Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Composition and You! A Guide For Giving Your Photos More

While understanding exposure and depth of field are all valuable pieces of knowledge, where do you go once you have gotten down the basics?  You might be thinking, why are my images not “popping”?  Maybe you also are wondering why you might like one image of a similar subject over another.

One of the things that you might not be considering is your composition.

“If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.”
--Jim Richardson

Before we get into compositional rules, think about the quote above.  If you want your images to be interesting, the subject has got to have some interest as well.  We all want to take better photographs of our family and one way of doing that is to go out and learn about other types of photography.  I’ve been able to make my portrait and wedding photography better by shooting street photography. Put them in front of interesting things!

How do we do justice to the great subjects we have in front of us?  Use and on occasion, break the guidelines you’ll see here.  I’ve heard it said before that in order to know how and when to break the guidelines, you need to know what the guidelines are in the first place.

Through out this post, I will not use the term “rules” unless it is to relate of simplify a premise.  I consider photography art and as such one should be able to express it without boundaries.  I consider what we will discuss together in the information below just another technique in the toolbox and not a requirement.

Compositional Framing Guidelines
These guidelines are to help you place the subject of your image into a pleasing location, which is 99% of the time not directly in the middle.

Guideline of Thirds

Also known as the “rule of thirds”, this is a basic grid that breaks up the viewfinder into three equal parts both vertically and horizontally.  You can place the focal point of the image at one of the intersecting sets of lines.  

Golden Triangle
This is a good guideline to help when you have diagonal elements in your composition.
Imagine drawing a diagonal line from one corner of your frame to the other, then draw another perpendicular line from the opposite corner of your long line into the longer line.  The perpendicular would be 90 degrees to the longer line.  This can provide for a more dynamic composition.

Fibonacci Spiral

If you want to be numbed by a lot of math, feel free to look up the history the Fibonacci Spiral, but for our purposes just know that it has been used in art for hundreds of years.  It is also known as the golden mean or golden ratio.  
You would, as a basic use, put the smallest part of the spiral over the main subject of interest and then align the other aspects of the composition flow out from the spiral.  For example, if doing a full face portrait, you’d want one eye in the middle of the spiral and then allow the rest of the face fall into the outward spiral.

Some people consider the guideline of thirds and the golden triangle to be a more simplistic versions of the Fibonacci Spiral.

Things To Try
Now that we have discussed some guidelines that will help you situate your subjects into the frame, let’s look at some other things you can try.  Some are offshoots or benefits you’ll start seeing from the use of the guidelines above.  Others are just ways of being more pleasing to the people viewing them.

You can get into a bad habit of standing straight up and shooting everything from that perspective.  While this might work for some subjects, or for portraits of adults it is something that doesn’t “pop” because it is something we see all the time.
When shooting a portrait of a child, get down to their level and shoot that way instead of always shooting down on them.
When shooting everyday subjects, adding a different angle makes people see ordinary things in a different way, and by doing that it gives them a renewed interest.  For example, if shooting street photography, almost everyone shoots from street level.  What about shooting from a second floor or from an even higher elevated position!

Leave Space
If someone or something is looking in a specific direction or a vehicle is moving in a direction, you would not want to crop the frame off right in front of the subject.  By giving space, we see where the object is moving.  We lose the claustrophobic feel of a portrait and wonder what they are looking at and not worry that they are boxed in.

Fill The Frame
Jay Maisel once said that if the subject is there, you are responsible to make sure that the edges of the frame don’t detract from the image.  That is paraphrased, but essentially, if you have a great portrait but the edges of the frame are filled with items that don’t make sense to the person move in tighter.

Odd/Even Numbers
People tend to like odd numbers of items in their images.  If you have the choice of shooting some animals, and their are 2 or 3, pick the one with the 3.

Putting subjects in an imaginary triangle gives the viewer something other than a straight line gives more interest and looks less common.

Simplify The Scene
This could be used hand in hand with the fill the frame.  If you find yourself looking at a scene and there just seems to be too much going on, find a way to simplify the subject matter that is there.  Sometimes that means there are too many people to make for a harmonious composition, but not enough to create a pattern that might be pleasing to look at.  This is the “less is more” concept.

Leading Lines
Viewers tend to follow lines in photographs, so if there is a chance use parts of the image to lead the viewers eyes to the subject, you should use that to your advantage.

Framing Subjects
Placing a frame around a subject may give it some additional pop.

Sense of Place/Relevance
While getting a portrait done of someone as a cowboy might be exciting, doing the portrait in a studio setting may not give the image the kind of relevance you had hoped for.  Now take that same person with the same cowboy theme and place them in an outdoor setting with horses or on a farm and the portrait goes to a whole new level.
Taking a still life image of a sea shell in studio can be quite nice, how much more would you love it if it had a sense of place and you took the shot on the beach with the sand and the water.

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