers still follow this rule…although it’s embedded so deep in them that they probably don’t realize it!
See how the photographer has placed the subject, the tree, on the rough area where the lower horizontal line and the left vertical line intersect? Perfect, and beautiful execution of the Rule of Thirds. Not to mention this photo is a great example of simplicity too. Plenty of empty space, yet it looks so complete
Lines – Look for lines in the scene when framing your shot. The human eye is drawn along lines, and as the idea of a well composed shot is to drawn attention to the subject, try to look for leading lines – that is, a line that leads from anywhere TO the subject. Lines can also be used to lead the viewer’s attention through the entire image, in a shot where the whole scene is the subject. The lines can be anything…a straight line, curved, zigzag…it can be a long curving river moving through the scene that leads the viewer through the entire landscape, it can be a straight highway leading from the corner of the frame to your subject (a car?!) in the middle, or railway tracks moving from the foreground to infinity through the middle of the shot…you get the idea
See how the wooden frames of the jetty extend towards the center area of the photo? You may not realize it, but your eyes are probably drawn along these lines, from the edge all the way to the horizon, in this shot. Great use of symmetry too (see the next ‘rule’)
Patterns & Symmetry – People love seeing patterns and symmetry in photos, symmetrical shapes and patterns either being the subject of your shot, or making up the background. These things can be everywhere, if you look for them. The pattern of the pavement under your feet, bricks in a wall, windows and arches in buildings, doorways, stuff like that. Sure, this stuff doesn’t pop out that easily, especially if you’re out shooting random street life or something…but then again, it might…especially if you know to look for it. You can also experiment by setting this stuff up in a home ‘studio’, and who knows, you could end up with some really interesting shots
Yes, these pictures look great. There are many examples out there of symmetry and the use of patterns. Look at the shot on the left…it looks almost 3D, doesn’t it? The patterns are really striking. The symmetry used in the apple halves and placed just how they are look fantastic too. And again, please note… the SIMPLICITY of these shots
Balance – Another simple rule when composing is to ‘balance’ the physical subjects of your photos with the empty spaces in the frame that are sometimes present. This rule is basically about using the empty space in a frame without making it seem empty. For example, placing two subjects at the very corner of your image, and leaving a vast open space on the other side of the frame, might look a bit awkward. Make sure you’re aware of this. Sometimes, this off-balance look can work really well, but if it does look a bit weird, try shifting the camera around till you find some other element in the scene that balances the image. Or shift the composition to place the subject in a more balanced Rule of Thirds position. Just remember to analyze the frame quickly to note if it does look good or bad and work on it accordingly. Be aware, as I always say! Another interesting point on balancing the frame that I read some time back is about balancing colors as well as the physical subjects i.e. try to avoid loading the frame with bright or contrasty colors on one side, while leaving the other side bland and empty of color. Take note!
I love this shot. A few rules that I’ve already covered come to mind, don’t you think? Rule of Thirds? Sort of. Simplicity? Definitely. Maybe even a sense of symmetry. But the point I want to you to note here is the balance of the shot…the control of the empty space between the subjects. The window and the door have been placed perfectly in the frame so that even though there’s a load of empty white space (the plain wall), it doesn’t look bland or empty at all. If the window was not there, or it was a bit further apart, and it wasn’t captured, this shot would’ve looked quite sad…and…yes, very imbalanced…but as it is? Perfect!
Background – The general rule about backgrounds is: keep it clean, keep it simple. When you think about it, it makes sense – you’re not photographing the background, are you? If you are, then THAT is your subject, and this rule wouldn’t apply. But usually, the photograph captures the subject in the foreground, against some sort of backdrop, and the idea is to grab all the attention and focus it towards the subject. Right? Yeah. With a cluttered or messy background, what happens is your subject simply blends into it, it just sort of fades away into the background…and doesn’t pop out or grab the viewer’s attention, as it should. Solution: compose the shot so that the area behind your subject looks clear, clean, simple. Adjust your position, zoom in or out, ask your subject to move if possible, change your shooting angle – there are many things you can do to change how your background looks. You might not be able to get it perfectly clean and clear, but by working to achieve this, you should be able to get a cleaner background than the one you started off with, and that would greatly improve your shot. This rule sort of takes you back to the first one, doesn’t it? Simplicity…it’s all about keeping it simple. And as an example shot, take a look at the portrait I posted under Simplicity. Pleasant, clean, unobtrusive background. And by adjusting the angle and the field of view, there’s less background and more subject.
Perspective – Before you shoot, think about where you want to take the shot FROM. You see, changing your perspective, your viewpoint, will seriously change how your photograph looks. When people view subjects naturally, they see it from eye-level, right? Of course. Therefore, to get a shot with a different feel to it, a shot with an unusual look about it, try shooting from different perspectives. For example, you could get down (or up) to the level of the subject, you could get down below the subject and shoot at an upward angle, you could climb up onto something and shoot down on the subject…you could shoot from a side…you can do anything! Shooting from different levels to eye-level will give the shot an interesting feel, as viewing from, say, hip-level is not something people are accustomed to; shooting from below the subject is also a fresh perspective, and tends to make the subject appear larger than life, while shooting from above usually makes the subject appear than it is…so keep these in mind when you experiment with perspective…it really changes the subject a lot…and always keep an open mind! I personally find that getting to the level of the subject always looks good – so use that as a general rule, and work from there!
Varying your point of view can also make the subject and scene look drastically different, and can bring out properties of the subject that you previously may not even have noticed. This is why I consider this little ‘rule’ so important
See the effect achieved by shooting from a very low angle? The photographer gets an unusual look to his subject, while also making the stone structure appear towering and imposing. The sky makes for a nice background too
The careful composition here again is all heavily based on perspective. See the mesmerizing patterns that the stair and railings form, when seen from this exact angle? I bet the photographer worked a lot to get it just right, but once perfected, the subject appears like it has never appeared before! All thanks to perspective
Framing – Not only framing the shot with your viewfinder, when composing a photograph you can use other elements in the scene to frame the subject, and give it further focus and attention. By using such elements – trees, mountains, doorways, buildings – you can also give the subject more meaning, and depending on what and where you’re shooting, and what is available, you can use these objects to enhance your main subject. For example, when taking a shot of a person in a room, try taking the shot through a doorway, using the door’s frame as the frame in your shot too…it’ll give a different mood to the shot. Taking a landscape shot, look for any outer elements that can be used to frame the central scene i.e. forestry, or mountains, framing a beautiful lake?? Think about it, and of course try it when you get the chance
The shot above frames the person inside the physical circular object. The lighting and other elements make it fantastic. This is what I mean by framing. Plenty more examples, where you use other, less ‘framey’ objects to frame the subject, but you get the idea now, right?
Close Up or Not – This is one aspect of composition which you might be able to fix even after taking the shot. You see, some photos look much, much better when taken close up. Some don’t. And while it’s best to make the ‘close up or not’ call at the exact moment you shoot, remember that sometimes you can fix this afterwards. For instance, if you happened to take the shot stepped back, or your lens didn’t let you focus close enough, and you feel it would look better close-up, you can always crop the shot to get a closer view of it. Of course, note that the opposite doesn’t work! If you took a shot real close, and you feel it doesn’t work, you’re stuck with it – you cannot ‘crop out’ of a close up, can you? Yeah. You can’t. The best way, of course – yes, like I said in the beginning – is to spend a few seconds to think of how close (or not) to get to this shot, before taking it, so you get the best out of it right in the camera. If you’re not sure, even after a bit of thought, or you simply don’t have time for thought, try a few different compositions – each at a different distance to the subject – and pick the best one afterwards!
This shot was heavily cropped. The image on the left is what I have been using…and the original shot is the one on the right. I have some shots taken on the same shoot, same focal length..un-cropped.. and they look fine, but this particular shot seemed to be lacking something. Definitely. A few seconds later, after a heavy and rather experimental crop to get a nice close-up of the fireworks, the shot really seems to work…don’t you think? I think so. I couldn’t have captured the close-up originally as I had no lens of that focal length…but yeah, that’s not the point. The point is to show how different the same subject can look, simply by bringing it close up with a simple crop…which is quite amazing; the other point is to note that while cropping can help one way, like it did in this example, it doesn’t work in reverse. So think about it. Before. You. Shoot. And if unsure, go for both
Break the rules – Yeah, you knew I was going to say this some time, didn’t you? Yeah. Well, like I started off by saying, these rules exist, but they’re also meant to be broken – like all rules – so know that even though you can work with these guidelines to get some great shots, you can safely shatter all these rules and still produce fantastic photographs too. The Rule of Thirds can go to hell if you find that placing your subject in the dead centre of the frame is what looks best. The idea of balancing is a load of rubbish if you find that loading all your subjects on the right end of the frame while keeping 60% of the left side empty is how the shot looks best. You want your image to have a lively feel to it, and think it looks better with more clutter in the background? Forget the rule that says you should keep your background clean
You can figure the rest out. Think about the rules when shooting, use them when you feel they help you (which will be often when you’re new), and dump them like a disease if you find they’re not doing what they should be doing – which is making your shots great. Keep shooting. Until next time
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By Heshan Jayakody All content here is my own, except where noted