In this episode I want to talk about Composition and how it relates to your photography. In the simplest of terms, composition is how elements of a photo are arranged. It can be made of many different parts or only a few select items. The key is how you the artist put these elements together within the framing of their camera and it is what makes an image become more or less interesting to the viewer.
But why is Composition important in photography? Well how often have you seen a photograph that looked like it was taken in an exotic location with an interesting subject, but it didn’t do anything for you? The reason it didn’t “move” you is quite probably because the composition was off. Composition is the most important part of an image and something that takes time to master. Most anyone can become technically proficient with their camera, but until you do master composition, your photography will be lacking and not create the desired emotion in the viewer.
Everyone these days has a camera, whether it’s a real camera or their smartphone, everything is being photographed or filmed most all of the time in this day and age. The problem is since so many people are snapping the same things all the time, most of these images are just crappy snapshots, so they won’t invoke any meaning to the viewer, they become mundane and lacking and it’s because even though most everyone has a camera these days, very few of them know anything about composition. If you learn to master composition in your photography and work hard to hone that skill, it is what will make you stand out as a photographer and help your business grow and be successful.
Composition Concepts and Principals
I am sure that a large share of the digital photographers out there don’t know the Concepts and Principals of Composition and as a result they will never make images that stand out of draw the viewer in. These elements are something to look for and will help you make interesting images that draw people in and tell a great story. When all of the concepts and principals of composition are leveraged together, they will make for aesthetically pleasing images that your audience will love.
If you want to draw attention to a specific part of an image, one of the best ways to do that is with lines. There is nothing like a nice strong line pointing right at or in the direction of the subject to catch the viewer’s eye. The most common type of lines in a photograph are Leading Lines. Leading Lines can be one or more lines in a frame that draw the eye to the subject and keep it there so that the viewer takes in what is most important in the image, your intended subject, whether it’s a person, a place or thing.
When it comes to lines, I try to bring them in from the corners because the corners are neutral and the “leading lines” don’t cut away part of the frame the same way a hard line from the edge of the frame will. A river or stream is a great way to bring “leading lines” as well as movement and even possibly color into your image and “Converging lines” can be the edges from multiple buildings or trees or other objects that help “lead” the eye where you want it to go. When they converge in the middle of the frame from all sides that can make for a really strong and compelling image.
Shape and Form
Shape and form are similar elements of design – the main difference being that things with form are three dimensional, having height, width and depth.
Photography is a 3D representation of a scene, so where a painting might have more shapes in it, a photograph typically has more forms. The more interesting the form, the more interesting the image. Forms can be geometric like a building or organic, like a person or an animal.
Value refers to how light or dark something is in a photograph. It refers to the shades of white, black, and grey.
The beauty of photography is that you can use black and white shades to create powerful images. Oftentimes, photographers who are looking for vibrant colors or other dynamic aspects in a scene will forget to notice how many different tones lie within a potential frame. Although I love colors in a photograph I sometimes choose to shoot or at least post process in Black and White and then view the image both ways to see which I feel is stronger. There are times when the simplicity of black and white and various shades of gray will make the image more powerful to the viewer.
The way you put forms and shapes together occupies space within a frame. This arrangement is the composition and also leaves empty or “negative space” around and between other forms. This negative space can become an interesting compositional element as well and can help set the tone for the image and help to convey the “story” you are looking to tell.
When you’re looking for a shot, especially in urban areas or with portrait work, not only are the forms within the frame important but the space that isn’t occupied by these forms can be just as poignant. Keep in mind that when using silhouettes, these “forms” can look more like shapes and playing with them to make things look two dimensional can also be a powerful tool in photography composition.
Part of learning about photography is studying color. Color is comprised of three parts: hue, value, and intensity.
Those who use Adobe products will no doubt recognize that the ‘hue’ is simply the name of the color (e.g. red, blue, green, etc). The ‘intensity’ refers to saturation (how bright and pure the color is), while the ‘value’ refers to luminosity (how bright or dark the color is within the image).
There are some basic color schemes that work well together. They’re practiced daily by artists, graphic designers and other photographers. These simple color theories can really help when you are looking for compositions that will work. Remember to look at a color wheel from time to time. Study the different color theories. Complementary colors, analogous colors… even primary, secondary, and tertiary color schemes, as well as monochromatic other than black and white. When you have a better eye for colors, you be be able to more easily make better compositions as well.
If you head to color.adobe.com then you will find some really great ways to check different color schemes. This app will also show you other colors that work well with a dominant color in your photograph. It might help on the backend as you process an image, when you want to process a certain color a little warmer or cooler to help fit in with a predetermined aesthetic.
Texture refers to the tactile element of something. In the case of a photograph, there isn’t any one tactile feeling. All photos feel the same. As such, the texture refers to the look of how something is perceived to feel, in reality.
If you’re taking a photo of a cactus, there’s a texture there that gives the viewer an idea of what that cactus FEELS like. Compositionally, making texture a big part of a frame can really give the viewer a sense of a place. Texture can be the needles on that cactus, the “roughness” of a piece of metal in the frame or even the rust on that metal in your image. All of these visual queues will help to convey the image to the viewer and help to make your images more impactful.
Principles of Composition
Rhythm creates movement by repeating patterns and shapes throughout the frame of an image in random or highly organized arrangement. A great example can be the little “diamond” pattern in a chain-link fence or the pattern on Mosaic tile or the stained glass of a church window.
I always refer to balance as a ‘teeter-totter’. If you split your composition in to halves (top and bottom or left and right), does it feel like they belong together? Does one side feel like it has too much going on? This doesn’t mean that both sides have to be symmetrical… but if you have an object on one side that attracts the viewer’s eye, the other side should have something to keep you interested in the whole image as opposed to just the dominant or larger object. Unbalanced images can hold the viewer’s eye on one side of the frame instead of allowing it to take in and flow through the whole composition.
Proportion refers to the size of objects within a frame as they relate to one another. It can be utilized within a successful composition by exaggerating proportions in one way or another by changing the camera angle.
The photographer can also position the subjects in such a way to make the differences in proportion the focus of the image. I have seen some really strong images where the photographer used proportion to create the compositional look they wanted by using the distance from the camera to the objects to make one look very large compared to the other, such as making it look like a model is holding the moon in her hand, so play around with this simple but very effective way to make your compositions stronger and more engaging.
Emphasis refers to how the elements of your composition guide the viewer to an intentional subject within the frame. To do this, the photographer can employ a variety of techniques.
Playing with selective lighting helps to emphasize the subjects being lit. Other ways to emphasize a subject include leading lines and proportion. Even the way that the photographer dresses or groups subjects can place emphasis within a frame.
Harmony uses color, texture, line and other aspects of art to point out the similarities of subjects within an image. Harmonious images will often showcase how different objects are all the same, and utilize something that all the objects have in common to do so.
Variety is the opposite of harmony. Not to say that it is chaos, but variety juxtaposes different objects together so that their differences are what brings interest to the photograph and the story being told.
Movement within a composition is the photographer’s ability to imply motion. Obviously, nothing within a still image is actually moving, but by the use of creative shutter speeds, panning or zooming with the camera, you can create an implied feeling of motion. This can be very effective when photographing any kind of racing or even something as simple as a person riding by on a bicycle.
Gestalt Principles of Composition
Showcasing how things are alike can be a powerful tool within a composition. This can be done by grouping things with likeness together, such as texture, shape, color, value or size.
The viewer is often looking for a sense of unity within an image, so putting many things together that share common traits can help convey that satisfaction.
Continuity refers to how the shapes and lines within your image work together to lead from one to the other. The end of one shape should lead directly into the next shape or shapes.
The word that I like to use to describe this is ‘Flow’. Essentially, continuity describes how the objects within your composition flow from one position to the next.
Closure is a difficult principle of composition to realize in photography, but the way that a composition is laid out can make the viewer see a more complete picture.
A good example may be when you are photographing a large crowd of people who are mostly all wearing similar attire. Within that group, there may be several people not wearing the same attire… but the perception at first is that the entirety of the group is all the same. This is a basic trick that one’s mind plays on us where just based on an initial glance, everything in a scene can look the same when in reality they are not.
When you put things together within an image, they will appear to be part of a greater whole or group. An example is when you are photographing something using a telephoto lens. In doing so, you are able to compress the scene to make all parts of the frame appear closer in proximity. Two separate mountain ranges can look like they are part of the same mountain range, when in fact there may be hundreds of miles separating them.
Figure / Ground
Figure / Ground refers to the relationship between the main object and everything else in the frame. Typically, these objects may be people, wildlife or a product. Traditionally, the goal of the photographer is to put these subjects in a place where they clearly become the dominant part of an image and stand out from the background.
In portrait, wildlife and product photography, the approach of blurring those lines or camouflaging the separation between figure and ground is often achieved by using depth of field or bokeh. In landscape photography, the approach is quite different, in that most people often seek front-to-back sharpness from the foreground to the background of an image.
So if shooting product photography or even macro you might use an aperture like F/4 or F/2.8 for the separation between the objects and the same in a portrait but in a landscape or astrophotography you would use an aperture of F/8 or F/16 to make sure EVERYTHING is in focus at the same time.
Tips for Finding the Right Composition
#1. Inspiration and Learning to See
Photography may have been your first creative outlet but artistic vision takes time to develop and it doesn’t usually begin right when you pick up a camera.
For me, I was an art major in college, and my exposure to the arts began when I was very little. I was interested in painting and drawing throughout my life. As a result, I was exposed to a variety of different art mediums, artists and their works. None of this was directly related to photography, yet it all helped to shape the way I see. As such, I encourage photographers to look at other forms of art.
Take a painting class at a local gallery, or college. Learn how to create and to be creative with different mediums.Look at classical paintings and try to envision what the environment looked like when the artist created that painting. How would you compose something similar with a camera? How did they use light? Even though the people in the paintings might be centuries old, what ideas can you incorporate from the work into your current photo shoot? What times of day have you seen lighting that is similar? Which locations have you visited that remind you of that particular place?
You can even find inspiration in abstract or impressionist painters as well. Look at the work of painters like Jackson Pollack… I bet you can start to see things in nature or man-made subjects that might look similar. What about if you shoot aerial photography with a drone?
I constantly see things that remind me of a certain painting or painter. Once I see these, I am able to start envisioning how I will compose them so that they look like the style of that painting.
My advice is that you look at more artwork outside of photography… it will help you with your compositions and lead to you becoming a more successful photographer. I never spend my time only looking at other’s photographs, paintings, and sculptures are also a very powerful way to think differently about art and in turn composition.
#2. Do Your Research and Plan Your Shoot
The more I photograph, the more I enjoy the spontaneity of just showing up somewhere and making the most out of whatever shooting situations present themselves. However, there is something to be said for having at least a little idea of what you’re trying to accomplish when you head out.
During a recent trip to New York, we set off to photograph a scenic vista that we hadn’t researched very well. What we thought was an easy mile and a half hike ended up taking us 30-45 minutes, with much of it being a steep uphill climb. Needless to say, we missed a nice sunset as we were sweating and heaving somewhere below the summit.
A little more research on my part would’ve allowed me to plan for the appropriate time that it would take to hike to the top and I could have possibly created much better images if I had the time to find the best compositions.
With portrait shoots, it’s important to know what kind of location you will be bringing clients into before you photograph them, so that you’ll know where you need to place them to get the perfect shot. The last thing that you want is to be looking for the best spot to shoot when your client is ready to have their picture taken. This can be a waste of time and result in you losing the best light. Planning can help save a lot of preventable headaches later.
#3. Arrive Early
As I mentioned, I’m becoming a fan of “finding” the shot once I arrive somewhere. I love looking for that different angle or unique perspective. For me, the hunt is almost as fun as the final product. Knowing that this is part of how I compose my shots, I NEED to arrive with plenty of time to explore.
Whether you’re shooting a portrait, a social event, wildlife or landscape, having a good idea of current conditions and possibilities will help you to react better when the shooting starts. So always plan to arrive at your destination ahead of time. One of my most popular images is a sunrise shot I captured on the beach at Tybee Island, GA in 2014 and in order to get the shot I got I woke up at 4AM and had my breakfast and coffee and arrived on the beach a good 45 minutes before sunrise and as a result I got an absolutely AMAZING image where the entire scene is a brilliant orange as the sun came up and I did NO post processing, the image is straight out of camera.
If you or I were sharing a scene with someone famous, it would be hard to showcase us with them being on screen too, unless we did something to really put the emphasis on ourselves.
Selective focus is a great way to have something iconic in your frame with something that is less iconic in the background. By putting one subject in focus and having the other blurry, you can place importance on one subject more than the other. This is usually done by experimenting with depth of field and can really help make a composition more concise and interesting. Another great way to accomplish this is using a speciality lens such as a Lensbaby, which I have mentioned in several previous episodes. The Lensbaby not only allows you to create strong selective focus but also play around with shapes in your bokeh to make your images stronger compositionally.
Needless to say, this technique is great for wildlife and portrait photography. When you have a single point of focus where the image has one main subject and everything else is very subdued, it can guide the viewer’s eye straight into your composition.
When you are overwhelmed by a grand scene and there is too much going on, try to ask yourself, “what do I find the MOST interesting here?” Then make the entire image about that.
Keep it simple… show the viewer JUST the thing you want. Not every image has to have a killer foreground with three or four subjects leading into an amazing sky in order to keep your viewer interested.
Rules and Ratios
In photography, there are a lot of “golden” rules and ratios that can be used to help highlight points of interest in your composition. These ratios divide the frame into the key areas by using lines and curves where your eye is naturally more likely to go.
The point of these ratios is to help you to place elements within a composition where the eye of the viewer is most likely to gravitate, as well as to put subjects in angles and positions where they may help to draw the eye around the frame.
Lightroom and Photoshop both have overlays for all of the different ratios that I will mention below, so you can see how your photos line up with them.
Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds uses key intersection points and breaks the scene up into thirds vertically and horizontally. In the grid where these lines intersect are the points where you should try to put your main subjects. I like to keep the grid view turned on in my EVF to help me use the Rule of Thirds and I recommend you do so as well. If you are using a DSLR you can still use the grid view if you shoot using the rear LCD.
Reflections and Dynamic Foreground
Two of my favorite things to look for when composing a shot are reflections and a dynamic foreground. I’ll look for water anywhere to use in an image. Reflections not only capture an additional image of the main subject (and what’s better than one dynamic subject? TWO of them!), but water will also hold any color from the sky, giving you all kinds of added excitement to an image.
When there isn’t any water, I’ll look for other kinds of dynamic foregrounds, such as old tree stumps, beds of wildflowers, interesting foliage, cracked earth… anything that will fill the foreground within my frame and help me to add interest to the overall scene. What’s even better is if the foreground contains lines that will lead towards my subject.
While these types of foreground are associated mostly with landscape photography, with a little creativity, they can be great in urban, wedding and portrait work as well. For portrait and product work, foregrounds don’t have to be as dynamic but take care to eliminate any distractions that may draw attention away from your main subject or you can end up with a bad composition that break the story you are trying to tell.
People usually think of a balance between light and dark when they think of contrast. While that’s certainly something useful to have in your pocket when composing an image, think of other ways that things can contrast and look for those as well.
There can be contrast in the form of big and small, old and new, alive and dead, hot and cold, fast and slow. There are so many different ways to tell a story with contrasting elements other than light and dark. Look at your subject, find things that contrast with it and try to use them as a part of your composition.
Almost anytime that the sky opens up and gives you wonderful rays of light, an interesting shot is just waiting to be captured. Focused light automatically gives you a point of interest due to the contrast it creates between light and dark areas within a scene.
Once you find your subject, you can look for ways to frame that subject within the image. Maybe there are some trees that can bend around the subject, or a hole in a wall or rock that you can use to make an interesting frame. Perhaps you can even utilize parts of a wall or old buildings to create a frame around a subject.
Use that Zoom
This is different to just filling the frame. This technique requires you to find the most interesting parts of a scene and make the image about that section of the image. Sometimes, powerful images can be made by compressing a scene and zooming in, thus eliminating possible distractions from your composition. On the flip side, sometimes your lens won’t give you the ability to incorporate all the best parts of the scene into a single shot. The best image might be made by zooming out and going wider.
When it comes to landscape images in particular, people get very stagnant with shooting horizontally. Remember that you can shoot vertically also, and compose that way too.
Similar to shooting in horizontal format, you can compose using the rules, ratios and techniques that I’ve outlined above.
Combine Composition Techniques
Each of the above compositional techniques are great to help you start making images that are more visually appealing, but they can be combined for an even better effect! The more ways that you can draw a viewer’s eye into the image and keep it there, the better the image will be.
How to Improve Composition in Editing
It’s important that you learn to use post-processing tools so that you can make edits to your composition. I like to tell people that no matter how good the image is when you capture it, it’s only about 70% finished. About 25-30% of an image is how it’s processed.
Can people take post-processing too far? Absolutely, but part of your “style” will be how you process images.
There are numerous great tutorials out there you can buy or find online that will give you all kinds of new ways to see your finished images. Remember, the goal is to never process just like the person showing you their workflow. Rather, you should aim to find a few little things from different sources that you can combine with your own editing ideas to help your vision emerge. I’ve been using Photoshop for over 20 years, and I still look for new ways to process files.
Adding a vignette around an image can help to pull the eye away from the edges towards the middle of the frame and improve your composition. Be careful though, as too much vignette can be distracting too.
Sometimes when I’m in-field, I’ll shoot intentionally a little wider than I should. This gives me room to crop a little when I process. I’m constantly surprised at the little things that I might miss along the edges of a frame, or how badly I didn’t keep the horizon straight. If you’re handholding images, there’s always a better chance you’ll need to do some post-processing image straightening to improve your composition in editing.
Converting an Image to Black and White
Color images are great but remember that photography was a black and white medium before color film was on the scene. I’ve taken images in the middle of the day that looked drab and boring in color, but they had a great tonal range so when I converted them to black and white, they really stood out.
Other Ways to Improve Your Composition Skills in Photography
In addition to all of these little tips that I’ve mentioned above, there are many other ways that you can learn to master the art of composition.
Step 1. Take a Workshop or Hire a Photographer
How many times have you seen a photograph online and thought, “I’ve been there, how did they SEE that shot?”
Photography workshops are great ways to get to amazing locations and have a professional or two on-hand to give you useful tips. Seeing what the other photographers in the group create can also give you some ideas on how to improve your own compositions.
Watch what your instructors shoot and how they work. Taking private classes will ensure that you have more attention to your own photographic process, as opposed to a larger group with more needs and logistics.
Step 2. Look at Other Photos for Inspiration
I think looking at other people’s photography is really helpful in improving your own work. I love looking at all types of photography. Oftentimes, photographers in other genres of photography will do things differently, or in a way that I find I can apply to my own work. For instance, a lot of techniques that get used for composition in portrait photography can be translated to wildlife photography and vice versa.
I also like to look at bad photos and try to figure out how I might improve on the composition if I were there taking the shot. If you’ve been listening to this show for a while now or know we in real life you know one of my all time favorite photographers is Ansel Adams and another is Chase Jarvis. Both of these men are Masters at composition. Adams generally kept things simple yet powerful in his images and used a lot of B&W photography. Chase loves to think outside the box and come up with new and innovative ways to make his images and this leads to extremely strong compositions and colors in his work.
Step 3. Be Patient
Photographers need to realize that composition is the hardest part of photography. Mastering composition is not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen after one photography workshop either. It’s a process that develops over time.
Anyone can learn to use camera settings; that’s the easy part. The art form in the medium of photography comes from being able to see images in the field and then having the skillset to take that vision from the field into the computer so that you can finish it.
Step 4. Practice
The more you shoot, the better you’ll get at composition. You need to be out shooting often in order to improve. You’re developing a skill and like any skill, the more you work at it, the better your compositions will be. Even when you don’t have a camera with you, you can set up compositions in your head for the way you would shoot it if you did, try framing things with your hands and see what you can come up with.
In the end, as challenging as composition may be, it is where the creativity with photography comes in. Any one of us can go to the same location at the same time of day but it’s what we do with the camera that sets us apart.
Now that you’ve got some background knowledge of compositional concepts, principles and techniques, you can start to look out for these elements while you’re out shooting and apply them to your images. When you look at other photos, try to find these elements of composition within them. See how other photographers utilize them. Successful compositions often contain many of the strategies listed above, used in an harmonious and aesthetically pleasing way.
Mastering composition won’t happen in a weekend; it takes time. So be patient with yourself. Keep looking for inspiration from others and keep an eye trained on how their photos might work compositionally. Most importantly, get out there and start practicing!
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