The main goal of this three-part series is to provide a quick refresher course on the essentials of good photography. We are talking about some of the factors that can help you consistently get great images in your camera, so you don’t always have to fix things in Photoshop. In Part 1, we talked about exposure.
In Part 2, we’ll cover composition and lens choice. I’ll talk about the benefits of shooting a variety of compositions, the psychology of composition, and how lens choice relates to all this.
Composition and Lens Choice: As photographers, we all know that how elements are positioned within in a photograph (composition) is critically important to the success of an image. It is one very real way that a photographer “creates” an image instead of simply recording what is there. A snapshooter records what they are presented with, generally with little or no thought to the arrangement of subjects within the frame, while a professional crafts the position of objects in the scene and the relationships between the objects.
There are many ways to move objects around within in the frame. For example, you can:
--Move laterally to change the relative positioning of objects. Nearer objects will move more noticeably than more distant ones, changing their position in relation to each other.
--Advance on or retreat from the subjects. Changing the distance to your subject will change its relative size in the frame and create some lateral movement as well.
--Change the height of the camera. This is an often forgotten move, but when you raise or lower the camera you create opportunities to reveal objects that were previously hidden behind other objects. Or, you hide objects that were visible, or reveal or hide parts of objects that were already visible.
--Turn the camera to include or exclude a subject. This is called in-camera cropping.
-- Change the lens focal length. This changes two things in the image: a change in perspective and a widening or narrowing of the field of view so that we include or exclude more or less. If you change the lens focal length, then move closer or further away from the subject, you can affect the relative sizes and juxtapositions of subjects in the scene.
--Physically move objects about in the scene. The studio photographer does this all the time but there are opportunities in other types of photography to do this quite frequently. For example, landscape photographers typically remove foreground litter.
--Change the lighting to hide, reveal, emphasize or de-emphasize subjects in the scene.
--Use depth-of-field effects to make subjects more or less noticeable. Sharp subjects generally have a more visible ‘presence’ in an image than blurred ones.
--Crop the image after the shot in the darkroom or Photoshop.
--Use Photoshop to rearrange subjects in the scene. This was hard to do in the darkroom, but it was possible. Photoshop has made this a much more convenient option.
--Use Photoshop to bring in subjects from other photographs and place them were you want. This includes shooting your main subject against a blue/green screen and using matting software to remove the background so a new one can be dropped in. Portrait and product photographers use this technique all the time but it can be done in other types of photography too if you work at it.
All of the above represent just some of the ways you can position subjects within the scene as you will. But why do you want to?
Psychology of Composition: Creating a successful composition in an image is really the art of playing with human psychology and perception. In a previous article, Creativity, Composition and Design, we examined the elements of design, such as contrast, conflict, etc. All of these play into building a successful composition.
But so does the psychology of placement within the frame and even the shape of the plane itself. Square images feel different to rectangular ones. Some rectangular shapes work better than others for particular images. Also the ideas of the Golden Section (that an ideal proportion occurs in nature and the best art) suggest that there is an ideal shape to a rectangular image.
Within the frame the central position has special importance. While placing the main subject in the center is usually boring there are times when it is exactly the right thing to do. A centrally placed portrait subject staring right into the lens can create a powerful and confronting image. Sometimes.
The rule of thirds suggests that the ideal placement of main subjects is either on the third lines (for a horizon, for example) or the four intersection points of third lines. Again, this can fail for some images. The image is divided up into thirds both vertically and horizontally. The idea is that lines work best when placed on one of these lines, such as the horizon or the side of a building, while strong image objects work best when placed on one of the intersection points of the lines.
There will be times when placing the main subject right on the edge of the frame, (perhaps partly cropped off even by the frame) is exactly right.
In other words: There are no absolutes when it comes to composition. It comes down to what you are trying to say with the image. Once you know what you want to say, you can position the image elements in a way that best seems to express your intention.
In fact, creating a successful image often means removing minor or distracting elements of the scene. In this sense, photography rewards minimalism, removing from the image everything that isn’t necessary and doesn’t contribute to the desired result.
Take a Variety of Images of the Same Subject: Because it is impossible to always know at the time of shooting just how you will use an image, it is important to take a variety of images of the same subject. I call this “working the scene” and it is something that differentiates pro photographers from amateurs.
Amateurs will often find a setup that looks good and only shoot that, while a pro will shoot the setup that looks good, then search for more possibilities.
I make it a point to shoot verticals as well as horizontals and tightly cropped images and less tight images. I will also move around the scene or creating different relative positioning between the main subjects.
For example, if you crop a scene too tightly in camera, you may not be able to create a successful square image from it later. Having a variety of shots gives you much more to work with later.
Because you know that you will probably want to crop later, it is smart to shoot with a digital camera that has far more pixels than you are likely to need for the final image. This makes it possible to crop significantly and still achieve the desired end image size and level of detail.
In Part 3, I’ll talk about lighting choices, from in the field to in the studio and from the simple to the complex. The emphasis will be on taking and examining test shots and making lighting adjustments that can make later manipulation much easier.
In the daily push and shove of running a photographic business, it is easy to forget the basics of creativity and composition. Thus, it’s worth reminding ourselves of these principles from time to time, especially when feeling creatively blocked.
If you’re new to photography and have focused primarily on learning the technical basics of proper lighting and camera operation, then I would encourage you to spend some time learning about these principles of design and composition in more detail.
When your work is evaluated in a portfolio review, these are some of the underlying principles that will affect how your images are evaluated. Technical proficiency matters of course, but so does your knowledge of how to apply the timeless principles of good art and how people view images. There are many great books aimed at photographers, graphic designers and artists on composition. Same principles apply to all three. Start with what you can find in your local library and go from there.
Photographers work with a visual medium, and thus a visual language, and so use the same creative elements as painters, sculptors, and designers. So let's use this post to remind ourselves of some of the core aspects of our art. The core design elements and principles to work with are:
- Negative Space
- Repetition reinforces
- Rhythm makes you look for predicted occurrence
- Contrast or variety, in size or color, for example
- The Focal Point
- Controlling eye path
Some of these elements are more self-explanatory than others. For example, repetition of a certain element reinforces its visual power. Rhythm makes you look for the next predicted occurrence. Contrast or variety in size or color makes certain elements in the composition stand out.
Here are some other points to keep in mind:
Point placement: A single dominant object or element should be placed carefully. Multiple points compete and may create shapes with particular meaning (e.g, three points in an upside-down triangle can be dynamically unstable, and visually more interesting than a conventional triangle with a more stable, horizontal base).
Abstraction: Abstraction means eliminating everything from the image that is not necessary to your intent. By removing the clutter, you draw the viewers’ attention more closely to what you want to highlight. Removing color or blurring backgrounds are examples of some methods of abstraction.
Rule of thirds: When you frame the shot, visually divide the scene into thirds, vertically and horizontally. Imagine two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines. Align your points of main interest on one of these horizontal or vertical lines or where the lines would intersect. This creates a more interesting composition than simply centering the subject.
Opportunity: In any given location there are an infinite number of photos you could take. The light will vary. You can change positions, angles, or lenses. Or, you can move objects around to create different juxtapositions, etc. Since any given location has an infinite number of photo opportunities, why can’t you see them? The reality is that you will only see the opportunities that mesh with your photographic thinking at that particular time. This is why you can return to a familiar location much later and see completely new opportunities.
So you must try to expand your thinking about photography. You can do this by always trying to think of some of the possibilities listed below:
- Still life
- Low light
This list is far from complete. The more you expand your thinking about photography, the more possibilities you will consider.
Think About The End Use: If you know how you intend to use a given image it can affect how you shoot. For example:
Must the image be cropped in camera or can you crop later?
Will the shot be the whole image or will you be combining this shot with others?
What emotion do you want to convey?
What aspects do you want to show?
What do you definitely not want to show?
Overcoming Blocks: When you face the inevitable creative block, it can help to remind yourself of the concepts and ideas listed above. Often the best way to overcome a block is simply to try something new—or something that you were taught long ago but haven’t thought about lately.
So keep this list handy and when you feel creatively blocked, pick an element at random and try using it in your work. Simply trying something different will eventually get the creative juices flowing again.