Photographic composition

(Aide memoire regarding composition, courtesy of Canon and Brian Doble.) There are many suggestions, guidelines and techniques about composition. Understanding these will help you create good photos but will also help you to understand when breaking the rules will give the strongest impact. Photographic composition is the art of finding a camera viewpoint that places all the elements of the subject in visually stimulating positions within the frame. This tutorial will describe the most useful and frequently used techniques to improve photos.

  • Crop the background
  • A different viewpoint
  • Near and far
  • Vanishing points
  • The S-line
  • The rule-of-thirds
  • Portrait or landscape
  • On the level

Composition is as much about excluding items as including them. Many backgrounds benefit from being cropped, either by moving closer to the main subject or zooming in.

Crop the background

Cropping serves two purposes:First, it eliminates unwanted and distracting objects or backgrounds.Second, it allows you to fill the frame with the main subject. In portraiture, this means that you can show just the face of the person.Do remember that the surroundings and background can often add to the character of a person. You can show the person in their environment – a writer at a desk, for example, a pianist at a piano, or a photographer using a camera.

A different viewpoint

When you see the opportunity for a image, stop for a second to consider your viewpoint. Is there a better view from the left or right? Will the subject look more imposing if the camera shoots from a low level? Laying flat on the ground and shooting up is a good way to give impact to the image.Sometimes you can move to higher ground and shoot down on a landscape. In towns you might be able to climb a bell tower, or shoot from the roof of a multi-storey car park. Look around for the opportunities other people will miss.

Near and far

Photographs can look dull if there is no sense of scale or depth. One way to overcome this, and add interest to the image, is with a foreground subject.Imagine you are on a beach photographing the cliffs across the bay. If you stand while taking the picture, the foreground will probably look fairly empty. But by laying down on the sand and including a small rock, or a piece of seaweed as a foreground subject you will add greater depth and produce a more dynamic scene. A dramatic approach to increase the perception of depth in a image is to use a tilt and shift lens.

Vanishing points

Perspective plays a big part in composition. Imagine that you are standing looking down a length of straight, disused railway track. The distance between the rails appears to narrow into the distance. The converging lines draw the eye into the scene. You see a similar result if you turn your camera up to photograph a tall building. The sides of the building appear to get close together, an effect called converging verticals. If you don’t want this to happen you need to stand well back to keep the camera level with the ground. The shift movement of a tilt and shift lens will help to correct converging verticals from a closer distance.

The S-line

Another powerful compositional aid is the S-line. Imagine a river starting in the foreground and curving away in an S-shape. Your eye will instinctively follow the line into the image. The S could be a road, a line of hills or a pattern in a close-up subject. Watch out for an S-line and use it in your compositions.

The rule-of-thirds

Imagine your picture divided into nine rectangles by two vertical lines and two horizontal lines, equally spaced. If you place your main subject on any one of the four intersections, the image will usually have a well-balanced appearance.

Portrait or landscape

You can hold the camera so that the long side is parallel with the ground (horizontal or landscape format) or turn the camera through 90° so that the short side is parallel with the ground (vertical or portrait format). However, great landscapes can be shot in portrait format and many portraits are shot in landscape format. Ensure you make good use of both formats. Far too many photographers find it is comfortable to hold the camera in landscape format and rarely shoot in portrait format. Set yourself a small assignment to photograph selected subjects in both the landscape and portrait formats. You will not be able to use the same compositions for each – experiment to see which arrangements work best.

On the level

When shooting landscapes – rural or urban – it is important to keep the camera level. Horizons that slope to the left or right are disturbing. Some cameras have built-in electronic levels. These display in the viewfinder and on the LCD screen to help you position the camera. However, any camera can be set level if you use the spirit level found in some tripods, or an inexpensive accessory spirit level that slips into the accessory shoe. Alternatively, there are Apps available for smartphones that perform this function.

Removing colour casts

A simple and effective way to remove colour casts in Photoshop:

  1. Open the affected image in Photoshop and copy the background layer to a new layer.
  2. With the new layer selected, apply the ‘Average’ filter (Menu: Filter > Blur > Average…), your image will turn into an even colour, similar to the colour cast of the original image.
  3. Add a curves adjustment layer (Menu: Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Curves…)
  4. In the adjustment layer panel you should see three eyedroppers, select the middle one and click with the eyedropper on the image.
  5. Click on the ‘eye’ on the layer with the even colour to make that layer inactive.
  6. Done.