What is the difference between a great photograph and a snapshot? Does the secret lie in the photographer’s knowledge and understanding of light or a feel for colour? Is it the choice of subject and shooting scenes that most of us pass by? Technical aspects such as the creative use of the aperture, shutter speeds and exposure all contribute towards the effectiveness of the picture, but it is the composition of the photograph that has the most impact.
Composition is by far the most important component of a good photograph. It is the composition of the picture that can transform a dull subject into something exciting and capture the atmosphere of a scene or event.
The the same rules of composition apply to both photography and art. Look at the great masters of the romantic, classical, impressionistic and modern eras in painting. What rules can you decipher from these?
The rule of thirds is the most well known and widely applied rule of composition. The scene is divided into into thirds horizontally and vertically. The horizon is placed along the bottom or top third. An item of interest may be on the left or right third. Placing objects of interest at or near the intersections of the horizontal and vertical thirds works well in drawing attention to them and making them look interesting. Photograph the sun setting over the sea with the horizon on the bottom third with the sun a third from the left or the right. It is effective and works. The rule of thirds is an approximation of the ancient Greek concept of the “golden ratio ” which is found in nature and was widely used by the ancient Greeks in architecture and art.
An effective technique is to arrange the composition so that the eye is drawn to the focal point of the picture. This defines the theme. Other elements are arranged accordingly. The composition should lead the eye from the focal point through the other features of the picture.
Simplicity is key. The focal point has all the attention and there are few distractions. Using aperture control effectively can help to achieve this. A wide aperture will keep the focal point in focus while the background appears fuzzy and blurred.
Movement can be depicted in a number of ways. Horizontal lines depict tranquil peaceful scenes while diagonals produce a more dynamic effect creating a sense of movement.
A moving object before a static background is very effective. Using a slow shutter speed can help achieve this. The moving object appears blurred showing a “tail”. A crisp moving object with a blurred background is achieved by panning. Both are effective.
The inclusion of people in a landscape helps to create the final effect and provide perspective. The inclusion of a human figure next to the Great Pyramids gives an indication of their size and grandeur.
A common error is to photograph the girlfriend, boyfriend or spouse in front of a famous site such as the Eiffel Tower.
This does justice to neither. The value of these pictures begins and ends by saying “I was there”. But including a person or people next to the Eiffel Tower in an incidental way provides a sense of perspective. It accentuates the size and grandeur of the subject. Photograph your lover separately!
You can use interesting backgrounds for portraits. These are best achieved if you can show some relationship between the two. A child viewing a monkey at the zoo is effective especially of the monkey is looking back. Similarly effective is an artist pictured at an easel with paintbrush in hand. But always remember where the focal point lies. Is it the person or the scene? Do not try to depict both in the same picture. Quite effective is a portrait with a blurred or fuzzy sea-scape as the background.
One of the most important rules is to avoid symmetry and even numbers. Odd numbers are always more interesting! This is known as the rule of odds. Odd numbers avoid symmetry which makes for a more interesting composition. Photographing a couple is different. A man and a woman are different so there is no risk of symmetry.
A technique that helps to create a sense of interest is that of a line meandering and disappearing into the distance. This can include a long road or pathway curving and disappearing behind a hill or a meandering river disappearing into the distance. These suggest an element of mystery.
Use back-lighting to produce soft photos of people, but ensure that the exposure is measured and set for the subject rather than the background. If using lighting remember that a diffuser softens the effect. Bounce the flash off a white wall or ceiling. Strong direct lighting from the front tends to flatten a face and may produce harsh shadows and lines.
With today’s digital photography, composition can even be improved after the event using a photo editing package. Cropping can be used to achieve the rule of thirds. Additional light may be added, contrast, brightness and colour saturation may be changed. You can even blur (or remove) the background.
Breaking the rules is often a way to get attention. An unexpected view of a scene. An object captured from an unusual angle. Remember that rules should only be regarded as guidelines. If a picture breaks all the rules but is effective, then go ahead!
Perhaps the primary key is the same as for all visual arts. This is the ability to see and to think visually. Look at scenes in different ways. Think photographically.