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A Quick Refresher Course on Composition

by Katie Moore on 01/19/2012

We all get the gist of composition. Think of how many times you’ve heard about the rule of thirds or the golden spiral. If you’re just starting to take your photography seriously, however, there are times when we get caught up in things, or stuck on “auto”, and let this important aspect of photography slide to the backburner. When used properly, these elements of composition can make an image really come together. That’s because you frame and arrange elements together in a way that accentuates the subject and your own personal style. The viewer will, hopefully, walk away from the image with an understanding of visual aesthetics, form, and design.

Lines

The use of simple lines can be the most effective in some cases. Lines (and curves) direct the movement of the eye and help provide images with definition.

Viewpoints and Perspective

The viewpoint you take when setting up shots drastically affects the outcome of an image. Experiment with different perspectives and learn how your lenses interpret them as well. Depth of field can also be a really important factor in certain instances with the chosen viewpoint. I aim to be aware of the various options for unique perspectives when I am out shooting.  This often means looking for spots that provide height such as stairs or benches to shoot downwards. Alternatively, just by bending down and shooting upwards you can also capture a different viewpoint. For the photo below, I decided to point upwards to get a shot of some local politicians at a press conference – this avoided the standard straight-on perspective and allowed me to include the archway in the background.

Fill the Frame

When deciding what to include in the shot, I try and exclude anything that doesn’t add to the overall meaning or aesthetic of the image. Distracting elements are therefore left out so that the subject is the clear focus of the image. Filling the frame can also be a creative compositional technique – imagine if I had zoomed out and shown the entire elephant in the photo below – it would have drastically changed the look and feel that viewers come away with.

Composition and “The Decisive Moment”

Developing an understanding of visual aesthetics and how they interact and enhance a subject can make a photo both compelling and artistic. With some practice, this understanding can become second nature. Additionally, it may help to look at the work of other photographers and even other forms of art to recognize different approaches to composition. Although capturing “the decisive moment” may take some serendipity, having a firm grasp on compositional techniques prepares you for that one millisecond when everything lines up. For the shot below, I leaned down to get at the same eye level as this protestor was being arrested during a demonstration. The officer’s stance helps frame the scene and I clicked the shutter just as the protestor looked over.

Break the Rules

Rules are made to be broken – or at least bent. There are many established guidelines for composition but every so often, those need to be ignored. Play around and see what works and what doesn’t work, and see which techniques fit each specific subject as well as  your own preferences. Maybe the subject in the dead center works in a particular case. Maybe the camera shouldn’t be level or straight as in the image below. By purposely tilting it, I was able to accentuate the sense of movement, however it’s definitely not something I would recommend most of the time.

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