10 Top Tips to Master Image Composition
We’ve all done it, happily clicking away, getting some great shots of moments that will never be repeated only to get them up on our computer screen and your attention is grabbed by something you hadn’t even noticed while shooting.
When we view a scene it is very easy to get tunnel vision, concentrating on our intended subject and not the entire scene. An ugly sign, poles out of people’s heads, wonky horizons and distractions that lead the eye out of the picture are all obvious mistakes.
Less obviously, the image may not bring the viewers attention to the intended area of the scene leaving the eye to wander restlessly. Sometimes an image may be good, but it could be great.
Here are some compositional aids to help you get the perfect shot and capture that special moment.
Before you even raise your camera to your eye, think about the background. Move yourself or your subject to give the best foil for the image.
Look out for telegraph poles, brightly coloured objects, generally busy and therefore distracting areas. If your subject is a portrait, you could also set your aperture nearer the lower end to give a narrower depth of field thus blurring the background.
A sloping horizon can be one of the most distracting elements of an image. Yes, a small correction can be made later in post production, but this means losing some of your photograph and extra time at the computer when you could be out shooting. It’s a much better habit to get it level straight off.
If the horizon itself is obscured, by hills, for instance still make sure your image is level. Cloud layers can be an indication of horizontal and having them pouring off the edge of your picture is also distracting.
Cameras often have in built levels or you can by small one’s to fit in the hot shoe on top.
3. Framing — Rule of Thirds and More.
Getting your subject in the right position within the frame of your image is key to it’s success or failure.
The most straight forward guide is known as the rule of thirds. The idea is to imagine the image space divided equally into 3 horizontally and vertically. Placing the horizon, or other significant linear feature, on one of these lines and your subject at a point of intersection creates an image that is pleasing to the eye.
This can be fine tuned following classical constructions such as the Golden Section or Golden Spiral.
4. Keep it Simple.
It’s tempting at times to include lots of details in your shots, particularly with Landscape photography. But less is often more. Making sure you know the aim of your shot while you are composing. Do you want to include the whole vista or would your subject be clearer if you zoomed in a little?
5. Light and Shadows.
When we take a photograph, we are not just recording an object, we are capturing light. Light that is specific to that one moment.
Look where shadows are cast. Make sure your own shadow doesn’t spoil the shot. Positioning yourself with light over one shoulder is a good rule of thumb especially at the start of your photography journey, but shooting into the light can also produce some magical results with rim lights and flares.
For landscape photography, plan your trips to get the right light for shots.
The picture above of Bamburgh Castle shows the value of looking for the right light. Only for a few days each year does the sun set in just the right place to get this shot.
6. Lead in Lines.
These are elements of a picture that take the viewer on a journey in the scene, directing their attention exactly where you want it to be.
They are details that take shots from good to great. They range from the subtlest of meanderings to direct and to the point. Look for elements that will support your vision. Paths, clouds, hedges provide natural gentle passages through your shots, straight lines introduce energy and intent.
The lines formed by the trunk, boughs and rocks bring the focus to the tree roots reclaiming the discarded Millstone grit boulders back to nature.
7. Focal Point
What is the point of your image? What does it say to you? Make sure that all the elements of your shot convey that thought. If something in the frame takes away your attention, be ruthless and cut it out. If that something has merit of it’s own, shoot it separately. Telling the story isn’t always about one image.
8. Frames within Frames.
A great compositional device is to look out for frames within the framing of your shot. Looking out between trees, through an old window, down a narrow street. This will add depth to your shots and help guide the viewer into the picture.
9. The Power of 3
Or odd numbers generally, actually. Groups of 3 things, triangular forms either physical or implied have a power of attraction to the viewer. This is again a technique used by artists through the ages and is evident in many Master works. Two objects tend to compete for attention and the eyes move from one to the other constantly distracted back and forth.
When taking portraits, positioning your sitter to create triangular forms is a great way to add impact.
10. Fill the Frame.
When in doubt, fill your frame entirely with your subject. Leave no doubt at all about your message. Floral subjects work well with this treatment. If what attracted you was the colour and texture why include anything else?
This technique is also great for emphasizing size. A subject that seems to burst out of the sides of the frame inherently gives the impression of size.
These are all only guidelines. It doesn’t always follow that you need to place a subject off centre. Perfect symmetry may best be served with a central composition. You may not want a calming and restful image but actually want to introduce uncertainty and tension.
Learn the rules, use the rules and know when to ignore them for drama or effect.
Over to You.
Now it’s over to you to practise with these basic tenets in mind.
Take plenty of shots from different angles and at different focal lengths. Take shots following the rules and then breaking them. See where it works to break them and where it doesn’t. The more you study your results the more feel for the subjects you will get and the more accomplished your photography will become.
Thinking consciously about so many things at once is difficult at first, but just as with learning to drive, the processes become second nature and pure enjoyment takes over.