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Patricia Fenn's guide to photography for beginners

Patricia Fenn's guide to photography for beginners - Patricia Fenn shows us how a few changes to composition can change a nice picture into a great image.

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Patricia Fenn

Patricia Fenn.

Lets have a look at what turns a nice snap into a great image. The three main things to consider are: the subject, the composition and the light.

We are going to concentrate on the composition but first lets have a quick look at the subject.

The subject is often referred to as the focal point. It is the subject that arrests the attention of the viewer's eye. Be aware of how your eyes react to different things such as a page in a magazine, a painting or a DVD. The subject grabs your eye and everything else enhances, or at least, doesn't detract from it.

In the beginning almost everyone points the camera at the subject and presses the shutter, but lets stop!

With the camera we have more control over what we see than we do with our eyes and by re-composing the way we capture the view before us, we can make the image more pleasing to the brain. By stimulating the brain we, quite simply, get more enjoyment from the image.

So we move on to the composition. The two most commonly used compositions are: The Rule of Thirds, and The Triangle.

Rule of thirds grid


There are many other compositions that do work, circular, symmetric, isometric, positive and negative shapes, colour weighted and centre weighted but these tend to develop naturally once the basics of the rule of thirds and the triangle are mastered and practiced.  In time various types of composition will come naturally to the artist.

The rule of thirds is so commonly used in photography that many cameras have it marked out in the viewfinder or on the screen. The image is divided into thirds across and thirds down. A tic-tac-toe grid. The subject of the image is placed on one of the 4 crossing points. The horizon is usually placed on or near the upper or lower line of the grid.

This changes the nice but boring image of ‘a man walking' into aninteresting image that asks "where is he going and where has he come from?" and by placing the horizon on the thirds line it accentuates the sky or landscape, making him look quite alone in the vastness of his surroundings. It has become an image that interests and entertains the brain.

Rule of thirds image one Rule of thirds image 2
Without rule of thirds applied.  With the rule of thirds applied.

When a viewer looks at a picture he believes he is emotionally moved by the subject, and to a large extent of course he is; but the photographer, through his composition of the photograph, delivers a powerful and almost subliminal message with the image.

For example: lets take ‘a man walking' and look at how we can affect the feelings of the viewer by changing the composition.

Because we read from left to right we also look at an image from left to right. Therefore we are going into the picture with the man, travelling with him.

Rule of thirds image threeNow lets change the composition.

By placing the man on the other point of thirds  (picture right) he is leaving the picture. From this composition we get an immediate feeling of discomfort.  Our eyes race across the image to join him and hardly take in the view. We look back at what our eyes have just raced over, but it's spoilt, the moment has passed and we are irritated that we have missed out on the enjoyment.

Rule of thirds image fiveBy changing the composition once more (picture bottom right),  having the man walking into the scene from right to left, the subliminal message we get is different again.  We hardly take in the view. All our emotions are in suspense of the encounter. We are not calmed by the picture; our brain is alert and busy analysing the situation.

It is these subliminal messages that are used and exploited by the travel industry and in advertising. Take a look at the images in two brochures of the same location targeted at different tourist sectors.

From one image, perhaps in a brochure for the mature traveller, you may get a feeling of relaxation, peace, and tranquillity.  Yes you may look at the same scene composed differently in another brochure and immediately know this is the place to go for water-sports, sun worshiping and lots of activity, i.e. the image gives a feeling of excitement and vibrancy.

There is no reason to stick with the rule of thirds. You can bet that every type of composition that works well has a name somewhere, so experiment. Take a few different compositions of the same scene and later, see which one gives you the same feeling that attracted you to it in the first place.

The second most commonly used form of composition is the triangle. This is used most commonly in portraiture.

The triangle, with its strong base, is a secure shape that gives us confidence. However the inverted triangle is a precarious shape that instils a feeling of impending unbalance.

Finally, light. If your subject is the basic ingredient of a meal, then light is the herbs and spices. Light turns the mundane meat into a tantalizing dish, and that is why light has experienced photographers waxing lyrical and beginners wondering what all the fuss is about.

Get into the habit of seeing how the light at various times of day affects an image. Try looking at the late afternoon sky with sunglasses on, even if it's stormy clouds, to see the difference a filter over your lens will make to a scene. Using a filter will bring out those great shafts of light that are often almost invisible to the naked eye, transforming a landscape.

Don't forget that light causes shadows and shadows, as well as the reflections of a subject, affect the balance of a picture so they should be considered when composing the image, which takes us full circle to the beginning of this tutorial.

Visit Patricia Fenn's website for more information.

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