If every photographer’s ultimate goal is to generate reproducible images with impact, atmosphere, and style, then the main avenue to that goal has to be via composition.
Composition is king – without good composition, you’ll produce a mediocre image, no matter how superb the lighting, how sharp the subject, or how exotic the location.
Acquiring the necessary compositional skills can be quite a struggle – a mystery, in fact.
Some photographers seem to have a natural ability to get it right, sometimes without knowing how or why. But the rest of us mere mortals have to learn composition, practise it again and again, and eventually hopefully absorb it into the way we shoot.
Below are eight steps to help guide you towards that goal.
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2. Less is more
The simplest compositions are undoubtedly the most effective.
Those images with a single, strong subject that dominates the frame, free from competition with conflicting, confusing secondary elements almost always make the strongest, most satisfying images.
The more elements or components you allow into the frame, the more complex the image becomes and the more the viewer’s eye will skip restlessly from one element to another. The viewer will be unable to settle on any one part of the image, even when it’s clear what the main subject is meant to be.
Such an image can become so complex and confused that it’s no longer possible to identify that all-important main subject. Clutter is enemy number one when it comes to creating great compositions!
Of course, achieving a simple, clutter-free composition is easier said than done.
Arguably the most straightforward way of ensuring that your intended main subject dominates the final image is to ensure that it fills the frame and doesn’t allow anything else to creep into view. That, however, does not usually make a great overall composition.
It’s quite unusual for the subject to fill the frame, even when it truly dominates the final image. It’s usually surrounded by a certain amount of ‘negative space’ – everything in the image that isn’t the main subject – that often makes up over half of the final image.
The trick, then, is to stop that negative space from becoming as important to the viewer’s eye as the main subject. Make it fade away into the background and either become virtually unnoticeable or actually help lead the viewer's attention to the main subject and even keep it there.
This is a hugely important concept that’s often overlooked. You can say more about a subject by showing just a slice of it in the final image than you can by trying to fit the whole of it into the frame.
Shooting a wide view of an entire mountain or moorland scene, for example, though usually effective in setting the scene, can result in an image in which the landscape elements are tiny and lack impact.
Concentrate on one small part of the landscape instead. Doing so will help you capture the ruggedness, harshness, scale, and raw beauty of your surroundings much more successfully than a wide view of the entire scene ever could.
So, we're usually trying to seek out those little cameos/vignettes within a much larger scene that either naturally fall into a perfect composition or can somehow be moulded into one through an appropriate choice of viewpoint, perspective, and lens.
The inevitable conclusion of all this is that no matter how wonderful a general scene may appear to the human eye, most of it won't make a great photographic composition. It's the role of the photographer to pick out those little parts of the scene that will. It's the essential execution of the ‘less is more’ principle.
Being beautiful is one thing; being a great photographic composition is another.
One of the most widely known compositional 'rules' is the off-centre placement of the main subject.
Placing the subject off to one side of the frame (though not too close to the edge) often improves an image’s aesthetic appearance. This approach ties in with the much-touted ‘Rule of Unequal Thirds’, which states that the most effective images can be roughly divided into three unequally-sized intersecting parts, with the main subject sitting right where the thirds intersect.
Whilst this is simple enough to explain in theory, you’d be surprised by just how difficult it can be to spot in many real-world images! It should be used as a guiding principle, not a hard and fast rule.
Inevitably, there are times when having the subject right in the middle of the frame works well. In my experience, this is often when the subject is symmetrical along its vertical axis (i.e., its right and left halves are identical). This is particularly so when the negative space to left and right are also identical, usually due to being either empty (e.g., blue sky) or blurred.
The angle from which you photograph a subject will greatly affect how it appears in the final image. It’ll probably look stunning from one or more angles but completely unphotogenic from another.
So, unless it’s about to run or fly away, don’t be tempted to rush into photographing a subject the moment you see it. Take the time to walk around it as much as possible, changing both your angle and (if possible) your height.
The assessment here is not just about the subject’s overall shape but also about that critical negative space. Look carefully to see what’s behind and in front of the subject, assessing how anything in those areas will either distract from or enhance the main subject.
Unsightly structures such as wires, rubbish, and ugly building developments need to be spotted before the shutter is pressed, and you need to find a way for them to be screened out.
For this reason, don’t think this process doesn’t apply to distant views of mountain ranges. While walking back and forth is not going to affect the mountain view itself, it can radically alter any foreground and have a dramatic impact on the final image.
The final perspective you come up with may, if you’re lucky, be absolutely the best angle for photographing the subject you have in mind. Its shape, combined with any interesting features and the frame’s negative space, may all come together to create a great composition.
Frequently, however, there will be a compromise, such as some distracting element in the foreground or background. These distracting elements may force you to opt for a slightly less than perfect angle on the subject.
One of the simplest ways to ensure that your main subject is not competing against any clutter is to have it surrounded by or set against a completely featureless negative space. For example, calm water, a clear sky, or an expanse of sand or grass.
Taking things a step further, if there are some competing elements in the background, you could lessen their impact (or even make them quite invisible) by having the background completely blurred.
If you have a static subject such as a landscape or a portrait, you can achieve this by using selective focus and a shallow depth of field. Using a lens with the aperture wide open, the camera focuses on the subject. But because of the wide aperture, the background – and usually any foreground too – will be out of focus and, therefore, blurred.
This works most effectively with telephoto lenses. Wide-angle lenses tend to naturally generate images with a depth of field that renders most of the image at least reasonably sharp.
That doesn't mean that wide-angle lenses are harder to use than telephotos in creating great compositions – they just work in very different ways.
Telephoto lenses are great for minimising the amount of negative space visible and ensuring that much of it can be rendered out of focus. However, they generally lack drama and energy, two vital components of many great images. That's the role of the wide-angle lenses, as described below.
An additional means to render the background blurred comes when you’re attempting to photograph a fast-moving subject, such as wildlife, traffic, or a sporting event.
Panning the camera to keep up with the subject as it moves past helps the camera focus on that moving subject while creating movement blur in the negative space. The subject appears to be static, but the background is blurred out with movement.
Again, telephoto lenses are usually used for this objective, but it can be achieved with wide-angle lenses, too, especially if you're photographing a large moving subject that you're quite close to.
It’s impossible to isolate your subject against a completely plain or blurred-out background in most real-world situations. This is because varying numbers of secondary elements creep into the frame, resulting in varying degrees of clutter and distraction.
Of course, when that clutter becomes too much, you have to accept that this particular subject can’t be turned into a great photographic composition. But there are also many occasions when a certain number of secondary elements can be turned to your advantage. These elements can help lead the eye into the scene and guide it straight to the main subject, where it comes to rest.
In such a scenario, the negative space's secondary elements are no longer competing for dominance but instead are supporting your chosen subject, reinforcing that subject, and directing attention towards it.
Thus, roads, rivers, rocks, landscape contours, and even clouds can be used to literally point the way to the main subject. This doesn’t happen by accident, and sorting out these kinds of arrangements when composing an image is a critical part of perspective and lens choice.
What I've just written might lead you to think that using these secondary elements is just making the best of a bad situation (i.e., a scene containing clutter). But there are many occasions when you’ll actively seek out such structures to enliven at least part of the frame, if not the whole image.
Too many photographers include far too much flat, lifeless foreground and dead space that might be best left out if possible. If there’s no alternative but to include it, then choose a perspective that incorporates some interesting foreground element that supports and leads the viewer’s eye to the main subject, such as a well-angled rock or stream.
Those guiding lines tend to be diagonal, something that has a critical impact on an image’s mood. Diagonals add a sense of energy and dynamic movement to an image, changing what could otherwise be a very static and even dull view into something full of life and vitality.
Used carefully – and with a limited number either all running pretty much in one direction across the image or converging from different parts of the frame directly towards the main subject – diagonals can result in a powerful, lively image, with all the attention focused on the main subject.
However, fill the frame with a host of diagonals criss-crossing the frame in conflicting directions, and the image will be ruined, rendering it complex, confused, and short of impact.
Again, getting those diagonals right is a combination of perspective and lens choice, especially wide-angle lenses.
At first glance, many a view may appear to be rather short on diagonal lines. But if you look at it through a wide-angle lens, you’ll find it’s suddenly full of superbly energetic angles, triangles, and lines. You’ll then need to fine-tune your perspective to get them running in the right direction.
Not surprisingly, this is likely to work less well with telephoto lenses, as they tend to reduce diagonals. The aforementioned elements that can be used to guide the eye towards the main subject will still be there and still valuable in their guiding role. However, the diagonals will be less dramatic or powerful, less able to generate a dynamic mood in the image.
Instead, the mood in an image shot using a telephoto lens is likely to revolve more around vertical and horizontal lines.
More subtle than diagonal lines, verticals – provided they’re well-spaced – tend to increase the sense of solidity and strength. They’re great for those images that home in on slices of mountains or cliffs.
As for horizontal lines, they tend to emphasise peace and calmness, so they’re useful in still, restful water images.
Lighting and colour are also crucial in controlling the complexity of a composition, the dominance of the subject within it, and the mood of the whole image.
Inevitably, strong side-lighting onto a scene filled with a wide variety of bright colours is likely to result in a very complex image filled with clashing saturated colours, bright highlights, and deep shadows.
If kept under control, it can result in a strong, vibrant image. But too often, it generates a whole new set of secondary elements that compete both with each other and the main subject.
In the most effective images, the strength of the lighting is often toned down a little. So, too, is the range of colours, and this goes a long way to explaining the beauty of images shot at dawn and dusk.
Many are virtually monochromatic, dominated by a very limited range of colours and hues, perhaps blue in the shadow areas at dawn or dusk or pink in those areas receiving direct light at the same time of day. This is another example of ‘less-is-more’, cutting back on complexity, and providing a simplified view of the world to capture its innate beauty.
Putting it all together
The overall message, then, is to keep it simple in terms of composition, colour, and light.
Don’t try to cram the whole world into the frame because less is often more. Choose a single main subject to dominate the image, and make sure that anything in the negative space either fades away into insignificance or supports that main subject, directing attention towards it.
Complexity in an image is usually just a muddle and often suggests that the photographer could not decide what the main subject should be!
This blog was written by Nigel Hicks, a hugely experienced Devon-based professional photographer. Nigel works with the USA's prestigious National Geographic Image Collection, among many other bodies, and is a Fellow of the British Institute of Professional Photography.
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