Photographic Composition 101
Rule #1: "Don't follow everyone else's rules about photography". It's good to know and understand the basic principles of composition and how you can apply them. But it is important not to think that these rules must always be followed. It's much more important (and enjoyable) to experiment and be creative. So, keeping this in mind, here are some points to consider for improving your photographic compositions and making your photo stand out from the crowd.
Unique Perspective: To make your photo stand out from all the others, try taking the photo from an unusual or unique perspective. Rather than just taking an ordinary snapshot, why not try a totally different camera angle or position? Experiment with different focal lengths – close in and wide, or maybe just a slice of a scene by zooming in with a telephoto. What's the worst that could happen (other than falling into icy water)?
Rule of Thirds: On an old 4×6 print draw two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines as if drawing a tic-tac-toe game. The points where the lines cross show where your center of interest is best placed. Imagine these tic-tac-toe lines in your viewfinder (or LCD screen) when composing a picture. Placing the subject in one of the locations where the lines cross will generally give a pleasing composition. A subject placed in the center of your scene is usually least pleasing.
For more examples of Rule of Thirds visit Don's Community Album:
Subject Movement: If your subject implies movement, such as a person walking or a bird flying, place the subject near the 1/3 point facing (moving) into the center of the composition. A subject that appears to be moving into a scene is usually more appealing than one that is about to leave the composition.
Horizon Placement: Ask yourself what is the most important part of this scene. If there is an amazing sky full of interest, place the horizon low in the image to emphasize the sky. If the sky is uninteresting or has little to do with your subject, place the horizon high to emphasize the foreground. A horizon at the 1/3 point is usually pleasing, but very low or very high horizons in the frame can be quite dramatic. A horizon in the center is usually the least pleasing. Consider taking photos that have no horizon by eliminating any sky in the photo. This is especially useful if the sky is a dreary white with overcast conditions.
Level Horizons: Use a bubble level mounted in the camera hot shoe to assure the horizon is level in the composition. Dynamic compositions can be achieved by purposely tipping the horizon, however slightly tipped horizons are normally very distracting. Tipped horizons can easily be straightened after the fact by using Adobe Photoshop, but it's always better to get it right when you take the photo.
Use of Lines: Most compositions will include obvious, or sometimes subtle, lines that will be interpreted in certain ways by a viewer. Learn to analyze your composition in terms of its abstract qualities, paying attention to the interplay of lines, forms and shapes. One trick is to de-focus your composition using manual focus. Once all the detail is blurred out it is easier to view the scene in terms of lines and shapes. Lines that lead the viewer's eye to the center of interest are referred to as "leading lines" and are an important element of composition. A good example would be a trail or path that invites the viewer to step into your photo.
Curved lines are soothing to the eye – especially "S" curves.
Avoid Hot Spots: Our eyes are always drawn to the brightest part of a photo (or the most vivid color). Avoid including anything in the background that is brighter than your main subject. Any "hot spots" in the background will be a distraction. Try shifting your camera position or angle to eliminate distracting bright areas.
Selective Focus: Try including out-of-focus elements in your composition either in front of and/or behind your main subject. Totally blurred rather than slightly out-of-focus areas are better for drawing attention to a sharply focused subject. Intentionally blurring a background greatly simplifies the image by eliminating unwanted clutter. A telephoto lens will work best for selective focus.
Vertical or Horizontal: Horizontally framed images are associated with serenity and peacefulness. Vertical images are usually associated with forcefulness or power. Experiment with both formats when deciding on a composition.
Foregrounds: Landscape images can often be improved with the addition of an interesting foreground object. Try using a wide angle lens positioned low and close for a big bold foreground and a small distant background. The foreground then becomes the main subject.
Framing: Try creating a "frame" for your main subject by shooting through an opening of some sort. Tree limbs arching over your subject can make an effective frame. Also consider man-made objects as frames, such as gateways, doorways or windows.
Use of Negative Space: It is normally desirable to avoid large blank areas in your composition. However, a featureless area (negative space) is useful for published photos that include text over the image. Think of your photo on the cover of a magazine with the magazine name printed across the sky.
Creativity is the Key: Understanding and following compositional "rules" will help you make successful images, but really great photos are a product of creativity and a willingness to go the extra mile. Look at your subject from new and different perspectives. Never say done – there is always one more way to compose the image. Don't let the "rules" of composition keep you from being creative or experimenting with unconventional methods. Express yourself. That's were you will find the joy of photography. With imagination you can transform ordinary objects into extraordinary images.
On June 19-20th, Don Paulson will be conducting a photo workshop on Macro and Garden Photography in Seabeck, Washington. For more information about this and upcoming workshops, please visit his website.