Composition and Your Art

© Article and photography by William Manning

What makes a good photograph? Many people might answer the subject. The subject may make it unique but it doesn’t necessarily make it a good photograph. There are many things that constitute a good photograph and it starts with composition, which is the arrangement or layout of all elements within the frame.

Photography has changed since the arrival of digital. Photography is much cheaper to produce today than the film days and this fact has lead many photographers down the path of snapping pictures and ignoring the fundamentals, highlights, shadows, color, and shapes. It’s these (supporting) elements that often distinguish a good photo from a bad. A composition has a focal point (often the subject) and supporting elements. These supporting elements should do one of two things, draw the viewer to the subject or compliment the subject. Easier said than done. The following are a few pointers that will get you started in the right direction. As you read through these keep in mind as with anything in life, the more you do it, the better you become. Mastering photography isn’t accomplished in a few days, it takes lots of practice.

CincinnatiRule of Thirds

• The term Rule of Thirds is often used when describing composition and where to place the focal point. The Rule of thirds is an imaginary tic-tac-toe diagram placed in your frame where four lines equally divide up the composition into thirds and the points where the lines intersect are the strongest focal point or better known as power points. Therefore, if you place your subject at one of these power points you build a strong composition. The rule of thirds works in many cases but there are times the composition doesn’t look balanced and when this happens there is another compositional guideline I use much more often called “The Golden Means”. The Golden Means or Golden Ratio is based on the same principal, (actually the Rule of Thirds came after the Golden ratio), but instead of equal line placement the lines are placed closer or farther apart. (There are many excellent articles written on this subject on the internet, simply do a google search on Golden Ratio).

The Golden Ratio or Golden Means

The Golden Ratio or Golden Means

Overlapping Elements

• Avoid elements touching or kissing as some call it. In other words, elements must have space between them or there should be a clear and definitive overlap. Kissing breaks up flow and weakens your composition. If you overlap make sure it doesn’t become distracting and break up eye movement over the composition. You want all your elements supporting your subject, in other words they must work together and compliment the subject. The photo to the right is a good example of two elements clearly overlapping each other but they work very well together.

Horizontal and Vertical Compositions

• Don’t get caught up in the same position on every photo. In other words play with your camera in the horizontal and vertical position. View your composition from a low position, a high position and a waist level position. Be creative with your positioning, try a  ground level view and place all sky become your subject. Play with different angles including light angles. Try positioning yourself if possible with side lighting, back lighting and front lighting, but watch out for lens flare unless you are using flare as a creative technique.

Notice the low angle of the camera position, this adds interest to the photo as well as it separates the trees so they don't touch or overlap.

Notice the low angle of the camera position, this adds interest to the photo as well as it separates the trees so they don’t touch or overlap.

 Consider Light Conditions

• Sunny conditions versus overcast, both situations have their places. I prefer shooting in open spaces such as cityscapes, meadows, beach scenes and other wide open areas in sunny conditions and move into the forest or the garden on overcast days. These are just a few examples but certainly you can find something to shoot regardless of the situation. Digital has opened up possibilities even in the worst of situations.

Foreground Elements

• Use foreground elements to lead your viewer into the photo. I don’t suggest you do this on every photo but this technique can be very effective if done correctly. Your foreground element should be something inviting such as a flowering shrub, or a bowl of fruit, something that says welcome, come follow me. You do not want anything that acts as a bearer or a keep out type of element. A big boulder or a fallen log might act as this type of bearer. Choose wisely and have fun with this concept.

Photographing sports require quick thinking and having a sound understanding of composition. In this photo you can see use of the rule of thirds, good use of shapes, very good use of color for the supporting elements in the background. The subject is obviously a tennis player but imagine the racquet, body, head and arms simply being geometric shapes. The viewers eye is drawn in and freely lead throughout the photo.

Photographing sports require quick thinking and having a sound understanding of composition. In this photo you can see use of the rule of thirds, good use of shapes, very good use of color for the supporting elements in the background. The subject is obviously a tennis player but imagine the racquet, body, head and arms simply being geometric shapes. The viewers eye is drawn in and freely lead throughout the photo.

Make It Simple

• Simplify your composition. Look at any photograph that catches your attention, more than likely you’ll find a simple composition. Eliminate anything and everything that may be distracting to the viewer. This composition tip applies to everything from a big landscape to a simple close-up of a flower. If you have to reposition yourself a hundred yards away to capture a great landscape then do it, don’t compromise your composition because a little effort is required. Its not difficult to find a mediocre photo, make yours stand out.

• Don’t use the same compositional rules in every photo you take, this makes for a boring and predictable portfolio.

• Don’t copy other photographers work, be yourself, create your own photo. Don’t worry about where someone stood to get a great shot, you’ll never recreate what someone else did.

• Go out with your camera with no preconceived ideas, simply follow the light and the conditions. Go out with an open mind and let things happen, there are great photos to be created everywhere.

These are only a few simple rules to creating a sound photo and most importantly creating your art.

© Article and photography by William Manning