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:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.