I am all about composition. It is something every photographer can think about regardless of what equipment you have. Composition helps to tell a story about your subject, drawing the viewer emotionally and visually into the experience of the scene. A well composed photograph can create something beautiful from the most mundane of situations, inviting the viewer to see the world through your eyes. The term composition means to put together or arrange with conscious thought and this is what makes a good photograph great.
Here are my 9 super important tools to compose a fantastic photograph.
1. Keep it simple
The camera is an incredible machine. It picks up EVERYTHING within its view finder. Our brains, however, are much better at prioritising and selecting what we view as important in order to focus on that key subject. When you pick up your camera and want to take a photograph of a particular subject, try to think like a brain would – what is important and what needs to be captured? How are you going to ensure the viewer sees what you wish him/her to see? Simply put, fill the frame with what you want to capture, loose the rest. You don’t want a cluttered, messy photograph without a clear story or focus. The simpler your shot, the bigger the impact will be.
2. Think about it
There you stand, camera at the ready, the scene before you. Before you go off on a shooting rampage –
Stop. Think. Frame. Then shoot.
Particularly when shooting a less fluid scene – say a landscape or portrait – you often have the time to really consider how best to frame your subject. So, take your time; get rid of dead space which is unnecessary information in your image, fill your frame with what counts and give your subject the prominence it deserves. We can take dozens of pretty average photographs without much thought or planning or you can take one, maybe two money shots. By doing so, you are able to prolong the lifespan of your camera a little and save yourself time and hassle by limiting the number of shots you have to sift through in the post production process.
As street or documentary photographers, the ability to plan so fastidiously is slightly less so. Often we are unable to control elements within a scene (such as people moving in and out of the frame) and instead have to be reactive to movement and features. Keep a watchful eye on opportunities as they present themselves and react to them in an appropriate and useful way. Even though you have less control over the scene, you should still have a fairly clear cut idea of what you are trying to achieve compositionally. Think first, frame and then shoot.
3. Fantastic framing = fabulous photos
I could write a whole blog on framing. Seriously, I could go on all day, there is that much to it. As briefly and succinctly as possible, I want to highlight the important tricks that I use to frame my photographs. Although there are no hard and fast rules to how you should frame your image, there are a few basic guidelines to stick to:
Firstly, there are times when you shouldn’t be so literal. Let the image tell a story, albeit an abstract story. Look for interesting shapes, colours and textures. An abstract take on what is in your foreground can provide fantastic framing for your subject. Rather than simply taking a picture of a tree or person in full frame, smack bang in the centre – which has it’s place when appropriate like the photograph in point 1 – look at it in an abstract manner; look for interesting designs on the bark or subtleties of the lines and folds of a persons hands – the less literal definition can often tell a much more interesting story.
Look for natural frames within the scene to draw the viewers eye towards the subject – trees, buildings, archways, shadows juxtaposed with light, anything that is in the scene that can be used to create a frame. Curved shapes can be used as a frame that leads the eye around the photograph to different points in the image. A handy trick is to shoot through your natural frame to create a feeling of depth and some seriously cool framing – think of a glimpse of an animals’ face framed by leaves in front and around it for example or of a long dark alley way framed by its shallows and lines leading you to the tunnel of light at the end of the tunnel.
Trust your gut. We all have a genius inside of us – a bit of us that is utterly unique and individual (and maybe a little crazy). I have seen, heard and umpteen times watched photographers go on about the Rule of Thirds – which quite frankly can be a good place to start but can stop you from taking some truly wonderfully framed images. The Rule of Thirds is just that – framing a photograph with thirds in mind. I have always been a reluctant rule follower – it can quell your individuality. Besides, there are times when the Rule of Thirds isn’t enough. The trick here is to trust yourself enough to let your inner da Vinci shine through. Rely on your instincts. If it looks and feels right, then go with it!
4. Leading lines
Leading lines do just that – lead. When well composed, lines in a photograph draw the eye in to a clear focal point or are able to direct the way the viewers eyes’ move around the image. Curved lines can lead you on a journey around the frame, leading you towards the main subject, whereas converging lines give a strong sense of perspective and three-dimensional depth, drawing you into an image. Nature is spectacularly intelligent with curved and converging lines everywhere you look – man too is pretty good a putting up lines in the from of walls, fences, roads and buildings for example. Look for and use these lines to add drama and brilliance to your photography. Look too for patterns! Patterns make for really interesting visual imagery and cut through the visual chaos of a busy scene.
5. Engineer an emotional response
Think about what you want your viewer to feel – calmness and stability, vibrance and excitement, or a sentiment that is more somber and disquieting? As a photographer, you have the ability to engineer an emotional response to a visual experience. Images are powerful. There are many different ways to capture and encourage a particular sentiment. Look for lines and shapes to lead your viewers eye around the image. Capture a sense of peacefulness, stability and stillness or create a sense of tension and anticipation through the use of lines.
6. Visual flow
If you as a photographer can communicate a sense of movement through a photograph then you have earned your self a compositional high-five. How do you do this? The answer: you want the viewer to feel as if they are immersed within the scene by allowing space for your viewer to either follow the gaze or direction of your subject. You can see in the photograph below that by leaving space in the frame for the boy to cycle into, I have been able to give a clear indication that he is moving around the corner. With portrait photography, a nifty trick is to give space or ‘lead room’ in your photograph (even if it is just a little) to enable the viewer to follow the subjects gaze.
The proportions present in an image create a sense of equilibrium and harmony and we as humans appreciate the visual appeal of symmetry. When you are about to take your photograph, look carefully at what is happening in the background to your subject; is it symmetrical or can you adjust where you are and the angle you are coming from to use symmetry to work in your favour. You can also adjust the overall symmetry of your image in post production by correcting the axis and levelness of your image and its inherent lines. I like to provide a visual anchor to break up symmetry, thereby finding both harmony and energy present in a photograph. By this I mean an object that draws the eye away from the overall image – a point of asymmetrical focus amongst a symmetrical theme.
8. Creative with colours
While you are shooting your photograph, look for colour contrasts that you can pump up in the post production process. Get creative here. This is one of the areas where you can really develop your personal style and put your stamp of individuality on your photographs. There are photographers who shoot almost entirely in black and white (and all the hundreds of shades of either colour in-between) and photographers who are renowned for their love of bright primary colours. A bright splash of colour against a monochromatic background can create a really striking image as can scenes that consist of a single hue of colour. Get creative and try out different techniques until you find a style that feels like a fit for you.
9. Break the rules!
The ninth tool in your belt is that simple; break the rules. Those photographers that really push the envelope and produce ground breaking images and styles trust in their creative instincts and know when to disregard the do’s and don’ts of composition.