Category Archives: Lessons

The Composition Question

I recently posted on my Facebook page, asking people to let me know if there’s anything about photography that they still struggle with. A common complaint (well, the only one, but from two posters) was that people often don’t understand why their photographs don’t reflect the way they remember a scene.

I suspect that a simple grounding in composition techniques may help here. The human eye, in conjunction with the brain, is able to filter out extraneous detail, especially in a three-dimensional image constructed from the two images from each eye combined, whereas a photograph is not processed in the same way, so you need to be aware of how you can draw people into an image, keep their interest, and avoid distracting them with extraneous detail.

I’m listing here some techniques that I use in my photography to try to keep pictures interesting, and retain the impact of a scene as viewed through the naked eye.

Rule of Thirds

One of the most basic rules of composition is called the ‘Rule of Thirds’. This is a quick and easy way to make a photograph more pleasing, though it has variations and even detractors, which I’ll come to in a minute.

The basic principle is this: if you are photographing a subject that does not fill the frame, try placing the subject at any of the four points of intersection between imaginary lines which divide the picture into thirds both horizontally and vertically. This makes the image more pleasing to the eye. Here’s an example:

The Rule of Thirds in action
The Rule of Thirds in action

Opinion is divided over why the Rule of Thirds works, and there are even some who believe it is only an approximation of a different rule where objects should be placed on any of the four 45° diagonals drawn from each of the four corners of the image. This is known as the diagonal method.

The rule of thirds also applies to horizon lines. Try to place the horizon in your frame along one of the dividing lines that cut the frame into thirds, rather than exactly in the centre. This places clear emphasis on either the sky or the ground, avoiding the conflict created by bisecting the frame, when it’s not clear which is more important.

Leading lines

The photograph above also demonstrates the use of leading lines. Using a foreground detail, it is possible to lead the viewer’s eye into the photograph to a point of interest. This is often done using a straight or curved diagonal line starting at or near a corner of the image. The line of surf on the beach starts near the bottom left hand corner of the image and moves diagonally until it meets the rock stack, reinforcing its status as the subject of the image.

The footpath leads directly to the tree, drawing the eye into the frame

By being aware of foreground elements, you can help to ensure the image does not inadvertently draw the eye away from the subject of interest, which causes conflict and makes an image less pleasing to look at.

Leading lines can also be implied. If you are photographing people or animals, the direction they are looking in will also lead the eye. Try to ensure they are looking into the frame, not outside it, which will naturally draw the viewer into the picture.

The puffins are looking left-to-right, so placing them at the left of the frame draws the viewer in. Note the puffins and the glacier in the background are also following the rule of thirds.
The puffins are looking left-to-right, so placing them at the left of the frame draws the viewer in.

Keep it simple

A common mistake in photography is to try to include too much of a scene in a single frame. This can disorientate the viewer and lead to a lack of engagement with the photograph. If you are photographing an object, try to avoid distractions by careful framing; ensure foreground objects don’t compete for attention, using leading lines to link them to the main subject or eliminating them altogether. Use an appropriate aperture and/or focal length to blur a distracting background (wider apertures and longer focal lengths will decrease depth of field).

Highgate cemetery is full of tombstones, trees and statues. Cropping in on one of the statues, and blurring out the background, keeps the composition simple.
Highgate cemetery is full of tombstones, trees and statues. Cropping in on one of the statues, and blurring out the background, keeps the composition simple.

Obviously there are instances where featuring a lot of information is the required effect. Where this is the case, think about using leading lines again to draw the eye from one group to another, and try to create a sense of unity by either showing the entire group of subjects in the scene, or cropping so that the group fills the scene to all four edges.

Find an unusual vantage point

A photograph is about more than just its subject. The location of the camera is implicit in every scene, and careful choice of vantage point can turn a good photo into a great one. Try to avoid shooting from eye level – this is how most people see objects every day, and adds nothing new to an interesting subject.

Squat on your haunches, or even place the camera on the ground, to increase foreground interest and emphasise the height of the subject. When doing this, look out for converging verticals – if you have to tilt the camera too far backwards, objects (particularly buildings) will look like they are leaning. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just be aware of it and whether it adds to or detracts from the effect you are trying to achieve.

A low vantage point shows more of the interesting rocks in the foreground
A low vantage point shows more of the interesting rocks in the foreground

Many photogenic landmarks have typical views which everyone who visits feel they have to capture, like ticking off a list. To make your photos stand out, find a vantage point that shows your subject in a new light – try walking around it, viewing it from all angles, or see if there are buildings or staircases nearby that allow you to view it from higher up than ground level. Look for interesting juxtapositions with other objects in the area, and see if you can use two or more of the intersecting points from the Rule of Thirds.

A wind turbine, a common sight these days, becomes almost unrecognisably abstract when viewed from directly below.
A wind turbine, a common sight these days, becomes almost unrecognisably abstract when viewed from directly below.

Use context

Sometimes a scene can be rather abstract, so including familiar elements will provide context, particularly in terms of scale. An unfamiliar scene can confuse the viewer, so placing, for example, a human figure somewhere in the photograph serves two purposes: it orients the viewer so they know which way is ‘up’ (where it’s ambiguous), and also provides a sense of how large the subject is.

The photographer in the foroground emphasises just how high the waterfall is. Cropping out the top of the waterfall also serves to emphasis its scale.
The photographer in the foreground emphasises just how high the waterfall is. Cropping out the top of the waterfall also serves to emphasis its scale.

Balance opposing elements

If you are able to find elements of a scene that complement each other, try to make them balance, rather than compete. One of my favourite photos from Iceland is this one of a fjord in the Westfjords region, where most of the techniques I’ve described above have been used.

Ísafjorður fjord in Iceland
Ísafjörður fjord in Iceland

Note first of all that the horizon is not in the centre of the image, but more towards the top, approximately one-quarter of the way down the frame. A clear leading line follows the edge of the stones on the bank of the fjord, which has been enabled by a low vantage point. The composition is simple, with sharply defined dark and light areas (stones, water, mountain, sky) and the leading line of the bank continues into the outline of the mountain, creating a balance which makes the elements merge together into a whole.

Natural framing

Use of foreground to frame a subject can create a pleasing effect. A printed photograph always looks better in a frame, and you can create your own within the photograph itself using overhanging tree branches, windows or other holes, or walls. Always be aware of your surroundings so you can find something to frame your subject if it’s there.

The reeds in the foreground frame the photo and add depth
The reeds in the foreground frame the photo and add depth

Colour palette

One final tip I’ll pass on, though it’s not always feasible, is in a way an extension of the ‘keep it simple’ rule. Where possible, try to narrow the colour palette of your photograph as much as possible. Look for the predominant colour in your chosen subject, and try to match the foreground and background using similar colours (or neutral tones such as browns, blacks, greys and/or whites); or frame the image so that only one colour dominates.

Borough Market in London is a riot of colour, however ripe tomatoes are always red.
Borough Market in London is a riot of colour, however ripe tomatoes are always red.

If your subject itself is neutral in colour, try to keep the rest of the photograph based around one or two predominant colours.

This is more a stylistic tip than a rule, as obviously there are occasions where lots of strong, bright colours work well, but if you keep it in mind you may find you can add the extra element to a photograph that makes it stand out in your collection.

And finally…

Once you’ve got into the habit of applying these techniques to your photography, start to consciously make an effort to break them. Photography is, after all, an art form, and you are free to express yourself however you see fit. So be daring, and do something crazy now and then. You never know where your next great image may come from.

The natural symmetry of the church, broken only by the bell tower, makes it an ideal candidate for placing right in the centre of the image.
The natural symmetry of the church, broken only by the bell tower, makes it an ideal candidate for placing right in the centre of the image.

Creating an iPad portfolio

Apple’s iPad, with its Retina display, is a great way to carry a high-quality portfolio around with you in a small package without having to pay for prints. Keeping the portfolio up to date is not as complicated as it might seem, if you use Lightroom and iTunes in combination to set a folder on your computer to be synchronised with your iPad.

The first thing you need to do, in Lightroom, is create a Hard Drive Publish Service, called iPad. In the Library module, down at the bottom of the left-hand column, right click the ‘Hard Drive’ bar and select ‘Edit Settings’. This will display the following window:
Hard Drive publishing setttings in Lightroom

Since mine has already been set up, the folder location can’t be changed, but under the ‘Export Location’ heading you can define the location of the folder which will contain all your iPad photos.

You can use the same settings I have picked, or something else (if you are using the iPad 1 or 2, for example, you may want to use 1024 pixels for the image sizing instead of 2048). The resolution figure is irrelevant, of course, for display on digital devices. The sharpening, metadata and watermaking I’ll leave to your discretion.

Once you’ve created the publishing service, it will be listed in the Library side bar as follows:

Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 15.13.29

You can then add sub-folders according to your needs, thus:
Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 15.14.21

Add photos to these folders and publish as you would any other publishing service in Lightroom. Once they are all published, switch to iTunes and ensure your iPad is connected.

Select the iPad from the list of devices, and choose ‘Photos’ in the top bar. Select ‘Choose folder’ from the drop-down menu next to ‘Sync photos from:’Screen Shot 2013-04-12 at 14.45.27

Then navigate to the top-level folder your Lightroom Publish Service is connected to, and select ‘Open’. The next time you synchronise your iPad, the photos will all be copied across and will be visible in the Photos app under the headings defined in your Lightroom Publish Service:


Tilt-shifting at windmills (and other tall buildings)

What does “tilt-shift” mean to you?

Get that thought out of your head right now. Yes, tilt-shift lenses CAN be used to do that, but there’s so much more to them. To start with, the above effect was created in Photoshop, but when you tilt a lens in the opposite direction you can actually achieve a WIDER depth of field by aligning the focal plane with, or close to, the ground, without having to stop the lens down to f/11 or smaller. But that’s not why I use these lenses.

Take a look at this photograph of the railway arches near where I live:

It was taken with a 17mm lens from ground level, meaning that to include the top of the viaduct in the photo I had to tilt the camera back. With a rectilinear (i.e. not fisheye) wide angle lens, this has the result that all vertical lines start to converge, distorting the shapes in an unpleasant, almost vertiginous manner.

Luckily, the 17mm lens in question has a shift feature (the tilt wasn’t used for the next shot). So I shifted the lens upwards and aligned the back of the camera to be parallel with the walls of the viaduct:

Now the vertical lines on the structure are vertical in the photograph, and yet I still have the top of the viaduct in shot. This is because the 17mm TS-E lens has a much larger image circle than a standard 17mm lens. When you shift the front element upwards, the image circle also moves so that the portion that hits the sensor is towards the top of the scene. Using the same lens but without shifting would have resulted in a photo with only the bottom portion of the arches in shot, and far more pavement than would be reasonable.

This shot of Watford Fire Station was taken with the lens shifted up partially, meaning the building is centred vertically in the frame, rather than towards the top:

_MG_0279An extreme example (when you stand a bit closer to a building than is strictly necessary) shows how the perspective towards the edges of the larger image circle can be a bit overblown:

However with a slightly less wide lens (24mm in this case) and a building that’s further away, shifting the lens can result in very pleasing ground-level shots of tall buildings:

Apologies for the lack of windmills in this post. I just couldn’t resist the pun.




One of the questions you may ask yourself when deciding to buy a digital SLR for the first time is ‘Full Frame or cropped sensor?’ Even if it isn’t, it should be. The obvious next question is: what’s the difference? Well, it’s more complicated than you might think.

A full frame (‘FF’ hereafter) camera has a sensor that is the same size as a frame of 35mm film (36mm x 24mm); so-called ‘cropped sensor’ (‘CS’) cameras have smaller sensors, though there is no single standard, for example the sensor in a Canon EOS 550D measures 22.3mm x 14.9mm whereas in a Canon EOS 1D mk IV it’s 27.9mm x 18.6mm. Generally, FF cameras cost considerably more than CS models, however you might be able to pick up a second hand Canon EOS 5D or Nikon D700 for a reasonable price.

Many people talk about the ‘magnifying effect’ of a CS body. I find this term misleading; any magnification is done by the lens, and a 50mm lens is a 50mm lens on any camera. The image projected onto the sensor plane is identical, but the smaller sensor means only a part of the image is captured compared to a FF camera. To physically print the image would require more magnification but this is applied after the photograph is taken, and so is not technically a function of the sensor.

This also means that to get the equivalent field of view in a CS camera to a 50mm lens on a FF model, you would need to user a wider lens, eg 35mm, though the exact focal length would depend on the physical dimensions of the sensor. Using a lens with a shorter focal length means you get more depth of field, so this is one of the first things you need to think about when choosing sensor size; does your style of photography require narrower or wider DoF? Below 35mm though, it must be said, DoF is generally so wide that it makes little difference.

Cropping the image also means it is easier to fill the frame with a subject, especially useful in wildlife photography where small animals are shot using telephoto lenses of 300mm or more. This is where it is beneficial to use a smaller sensor; while it is also possible to crop a FF photo in post processing to achieve the same effect, you end up wasting pixels and losing detail as the resulting resolution is so much lower.

Using a full frame sensor it can be harder to fill the picture with your subject
Using a cropped frame sensor, your subject fills the picture more often (note: this is a crop of the photo above, and was not taken with a CS camera)

Of course the converse applies to wide angle lenses. Much of the drama of a good landscape comes from using lenses of 20mm or less, and when the extremes of a photograph are cropped out, this added drama can be lost. Unlike with telephoto lenses however, you cannot reverse the effect in PP.

With a full frame sensor, the full effect of using a wide angle lens is attained.
Using a cropped sensor, the dramatic extremes are lost (note: again this is a crop of the above photo and was not taken with a CS camera)

The one final consideration is image quality. Generally, except for the most expensive lenses, this deteriorates towards the edge of the picture, so by using a cropped frame sensor you are eliminating the less well defined areas of your image meaning you don’t necessarily need to spend as much on good quality glass. On the other hand (though this is less true with the latest developments in sensor technology), the high ISO performance of CS cameras is not as strong as that in FF cameras. This is because the pixels are more densely packed in a CS camera, and so are smaller and more sensitive to non-optical factors, such as electronic interference caused by the camera’s own circuits.

It is not my intention to say what is right or wrong, as I don’t believe there is such a distinction. But if you are fully aware of the consequences of your choice of sensor size, hopefully it makes it easier for you to make the decision that works for you.