Five Tips for Effective Composition

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Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been in the midst of a photo365 project in which I make an image a day for each day of the year. I make far more than one image per day, but the daily goal is to find one image that stands above all the rest. This practice keeps me in a constant state of photographic awareness, and it forces me to look for new ways to make images. This has largely been a street photography project in NYC, and with little thought, the images can become repetitive. Over the past two and a half months, I’ve rethought composition as I got to know my city better.

Let the Environment Tell the Story

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It’s important to keep proper distance between you and your subject to allow the environment to play as big a role as possible, especially in the above image. The Strand in NYC is notable, among many other things, for all the used book carts that line the outside of the store. The first few images before this one were too wide, in that I was several carts away from the woman in the photograph. In this image, there was only one cart between us, which makes up the lower third. With these kinds of photographs, it’s important to allow for as much the environment around the subject as possible to create a dynamic image.

Use the Rule of Thirds

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The rule of thirds is a technique that goes all the way back to the 18th century. It was conceived to strike the right balance between contrasting elements in the composition of a painting. In photography, two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines divide the frame into nine parts. The idea is to frame your subject along or at the intersection of those lines. It’s a good thing to keep in mind, but don’t let it govern every shot.

Don’t be Afraid to Amputate

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There’s a generally accepted rule that it’s bad form to cut off body parts in an image, especially if most of those body parts are in the frame. Yet, there are ways in which you can do that to humorous effect. In this case, the hanging subway signs in New York City make for effective replacements for heads. You can achieve the same effect if someone happens to be standing next to a fashion advertisement in a way that completes the image.

Use Shapes to Your Advantage

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There’s more math involved in photography than most photographers want to comprehend. From the calculation of f-stops and t-stops to the three-way relationship between ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, there’s a great deal of math. Of course, the essential question always is, “Is the image properly exposed?” And you spin dials and press buttons based on that. For compositional purposes, there’s geometry at play in every photograph. It’s more obvious in some than others, and in the image above, the octagonal umbrella makes for a visually arresting aspect.

Compose Along the Golden Spiral

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Ah, Fibonacci. The man gave us his ratio of 1:1.618, which he found existed throughout nature and antiquity. Known as the golden ratio, it’s something that preexisted Fibonacci, but he gave it numerical life. Architects, artists and designers have consulted this ratio for centuries in order to make their creations visually appealing. It works for photography, too, and if you want to see how your images do within the golden spiral, run them through Lightroom. If you bring up the crop overlay, hit the O key several times, and the grid will cycle through various formations. If the main elements of your image rest along the curve, you’ve got a fairly compelling image.

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