When you compose a photo you are determining what someone is going to get out of your image when they look at it later. It doesn’t matter if it is printed, on the web or just sent to their digital device such as their i-phone. Composition is what causes you to look at someones image and like it but you really don’t know why. This means they ‘Composed’ a good photo. Chances are that the photographer followed a few very basic guidelines of composition that will help you get an acceptable image from your DSLR. A few of these I have written extensive guides about and will share the links here. For the purpose of this article we will just lightly touch on those. With a little fore thought and being armed ahead of time you can utilize these common sense tips and start taking memorable, well composed photos yourself.
Rules of thirds
The more articles I write the more often I seem to be bringing up ‘The Rule of Thirds’. My only explanation of this is that it just that important of a rule to follow. there are very few tips that can have an impact on your imagery than this one. Check out an extensive tutorial on using the Rule of Thirds here. The Rule Of Thirds Tutorial.
But for those of you who don’t want to read the whole thing, here is a brief synopsis of the rule of thirds. If you look at the image to the left you will notice what appears to be a Tic-Tac-Toe board. This is in fact a division grid to assist you in locating your subjects when you take a picture. The yellow dots are an indicator giving you the best location for say the face of your subject. Your images will improve dramatically and tell a much better story if you locate your subjects this way.
Using leading or guiding lines is a trick photographers have used for years to direct the viewers eyes to exactly what the photographer wanted you to see. When your taking a picture and you want someone to see a particular items in an image, or view the image as a whole in a certain way, this is where leading lines come in. In their simplest forms they can be a straight line of some type that guides you from front to back or left to right in an image. Regular elements such as fences, buildings or even the horizon line can be used to direct your viewer.
The image to the left uses the lines of the sand in contrast to the sky to guide your view up to the man at the top of the pile. This is about as simple as it gets in showing leading lines. The trick is to use them and not let your viewer know you did.
Locating the height of the horizon in an image when sky is involved has long been a very debatable subject. One school of thought is that the horizon should be located only in the top third of the image and the rest should be landscape. The other school professes that the horizon should be in the bottom third and never above it. the fact of the matter is that it only matters to you the photographer and to what your trying to display in your photograph. My only real suggestion here is to keep the horizon level. Don’t tilt your camera for affect or to try and straighten up a hill in the shot. Take the picture as your eye would see it, not like a drunk walking home from the bar.
The only variation on this I will give though is when your adding people to the composition and the sky is involved. It is not pleasing to have the horizon cut through either the subjects head or shoulders. So try to keep it above or below this. In the case of animals it seems best to have them either completely in the sky or in the landscape.
Face the Frame
If you look at the image of the Grackle above and to the right, you will notice I followed the rule of thirds by placing my subject along the left 1/3 of the image, I have a leading line that guides you up to the bird. but I also included one other element in this image. I made sure my subject was facing the larger portion of the image. If I had located this same bird on the right 1/3 of the grid for the Rule of Thirds, I would not get the same impression I do of the bird with a worm in its mouth looking for danger before flying to its nest across a field. I would be asking myself what the bird was looking at and it would lose the presence I was trying to portray here.
The same applies if your photographing an action shot. Leave the larger portion of the image where the action I going to. You will create a much more pleasing shot.
When your taking an image of a subject and you want to completely have that subject be the primary focus, even with all the rules above applied, the next step is to “unfocus” or “Blur” the background. So much can be accomplished by blurring the back ground in your image. In the image of the wasp and flower on the left side, I used a larger aperture, stepped back and zoomed in more to help blur the background out of the image. The real key to this is using a large aperture (read small f-stop #). Faster lenses are better at this than slower one.
But one way to overcome this and achieve amazing results is to use a large telephoto, such as a 70-300 or an 80-210. Open it all way to the top end of it range, ie 300mm. Adjust your f-stop all the way down to its minimum. Which is probably around f-5.6 at that range. Then step back until your able to frame the same image you would have before using a tiny lens up close. Your background is literally going to melt away for you. I would suggest manually focusing and using manual focus check with your zoom on your live view, even using a tripod would be good here. This works equally as well with outdoor portraits. Ever noticed how the real pros always have a pretty long lens on their cameras when outside, and some even in the studio. This is why.
Don’t cut your subject
The subject of your photo, whether it is a person and animal or something else should be treated as an icon in the image. You should take extra care to ensure that nothing is protruding from your subject. Earlier we mentioned leading lines and their use. One use they should not have it to be flowing out of or intersecting with the face of a person, or animal. i see images all the time of people with telephone poles or the corner of a building coming out the tops of their heads, or the horizon cutting right through the middle of their head. These lines will also lead you, but AWAY from your intended subject. try your best to keep the main focus of your subject clear of any obstructions or protrusions. You will take abetter image because of it.
Final Composition Rules
The most important rules there is to a great photo composition is the one that says “There are no rules that cannot be broken”. Everything anyone teaches you about photography is going to be a very basic starting point to get you going and to allow you to take main stream acceptable images. But if you ever want to do anything other than just that, you must break a few rules. Breaking the rules is how many well renowned photographers have gotten their fame. But one thing almost all of them had in common when they started was that they learned the basic rules and forms of photography, then expanded upon them. So learning the basics up front is important and should not be hurried or simply bypassed. It serves a very important purpose and gives you the experience you need to run your equipment properly.
Good luck and keep shoot Str8!