Monday, October 20, 2008

Photography 101 - Composition

Composition: The first step to taking better photos

[I originally wrote this for the camera club we started at work]

In this lesson we will look at composition, composition can make the difference between a snapshot and a piece of art. You often hear that so and so has a “good eye” for taking pictures, this is often solely due to the fact that they know how to properly compose a shot.

The first mistake that people often make is regarding symmetry, most of the time symmetry is a good thing but not in photography (at least normally). For some this can be hard to overcome, we're genetically designed to look for it. Our species is geared towards finding a mate with good symmetry, study upon study has been done on “what defines beauty?” and time and again symmetry is a key component.

Lucky for us people have already done a lot of the work for us, some brilliant mind found a formula for composition and named it “The Rule Of Thirds”. Now before we go too far I want to point out that rules are meant to be broken from time to time so you should take this more as a guideline. The rule of thirds is to photography as learning to tie your shoes is to childhood. Once you learn composition you will look at the world around you in a different light. Chances are good you already do this to some extent but you probably don't realize it.

Below is a rectangle that has been broken up into thirds horizontally and vertically, like a tic-tac-toe game. When framing your photos try to put the focal point at one of the white circles, or if shooting a landscape put the horizon on one of the two horizontal lines. It's really that simple!

(Left) 2 Vertical lines, 2 Horizontal Lines, 4 Nexus Points thats all it is.

(Right) Rule of thirds built right into your camera.
A lot of cameras actually have a feature built in that will make composing your shot a lot easier. If your camera has it you can enable a grid overlay on the screen, this will also help remind you whenever you are composing a shot.

Lets look at a few examples
In the image below you can see that it is using the rule of thirds in two ways:

1.The horizon line is pretty close to following the upper horizontal line
2.The barn, being the primary focal point of the image is more or less centered on the top left intersection point.


When photographng landscapes you can draw attention to different features depending on how you frame the shot. In the photo above the field seems large and expansive because the horizon line is on the top line. If you frame a shot with it the other way as seen in the photo below with the horizon on the bottom third, the focus would be more on the sky and lightning. Either way can work it just depends on the image what message you are trying to get across to the viewer.

When photographing a group of people try to keep their eyes in line (for the most part) with the top third of the photo rather than the center like most people do. If you center them all this does is leave a bunch of empty space above their heads.

Another thing to keep in mind is to give the people space! In the photo below the guard is facing left so this means the photo should “open up to the left”, this in turn places him on the right vertical line of the rule of thirds. The other thing that this photo covers is to try and have an interesting background if possible. There is however a problem with this photo that we'll discuss next, and that is distractions.

This photo could be better if I hadn't got the umbrella in the shot, it is distracting and draws the viewers eyes away from the intended areas. As you'll see on the next page removing these distractions makes for a better image

Here is the same image with the distracting umbrella removed, now the viewer's eyes are drawn to the face of the guard (top right nexus) and along his sightpath (top third line).

When possible simply move your position to get a better angle, maybe if you cross the street that lightpole won't be in the shot or if you get in closer you can avoid getting those powerlines in the frame. Always be aware of your surroundings and don't be afraid to take multiple photos of the same thing, you might find that after shooting 10 photos you finally got the right composition for that shot. As you get more familiar with how to compose photo properly you simply won't even realize your doing it. While writing this article I went through hundreds of my photos trying to find examples of what not to do and I had a hard time because I'm so used to using the rule of thirds in every one of my shots.

Some further tips:

Try to look at your forground and background and see if they compliment each other. If the object your photographing is too similar to the background it will result in a flat looking image.

Get in close! Take a shot how you normally would and then zoom in more and see how it looks. You might say “well I can just crop it later”, sure maybe you can but not if you aren't shooting with a high end camera. When you crop you lose resolution, if your crop takes away more than 20% of the image then you should have just got in closer in the first place.

Find beauty in negative spaces!
Sometimes by filling your image with negative space you can give your subject more impact

Sometimes images won't fit into the rule of thirds, luckily there is the rule of diagonals. Simply draw a line diagonally from corner to corner and then make duplicate lines on either side of it. You can see this present in the images below.

Be Careful! In order to utilize these techniques you have to make sure your camera is focusing on what you want first. Most cameras will adjust the focus and exposure when you press the shutter button half way down, so you'll need to center on the subject first > press the shutter halfway down> then move the camera to properly frame the shot. If you don't do this your background will be in focus and your subject will be blurry! Read your camera manual, it will most likely cover this problem.

Homework: Go through your photos you've always liked regardless of whether you took them or not and analyze their composition, chances are good you'll find they adhere to the rule of thirds or diagonals. Now get out there and start putting your new found knowledge to use!

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