Taking cues from the great classic painters, photographers have learned that composition is more than just where you place your subject. Lighting, perspective and contrast each plays a role in creating a stunning image. And the truth is that we all can learn to use them. It comes down to training ourselves to look for and recognize those elements in a scene.
The Outdoor Photographer editors have compiled 10 compositional tips that will not only improve your photographs, but open your eyes to another way of seeing as well.
1) Emphasizing The Highlights
Our eyes are always drawn to the brightest part of a photograph. Use this to your advantage when composing. A close-up of a flower hit by a shaft of light produces a more dramatic image than if that same subject was photographed in the shade of a tree. While the first image results in the flower standing out from the darker background, the other image's flat lighting emphasizes the entire scene rather than a specific element. Look for contrast in the light and then compose around the brightest part of the scene.
The difference in exposure between the brightly lit subject and background can be anywhere between one or more stops, so an accurate exposure is necessary. Use your camera's center-weighted or spot meter to read just your subject. If using a digital camera, use the histogram display to ensure that your highlights aren't overexposed. Expose for the highlights and let the shadows fall where they may.—IP
2) Repeating Patterns
Repetitive patterns in a subject or a scene can make an effective composition. Whether it's the veins of an individual leaf or an endless field of poppies, these elements offer an attractive subject for photography.
There are patterns everywhere, from the repeating design left in the sand by the receding waves of the ocean or a stand of aspens in the early-morning sun. In any case, isolate the patterns when framing the subject, and fill the frame with the pattern. For close-ups, use a macro lens that allows you to eliminate distracting background elements. A telephoto lens can achieve similar results with more expansive scenes.
Use sidelight or backlight to emphasize textural patterns. Translucent subjects with a strong design element, such as leaves and flowers, can be enhanced greatly by backlighting using existing light or a small strobe.—IP
3) Using The Edges
Most photographers know the rule of thirds—divide the frame into thirds, horizontally and vertically, and place your subject at the junction of one of these divisions. However, push the limits of your composition by placing your subject even closer to the edges of the frame, such as at the extreme right or bottom of your frame, and get a sense of how it looks. With digital cameras, you immediately can see how such a choice affects your composition. Try both horizontal and vertical shots to help you achieve a successful image.—IP
4) Changing Perspective
We're all used to zooming in and out to include some objects in our images while excluding others. Sometimes, though, we have our foreground right, but the background shows too much or too little of what we want. Zooming alone won't work.
Distance and focal length change a subject's size and its relationship to its background. Increase the background by backing up and use a telephoto to maintain the relative size of your subject in the frame. Decrease the size of the background by getting closer and using a more wide-angle focal length.—ZS
5) Framing The Scene
Create a frame for your main subject by positioning an existing object in front of it. Natural frames include trees, cacti and rock arches; man-made structures include gateways, doorways, the arch of a bridge or windows. (See David Muench's article in this issue for some dramatic examples.) Framing the scene helps the composition in several ways. It draws the viewer's eye to your subject and away from the otherwise empty area around it. A well-composed frame has some aspect of shape, color, contrast or natural context that complements the main subject.—ZS
Everyone knows how a tripod helps to maintain sharpness, but it's also a key piece of gear when composing a photograph. The tripod locks your camera in place so you can critically compare the scene with the composition in the viewfinder. With a digital camera, this is even more helpful, since you can review the shot on the LCD and make adjustments immediately based on that review.
6) Focusing On Color
Bright colors demand our attention, and when used in a photograph, they can provide a striking design element. It could be the bright stamen of a lily or the saturated color of a sunset. Such strong hues can be used as the heart of a successful composition.
The key is to complement such bright colors with darker or more muted colors within the image. This creates a contrast that makes the bright color stand out. Darker tones, either in the form of a shadow or a silhouetted foreground subject, can help lead the eye to a colorful segment of the frame.
Bracketing your exposure at slight differences will change the appearance of color in your images.—IP
7) Defining By Textures
Creating contrasts in a composition helps to define and structure an image. The obvious contrasts are those of light and
color, yet the natural world abounds with a huge variety of textures that can be used to define and refine compositions.
Photograph a scene where low-angled light skims the surface of a landscape or other scene. Often occurring when the sun is low in the sky, but not below the horizon, this type of light reveals texture that you can use as an element in your photographs.
Frequently, you'll find that this low light changes the texture as fast as the light itself changes. Remember to expose for the bright parts of the scene to avoid overexposing your highlights.—RS
8) Space For Movement
When composing wildlife shots, particularly of subjects moving horizontally, leave room in the composition for the subject to move in the direction of its motion. The viewer logically wants to see where the subject is headed.
When panning to follow a fast-moving subject, this extra space also provides a buffer zone to ensure that you capture the entire subject in the frame. When using autofocus, set your camera for its continuous focus setting. Lock in focus before you take your picture, as the camera's autofocus system will track your subject as it moves by.—WP
9) Contrasting Tones
Compose your shot with opposing light and dark areas to create dramatic tension in your images. Look for a subject that's sunlit on one side and shadowed on the other. The exposure difference between two areas should be at least three to four stops, enough to create a vivid contrast.
The line separating the light and dark is a strong design
element. Vertical and horizontal boundaries work well, but search out curving lines and strong diagonals separating the light and dark areas, too.
Look for foreground objects in sunlight standing out against a shadowed background or vice versa. A tall mountain with an adjacent valley can provide this, as will staggered cliff faces. You'll also get powerful contrasts during stormy weather, when sunlight beaming through clouds selectively illuminates areas while leaving others in shadow.—ZS
10) Dramatic Wide-Angles
For many landscapes, wide-angle lenses help capture a more dramatic scene. They work well in creating perspective effects that show a big, bold foreground contrasted with a small background.
The perspective characteristics of a wide-angle lens can be used to make a strong foreground. Wide-angles force you to look at the foreground anyway and sometimes they challenge you by showing too much foreground. Use this quality to create a brilliant and exciting photograph.
Get down low to make the foreground stand out. Use a small lens opening; ƒ/16 is ideal, but you might not have that choice on a small digital camera. Use the smallest you can (even if it's ƒ/8) for increased depth of field. Focus on something close, but not the closest part of the scene; you'll have more depth of field toward the back of the image.—RS