Improving your photographic composition

February 14, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Composition is one of the most difficult tasks for many photographers to get a handle on.  The internet and forums don't provide us much help either.  Too many "experts" tout on rule or another, the most common of which is the "rule of thirds".  The rule of thirds says we should divide our image into nine equal parts and important elements, e.g. the subject, should be placed at the intersection of one or more of these sections.

If we follow this "rule" blindly as if to make it nearly a religion then your images will look just about like everyone else's images.  There are a number of compositional guidelines;

  • Rule of thirds
  • Golden Ratio
  • Rule of odds
  • Balancing elements
  • Leading lines
  • Diagonals

The list could go on and we can talk about things such a Fibonacci sequence and more.  For me these things merely create confusion.  Let's talk about more some very simple and basic guidelines to better composition.  My favorite of which is to simplify your image.  Determine what is the subject of your image and compose it in a simple manner, meaning no or few other elements competing for attention.  

Take a look at this photograph.

Now compare it to this photograph.

Even though we cannot see the babies face in the first photograph the composition is much better in my opinion.  There are no other elements that compete for attention.  In the second we have a trail, trees, and some "unknown" structures in the background that, in my opinion, do nothing to enhance the subject but rather draw our attention away from the subject.  

Another issue with the second photograph is the subject, the baby, is nearly centered in the frame.  This is often a common problem with photographers, especially those new to photography.  

Simplify your image, only include those things that enhance your subject and are related to your subject.  

One of my favorite photographers who practiced the art of simplify was Imogene Cunningham. If you are not familiar with her work click her name to go to her official site and see some of her work.  Imogene did a great job in only including what enhanced the subject.  To me there was never a doubt as to what was the subject of the photograph.  

Another way we can improve our compositions is to make our subject large and up front.

Compare the next two photographs.

In the first one, it appears to be the building or parking lot.  If you look closer those things are not sharply focused.  In reality the bicycle is the subject in both.  The bicycle is more clearly defined as the subject in the second photograph because it is the largest part of the image and is in sharp focus.  

The biggest mistake I see is that we often try to include too many elements in a photograph.  This doesn't mean that all our photographs have to have simple compositions with few elements, but rather often we try to include more than necessary.  

The photograph above has a number of elements however I believe it is fairly easy see the subject of the photograph.  The police officer and the woman on the ground.  For me they become the subject for a number of reasons.  They are framed by the cars and structure and they are in focus.  The other objects the cars give us a sense that they were in the street, in traffic.  We will discuss these concepts further in additional articles. (As a side note I never found out the "story" but it appeared to have been the result of a domestic dispute just a few days before Christmas.  The woman was upset, a couple of other police officers arrived later, and talked with a man, as well as the woman.)

In later articles I'll discuss some more guidelines for composition, including framing.  I will delve more deeply into those concepts, taking one at a time to explain in detail both the concept and the why they work.  

 

 

 

 

 


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