Four or five times a year, I do workshops and presentations on various aspects of photography (and a few other topics). As mentioned in an earlier post, I’m moving the pages I still use in those sessions from my dedicated archive site into this stream before shutting it down.
I recently updated this page in advance of using it in a class next month. It may be of interest to you as well.
Just about any modern camera, including those in smartphones, can help you take a great picture. At least when it comes to things like exposure, brightness, color balance, and other technical factors.
However, the most important part of a picture is still completely dependent on you, the person holding the camera: The composition.
Composition is defined as the arrangement of the subject or subjects, along with all the other elements, in the image.
Two people using identical cameras can take very different photos of the same subject, depending on how they aim the shot, how close or far away they are, their distance from the ground, and other factors.
Here are six suggestions for using composition to improve your picture taking. They certainly don’t cover every aspect of the topic, but it will give you a good start.
1. Rule of Thirds
This concept has been around long before cameras were invented, used by painters to make their work more interesting. The rule asks you to imagine a 3×3 grid over the scene. Then, instead of putting your subject in the middle of the picture, move the camera so it is at the point where two of the lines cross. Or along one of the horizontal or vertical lines. Your camera/smartphone probably has a setting to display this grid, to help you when composing the shot.
In this example, the Washington Monument is not in the center of the shot but instead along the right third of the image. This also illustrates the concept of framing that we’ll get to a little later by using low-hanging branches to frame the subject.
2. Leading Lines
This is the idea of using naturally occurring lines to draw the viewer’s eyes to your subject. While the lines are often straight, such as a road, In this example, the curving path provides the lines that directs the eye to the cyclists.
Related to leading lines is a frame that encloses your subject and directs the viewer’s attention to it. Windows and doors are the most obvious example of this but just about any structure that provides a frame will work.
This example shows the Long Market in the old town section of Gdansk, Poland. The stone gate into the area helps to frame the architecture of the street and draws the viewer’s eye to the crowds packed into a relatively small space.
4. Get High. Get Low.
In any location you visit, don’t just take pictures at eye level. Look up. Look down. Find the highest point you can legally access. Glance over the edge. You may find something photo-worthy hiding in plain sight.
This is a relatively simple example. On a sailing ship, the main mast, with the sails not yet deployed, makes a good contrast with the blue, almost clear sky. But you gotta look up.
5. Look for the details.
You certainly want to get the big picture but you can also find great images in the small stuff.
On the same ship, this compass was almost hidden near the captain’s station. Another example of how it pays to look around wherever you are for the chance to find something interesting, unusual, different, unexpected.
Rather than taking a picture of the subject directly, the reflection of the subject could be more interesting. Especially if it’s a subject everyone photographs.
In this example, we have the tower of Independence Hall in Philadelphia reflected in windows of the modern building housing the Liberty Bell. Look for glass, water, or other reflective services and move around to see the different compositional alternatives you might have.
The photo at the top really doesn’t fit the subject of this post, other than it shows a group of photographers in Shanghai, China. They were gathered on an overpass at sundown to shoot a light show on a traffic island.