Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Find Your Focus
Use the essentials of strong design for better landscape compositions
What should viewers look at first? If you can’t answer that question, your composition won’t work. Most photographs need focal points, spots that draw the eye and hold the viewer’s attention. Make what you want people to see obvious.
Where should you place that focal point within the frame? The rule of thirds says that if you divide the photograph into thirds, those lines, and the places where those lines intersect, are good spots to put your main subject or center of interest. This rule is a useful guideline, a reminder that putting your subject in the middle of the frame is usually too static and boring. But the world is infinitely varied, and no rule can fit every image. The rule of logic always trumps the rule of thirds. The rule of logic says that each situation has its own internal order, a way of arranging things that makes sense. If it seems logical to place your focal point in the center, or near the edge of the frame, so be it.
While photographs are two-dimensional, you can create an illusion of depth by exaggerating perspective and scale. By putting a wide-angle lens low to the ground, close to foreground objects, you can exaggerate the apparent size difference between near and far, enhance the sense of depth and make viewers feel as if they could walk into the scene. A vertical orientation usually works best. Be sure to use a small aperture like ƒ/16 or ƒ/22 to keep everything in focus.
Parallel lines that converge in the distance are another classic way to suggest depth and distance. The combination of a wide-angle lens, close foreground and converging lines can impart an almost palpable three-dimensional quality to an image. Many of the world’s greatest landscape images have neither foreground nor middleground. Just look at Ansel Adams’ Moon and Half Dome or Galen Rowell’s Last Light on Horsetail Fall. If the foreground isn’t at least as interesting as the background, leave it out. The foreground and background also need to complement each other, with similar lines, shapes and colors, otherwise the image will look disjointed, like two different photographs stuck together.
Beware of strong horizontal lines that cut across the image and interrupt the eyes’ movement through the frame. On the other hand, lines that lead toward the background, that direct the viewer’s eyes from bottom to top, can unify the composition and tie the foreground and background together.
Balance is a key part of a photograph’s internal logic. An object on the left side of the frame needs to be balanced by an object on the right. A focal point at the top needs a counterpoint at the bottom. But keep in mind that everything has its own visual weight. A small spot that contrasts with its surroundings may carry as much weight as a large object that blends in. Dark areas usually have more visual heft than light ones. A large mass of empty space may offset a prominent subject on the other side of the frame.
With the camera turned to a vertical orientation, it’s difficult to push the main subject left or right of center because there’s little room to balance it with an item on the other side of the frame. Centered subjects usually look static and boring with horizontal compositions, but seem natural and logical with the camera turned sideways.
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