Stop reading ‘X rules to improve your photography’ articles and read this instead if you want to actually start to enjoy composition and photography again!
Does this sound familiar …
You’ve just taken a wonderfully exposed photo, but it just doesn’t spark joy. You don’t quite know why, but it just feels ...meh? Then you see someone else’s photo and it just has the WOW factor. It’s amazing, but you can’t quite put your finger on why you like it so much.
The secret ingredient to both these photos is composition!
Unlike the exposure and camera settings, which is more scientific meaning everyone goes through the same motions, the composition is where you can bring your own eye, your own flair, your own artistic stamp to the picture. It’s where your creativity gets to play.
It is how you elevate a snapshot to a photograph. And it isn’t even that difficult. A lot easier than learning to paint like Picasso or sculpt like Michaelango!
What is composition?
Composition is how the elements are organised in the photo. Whether you place the coffee mug to the right or left, or crop close, or far out, whether you include a lot of sky or more of the foreground, all these decisions are composition considerations.
Composition is how the elements are organised in the photo.
And they all affect how the viewer sees, analyzes and remembers the image. We do this whether we know it or not. It is why one image can evoke a strong response while the next we skip over without ever truly seeing it.
As photographers, however, knowing this, gives us power to control how the viewer will experience our image. Suddenly we have all this power muahahaha!
So first we need to know what we want to achieve. We have to think about our final image before we take the first shot and in this way we have already elevated ourselves from snappers to photographers. Once we know what we want our viewer to feel and think then we need to find a way to create that experience. This is where our composition toolbox will come in.
My Composition Philosophy
Often the composition approaches are referred to as rules. I do not like this at all. It allows no flexibility in the way we design our images. I think of them as tools. Then as I compose my image I can rummage through my toolbox and pull out the “the rule of thirds” or “lead in lines” or “Repetition” as they are needed to create the image of my artistic vision.
Composition is the art side of photography. It is where we get to have some real creative fun.
It also allows me to experiment. I don’t have to be rigid. I can try one thing, decide I don’t like it, and then try something else!
I very much believe mindset is so important in all art forms and photography is no different. Unlike other art forms, there is some “hard” or uncompromising science involved. Faster shutter speeds will always reduce light, wider apertures will always permit more light - that is science. But how we use that science is art. We can decide we want a moody dark image and then deliberately reduce the light used with darker colours and maybe add in a high ISO for grain.
Maybe we want a really dreamy summery feel, so we will include a lot of bright colours, minimal objects included in the frame and a lot of blue sky. But maybe I want to change it up and instead of including bright colours to create a summer feel I will go for B&W but choose an ice coffee instead of a hot coffee to give summer vibes! If the tool referring to colour in my toolbox was a rule I couldn’t not include colour but as a tool I can choose to use it, or not.
This way every person can take an image of the same scene and each person will have a slightly different interpretation and result depending on what tools they have used, even if their settings were all identical.
While my toolbox is overflowing with tools, there are some I will reach for more than others. My most used tools are 1. Rule of thirds, 2. Lead in lines (leading lines) and 3. Close crop.
My toolbox, decorated with stickers and overflowing with tools to use.
My top 3 composition tools
1. Rule of thirds
The only one that has “rule” in the name of it, but don’t be fooled I break this as often as I obey it.
The rule states - for best visual impact you should place your main subject on one of the four lines of the imaginary 3x3 grid over your image. Bonus points if your subject has an eye that lands on the cross point.
The rule of thirds uses a 3x3 grid layout that guides where your subject should be placed within the image.
So, often you will see this in all good images, the subject will be placed in one third to the left or right, or from top to bottom. And it works a lot of the time. It creates a nice visual image.
But just as equally, I will place my subject front and centre, in the middle box. This works really well with images of children and pets. It creates drama and dominance that contrasts nicely with a subject, which evokes a response in the viewer.
So while I may not always follow the rule explicitly, I always consider it, and it always influences how I take my images.
3 examples of the rule of thirds - 2 obeying the rule, and one not so much!
2. Lead in lines (leading lines)
This is another well used tool. When your viewer is looking at your image, if you can provide a roadmap to how the viewer should travel through your image, they tend to stay longer on your image and have a more enjoyable experience of the image. This is one of the easiest and most classic composition tools and once you train your eye, you will see lead in lines (aka leading lines) everywhere.
Lead in lines are pathways in an image for your viewer to follow.
You have classic examples such as the centre line in a road but be creative, what can you find to use as a lead in line? It doesn’t have to be a literal line, a row of stones getting smaller towards the sea is a good example, or a row of flowers leading to the person in distance. Basically anything in a row or line that leads the eye in will work.
This one is so simple, but can be so powerful in elevating your composition, so try to always look around before taking your picture and see if you can include them somehow! The viewer will rarely realize it but their eyes will follow whatever lines are in the picture so make sure the lines lead to where you want the viewer to end up - on your main subject.
2 examples of lead in lines - one straight and one curved!
3. Close crop
Since I tend to favour the macro style and macro photography techniques, I usually end up with the subject filling the frame in full, be it butterfly, insect or flower. As the most interesting detail is in the subject, I want to highlight that fully without distractions. The opposite would the style of having a subject take up a small part of the image with a lot of negative space also known as empty space surrounding the subject.
Same photo, one more closely cropped than the other. Both are fine, but for me, the closer crop adds more impact and you can apprecoiate the detail of the passion flower more.
Close crop cuts out all the extra space around your subject and allows full attention on your subject.
Like I have been saying, it all depends on what you want the viewer to focus on, whether to crop close or include more negative space. For my style, and in general I tend to close crop, even with portraits as I love the small detail, the intimate moments. This is also why landscapes tend to be my weaker style, because I haven’t used that tool as much, or refined it.
Generally, you shouldn't cut people off, particularly the heads, but I love the intimacy this creates. In my opinion it creates a much more powerful, special moment!
Final sip of coffee thoughts:
So we have covered a lot in this coffee mug blog, so I hope you brewed a big mug. But in short composition is key to elevating your images from snapshots to artworks. It is important to remember that composition is how we introduce our own vision to the final image, and how we control the narrative of the image. It is the art side of the two sided coin of photography. The other side being, of course, science.
In this mindset, we now are empowered as artists to use or not use any of the techniques or tools that we have in our box.
We covered my three most used tools this time, in the next blog I will fully empty out my toolbox and discuss all the basic tools we can use. I can’t wait to sip some more coffee and share more photography tips with you.
Screenshot the reminder image below for your own reference and share and tag me (/cameras.coffee.community) on instagram so I can take a look at your account and see your work!
Screen shot this summary so you always remind yourself of the correct mindset when approaching photogrpahy and watch as your snapshots transform into artworks.
Until next weekend, happy sipping and happy shooting,