Photo Classes – Composition Tips Lesson One

Composition is the placement or arrangement of visual elements in a photograph.

Use the rule-of-thirds: Position your subject off center aka “the rule of thirds”. This is the oldest compositional trick in the book, and one that’s used by both painters and photographers to create a visually balanced picture. Imagine you’re shooting a landscape and there’s an isolated farmhouse in the distance or a single tree in the middle of a field, acting as the main focal point. Most photographers would stick this subject in the center of the frame which can work in some situations. However, you will generally get a more pleasing sense of balance if you position it using the rule-of-thirds.

To do this, divide-up your camera’s viewfinder into an imaginary grid using two horizontal and two vertical lines. The focal point is then placed on or near any of the four intersection points created by those lines.

The rule of thirds can also be used to help you position the horizon. It’s tempting to stick it across the center of the frame, but unless you’re shooting a symmetrical scene, such as reflections in a lake, the result tends to look very static and lifeless. A much better approach is to place the horizon one third from the top or the bottom of the frame, so you’re emphasizing either the sky or ground. To help you achieve this, divide the viewfinder into thirds using two imaginary horizontal lines, then compose the scene before you so the horizon falls on one of them.

You should never force a picture to comply with the rule-of-thirds, but when used with care it can work well and after a while you will find yourself naturally dividing the scene into thirds to aid the position of important elements.

Tip! Straighten your camera up. Some cameras have a grid. If yours doesn’t use the auto-focus points across the viewfinder to make sure your horizon is straight.

What is Symmetry in Photography?

By definition, symmetry in photography is when an image can be split down the middle and the left and right sides of the photo are mirror images of each other. In geometrical terms, imagine taking a photo of a triangle or a square. If you cut that image in half, both sides of the photo would mirror each other. That’s symmetry. Don’t get hung up on the idea that to have symmetry in an image it has to be an exact mirror image on both sides. As long as the image is close enough to looking the same on both sides we consider it to be a symmetrical photo.

How Do You Achieve Symmetrical Photos?

To achieve a symmetrical/balance photo all you have to do is fill your frame with something that is almost, if not perfectly identical on both sides of the frame. Look for repetitious items within your scene and try to shoot a photo with them placed evenly apart.

Leading Lines

Leading lines are lines within an image that leads the eye to another point in the image, or occasionally, out of the image.

A leading line does what it says: it leads the eye from one part of the picture to another: from the foreground to the background, the secondary subject to the main subject (but very rarely the other way round). The leading line adds motion to an otherwise static picture and ties different elements in it together. Diagonals and arcs or other unclosed curves make good leading lines.

The Framing Element

A framing element serves to focus attention on the main subject. It usually covers at least two edges of the picture and can intrude a good way into it, sometimes taking up most of the space in it. For this to work, the framing element has to have some interesting characteristics of its own: color, texture, or shape. Bold, geometric shapes can work very well as framing elements: triangles or arcs work especially well. Usually, framing elements should be lower-key and more muted than the main subject: they are not meant to distract, but to focus, even when the actual point of the picture is the framing element, such as with some of the Phony Subject examples.

Point of View – Point of view in photography simply means the position from which the camera sees the scene. Are you looking down on the subject? Are you looking up at the subject? How close are you to the subject? Is there anything between you and the subject? Every decision you make about point of view will change how your viewer sees the photo.

  • Becoming the Subject – A powerful point of view is becoming the subject. This means that you shoot the photo from the angle of the subject. For example, a shot of surgery shown as though you were looking through the surgeon’s eyes (patient and surgeon’s hands visible but not the surgeon’s face/body). These shots allow the viewer to feel like they are experiencing the event first hand.
  • Shooting From Eye Level – Shooting a photo from eye level of the subject is the quickest way to help your viewers connect emotionally with a photo subject. By literally putting the subject on “their level” you create an instinctual response because usually only other people of the same age are at roughly eye level with a person. Shooting at eye level also allows you to see more of the subject than shooting downward or upward (or even from the side) would allow. This straight-on angle also helps to prevent distortion caused by perspective or angle of view.
  • Shooting from Below – When you shoot a photo from below a subject can make the viewer feel as though the subject is in control of a situation. The simple act of looking up at a subject/object can impart a loss of control or the idea that the object is unobtainable. For example, thrones are set higher than other chairs, judges sit on a podium, and executive desks are just a bit taller than normal desks. The low shooting angle can also give the illusion of being inside the frame if the angle is severe enough. Like almost everything in photography, this goes back to our instinctual reactions to situations. In a forest of tall trees we feel small looking up. As a child we must obey our larger parents. Shooting with an upwards angle allows us to tap into this instinctive response.
  • Shooting from Above – Shooting from above a subject allows the viewer to feel superior to the subject or feel protective of the subject. It can also give the viewer the impression that they are the object of the attention of the subject in the photo, as though it was the viewer placed on a stage. If the stage or “place on a pedestal” effect is achieved, the viewer will often feel adversarial towards the subject.

Tip! Take more shots than you need and consider shooting burst mode. A person can change their expression, and you could miss the ‘perfect moment” if you take just one shot.

See Connie’s photo book projects here.


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