One of the most common flaws in photography is the lack of thought paid to composition. World renowned photographer John Freeman offers his expert advice on how to get your composition right.
The majority of photographs are taken quickly, with little thought paid to viewpoint, foreground, background, depth of field and framing. Yet by just slowing things down a little and thinking a little more carefully before pressing the button, it should be possible to convert many of those rejects to winners.
We’re all familiar with the basic rules and devices of good composition, but it’s good to be reminded of them from time to time, and to practice our technique with these rules in mind, so that they become second nature. Then we can get on with the job of looking at different ways of seeing potentially good photographs and – who knows – perhaps wilfully breaking those very rules we’ve committed to our subconscious.
Mastering Composition – Graphic Shapes
So before you press that shutter button, ask yourself a few basic questions: would your shot look better from a lower viewpoint or do you need to find a higher vantage point? Do you need to use maximum depth of field or would it be better if the background went out of focus? Is there anything that you can use in the foreground to create interest and lead the eye into the shot? Can you frame the picture with a tree or the archway of a building? Would the shot be better if you returned at another time of the day when the sun will be in a different position? When you have considered points such as these, you will find that your compositional skills will improve dramatically.
Many DSLRs offer optional interchangeable focusing screens, including a grid screen which can be a great aid to composing your picture. Naturally the grid doesn’t appear on the finished image. Most compacts, too, offer the ability to superimpose a grid over the LCD screen and/or viewfinder.
Find a Frame
There are many elements you can use to enhance composition. One of them is to use a framing device such as tree branches or, the arch of a wall. Ensure all the elements of your shot are evenly balanced when taking your exposure reading though.
Rule of Thirds
There’s a rule that artists have followed since the ancient Greeks, known as the ‘Golden Section’. It states that important compositional elements should be placed at the intersection of imaginary lines drawn vertically and horizontally a third of the way in from each side of the picture, like a noughts and crosses grid. Most of the images on this spread use this rule to a greater or lesser degree, though naturally there are many fine photographs that completely reject this rule. If you don’t have a visible grid you can always imagine one when you’re composing.
The way you hold your camera has an effect on the overall composition of your photographs. These two images of the Millennium Dome (above), taken one after the other, show just how different a shot you get by turning the camera 90°.
By placing this horse and cart on the right-hand side of the frame gives balance to this shot of a deserted beach in Tunisia. In addition, the strong mid-afternoon sun creates excellent shadow detail, and the blue of the sea and the sky complement one another.
I had been photographing this actor when I noticed the row of lights in a café. I asked him to go inside and shot him through the window at a wide aperture. The lights make an interesting line of perspective, besides providing the illumination for his face.
Symmetrical composition is perhaps the antithesis of the Rule of Thirds, but works well in the right situation. I carefully posed this girl on a tiled floor so that she appears to be on a grid. She is lit from a large window behind her and two reflectors in front. I paid great attention to getting the symmetry right, even down to the position of the hands and fingers.
I deliberately chose a low angle to take this shot as it has given the model a monumental quality. The background was chosen to echo the sculptural aspects of the composition and provides a great contrast to the sky. Note that it also follows the Rule of Thirds.
In this shot of the Corinthian Canal in Greece, the subject has been placed in the centre of the viewfinder. However, all the elements of the Golden Section are at work. Even the passenger train, perfectly centred on its track above the canal, emphasises the strong lines of symmetry.
Mastering Composition – John’s Top Composition Tips
- 1. Most compact digital cameras, and some SLRs, can superimpose a grid over the viewfinder or LCD screen, which can assist with composition. Some SLRs offer the option to fit optional grid screens!
- 2. Take time to look at all the possibilities. Selecting the right viewpoint will greatly add to your overall composition.
- 3. Study how other photographers, or even painters, compose their pictures. A lot can be learned from observing their techniques.
- 4. Chose the right lens for the subject. If your lens is too wide then you will include a lot of unwanted detail. This will ruin the composition.
- 5. When using framing devices such as arches or the branches of trees, make sure that they do not cast unsightly shadows.
About John Freeman
John’s clients include some of the country’s biggest companies. He has illustrated well over 100 books, covering subjects as diverse as cookery, health, travel and home interiors. He has also sold more than a million copies of his glossy photography manuals, of which he has written more than a dozen.
John also sells fine art photography from his own gallery in London’s prestigious Oxo Tower. He is fully digital, and mainly uses a Canon EOS 1DS DSLR with a variety of lenses.
John’s website can be found at: www.johnfreeman-photographer.com