PART 1 • Composition Rules For Better Photographs
I’ve spent much of my life behind a camera. Maybe it started in 1961 when my Father couldn’t seem to get good pictures out of his first 35mm camera and in frustration he gave it to me. It didn’t take long before I was developing my own film and making prints in an improvised darkroom. Years later in the service I spent some time with a couple of photojournalists and decided that would be a great career. I came back and went to college to study photography and over the years I picked up several degrees in the field. While I was still interested in traveling the world as a photographer with news agencies or National Geographic, I realized it wasn’t that compatible with settling down to a normal living. Choices and compromises at every fork in the road of life. No real regrets though.
If you haven’t been introduced to the greats of photography get to know a few. My favorites include Ansel Adams, Minor White, Alfred Steiglitz and they are real artists. Take some time to explore on your own this amazing art form.
My skill set was best described as being a photographic engineer and in the following years I worked at medical universities helping researchers with photographic problems and took a job where I worked on projects with NASA and other government agencies mostly involving satellite imaging. Much of that work came to an end with the advent of computers and digital images, but I still loved travel and photography and do both still.
Along the way I taught some college classes in photography and my favorite became evening classes where most of the students where mothers taking the class to learn how to take better pictures of their children. Because the course required me to teach a curriculum that had technical requirements I did have serious problems trying to get the mothers to audit my classes so I didn’t have to fail them. But I also learned that I had to include a number of sessions on composition and lighting that wouldn’t usually be included to better meet their needs.
My education also included a lot of time studying the masters of the craft and I had the privilege to meet and talk to a number of them and it has influenced my approach to taking photographs ever since. Here I like to offer some ideas on what to look for to help make your photography more compelling.
Don’t Just Stand There – Very few great photographs were actually taken from five feet above the ground. That’s the height of a camera held in front of your face while standing. It may be the most comfortable position for taking pictures but it is also the most often used, the most ordinary. I had a Nat Geo photographer once tell me that if he isn’t in the dirt or hasn’t climbed something to get the shot he just isn’t doing the job he was hired to do. Simply put, changing your perspective changes the picture for the better. Consider the Adam’s image Mount Williamson from Manzanar above.
The Time Of Day Matters – It’s hard to take a Sunrise if you don’t get out of bed and Sunrises usually provides the day’s best lighting. Get out there when the world is just waking up and you’ll often see some remarkable sights. The same holds true after sunset. Late evening and nighttime scenes have their own special magic. Photography is a function of light and contrasts and it’s all about the light.
Look For The Geometry In A Scene -Composition can speak directly to the subconscious causing the eye and mind to be drawn into the flow and depths of the image. Have you ever seen two images of pretty much the same scene where one is just flat while the other draws your attention? It is elements of composition that make the difference. Consider a few simple tricks.
The S Curve – Famous landscapes are often examples of the S Curve but it can be incorporated in a number of images. A photograph that has a flow to it usually has graphic elements that wind back and fourth through the frame in an S shape. Start looking at images and you will find the S shape often. It tends to cause the eye to start at the back of the scene and travel through the scene following that S curve. Ansel Adams photograph of the Tetons and Snake River is a perfect S Curve.
Frame The Scene – A sense of depth in a photograph actually draws us into the image and makes it more meaningful. Again the appeal is often subconscious but that too adds to the impact of a photograph. The easiest way to add depth and appeal to a scene is to include near objects in a distant shot like tree limbs or near rock formations. Conrad Hall was the cinematographer on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Paul Newman and the cast thought that there was so much filming from behind bushes that at one point they tied bushes around their waists to cover part of their faces as a joke.
Use The Rule Of Thirds – Either in taking a picture or later cropping it consider the Rule of Thirds. Divide a scene into thirds horizontally and vertically and that produces four line intersections. Place the most important element in your scene at the points where they intersect. These are called power points and the most significant one is the lower right. Most right handed people are drawn to that location first in a scene. The more muted the rest of the composition the more powerful the image.
First and foremost, the take-away for improving your photography is don’t just shoot the scene in front of you but take a moment to appreciate it and the elements that make it interesting along with its surroundings. You are about to create a two dimensional graphic representation of your experience – make it as interesting as you possibly can.
More to come…