Composing photos is like graphic design. The difference is, in photography the elements that you control are your camera and you. Like designing photography is an art. There are no rigid “rules” when it comes to creating art, only best practices. Most of these principles are called “rules”, but in practice, they’re more like guidelines, principles or techniques.
These guidelines or techniques will be the same no matter what your subject is. You can take a photo of a building then take food photos, the same principle will apply.
No time to read? Here’s a quick list. You can jump to the relevant section of the article by clicking on the link.
SIMPLIFICATION, MINIMALISM & FOCUS
Simplicity, minimalism, and focus on the subject go hand in hand. These are 3 closely related concepts, so much so that simplicity and minimalism are used interchangeably. Simplicity by itself is a powerful compositional tool. “Less is more,” as we say in the graphic design.
Simplification is taking photos with uncomplicated backgrounds that put more focus on the subject. You can simplify by zooming in on a particular detail or by using a large aperture to create a shallow depth of field (DoF).
Minimalism in composition is all about removing all distractions in the frame until only the essence of the image remains, either through cropping or post-editing. Think of 80/20. Only 20% of the image is the subject, the rest are supporting elements or negative space.
Focus is the byproduct of simplicity and minimalism. If you executed simply and minimally, you’re almost certain to put focus on the subject. Just make sure that your camera’s focus point is on your subject, not the background!
RULE OF SPACE
You should know where to position the negative space created in the previous technique. Best practices suggest that more space is required on one side of the frame or where the subject is looking. The latter is also called nose room. The photo feels more natural this way.
In this image, more space was placed on the left side of the photo, where the action took place, i.e. where the player have been. The space reinforces the player's movement by suggesting where the movement is headed. It also helps that her boobs and hands is pointing to the direction of her motion. (tennis.ru)
When dealing with closeups it’s best to put some space on the top of the frame. Remember to use rule of thirds. Position the eyes, about a third of the frame.
RULE OF ODDS
As a guideline, visuals are more appealing when there are an odd number of subjects. The theory is an even number of subjects is distracting because viewers are not sure where to focus. An odd numbered subject is more natural because the eyes automatically focus on the “odd man out”, so to speak.
You may not always have an odd number of subjects, so as an alternative the next technique or principle may help.
SYMMETRY & BALANCE
Compositions can be symmetrical/balanced or asymmetrical/unbalanced. Symmetrical compositions are when both sides of the image look the same or have the same number of elements or same visual weight. Asymmetrical compositions are the opposite.
Look for recurring elements and even number of subjects. Then divide the frame with a centerline. Man-made objects, strong lines, curves and recurring visual elements are best candidates for a symmetrical composition.
Asymmetrical and unbalanced compositions are used to show contrast. It serves to visually compare subjects in a composition, it emphasizes the differences.
PATTERNS & TEXTURES
Patterns are repetitive elements and can create texture in a photo. Patterns and textures suggest harmony and rhythm in a composition. This gives viewers a sense of order and movement.
You can use symmetry with patterns and textures, but it’s more compelling to break the rhythm. This way you’re giving the viewer a focal point (Remember the first tip, focus?) followed by a return to rhythmic harmony.
FILL THE FRAME
Filling the frame with your subject with little to no space around it can be effective for certain subjects. It helps the viewer focus on the main visual. Allowing the viewer to explore the subject in more detail.
Filling the frame involves getting close to your subject (as in the case of extreme closeups). Zooming in is also another way to accomplish this.
Our eyes naturally follow lines. By thinking about how lines are place in the composition, you can influence how the viewer sees the image. Viewers can be pulled into the picture towards the subject. Or you can take them through the scene.
Leading lines help viewers focus on the subject of the composition. Anything from paths, roads, walls that form perspective lines leading to the subject can be used.
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TRIANGLES & DIAGONALS
Slightly related to leading lines, are triangles and diagonal lines. Horizontal and vertical lines suggest stability and stillness. Diagonal lines and triangles add dynamism and tension in the composition because humans are not used to angled planes, like those found on triangles. Diagonal lines usually connote movement.
Triangles can be implied triangles in the form of leading lines in the composition, or actual triangular objects.
FOREGROUND INTEREST & DEPTH
Foreground interest and depth of field adds a 3D feel on a 2D plane. The shallow DoF adds a sense of depth in the composition. It makes a distracting background an integral part of the image rather than a nuisance, by supporting and giving more focus on the subject in the foreground.
Create foreground interest and depth by including elements in the foreground and the background. Either blur the background with a shallow DoF, or have a minimalistic background. Overlapping also helps create foreground interest. This is done by deliberately partially obscuring an element behind the main subject. The human eye recognizes this as layers and mentally creates a sense of depth.
Also called frame within a frame. Use natural elements in the scene to frame subjects within your frame. These elements could be a tree branch, windows, doors, arches etc. This creates an illusion of depth and creates greater focus on your subjects.
RULE OF THIRDS
Finally, the stalwart of composition techniques: the rule of thirds. It involves dividing the frame into 9 equal parts. Position the subject as close to where those lines intersect or on one of the 4 lines. If the horizon line is visible in the photos, position the horizon line as close to one of the horizontal lines of the rule of thirds.
The rule of thirds is not only reserved for serious photography. As you can see, it was also used on this photo of Jordan Carver that got men drooling. Surely Jordan Carver carries the interest in the photo but the composition is a classic example of the rule of thirds. Notice the horizon line and how the photographer positioned the, ahem, point of interests near one of the lines and its intersections. The photographer also filled 9 areas with Jordan Carver and left 3 to the background. I doubt if this photo will be as effective if not composed this way. Then again... do people even notice the rule of thirds?
Even with all these guidelines the rule of thirds still apply. Most principles and composition techniques boil down to the masterful use of the rule of thirds in conjunction with other techniques. This is the reason why a lecture was dedicated the rule of thirds in the course.
Composition is more about what not to include and having a singular focus on in a photo. All the samples exhibit overlapping principles, because great photo compositions combine all of these guidelines creatively. Experience is key.
To improve your composition skills study photos that you find amazing. Pay attention to where the subject is in the frame, the background, and what was included in the frame (potentially what was not included as well). Then try to emulate what you’ve observed. I could go on and on and on and on about composition, but it all boils down to experience so, practice, practice, practice. I can’t stress this enough: practice! Practice is the only way that you’ll truly master photography.
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