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Beginner's Guide To Composition - Peter Bargh explains why composition is one of those things that makes all the difference between a snapshot and great photograph.
Use the viewfinder
Get into the habit of looking around the viewfinder when you are about to take a photograph. Look at the subject and then at what's surrounding it. If you're taking a photograph of a person, check to make sure nothing is growing out of their head. Trees, drainpipes and telegraph poles are classic sprouting objects. Also, look to make sure there's no clutter in the shot to distract - move around a little to avoid a litter bin in the corner of a street scene or a glaring highlight in a landscape. Finally, consider waiting until a car or person moves out of view to avoid making the photo look dated in the future.
The opposite of this is to purposely include an extra element, or a focal point, into a scene to enhance a photograph. A rock in the foreground will add depth to a landscape or use an object to frame a photograph. An arch or door way will naturally frame the subject, also a tree branch can be positioned across the top of the frame providing a skyline frame to hold the viewer in the image. Use flowers to lead into a portrait, a window to frame a garden, a hole in a fence for a picture of a cat outdoors etc.
One way you can improve composition is to use a different lens to change the composition, a wide-angle lens will allow more to be included in the frame for creating sweeping vistas and a telephoto narrows down the angle to help you hone in on a subject and remove all the nearby clutter. But you don't have to blame the lens – a standard zoom that comes with most cameras is fine for most of your needs when you're starting out, you just use your feet to make the most of what you already own. Move closer, step back, shoot from a higher viewpoint crouch down.
Composing the shot
Now we go to the classic composition theories - rule of thirds, golden mean etc. Here you place elements of a photograph into naturally pleasing places that balance the overall image. Most of these techniques are easy to follow and although we don't really think about it, improve the visual appearance of a photograph subliminally.
Rule of thirds
The rule of thirds is a technique is one that's taught first to many photography students and it's where you visualise lines that split the photograph into thirds, horizontally and vertically, creating a nine section grid. You then ensure the main point of focus is positioned on one or more of the four intersecting lines. Some may say it's a little clichéd but it can work effectively for many types of photography, particularly landscapes. For example, when you're out composing your landscape show, you would have the horizon on either one or two thirds of the way up the photograph, while a tree would be placed on the left or right third. Creating an L shape composition.
The Golden mean is an old principle that was first used by painters and is quite difficult to apply when taking a photo. Painters have the benefit of starting with a blank canvas and pencilling in an outlining pattern that they can paint over to ensure elements are in the relevant areas. Look at the diagram below that shows how the Golden Mean is derived. Placing elements within this frame creates an interesting balance in a photograph. It's made up of a series of squares that become increasingly smaller attached by a curve that spirals inwards like a snail's shell. Place the point of focus at the end of the spiral and other elements along the path your eye takes inwards following the spiral.
Similarly, but far less complicated, imagine an S curve in the photo which would lead your eye through the image. There's also the triangle where key features appear along the sides and points of the shape. When used correctly you can create balance in your shot and also guide the eye through the photograph.
Easier still, look for elements in your subject that have lines and use these to draw the eye to a particular part of the scene. A fence, low wall or road positioned in the frame so it's moving away from you, can lead you in to the photograph.
A frame is a great tool as it can lead the eye to a specific focus point and at the same time, give an image more depth. For more tips on using frames, take a look at our previous article: Frames.
Break the rules
All these are compositional rules that have been used for years, but you don't have to use them. Sometimes breaking the rules can help you create an image that's far more striking, but it helps if you understand why you're doing this first.
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