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Glen Pitt-Pladdy :: Blog

Photography HOWTO 4: Basic Composition

This is part of my Photography HOWTO series and follows on from Getting Colour Right [delayed]. I will be looking at basic composition techniques and how to use them.

The universal bad habit

Ask almost anyone to take a photo and chances are that you will get the main subject planted bang in the middle of the frame.

So what is wrong with that?  Simple: it's boring. The basic trick behind composition is to lead the eye to things of interest in the photo - not just to plant them directly in the middle.

That is not to say that it isn't possible to have a good composition with the main subject in the centre, just that there must be a good reason for it - not just because it is the obvious thing to do.

There are a small number of basic composition rules, and many more rules and techniques that may be used alone or more often in combination to create interesting images.

Basic technique: Thirds rule

This is the most universal and widely used rule - in fact you will see that almost all photos (plus TV and Film) use some form of this.

The technique is to split the frame into thirds - place a grid across the image and place the subject on some point 1/3 from the edges of the frame. This doesn't have to be perfect thirds, but get it close and photos start to work.

Thirds rule example - moon and clouds photo

The landscape variant

With landscape photography, the main subject may not fit into thirds neatly (eg. a large amount of scenery), or may not be in the foreground. The technique used is to have 2 subjects: a foreground subject, plus the main scene.

The foreground subject can be almost anything that fits our scene - a rock, a branch, or any other suitable object. This is almost always placed in one of the bottom thirds.

Snowscape / Landscape photo

The direction variant

This is normally referred to as "leading space". An subject that has a distinct front or movement needs to have space in front of it - for example a car going past has a distinct front and direction, and sufficient space needs to be left in front of them. If the shot is very tight, then we probably want to place the subject on the third away from the direction of movement, but if it is very wide (ie. lots of space round the subject) and especially if they leave a trail (eg. a skier), then we may want to place them on the third they are moving towards.

The people variant

With people, the place we naturally focus is the eyes, so that is the bit we need to place on the thirds. Typically it will be combined with leading space so that the eyes are on the top third line and towards a side, facing into the photo (this can also be used when laying out a page with a person and text - the person faces into the page to be most effective).

Basic technique: Leading lines

The human eye will naturally follow lines into the distance - a strong perspective helps here (use a wide lens and get close to the tapering lines to emphasize the perspective and effect of the leading lines). Leading lines are often easily combined with thirds rule and other techniques for a stronger composition - eg. this shot combines leading lines with thirds rule, framing (see later), and adds a focal point (the silhouette):

Silhouette in tunnel

Basic technique: Framing

This simply means using some element in the photo as a frame round the subject. Typical examples of this is photos through windows, arches, doors, a face reflected in a mirror, and many others. Natural frames occur everywhere, but for some reason I can't find any distinct framing examples right now, but the above shot does have elements of framing too - the tunnel round the man.

The other techniques

Lines across the photo can often work if they run diagonally. Likewise, lines that run parallel to the sides of the photo can often be boring.
This may be things like a reflection on still water, mirrors, or other natural symmetries.
Groups of objects in shapes (circles, triangles etc.) and other patterns may work as composition elements.
Contrasts and colour accents
This is where we use a distinctly different colour in an image so that it stands out and becomes the focal point.
One object (or person) in a large expanse of empty space stands out, and can work as a composition element.
As we learned with lenses, if we open up the aperture, we get a shallow depth of field (ie. anything in front of behind the point of focus is blurred out).  This can be a powerful element where we can have only one object in focus and distinguish it from the foreground and background.

Strengthening techniques

To strengthen many composition techniques, they can be set against an opposite:

  • If we are using focus technique, we need to show things in front and/or behind the point of focus so that they are blurred.
  • If we are using space technique, we need to ensure the space is bare so that the subject stands out.
  • If we are using a pattern, avoiding patterns around the subject will emphasise where the pattern of the subject.
  • If we are using leading lines to an object in the distance, we also need to show foreground.

Points of view

One of the often forgotten aspects of composition is the position or the point of view the photo is taken from. The point of view of a photo can have some distinct influences on how the subject is viewed. For example, to give a person in a photo more authority, take the photo from and angle slightly below their eye level.

Try to also take photos of things from a point of view that matches the subject. For example, take a photo of your cat from "cat level" rather than "human level".  Likewise with kids - even get down to their level, or below.

Even go a little further than just getting down to "cat level" of "kid level" - go further down for really unusual points of view. Taking photos from a different point of view to what we are used to can yield far more interesting photos.

With a wide lens, getting close to a foreground element (eg. crouch down) can emphasise perspective and strengthen leading lines in a composition.

Try this

Here are a bunch of photos I had to hand - see if you can spot all the techniques used in each of these shots:

Composition 1:

Composition example

Composition 2:

Composition example

Composition 3:

Composition example

Composition 4:

Composition example

Composition 5:

Composition example

Composition 6:

Composition example


Answers to "Try this"

Composition 1: Leading Lines (steps & rails), Thirds Rule (man).

Composition 2: Focus, Leading Lines, Thirds Rule (bench).

Composition 3: Leading Lines, Thirds Rule (point of focus of the lines). Wide lens and low position close to the side rails emphasize the perspective and leading lines.

Composition 4: Focus, Thirds, Contrast / colour accent (area around chip), Framing (circle round chip), Diagonals (lines of components, tracks and writing).

Composition 5: Focus, Thirds, some Symmetry (reflection).

Composition 6: Thirds, Patterns (3 pins in a triangle), Contrast / colour accent, some Space.



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