Giant Amoeba | Composition Tips

Composition Tips

September 08, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

In the previous couple of blogs I touched upon some bits of non-artsy aspects of photography, they are not technical though, like geotagging or how we are driven by the urge to keep accumulating more gear. Hence, I decide to devote this article to the aesthetics and emotional aspects of photography - Composition.

The internet is flooded with countless number of articles on the topic and a vast majority of them are extremely good and useful. I, myself, have become a better photographer, in my own eyes, from poring over these articles and watching countless hours of "how-to" videos on Youtube.

At some point in this article, I will try to recollect and mention some of the defining learning moments (videos) in my short photographic venture, so you are able to take advantage of these vast treasures of information and benefit from them, just as I have. You will be able to pick both on the artistic side as well as on the technical side of photography from these videos. 

Disclaimer: The videos, mentioned at the end of this article, are from youtube and they may have been taken away or deleted or even blocked. 

There is also plenty of printed material available on the subject and so this article is a bit of a cliché  but one that, I hope, would still benefit my circle of friends and followers, who have taken a liking to my pictures and have supported me with their own views on them, and are also wondering on how they can improve their own photography - aesthetically.


How do I get from snapshot to a great shot?

A vast majority of my photographic life, I have been documenting my visits to various places - through my photographs - as, I have been, with capturing private moments with family and friends. While these images still continue to serve as nostalgic moments through the time capsule to me, they would be an absolute bore to someone else looking at them, as these images would not evoke any sort of an emotion or feeling with them. Fortunately, I realised that something had to be done about the way I am making my pictures (I am not saying I am taking pictures, but making them - they are not there, in the world, to be taken, photographers work very hard to MAKE pictures) and decided to drip feed my grey cells with steady stream of information with bite sized chunks, on how to embrace change with our image making skills.

I will try and include an example on each of the points that you would read in the upcoming passages, so that you are visually in tune with the explanation provided.

01. Get your subject off-centre - The most common mistake that all of us make is to put the subject smack in the centre of the frame. This is fine when your subject is the only thing on the photograph but imagine that you are also composing other aspects in the frame along with your subject. It would make sense to provide some room for other things in your image besides your subject. 

02. Rule of thirds - Everyone has heard of the terms "Greek Mean" or the "rule of thirds" and these are nowhere more pertinent than in your photographic composition. The standard film or sensor is rectangular in shape. If you were to draw a grid across the frame like a Tic Tac Toe board, you have 4 intersecting points. These are the power points of your image and if you placed your subject on one of these intersecting points or along the line where the intersection happens, your image is likely to be more powerful than if you were to place your subject in the centre of the frame. For example if you placed your horizon line, right in the centre of the frame, you are emphasising that both the land and the sky are of equal importance in your image and this makes it difficult to convey the scene that you visualised, to the viewer. Instead, if you want to lay emphasis on the foreground, you put the sky at the top 3rd of the frame or if the sky is more dramatic, you put the foreground at the bottom 3rd. 

Mayfield Lavender FarmLavender DreamsMayfield Lavender Farm, Banstead

In the picture above, I wished to place the emphasis on the sky, so I had pushed the foreground to the bottom 3rd, while the tree is placed off-centre to the left, thereby achieving a pleasing effect. However, rules are meant to be broken! You could place the horizon in the centre if you are capturing reflections off the water, like in the image below.

"Loch Ard", Reflection, "Ben View", Aberfoyle, Inversnaid, "Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park", "Loch Ard Forest", KinlochardReflections on Loch ArdWhen the weather turned better, we were greeted by this magical world of Lochs and reflections and Bens and Munros

03. Fill the Frame - I have seen plenty of pictures where the photographer tries to bring attention to a subject but the subject is so indistinct in the frame that it becomes difficult to understand what was being conveyed, amidst the clutter. To avoid this, please get closer to your subject and fill the frame or if you are shooting from a distance, zoom in tight and close. This ensures that you have the entire subject in the frame and the viewer is then able to make out what is the message.

In the above image, I went in tight with the zoom lens besides being as close to the subject as possible to fill the subject in the frame.

04. Repetitions - We have all seen images of sea-shells at the beach or rocks or pebbles by the lake and these images have always evoked a sense of calmness in us. This is because our mind easily recognises the pattern and puts us in a "comfort zone" where we feel calm. But have you also noticed that in each of these images, if you introduced one element that breaks the pattern, then that becomes the subject! 

London EyeHiding in plain sightThe London Eye

Are your eyes drawn to the red capsule? Also notice that this is placed on one of the power points where the horizontal 3rd at the top is intersecting with the vertical 3rd on the right - more or less.

05. Leading Lines - Geometrical shapes have always been used to convey a powerful story in an image and one could never go wrong with leading lines. They help to transport the viewer through the frame to the subject without too much of an effort on the photographer's part. Or they could convey a sense of mystery as to what might there be at the end of it - like railroad lines or a long road, as in the image below

Road too farRoad too farLower Laithe Reservoir near Haworth, Bronte Country - Yorkshire

Are you intrigued, as I am, as to where this road could lead us to? 

06. Less is more - The fundamental difference between painting and photography is that painting is an additive process, where the painter keeps adding on more and more to the canvas to paint a scene, and photography is an eliminating process, where you try to remove unwanted elements in your picture. Your objective is to remove the clutter in your scene in a way that you isolate just the salient features to convey the mood. So next time you are out shooting, pay attention to those pesky telephone wires or the trash cans in the background and eliminate them off your frame. The mantra is "Keep it Simple."

Aberfoyle, "Loch Ard", "Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park", Serene, Tranquil, Aberfoyle, KinlochardThe Lone SentinelWhen the decision to include an overcast sky in the frame turned out alright!

Isolating this one tree from a bunch of others, a few feet to the left of it, has enabled me to convey a sense of tranquility to the scene which, otherwise, would have looked visually very busy and not helped me deliver the objective of the message.

07. Change your POV/ orientation - By default we all use our cameras in the horizontal position or the landscape orientation because that is the most easiest thing to do. Every time you finish shooting a picture, ask yourself, if there is a possibility to shoot the same scene in portrait orientation - if the answer is Yes, then go ahead and shoot the scene vertically. Some common mistakes people make is to take a full-length picture  of a person in landscape mode when they can be more impactful if taken vertically. Also, we take our pictures at our eye level all the time - and these pictures tend to be boring, because that's the way we see our world - instead change your point of view, go high or low depending on the scene and you are likely to have a more impactful picture as we are not used to seeing things from that perspective.

St.Ives PromenadeSeen better daysSt. Ives promenade

Had I chosen to shoot this picture from the eye-level, it wouldn't have been as impactful as it is now, I went flat on the ground much to the amusement of the kids in the vicinity, besides scattering a couple of pensioners off their perch at a bench behind me.

08. Create a foreground interest - One of the other important things to create an impactful image is to separate the frame into 3 distinct areas - a foreground, a middle ground and a background. This would help convey depth to your image. 

"Loch Ard", "10 Stop ND filter", Serene, Tranquil, Aberfoyle, "Loch Ard", "Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park", "Scenic Route", Scotland, KinlochardWhere is the kindle10 Stop exposure on Loch Ard

The rocks in the foreground serve as an anchor to this image from where the viewer could wander around the photograph and come back and rest before setting off again. Besides they also serve to create a sense of depth and distance, in the picture.

When you try and follow the aforesaid simple techniques, I am sure your images would be much more dynamic and impactful. There are plenty of other things that would add to an image's overall impact, but these are a good place to start.

As I mentioned before, I learnt a lot of my photographic skills from the Internet. There are plethora of videos on Youtube but I would like to draw your attention to a select few, given below as a starting point. 

01. Bryan Peterson - The Perfect Picture - a one hour video, where, besides the points I had mentioned above, there are lots and lots of other tips.

02. Bryan Peterson - You Keep Shooting - plenty of quick 5 to 8 minute videos

03. Scott Kelby - Crush the Composition - a one hour video, where he touches upon some basic rules in the first 5 - 8 minutes but lays emphasis on a completely different paradigm, on composition

04. Mark Wallace - Digital Photography One on One - plenty of videos on, both, the artistic side as well as the technical side of photography

05. Gavin Hoey - Take and Make Great Picture - plenty of videos with a lots of emphasis on post-processing your images

These should keep you pretty well occupied for a long time and I learnt a lot, myself, and practised using these techniques. 

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