Now, you can shelve your special effects and your well-crafted exposure techniques because to me composition is the soul in the art of photography. As in all art forms, there will be natural Picassos or Capas or Levitts out there – those that just ‘get it’ and elevate a simple photograph to something more akin to a lifelong journey – and then there are… the rest of us. For us there are rules of composition that when mastered will help us develop images that balance interest with harmony, colour and craft. Images that rise above the mere ‘snapshot’ and then plunge us into depths that only art can fathom.
That’s the importance of elegant composition for you and here are three of the rules that I think will most help us get there.
The rule of thirds
This is the first rule in ever photographic manual and for good reason. The rule of thirds is the quickest way to move new photographers away from the head-on, look-me-in-the-eye, ants-go-marching-two-by-two balancing that is the natural starting point for many of us. From that, to thinking a little off centre, in threes, thinking oddly, unevenly, interestingly.
The rule of thirds says that you should divide an image into a grid of nine equal segments (three by three, hence the ‘thirds’) and position your subject or points of interest along the lines of the grid or where the lines intersect. Doing this immediately forces you off the ‘front and centre’ mentality that a lot of new photographers have – if you’re true to the rule, your subject is not positioned in the centre of the shot at all. Great for removing the mug shot factor from portraits and keeping landscapes from becoming too matchy-matchy.
Take this shot I took in Italy last year. It’s a nice shot – it’s hard to take any photo of Lake Como that isn’t rather lovely – but it’s not particularly special and at first it’s hard to say why.
If I crop the shot, getting rid of some of the water and bringing the tall tower and trees in the background closer into the shot, things start to look more interesting.
When we see the two shots with the ‘rule of third’ grids we can see straightaway why the second shot is the more successful.
See how the horizontal lines in the houses in the foreground line up with the bottom grid line? And the ledge of the tower does likewise at the back, with the tall aspens running exactly along the vertical grid as well. This is a good example how how even if the ‘rule of thirds’ doesn’t come naturally to you in the ‘field’, you can play around and work it out later in post-production.
The best shot isn’t necessarily found right in front of your nose, conveniently at eye level. It might be up, it might be down, to the left, the right, close up, over there, up a ladder, lying on the ground, flying through the air on a trapeze. Watch a professional photographer and you will see that they are never, ever still. It all depends on which viewpoint is the most creative and intriguing and they will take shots of every single one of them before deciding which they like the best. For interesting, memorable shots, view the world in your own unique way.
The best subject can be ruined by what’s behind it. When shooting your image, consider the whole picture, not just what’s in focus.
Find a plain background to give your subject the lead, or an interesting one that contrasts well within the shot. Ensure that the background isn’t ‘bitsy’ or untidy, distracting the eye from your subject for no good reason. Be aware of the whole image (especially photo bombers, especially when they are you!)
A lovely background can make or break an image. If you can’t adjust your background, you may need to adjust your aperture to decrease the depth of field to ‘fade out’ anything less than ideal.
So, there you have the ‘big three’ of composition as far as I’m concerned. Bear in mind that I’m not even rank enough to be considered an amateur (just a very good researcher and king of mucking around with my camera for not good reason), so make sure you read far and wide for the opinions of people who really know their stuff.