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Composing a photograph well can seem to be a mysterious art: hard to master, even harder to explain. Knowledge of the “rules” of photography helps, but who can go through some checklist in their head every time they put eye to viewfinder? The real world waits for no one, and if you delay to think through every compositional possibility, you can easily miss the moment.
In the five years I’ve been pursuing photography, I’ve found that I’ve gone through a progression of not thinking about composition, to thinking too much, back to not thinking so much. Or at least it seems like I’m not thinking much. I’ve practiced “seeing” the photo before I take it so many times that it’s become a reflex, and nowadays I find myself rapidly assessing a scene, considering possibilities and picturing the shot before I even look through the camera.
I find that when I see a possible subject for an interesting shot, I disengage part of my brain, and I ignore the details. My eyes flick over the scene, looking for shapes, patterns, colours, light and form. I shuffle these elements around in my mind’s eye and see how they fit together. In this way I quickly and almost sub-consciously get a feel for the scene and composing a photo becomes a more natural process.
How do I do this? Recently I visited a local art gallery and explored the grounds looking for some interesting scenes to illustrate what I mean. Below you will see three different scenes. For each scene I have illustrated and annotated my thought process.
Starting wide I assess the big picture, then I zoom in on the photo I want. I describe what compositional elements I think are important in the final photos and I try to explain why. These are a look inside my head as I go through the thought process of capturing a photograph.
1. Oooh! Pretty flowers! They’re down pretty low to the ground, and the wind’s blowing around a lot. I’d better go to Shutter Priority to freeze the movement. So if I’m shooting low, what’s going to be in the background?
3. Ugh, the pond’s a bit overgrown, and there’s garbage floating in it. Gotta make sure that’s not visible. The low angle and narrow DOF will help that.
4. Alright then, time to get down on the ground and see how it looks through the viewfinder.
1. Ahh this has potential. Ok, get down REAL low, hold those reeds in the background back a bit with my foot, balance the “mass” of the flowers around the right one third line.
2. Great, opening up the aperture blurs the overgrown pond, and the ducks are nice and ambiguous. Lets put them on the top left intersection of thirds. Wait for the sun to come out. Waiting, waiting…. *click*
Have a look at the result:
1. This building may have potential, but it’s looking pretty bland at the moment, especially with the sun behind the clouds. Those bricks have great texture though, and that wall will be lit from a low angle, which will bring it right out.
2. That curved wall is unusual too, I wonder how I could bring those two elements together, and eliminate all the boring stuff?
3. Maybe a low angle looking up past the curve into the sky could make for an interesting geometric minimalist photo.
1. Looking good! The sun makes a big difference. The curved lines of the bricks are leading the eye nicely into the centre of the image.
2. This wall is showing the texture I had hoped, and it looks great against the blue. The lines also lead the eye right into the centre of shot.
3. Okay, lets position the top of that wall so it’s entering shot on the bottom third.
4. Now where to put the curved wall? Ok the top edge can just dissappear out the corner, and I’ll put the part where the curve really gets going on the top third line. *click*
Have a look at the result:
1. Hmmm, the sky’s looking pretty nice at the moment. It would be nice to work that into a shot somehow.
2. That reflective wall of windows is pretty cool too, ahh and they’re reflecting the clouds from the other direction too.
3. It might be nice to use those bushes to frame the shot too, and contrast the blue of the sky.
4. If I go over to that path, I can look right up to those windows and the clouds beyond.
1. This could be tricky to expose, I’d better go a stop under the metered exposure to avoid burning out the sky. I can pull the bottom half back up in Lightroom. So, lets put those windows around the bottom third line.
2. That post can go on the right third line, and I’ll make that my vertical as well.
3. Nice! I can put that large cloud right around the top left thirds intersection.
4. And now we’ve got a cool recursive cloud thing going on in the reflection, and it’s even helping balance the composition around the centre. *click*
Have a look at the result:
Thinking about a composition can really help make better photos, but dwelling on rules and technicalities can cause missed opportunities. The best way to find a happy balance is to get out and practice. Shoot heaps of photos, and do it often. Even if you don’t have your camera with you, if you see something that would make an interesting shot, close one eye and imagine how you would compose it. You don’t need a camera to practice photography!
Pretty soon you’ll find yourself rapidly composing photos, and you’ll barely be conscious of it.