If you missed Part One: The Light in this series, click HERE to read that article first.
How you build a picture, what a picture consists of, how shapes are related to each other, how spaces are filled, how the whole thing must have a kind of unity.
— Paul Strand
Getting It Right In Camera, Part Two: Composition
Composition starts with understanding the subject of your photograph and the story you want it to tell or the emotion you want it to evoke. The following discussion of framing and design assumes you have strong content, an interesting subject, and a vision of what you want to accomplish with the photograph.
Framing refers to arranging the elements you see through the camera’s viewfinder before you take the photograph. How your photograph is organized, how the space is used, how the elements are to be linked, and how pleasing this is to you includes thinking about:
- Rules, which suggest how the area within a frame is divided, the proportions that exist between the elements of a frame, and the relationships between them. These rules and guidelines influence the way we look at things through a photographer’s eye and help guide framing decisions. They include the familiar rule of thirds and the golden ratio, the lesser known Fibonacci spiral, and advice to avoid placing your subject in the center of the frame.
- Vertical or horizontal orientation to make the most of the subject and the scene.
- Placement of subjects and choice of focal points within the frame to clearly identify the subject or subjects, and lead the viewer’s eye.
- Use of space within the frame to tell the story.
- Visual weight of subjects, use of relative size, balance of placement between your subjects, and the interaction between foreground and background to create interest and guide the viewer as they look at the photograph.
- Filling the frame to exclude unnecessary or distracting subjects.
- A shooting strategy to overshoot the frame, which means including more of the scene on each of the four sides of the frame to avoid cutting off any details on the edges you may later wish you had captured.
Design Basics and Focal Elements
There are many considerations that determine where the viewer’s eyes go first and in which direction the eyes travel as they look at a photograph. The following list will help you start thinking about how design considerations might be applied in your compositions. Remember, this is fun, so experiment.
- Color, color combinations, color tones, and the relationships between them. Colors may be complementary or contrasting. Colors that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel (see Note 1 below), such as red/green, blue/yellow, or blue/orange, complement each other well. Bright, intense colors attract the eye. Warm, muted, and subtle colors create calm, peaceful emotions. These relationships have a huge impact on a photograph because people associate different colors with emotions, perceptions, and states of mind, and it is helpful to understand these relationships.
- Lines (horizontal, vertical, diagonal, parallel, converging, curved) have different associations and create different emotions or reactions.
- Circles and curves create impressions of smooth, flowing action and lead the viewer’s eye around the frame.
- Triangles and pyramids, consisting of three converging points, are very common in photographs, provide a visually dramatic effect, and may be used to emphasize proportions.
- Rectangles are associated with static precision.
- Texture and patterns rely on repetition of a mass of similar subjects and provide the viewer’s eye with a sense of direction and flow, harmony and rhythm.
- Shadows contribute to mood and atmosphere; silhouettes can be dramatic.
- Contrasts come in many forms and include concepts such as light/dark or shadow, rough/smooth, large/small, near/far, and young/old.
- Capturing, freezing, or blurring motion in a scene creates very different, abstract impressions of a subject.
- Reflections come from many sources and can create stunning results.
- Photographing from different angles, such as above or below a subject, can create a unique point of view.
- A person or group of people (or animals), attracts the eye. They tell a story; create emotions; imply or portray relationships; create a sense of stillness, movement, or drama; provide a sense of place, perspective, and scale; and guide the viewer’s eyes within the frame. How you include people depends on whether there are one or many, or whether they are the subject, a prop in the scene, or making the scene possible. Including people and animals in photographs is such an important subject that some very special considerations apply. In addition to those listed above, the most familiar of these special considerations include proximity of the person to the edges of the frame, positioning within the frame relative to the direction the person or group of people are looking or moving, the position of the person relative to the subject, and appropriate capture and cropping of the person.
All of the images above contain examples of these Light, Composition, Framing, and Design Basics ideas. Each photograph was taken using manual aperture, shutter speed, and ISO exposure settings.
Next Step: In Parts 1 and 2 of this three part series we have discussed the roles that the subject, lighting, imagination, visualization, and composition play in creating a memorable photograph. In Part 3 we are going to build on this discussion by adding shooting strategy and the additional role your camera and lenses play in creating memorable photographs.
1. Click here to see Adobe Color, an interactive color wheel.
2. Metadata is descriptive, technical, and administrative information recorded by digital cameras that is embedded with each digital file and includes Aperture (f/stop), Shutter Speed, ISO, focal length of lens, as well as Exif (Exchangeable image file format) metadata.
All photographs © Copyright Mike Watson/MikeWatsonPhotos.com
About the Author:
Mike Watson has an extensive and varied background in consulting and the software industry. He’s most likely to be found these days behind a camera, processing his photographs in Adobe® Lightroom® and Adobe® Photoshop® or thinking about his next article. He is a workshop Facilitator and author of a number of articles about photography and shows his landscape, urban and night photography on http://www.MikeWatsonPhotos.com.