Composition 101

Composition is probably the most important area you should master with your photography. Much of an image’s visual impact results from the way in which the subject or subjects are arranged. Although we each may have different opinions when we view photographs, following some simple guidelines may mean the difference between a “snapshot” and an award-winning image! You will notice I referred to them as guidelines. These are simply suggestions, rather than rules, which give you more leeway for creativity. Here are a few for you to consider:

Niagara Falls/Maid of the Mist - Notice how the crest of the falls and boat in the distance are each located at the intersections of the "thirds" (Canon 30d w/18-55mm @ 28mm, 1/1250th  sec @ f/4., ISO200)

Niagara Falls/Maid of the Mist – Notice how the crest of the falls and boat in the distance are each located at the intersections of the “thirds” (Canon 30d w/18-55mm @ 28mm, 1/1250th sec @ f/4., ISO200)

Bulls Eye! - This may be one instance where a "bulls-eye" shot actually works! (Canon 50d w/400mm f/5.6L, 1/640th sec @ f/5.6, ISO 400)

Bulls Eye! – This may be one instance where a “bulls-eye” shot actually works! (Canon 50d w/400mm f/5.6L, 1/640th sec @ f/5.6, ISO 400)

Practice the “Rule of Thirds” – Don’t become so focused on your subject that you place it dead-center in your viewfinder (“bulls-eye” effect). Imagine that your viewfinder is divided equally into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. By placing your subject at any of the points where those imaginary lines intersect, you will dramatically improve your pictures. If your subject is in motion, give it room to move “into” rather than “out of” the image. Being conscious of these imaginary lines will also help you keep any horizon lines level. Some cameras even have a grid or level on the screen to help with alignment.

Check the “Edges” – We’ve all seen the pictures of Uncle Joe with a tree growing out of his head. Be aware of all the elements lurking in your pictures. Look around all the edges of your viewfinder and watch for stray branches, power lines, and other visual “clutter” that might detract from your intended picture. If you include people in your shot, make sure you don’t cut anyone in half, or inadvertently cut off something you want in the picture. At the same time, don’t be afraid to incorporate foliage or elements around the edge to frame your subject.

White Sands V  - These two images illustrate how the same image might be better  if rotated 90 degrees to better suit the subject. The horizontal image gives a better sense of scale and better balance. (Canon Digital Rebel w/400mm f/5.6L, 1/640th sec @ f/8, ISO 100)

White Sands V – These two images illustrate how the same image might be better if rotated 90 degrees to better suit the subject. The horizontal image gives a better sense of scale and better balance. (Canon Digital Rebel w/400mm f/5.6L, 1/640th sec @ f/8, ISO 100)

White Sands H - These two images illustrate how the same image might be better  if rotated 90 degrees to better suit the subject. The horizontal image gives a better sense of scale and better balance. (Canon Digital Rebel w/400mm f/5.6L, 1/640th sec @ f/8, ISO 100)

White Sands H – These two images illustrate how the same image might be better if rotated 90 degrees to better suit the subject. The horizontal image gives a better sense of scale and better balance. (Canon Digital Rebel w/400mm f/5.6L, 1/640th sec @ f/8, ISO 100)

Vertical or Horizontal? – Try to match the orientation of your framing to the shape of your intended subject. If the object is tall and slender, try rotating your camera to a vertical format. If your subject is wide, or spread out like a landscape vista, perhaps a horizontal format would be better. With the recent popularity of smart phone cameras and Instagram, the square format has become a new option. Keep these different formats in mind when you shoot an image, so that it fits the proportion of the final framed print, card or book you might want to design in the future.

Fall Fence and Shadows - In this Vermont scene, the fence and shadows invites and draws the viewer into the image. (Canon 50d w/18-135mm, 1/250th sec @ f/10, ISO 200)

Fall Fence and Shadows – In this Vermont scene, the fence and shadows invites and draws the viewer into the image. (Canon 50d w/18-135mm, 1/250th sec @ f/10, ISO 200)

Leading the Way - It's hard to ignore where this canoe wants you to go. The bright colors and breaks in the pond lilies are pointing you straight into the Canadian wilderness. Would this have worked as well as a horizontal shot? (Canon PowerShot G3, 7mm, 1/640th sec @ f/4, ISO 200)

Leading the Way – It’s hard to ignore where this canoe wants you to go. The bright colors and breaks in the pond lilies are pointing you straight into the Canadian wilderness. Would this have worked as well as a horizontal shot? (Canon PowerShot G3, 7mm, 1/640th sec @ f/4, ISO 200)

Lead Me On! – Make good use of existing curved lines or elements in your foreground to “lead” your viewer into your photo. An “S”curve works especially well, and can be a stream, a road, a fence, a distant valley, a mountain pass, railroad tracks, or a simple trail through the woods. Diagonal lines in your composition can also create a strong image.

Brace for Impact! – Make sure your viewer easily recognizes your intended subject of interest. Use of bright colors, filling the frame, isolating it from a distracting background and utilizing different angles of view can improve your image. Placing a brightly colored object in a landscape (like a little kid with a red sweatshirt on a country road, or a red canoe on a mountain lake) can add interest and a sense of scale to an image.

Back-lit Yucca - Often a great image combines several different compositional guidelines. Here, the yucca flower is directly back-lit by the sun at the intersection of the "thirds" while the shadows create a great lead-in line. (Canon Digital Rebel w/ 18-55mm @ 18mm, 1/100th sec @ f/9, ISO 100)

Back-lit Yucca – Often a great image combines several different compositional guidelines. Here, the yucca flower is directly back-lit by the sun at the intersection of the “thirds” while the shadows create a great lead-in line. (Canon Digital Rebel w/ 18-55mm @ 18mm, 1/100th sec @ f/9, ISO 100)

EXPERIMENT! – The most important tip is to experiment. Try different settings, different angles and perspectives, different lighting directions. Digital images are “cheap” to shoot, and if you goof, delete them and try again!

Want to learn more about composition or other aspect of photography? Check out our classes at http://www.haroldsphoto.com

By Guest Blogger Marty DeWitt

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