Composition Rules For Taking Better Photographs
I’ve spent most of my life in photography and no I’m not in the same league with most of photography’s legends. In the course of my career I’ve learned a few things about composition. What turns an okay picture into something really good? When to follow the rules and when to break them, but most of all how important it is to be aware of just what you’re seeing when taking a photograph. Most people develop a sort of tunnel vision when taking photographs. We tend to focus our attention only on that element that caught our attention and everything else seems to fade away. It takes training and conditioning to begin to see the entire environment.
Over the years I’ve studied many of the masters of the craft and I had the privilege to meet and talk to a number of them. That has influenced my approach to taking photographs ever since. Here I’d 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 point of view and your perspective changes the picture for the better. Consider the Adam’s image Mount Williamson from Manzanar above.
The Golden Hours -It’s the time of day that includes that hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset and they’re called the Golden Hours for a reason because the time of day matters. It’s hard to take a Sunrise if you don’t get out of bed and Sunrises usually provide the day’s best lighting. Those golden hours. Get out there when the world is just waking up and you’ll often see some remarkable sights. The same holds true around sunset. Late evening and nighttime scenes have their own special magic. Photography is actually capturing the light that also includes elements of form and contrast but it’s really 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. Still the movie garnered a lot of praise for its visually stunning images all to the credit of Conrad’s vision.
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.
Symmetry and Rhythm We are drawn to regular shapes and if we see symmetry in a scene it seems to draw our attention. Eye-catching symmetry in a composition, particularly in situations where they are unusual, seem to stand out. Learn to look for them and when found consider the impact it has on you. Sometimes disrupting or breaking found symmetry can change the focal point in the scene and make the image even more intriguing.
Finally, as you approach the subject to take its photo, get in the habit of letting the scene speak to you and ask yourself some quick questions:
- What is it about this scene that caught my attention? How can I improve the scene?
- What elements are available to bring into the composition? Are there foreground elements that could frame the scene or something that might dramatize the central element?
- Is there something in the composition that would draw a viewer through the composition?
- Is there a better camera position that would enhance the image? Would a lower or higher position be a better perspective?
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