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More Advanced Composition

Previously I said that there are lots of ways to compose an image that generally work well. What I’m about to do is list a number of ideas for you to consider. I beg you not to consider all of them at once! That would be confusing and probably would result in a dreadful photograph, if you managed to take one at all. In fact, you might see that some items in the list contradict or repeat others. That’s intentional. As I say repeatedly, there are no rules. Some photographers will even go out of their way to avoid these compositional devices. However, photography is just like any other skill. You must first understand the basics before you can know how and when to ignore them.

So, here are 21 guidelines to consider, in no particular order and by no means comprehensive...

  1. Think about your point of view. Point up at your subject for a dramatic feel, or down to make it less imposing.
  2. Check all around the edge of the image. Don’t cut off parts of your subject. If you do, make sure the viewer can see that you meant to. For example, chop someone off at the knees rather than the ankles, and certainly not from the neck up!
  3. Focus attention on the subject. Get in close; perhaps use strong differential focusing; place a brightly lit subject against a dark background; look for natural framing for your subject – a door, window, branches, etc.
  4. Our eyes are naturally drawn to the brightest part of an image. Try to avoid any part of the image being brighter than the main subject.
  5. Shoot at your subject’s eye-level. For children and animals, it really pays to get down to their level. Avoid looking down on them from a standing position.
  6. Try to get separation between each element of the image, or between subjects when more than one. Avoid overlapping if possible. Sometimes moving a very short distance to one side or the other can make all the difference.
  7. Look for leading lines. Lines leading in from the corners of the image pull the viewer’s attention inwards to where you want it. Curves can work well too, leading the viewer through the image. Winding roads and streams are perfect examples of this.
  8. Use patterns, particularly repeating patterns, to make images more interesting or to help lead the viewer’s eye.
  9. Don’t centre your subject without good reason. (A good reason might be to emphasise symmetry.)
  10. Check your horizon. Avoid the horizon bisecting your image, or going through the head of a person or animal. Keep the horizon level unless you have a good reason to tilt it, and if you do tilt it, do it far enough to show it was intentional.
  11. Look for balance. Sometimes an image can feel “lop-sided” because everything substantial is in one half of the image. (Alternatively, look for an imbalance which sometimes can be effective too.)
  12. Control your empty space. Don’t leave too much empty space but when you have it, use it well. (Alternatively, a lot of empty space could create the feeling you want.)
  13. Fill the frame. Don’t include surroundings just for the sake of it.
  14. Remember the rule of thirds. By visualising a grid of two equally spaced vertical and two equally spaced horizontal lines, you can position main subjects along those lines or at their intersections. Some digital cameras will even overlay the LCD screen or viewfinder with such a grid.
  15. Less is more. Minimal, simple, uncluttered: these can be key words in creating a pleasing image. Try not to include interesting or complicated backgrounds which take the viewer’s attention away from the main subject. Try excluding anything that’s not relevant to the main subject.
  16. Diagonals. Anything creating a diagonal element to your image will usually help to make it more interesting.
  17. Use space well. Like quiet moments in music, space in photographs can be hugely important. A moving subject might need space " to move into", or a largely empty area can create a sense of isolation.
  18. Foreground interest can be a powerful addition to an image. It can add a great sense of depth to an image.
  19. Avoid intrusions. Look out for odd bits and pieces sticking into your image from the edges, especially if they catch your eye and take attention away from the main subject.
  20. Landscape or portrait? Consider shooting in vertical and horizontal formats. It’s surprising how often beginners will try to fit a vertical scene into a horizontal format. A vertical format can be used very effectively to emphasise height or cut  out extraneous details.
  21. What is the photograph trying to say? Think about any story that you might be trying to tell, or any emotion you might be trying to convey.

Look at images taken by photographers you admire and see how many of these ideas are incorporated in their work.

© David McHutchison (Deemacphotos)
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