All my friends who love photography very well know that in photography, it’s not just what we shoot that is important – but it’s the way we shoot it is also very crucial.
Badly conceived photo composition can make a fantastic subject dull, but a well-set scene can create a wonderful image from the most ordinary of situations. With that in mind, I’ve picked our top 10 photo composition ‘rules’ to showcase how to transform images, as well as am sharing some of my best photography tips from many of my worthy friends who do it on a daily basis.
The very fact is that it’s not actually possible to remember every one of these laws and apply them to each photo we take. Instead, if we spend a little time practicing each one thoroughly so that they become our second nature, then we’ll soon learn to spot situations where the different rules can be applied to best effect.
Photo composition doesn’t have to be complicated. There are all sorts of theories about the likes of ‘Rule of Thirds’ and more complex ‘Golden Mean’. But if we pay too much attention to strict formulae, our photos will lose any kind of spontaneity. I believe in one simple theory – “Simple is beautiful”, but having said that there are some basics that we must understand about our compositions. Let’s go through these one by one.
In the day to day world, we actually work with a wide range of subjects and scenes, and this requires a more open-minded approach. What works for one photo won’t necessarily work for another and there cannot be set rules for each situation and each picture.
The key is to understand how the decisions we make about composition can affect the way a shot looks and how people will perceive our photos. The way we frame a shot, choose a focal length or position a person in our frame can make all the difference.
Technical knowledge is very important in photography, of course, and even in some aspects of photo composition. But to take great shots we need visual knowledge too. Here are 10 key things to look out for…
Photo Composition Tip 1: My thumb rule - Simplify the scene
When we look at a scene with our naked eye, our brain quickly picks out subjects of interest and our eyes focus and compose accordingly focusing on certain things whereas ignoring some other completely. But the camera doesn’t discriminate – it captures everything in front of it, which can lead to a cluttered, messy picture with no clear focal point.
What we need to do is choose our subject, then select a focal length or camera viewpoint that makes it the centre of attention in the frame. We can’t always keep other objects out of the picture, so we must try to keep them in the background or make them interesting and a part of the story.
Silhouettes, textures and patterns are all devices that work quite well in simple compositions.
Photo Composition Tip 2: Fill the frame
When we’re shooting a large-scale scene it can be hard to know how big our subject should be in the frame, and how much we should zoom in by. In fact, leaving too much empty space in a scene is the most widespread compositional mistake. It makes our subject smaller than it needs to be and can also sometimes leave viewers confused about what they’re supposed to be looking at.
To avoid these problems we should get closer to the subject in question or zoom in to fill the frame. The second approach flattens the perspective of the shot and makes it easier to control or exclude what’s shown in the background, but physically moving closer can give you a more interesting take on things.
One rule I learnt from a good friend and a great photographer was that subject shall fill the 60-70% of the frame, if we wish to post the picture digitally, but for large prints, subject shall occupy only about 30 percent of the frame. I have tried it and found to be immensely useful.
Photo Composition Tip 3: Aspect ratio
It’s easy to get stuck in a cycle and take all the picture with the camera held horizontally. If we try turning it to get a vertical shot instead, adjusting our position or the zoom setting as we experiment with the new style. We can often improve on both horizontal and vertical shots by cropping the photo later.
After all, it would be too much of a coincidence if all our real-life subjects happened to fit the proportions of our camera sensor. Try cropping to a 16:9 ratio for a widescreen effect, or to the square ratio as used by medium format cameras.
Photo Composition Tip 4: Avoid the middle
When we’re just starting out, it’s tempting to put whatever we’re shooting right in the centre of the frame. If we are very technical, we also know that center focus point of our DSLR can focus on a much smaller aperture than all the other focus points surrounding it. So we tend to focus the main subject with center focus point. However, this produces rather static, boring, run of the mill kind of pictures. One of the ways to counteract this is to use the Rule of Thirds, where we split the image up into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, and try to place our subject on one of these imaginary lines or intersections. This is an overrated approach, though. Each and every photographer on the face of the earth has done it!
Instead, we shall try to move our subject away from the centre and get a feel for how it can be balanced with everything else in the scene, including any areas of contrasting colors or light. There should never be hard and fast rules about achieving this kind of visual balance, but we’ll quickly learn to rely on our instincts – trust that we’ll know when something just looks right.
Photo Composition Tip 5: Leading lines
A poorly composed photograph will leave our viewers unsure about where to look, and their attention might drift aimlessly around the scene without finding a clear focal point. However, we can use various lines to control the way people’s eyes move around the picture.
Converging lines give a strong sense of perspective and three-dimensional depth, drawing us into an image. Curved lines can lead us on a journey around the frame, leading the viewer towards the main subject.
Lines exist everywhere, in the form of walls, fences, roads, buildings and telephone wires. They can also be implied, perhaps by the direction in which an off-centre subject is looking.
Photo Composition Tip 6: Use diagonals
Usually the horizontal lines lend a static, calm feel to a picture, while vertical ones often suggest permanence and stability. To introduce a feeling of drama, movement or uncertainty, look for diagonal lines instead.
We can need nothing more than a shift in position or focal length to get them – wider angles of view tend to introduce diagonal lines because of the increased perspective; with wide-angle lenses you’re more likely to tilt the camera up or down to get more of a scene in.
We can also introduce diagonal lines artificially, using the ‘Dutch Tilt’ technique. We may simply tilt the camera as we take the shot. This can be very effective, though it obviously doesn’t suit every shot and is best used sparingly.
Photo Composition Tip 7: Space to move
Even though photographs themselves are static, but they can still convey a strong sense of movement. When we look at pictures, we see what’s happening and tend to look ahead – this creates a feeling of imbalance or unease if our subject has nowhere to move except out of the frame.
We don’t just get this effect with moving subjects. For example, when we look at a portrait we tend to follow someone’s gaze, and they need an area to look into. Please make sure that for both types of shots, there should always be a little more space ahead of the subject than behind it. We call it positive space.
Photo Composition Tip 8: Backgrounds
Let’s not just concentrate on our subject – we shall look at what’s happening in the background, too. This helps in with simplifying the scene and filling the frame. We can’t usually exclude the background completely, of course, but we can very well control it.
We’ll often find that changing our position is enough to replace a cluttered background with one that complements our subject nicely. Or we can use a wide lens aperture and a longer focal length to throw the background out of focus.
It all depends on whether the background is part of the story you’re trying to tell with the photo. In the shot above, the background is something that needs to be suppressed.
Photo Composition Tip 9: Be creative with colours
Bright primary colours really attract the eye, especially when they’re contrasted with a complementary hue. But there are other ways of creating colour contrasts – by including a bright splash of colour against a monochromatic background, for example. We don’t need strong colour contrasts to create striking pictures, though.
Scenes consisting almost entirely of a single hue can be very effective. And those with a limited palette of harmonious shades, such as softly lit landscapes, often make great pictures.
The key is to be really selective about how we isolate and frame our subjects to exclude unwanted colours.
Photo Composition Tip 10: Breaking the rules
Photo composition is a little like a visual language – we can use it to make our pictures pass on a specific message. However, just as we sometimes use the written word to create a deliberately jarring effect, we can do the same with photos by breaking with standard composition conventions.
Doing it by accident doesn’t count, though! It’s when we understand the rules of composition and then break them on purpose that things start to get interesting. It’s often best to break one rule at time.
Just remember: for every rule we suggest, somewhere out there is more than few great pictures that proves we can disregard it and still produce a fantastic image!