The first part of this series covered the critical importance of composition and the lack of abundant resources for helping you learn it. It also touched upon establishing a process – not all the rules and concepts, but a process – for you to go through in getting started with composing your pictures. That is what we will turn our attention to in this article.
Composing Your Pictures
How does one actually go about composing a photo?
If you are just starting out with photography, you might have no idea, which is to be expected. Unfortunately, this is one area of photography where the camera will not help you. There is no “auto composition” mode. You are actually composing your pictures – and probably sometimes doing it well – but you have no process or method for going about it. You probably just hold the camera up and try to make something pleasing in the frame.
But let’s ask the question to an intermediate or even advanced photographer. How do they go about composing a photo? They would probably tell you they use the Rule of Thirds to set up the picture, look for leading lines, use patterns, or try to frame their subject, or use other devices to make the photo interesting. And all that stuff is important and we’ll get to it (later). But what do you do if there are no leading lines (or at least not any that you want to use in your picture)? Or if there is nothing to use to frame your picture? Or no patterns? And so on.
The point is that these traditional composition rules are all things you use some of the time. I want to give you something you can use every time. So I want to give you a quick process to go through to compose your photos. This will give you a basic methodology to use when you are actually out taking pictures. The process I suggest you start with is simple. It actually just consists of 4 steps, which are:
Or, if you prefer, it is a 3 step process that you just do over and over again.
So in this article, I will describe this process for you and go through each of the steps. Let’s get started.
- Summary: Crystalize the idea of what you are going to photograph and ensure that you are focused on that thing.
- When to do it: Before you raise the camera to your face (but after you have chosen a subject or at least have an idea of what you want to photograph), and then again as you look through the viewfinder or LCD.
The world is a messy place. A large part of your job as a photographer is to simplify a slice of it to make sense to your viewer.
In a sense, photography is inherently a process of exclusion. Even if you are in a beautiful place, simply putting a super-wide angle lens on your camera and photographing the scene in front of you will rarely, if ever, result in a good photograph. Rather, your job as a photographer is to isolate some slice of what you see and offer it up to your viewer in a way that makes sense. You start with a three dimensional messy scene in front of you, and try to use that to create a pleasing two dimensional object.
That process necessarily involves a simplification of what you see before you. Simplification does not mean photographing one solitary thing. It does not mean you can’t have more than one thing in your picture, as long as they fit together (which will be discussed later). Rather, you need to focus on having one unified thought, idea, or message in your picture. If that sounds vague and mushy, it doesn’t have to be. All you need to do is ask yourself before you take this picture, “what is this a picture of?” If the objects in your viewfinder support that concept, they can stay in. Otherwise, remove them by changing your focal length or position.
You will often hear photographers telling you “get closer” to your subject. That is a result of what I am talking about here. What they are telling you is to simplify your picture and concentrate on your subject.
This is necessarily tied up in the process of choosing your subject. Keep in mind that typically the real subject of your photo won’t be a thing but an idea or feeling. It is probably not a person, but an emotion. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as simple as “enjoying our vacation” or “beautiful sunset.” The simplification process causes you to think about what the idea of your photograph actually is, and then isolate it.
Sometimes we don’t know what the subject of our photograph is when we put the camera to our face. Very often, I just think “this is a beautiful place and I want to take a picture of it.” That’s all I’m thinking when I put the camera to my eye. But if you just take a picture of a scenic view, you have yourself a snapshot. It might be a nice snapshot, but it is a snapshot just the same. This step will cause you to take a moment and identify a subject or theme of your photograph.
In the end, this step of the process just means deciding on your subject and then simplifying it. Anything that supports the idea stays in the picture. Anything that doesn’t, is out.
Once you have that done, you can turn your attention to ordering things within the frame.
- Summary: This is the heart of the composition of your picture, where you consider perspective and layout to determine how things are arranged in your photo.
- When to do it: After your eye is to the camera.
One you have determined your subject and simplified things to the extent that you can, it is time to determine how things are arranged in your picture.
Of course, often as outdoor photographers we take the world as we find it. But you’d be surprised how much ability we have to reorder things by moving around and using our zooms. Do that by moving around as you consider your picture. Move the camera around, zoom in and out, shift your feet, or get higher or lower.
If may seem, as you read this, that you have to stand there with the camera to your face for a minute and a half contemplating these things. But that’s not the intent (or the reality). Each of the three items below should just be considered momentarily, and then move on. Perhaps when you are first starting, you might spend a little time with each, but in time they will get so ingrained that you won’t even know you are considering them as part of the set-up of your picture.
The first way to control the order of things in the photo is by considering your perspective. This will affect the way the viewer sees your subject. For example, you may already be familiar with the fact that shooting down on a subject makes it appear weaker and more vulnerable, while aiming up at a subject makes it appear more imposing and powerful.
Perspective will also affect how things within the picture. Getting low will accentuate the foreground of the picture. It will also make something in the distance appear smaller. In the case of a landscape shot, getting lower will also provide a sense that the viewer can walk into the picture. Conversely shooting from above will make the foreground and the background more equal in weight.
Think of perspective as the “up and down” placement of things within the picture. This is where you decide if you want to be below or above your subject. This is also where you decide how high or low you want to be to the ground. Just take a second as you have your camera to your eye and see how things shift when you do so.
Next, while you are setting up your picture, take a moment to consider the concept of compression. Compression is the effect of making things look closer together by using longer focal lengths. Its converse is that things look further apart at shorter focal lengths. The point is that even if you try to keep things weighted equally, a picture where you stand close to the subject and zoom out is a fundamentally different picture than one in which you stand far away from something and zoom in.
For purposes of your photography, you make things look more compact and the scene look more crowded when you things are close together. So zoom in to give things that sense. Or, if you are trying to establish the remoteness or isolation of your subject, get closer and zoom out.
Finally, you will consider the placement of things within the picture. This is quite often where the Rule of Thirds comes into play. In fact, this step might be nothing but the application of the Rule of Thirds.
I actually recommend that when you are starting out you use the Rule of Thirds to arrange your picture in almost instances. Use it vertically and horizontally. This should be the foundation for how things are ordered within your pictures. It does not have to be right on the line, just close.
I have already written about the Rule of Thirds so, rather than dwell on it again, here is link to that article. Let the Rule of Thirds guide the placement of objects in lines within your pictures.
- Summary: Take a second to make sure that there is a sense of balance to your picture.
- When to do it: Just before pressing the shutter
The last thing you will want to do before pressing the shutter button is make sure that your picture balances.
Objects within photographs maintain a sense of weight. While you may occasionally intentionally put a photograph off balance, almost always you will want to support a sense of balance in the picture. So the last think you should think about before taking your picture is whether it is balanced. But what does “balanced” mean?
Balance does not necessarily mean symmetry. Symmetry, also called “formal balance” means that everything in your frame balances out exactly equally. Symmetry can be a useful technique to achieve balance in some cases, but it is definitely not the only way, and in fact should be used sparingly. Symmetry is commonly used when photographing man-made subjects. Nature usually does not support the idea of symmetry and you will need to use other means.
Balance also does not mean centering your subject. In fact, this is almost always a bad idea. The runs afoul of the Rule of Thirds set forth above. So unless you have a compelling reason to do so, avoid direct centering of your subject.
Now that we’ve talked about what not to do, what should you do? When you seek balance in your photos, you should utilize a concept called “informal balance,” This the the process by which objects within your picture offset each other, even if they are not the same shape or size. You will use informal balance a lot in your photography.
To understand informal balance, all you need to know is that the mind subconsciously looks at the center of the picture as a sort of fulcrum (the center of a balance beam). Objects of the same size will balance if they are equidistant to the center of the frame. In addition, smaller objects can actually balance against larger objects if the smaller object is further away from the center of the picture.
The concept of informal balance manifests itself in other ways as well. For example, implied lines can create a sense of balance. A good specific example of that is that a person looking into the picture appears balanced. That means if the person is on the left side of the frame but looking to the right (into the frame), the implied line creates balance. If the person is on the left side of the frame but looking left (out of the frame), the picture appears off balance.
So take a final beat before your press the shutter button to make sure that your picture balances. When it does, at long last, go ahead and press the shutter button.
- Summary: Perhaps the most critical step, you do the process again, even if you think you nailed it the first time.
- When to do it: After you have taken the picture.
When you are done with the process above, take the picture. And when you are done taking the picture – and this is important – do it again. Reframe the shot going through the same process you just used and take it again.
Oftentimes, you will do basically the same thing. That is ok. This is a game of millimeters. Slight differences can have a huge impact on your pictures.
Other times, you will do something different. That is ok too. A different perspective may be better.
This process cannot be overstated. Many photographers call this “working the scene.” They take pictures from all sorts of different angles and perspectives in an attempt to get the best shot.
If you are using a tripod, you might want to take the camera off the tripod while you try out a few different angles and perspectives. Just walk around and experiment. If you find a particular composition you like, put the camera back on the tripod and take the shot properly. In addition, in a low light environment, shoot at extremely high ISOs to shorten your shutter speed. Since you are just experimenting at this phase and probably won’t even keep these pictures, the noise won’t matter. When you put the camera back on the tripod, bring the ISO levels back down to lower levels and slow down the shutter speed.
I once read something about this process that has always stuck with me. It is a discovery by a photographer named David Hurd, which is chronicled in his book On Being a Photographer. At some point, Hurd joined the preeminant photography agency called Magnum and, upon joining, obtained access to the contact sheets of the other photographers in the agency. What he discovered when he went through them was that all the photographers worked in exactly the same way. I’m paraphrasing, but it seems that they basically wandered around with a shot here and a shot there, but once they stumbled into a place they wanted to shoot, they shot it from every conceivable angle. They “worked the scene,” as set forth above, and did it hard.
So there you have the process for composing your photos: Simplify, Order, Balance. And then Repeat. Some of this may already be intuitive for you. If it is, great, keep using those instincts. But if not, you can use this process to take the mystery out of composition. In time, it will become ingrained and you won’t even have to consciously think about these concepts anymore.
Remember that the fun of composition doesn’t end when you are done shooting. Of course, you should try to get the composition right in-camera, but when you are back at your computer, you can take a more considered approach to it than when you are shooting. When you are shooting, you often have many things going through your head and a very limited time to make decisions. At the computer, you have as much time as you want. Take that time and clean up a little bit.
Finally, don’t let this process slow you down or hamper you. Sometimes things move fast when you are out with your camera. Don’t let these steps intimidate you or cause you to miss your shot. Do the best you can in the time you have available. You can also think about these things and clean them up a bit when you sit down with your photos at the computer.