How to Take Extraordinary Photographs, Part 2: Composition

Photography for the Web by Paul Duncanson is the latest release from the SitePoint book publishing stable. It contains all you need to know to transform photos taken on your standard camera into gorgeous images that impress. You may already know that we’ve made Chapters 1 and 2 available as part of the free sample PDF of the book, and a few weeks ago we ran an article on Exposure, taken from the book. This article is an excerpt from chapter 2, addressing the principles of composition. Read on to learn more, or download the free sample to read both chapters offline at your convenience.

Composition is the art of placing elements in a scene to make it more aesthetically pleasing. It’s a subject on which many books have been written. Here I’ll give you an overview of some of the basic principles of composition. Rather than tell you to take pictures in a certain way, we will show you some well-established techniques that engage the viewer’s interest, encouraging them to explore the picture rather than just stare at its surface.

Composition

Good composition derives from a number of different design principles, which are in turn based in the psychology and neurology of our responses to visual cues. It’s unnecessary to know the underlying reasons why these principles work in order to use them; the artists who first noted them thousands of years ago simply observed how people reacted to scenes, images, and objects, and deduced principles they could apply to creating new works.

Effective composition can happen by accident. Sometimes everything just lines up perfectly: you see a scene and it’s exactly the way you want it to appear as soon as you look through the viewfinder. More often, it doesn’t. The best compositions usually require some effort from the photographer. Sometimes it’s the careful arranging of objects in the scene, sometimes it’s just finding the right point of view from which to shoot. Top advertising photographers can spend weeks of planning, days of setting up, and hours of fine-tuning for a single image. Landscape photographers are unable to arrange their subjects so easily, but they can spend weeks scouting a location for the best possible angle, then wait weeks more for the light and weather to be right.

Nobody expects you to go to quite those lengths to take a photo, but you might be surprised how much improvement there’ll be in your images if you just take a few moments to construct your shot before you click.

In the following pages we’ll discover some of the elements of composition you might use in creating your images. These are not strict rules that you must follow if your images are going to work (even though at least one of them is called a rule). Professional photographers sometimes ignore them on purpose to great effect. However, they’re useful to keep in mind while you’re practicing and increasing your skill level.

Focal Point

Framing your image with one prominent object or area that stands out from other elements gives the viewer an easy way into the image, a place from which they can explore other elements and return to before they look away. Before you shoot, it’s a good idea to consider just what your photo is about, so that you can base it around that object or theme.

When you frame your shot, place the subject so that it’s unobscured, so that nothing else in the frame distracts the viewer from the subject. Focus on a prominent feature if the subject is taking up a significant amount of the frame. (If it’s a person, focus on their eyes. In-focus eyes create a much stronger connection between viewer and portrait.) If you’re unable to avoid a busy surrounding scene, use a shallow depth of field to blur the background so that it doesn’t draw attention away from the subject. Make it clear to the viewer why you took the shot by showing the subject in question clearly.

If your scene contains many elements, remember which object first grabbed your attention. It’s a good chance that it is a point that’s significantly brighter than its surroundings (unless it’s a bright scene, in which case it might be significantly darker than the nearby areas). Our attention is naturally attracted to areas of high local contrast—places in an image where there’s a small area with a heightened difference in brightness. The highest contrast point tends to be where we look first, and if that’s your subject, people will look at it. When composing your scene, try to frame your subject so that it is at or near the brightest point.

Figure 1. The bright lights of the carousel

The bright lights of the carousel


In Figure 1, “The bright lights of the carousel”, the bright lights of the carousel in the foreground provide a focal point from which your attention can wander around the other sights of the cityscape. Your attention was most likely attracted to those bright lights first. From there you can wander through the image to the skyline still glowing from the setting sun, to the lights on the taller buildings that intrude into the darkening sky, to the lights reflected on the surface of the river, and back to the carousel. There’s one major focal point, but not just one thing to look at, and that’s worth aiming for when framing a landscape style of photo: a focal point to encourage the viewers to look, other areas of interest to keep them looking.

If you’re shooting a wide open landscape without a lot of prominent features, pick one to focus on and place it prominently in the frame, even if there’s nothing else in it. Sometimes, the best way to convey a sense of emptiness is to find (or place) one object in the frame that, by its presence, emphasizes the barrenness of the rest of the image. An empty table could mean the beginning or end of an event, or neither. Add an abandoned snack, as in Figure 2, “The party is over”, and it’s clear that the party’s over.

Figure 2. The party is over

The party is over


When you next take photos of a location or a landscape, practice finding one object within the scene to be your focal point, rather than just pointing indiscriminately.

tip: Telling a Story

When a photo’s points of interest are arranged so that the viewer’s attention wanders around them, they begin to tell a story. We make assumptions about what’s happening based on where objects and people are placed relative to each other, where people are looking, and where they appear to be going. A still photo cannot move or change, but movement and change can be suggested, and a narrative can be read into that. When people start reading stories into your photos, you really have their attention.

Viewpoint and Angle

The angle from which you look at a subject conveys a lot about that subject and about what you have to say about it. A large subject shot from above at a steep angle appears small to the viewer, because they seem to be towering over it as they look at the image. Likewise, a small object shot from below seems to loom over the viewer, making it seem larger even if we know it is small. A person can appear as tall as the tallest building, as illustrated by Figure 3, “A person can appear as tall as the tallest building”, if the shot is taken from the right angle.

Figure 3. A person can appear as tall as the tallest building

A person can appear as tall as the tallest building


Besides impressions of size, the point of view from which we take a photo can say much about the subject that we may or may not mean. “Looking down on” things which we hold in contempt is not just a metaphor. We routinely place more important or valuable items physically higher than objects we hold to be of lesser significance. Take the presentation of medals at the Olympic Games, for example. The winner stands higher than the second-place getter, who’s placed higher than the person who came third. “Top-shelf” products are the more expensive ones, and are often kept on higher shelves than cheaper items. If you want to show an individual as important or powerful, shooting them from above will give the opposite effect. Shooting children from their level (or a bit lower) can show a person who is growing rather than one who is small.

Distance also makes the subject seem smaller. A person surrounded by lots and lots of open space might seem small or lost or unimportant. If the person is important, even if only to you, zoom in. If you’re unable to zoom in, move closer to the subject.

When you’re shooting a familiar subject, especially one that has been photographed a lot, your photos will be more interesting if you find a different perspective. Sometimes you’re unable to change the lighting or the placement of an object, but you can change where you shoot from. Choosing an alternative vantage point or a unusual angle of view can make all the difference between a boring shot and an image at which people will want to look. Unless it’s a fast-moving object and you have to shoot quickly or miss it, take the time to explore various angles and points of view. Use your viewfinder to ensure everything is in frame and to see how the subject fills the frame.

These two photos of the spire of the Melbourne Arts Centre were taken only seven minutes apart with exactly the same camera settings. In Figure 4, “When the difference between dull and interesting is an angle, a point of view, and seven minutes” the photo on the left is rather dull, while the one on the right is much more interesting. The point of view and angle are the only aspects changed between shots, yet they make the difference between a boring photograph and one that’s far more compelling.

Figure 4. When the difference between dull and interesting is an angle, a point of view, and seven minutes

When the difference between dull and interesting is an angle, a point of view, and seven minutes


Experiment with viewpoints that are uneven or angular. You can see by tilting the frame of the second spire photo, we’ve achieved a much more dynamic image. The strong diagonals and greater convergence of lines suggests movement, even though there is none. The standard, level view of the first shot just sits there, while the tilted view appears to be going somewhere.

Lines and Angles

Lines, particularly converging lines, lead to places. If we look at a set of lines that converge across an image, we instinctively assume it’s the effect of perspective, and that the narrower end is further away; even if we can plainly see that this is not the case, we still have that feeling. The lines give the image depth, and the viewer’s gaze follows them from foreground to background into the image. The viewer’s attention is drawn by more than just the one point and so they’re inclined to look longer.

A path snaking off into the distance, starting in the foreground then heading deep into the image, is the sort of feature a viewer’s gaze will naturally follow. Putting your subject somewhere along a path, as in Figure 5, “Leading you up the garden path”, is an easy way to imply a story—a person is walking towards or away from you. With the viewer led into the image and prompted to read a story into it, they are far more engaged than they’d be if the subject was standing on a blank studio set.

Figure 5. Leading you up the garden path

Leading you up the garden path


The lines need not even be complete and continuous. When enough points in a shot are lined up, they’ll be read as a line leading to a point, as seen in Figure 6, “Lights mark the path leading to our man in the shadows”. Here, a row of lights in the darkness form a line drawing our gaze to the man in the shadows.

Figure 6. Lights mark the path leading to our man in the shadows

Lights mark the path leading to our man in the shadows


Even if there’s no real path or sense of movement in your scene, a photo can often be improved by suggesting a sense of direction and depth. Simply tilting your viewpoint can have a dramatic effect. Even without any convergence, diagonal lines make us think of movement. They suggest perspective, unlike straight verticals and horizontals.

The next time you take a photo, look for lines in your scene and note from where they lead. Try to find an angle to shoot from, using them to lead your view into the image.

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