Photography Basics – #3. Composition

This is where the lines get a little blurred. Composition, the way you compose an image, how you place all the subjects within the borders of the photograph, is very much personal preference.

This lesson, therefore, is very much around my personal preference. I do recommend you start with these “rules” as a basic guide on how to compose. The information will help you to compose well and will give you a strong base from which to start developing your own style.

There are some industry accepted laws that apply not only to photography but also painted art pieces as well. We will concentrate on three such rules.

The Rule of Thirds. You will hear people talk of the rule of thirds, which is basically the idea that your image must be divided into three equal thirds vertically. Your main subject should always be placed off centre on either of the third division lines. However there are very successful world famous photographers who have completely ignored this rule and always have their subject slap bang in the middle of the image.

My personal style is to use the rule of thirds and often even push the subject further off centre than the third division . Your personal style needs to develop as you take more and more photos and needs to reflect your personal taste.

You also need the foreground and background to balance each other and tell a story. The foreground must lead your eye gently to the background and the use of forms and lines does this quite well.

In this image, the light pillar in the foreground catches our eye first, even subconsciously, and the diagonal lines of the umbrella tops and row of boats gently leads our eye back to Table Mountain in the background.

Fill the frame. You will often hear photographers talking about filling the frame with the subject and that is almost always the best way to photograph anything. So for example, you don’t want the subject, whatever it may be to be very small and insignificant in the photo. It must be prominent and clear that it is what you were intending to “hero”. This applies to every type of subject. Using the image above as an example, the “subject” is the entire harbour scene, if the image had a lot more sky in the shot then the harbour would look less significant. the image would have less impact.

This rule, however, is specifically important with portraits. the person being photographed must be almost the only thing in the shot, They are after all the reason for the photograph anyway so everything around them is irrelevant.

Lose the clutter. Your subject needs to stand out from its surroundings so that it is the most prominent feature in the photo. This can be done in a few ways, such as using depth of field to separate the subject from the background (go back to lesson two on focus to refresh your memory on how this is achieved). The easiest way though, is to simply choose a clean uncluttered background. Nine times out of ten, it works far better when your subject is brighter and lighter then the background. For example it’s always a good idea, when photographing people outside, to choose the dark greens of trees and shrubs as a background. This will ensure that the person being photographed stands out and is clearly the main subject.

Dont assume that this rule doesn’t apply to landscapes and wider shots. This is where this rule becomes even more important although more difficult to implement. All to often photographers try to capture too much in one landscape. The vastness and beauty of a scene often confuses and overwhelms us and we can’t decide how to compose the photo to portray what we are taking in live. In these situations you need to take a break, look around and decide how to sum-up the scene. What are the most important features? Frame them using a foreground subject and the natural lines you see to lead your viewers eye into the background.

The cycad in this shot is used as our foreground anchor and the dry river bed and lines of the valley leads us up into the view of the mountain peaks in the background.

In every situation though, you need to be able to take what you know about the science and rules of photography and apply them as required and depending on which of the options are available to you in your particular situation.

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