Bring your photographic skills to the next level. Stop taking snapshots but add design and unity to your pictures. How to apply essential compositional aspects and questions you definitely should ask yourself before you start shooting pictures the next time. Composing pictures in plain and easy words explained step by step.
Taking a stroll and enjoying the beauty of nature you took some snaps displaying things and details you found interesting. You enjoyed your walk and were proud at what great and inspiring sceneries came across your lens. But then back at home you suddenly realize that your pictures just don’t look good viewed on screen. Instead of being disappointed you search the net for tips and find an overwhelming abundance about this very abstract topic – composition. Reading on and on, your goal , a well composed and pleasing picture, seems to get more and more out of sight. What to do with all those information? And how can I apply this flood of information on my workflow?
First of all don’t get discouraged. Composing pictures is a creative process. Creativity is the ability to solve problems effectively which needs time and a structured approach. But to get started you need a good overview. To save you some precious time and get you shooting you’ll find in this article a summary of the most important aspects and questions you should ask yourself to improve the aesthetic value of your photographs.
How to compose pictures from scratch
Very similar to composing music a well composed picture needs to become a harmonious whole. Just as music consists of single music notes, rhythm and melody a well composed picture consists of different aspects you need to put together in order to form a pleasing picture. Every single aspect could be discussed in book-length but I’ll break it down for you in plain English and lead you through the whole process step by step.
Set priorities and identify the strengths of your subject/object
Looking at your motif ask yourself what are the interesting aspects? What caught your attention? Why did you stop here? Why is my subject pleasing to the eye? These are very important questions, you should ask yourself in order to focus on your aim, because usually this is a subconscious process. Generally it is possible to categorise these aspects in light, form/shape, leading lines, colour/contrasts, texture.
Identifying primary and secondary subjects
A prime example where you have to choose the main subject is macro photography. When shooting macros you have to chose which part of your picture is in focus, due to the very shallow depth of field. So you have to identify your primary and secondary subject, if any. Where to place it? Is my subject towering up or is it expanding to the sides? Taking a quick look through your viewfinder will help you to get a first impression of how your subject suits the frame. Ask yourself how do you want to stage your subject by choosing the back- and foreground. What role does the background play in transporting the message you want to convey?
Choice of perspective and optimization of the background
Right after being clear on these points, it is time to find the optimal perspective. This is easy when shooting non-moving and small objects. When shooting landscapes it might help to walk a little and to get a different point of view. Take your background into consideration while doing this! What is the worth of a picture showing a romantic sunset and beautiful beach scenery, when a flag pole is sticking out of the head of your dearest or the foreground is completely littered? This is not really a keeper. The devil is in the detail. You do not want to make a photo report about the pollution of the ocean, but capture the romantic atmosphere. When shooting macros, dust, pollen and scratches can be annoying. In landscape photography transmission lines and pylons can be a real pain. When you are sure about your perspective, it is time to chose the right format. And don’t forget in most cases less is more.
Optimize your frame
In general pictures in portrait format appear more dynamic and have the advantage that empty space is being avoided. The landscape format on the other hand allows the subject to be set in a bigger context, to gain an overview and to imply movement in a certain direction. The square format is being marginalised these days, since modern digital cameras are shooting in 3:2 or 4:3. This is a pity. This format is able to avoid distractions, eliminates empty space effectively, and suits a lot of subjects. Luckily digital images can be cropped easily. It is worth the effort trying out a different format on pictures that lack the certain something. If you like to experiment more with the square format, how about covering your camera’s screen with some tape, creating a square viewfinder? This is an inspiring exercise.
Placing your subject and leading the eye
Optimizing the picture detail is all about finding the right balance. How much space does my subject need? Are there secondary subjects which need to be put in relation with it. Where to place the subject in the frame? Do I want to convey stability or create tension? Placing your subject in the middle of the frame will create a static and peaceful composition. This might suit in some cases, but turn out as boring in others. A positive example is a subject with mirror symmetry. Be 100% sure to place the centre of symmetry right in middle of your frame. This composition is very unforgiving. On the other hand placing your subject off centre will create a feeling of tension. Format has a great influence on how the subject appears in the picture. Even aspects as the reading direction, depending on culture, can play a role. Viewers from western cultures are more likely to set eyes on the upper left corner. But the viewer’s eye will also scan the picture for bright and sharp areas. Ideally the photographer will not only guide the viewer’s eyes to one spot, but let them wander over the whole frame. When doing this, be aware not to create too much agitation. It is important to let the eye rest on the most interesting parts.
Choosing the right DOF
When shooting with DSLRs, also depending to some extend on your lens, you need to think about the depth of field (DOF) in your picture. In general a higher f number results in more DOF. This is important for landscape photography. Here you usually want to maximize the depth of field. In other cases it is more desirable to separate the subject from its background by working with a shallow DOF, as e. g. for portraiture shoots. By focusing on the model’s eyes you let the skin appear soft and create a pleasing bokeh, which lets the model stand out from the background.
In order to take a well composed photograph, it is important to be clear on a few but decisive questions. The following flow chart could be of some help, to let you keep your aim.
A structured approach will lead to success.
Following these guidelines the effect of the picture on the viewer can be controlled and intensified by the photographer. This is valid for portraits as well as macros or landscapes.
Have fun and get inspired!
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