It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera; they are made with the eye, heart and head. – Henri Cartier-Bresson
My photography training took place back in the early 90s, at an intense technical photo school in California. I love tech in all forms, and I love reading my camera manual. I love the precision and procedure of processing my own colour film, and I love learning the ever-advancing skills on photo software – I am a total tech nerd. But technical knowledge will only get you so far; it’s really the second part of the story in photography. Photography composition is the first part.
The first part is your vision of what you want your photography to be, and learning the ability to compose compelling images. Your technical knowledge will only give you the ability to execute your vision, and make the most of the composition that you have created. It can’t replace the ability to see and to compose stunning compositions.
So all things should flow from a good composition. And when we are learning about composition I like to keep in mind that quote that may or may not have been spoken by Picasso (it’s under dispute on the internet): “Learn the rules like a pro and break them like an artist.” Rules, guidelines, ideas about composition will give you a place to start, help develop your skills and propel you out of a rut. But they should not be followed slavishly or forever.
Here are my ideas on what you can do to make your compositions more captivating. But, bear in mind that creating totally unique compositions comes down to creating your own style . So don’t be swayed too much by other photographers’ advice on this subject. Photography is an examination of the world through your eyes, it’s totally subjective, totally about connecting with what inspires and excites you. Just pick up ideas that make sense and motivate you.
To practice, pick one concept from below that jumps out. Don’t take all these ideas and try to incorporate them into your photography all at once. Pick one and really embrace it – then the results will come.
So here are my 10 favourite tips on how you can instantly improve your composition.
“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” George Eastman
For me more than anything, photography is about light, and learning to identify interesting light is one of the best skills to learn. Light that is doing something interesting, or is beautiful or colourful; will take a good subject and turn it into something completely amazing.
Light is my starting point when I am taking photos. It is the thing I consider first, and what affects me the most when deciding what to photograph. Look for light doing strange and wonderful things – creating long shadows, diffused light falling over a broken wall, reflecting, creating bursts of colour. Look for the colour of light, too: the cool blue light before dawn, the cold, almost transparent light of a winter’s afternoon, the rich orange light of near twilight – and how that affects your subject. Think always: how can I get the best out of the light that I am photographing?
In the photograph above, the beautiful light is obvious. I have used the silhouette of the column, to contrast the dappled light which is illuminating the clouds beautifully. This contrast makes the light look spectacular because it’s showing off its range of colours and depth against the heavy dark column.
Learning to notice light in all its forms and colours is an excellent way to improve your compositions.
When you see a subject you wish to photograph, look at the light around it. If it’s not interesting light – if it’s flat, boring, or draining the sense of colour – have a look at what else is happening with the weather. Maybe you can wait for clouds to pass, come back later or earlier in the day, see if you can organize the composition to incorporate light from other sources. It doesn’t have to be natural light. Artificial light, and particularly the play of natural and artificial light, can make an inspirational combination.
Here’s another photo where the main subject is the light, but this one is more subtle. The absence of light is most pronounced in this shot, and then all of sudden the glow of dawn light is reflected in the windows. Again, there is a contrast of darkness against light.
There is lots of negative space in this photo, an overload of industrial blandness, wastelands. And then these two buildings and the sudden glow of the charming light.
2. Simplicity: think in threes
“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” Hans Hofmann
Simplicity is often very hard to accomplish, and can be more challenging than more complex compositions. I find there can be a misunderstanding about how to achieve simplicity in your photos. People often think it’s about taking a photo of one subject. But actually I rarely take photos which contain only one subject. Usually there has to be one subject with at least one, but usually, two supporting elements. So I like to say – think in threes.
Humans love to think in threes – (breakfast, lunch, dinner; past, present, future; and small, medium, large). We like to find rhythms and patterns in everything.
This photo above is a very good example. How many elements make up this photo? Well, first you have the beautiful blue gradated sky, then the wild, chaotic pattern of the bare branches. That’s all very nice, but it’s the third element that is the subject, and that really makes the photo – the two men blending into the branches, while creating distinct human shapes. The photo without any one of the elements wouldn’t be as interesting.
I am a particular fan of very simple compositions when photographing people and I often use plain and colourful backgrounds. In the photo below, again there are three strong elements: bright pastel colours, the two guys and the strong lines.
It also works when photographing pigeons! Another photo with three elements: the grey, slightly dishevelled pigeon, the wash of colour, and the texture and lines of the wet paving stones.
3. Move your feet
When you are looking at a professional photographer’s work, one thing that they do more than an amateur photographer is move. You may have a killer shot laid out before you, but you still have to find the killer angle that will make the shot really special. Every shot has a perfect angle, and it’s your job to find it. If you are shooting a subject you love and then look at your images and are disappointed with what you find, I guarantee it’s because you haven’t found the perfect angle.
Get up on that roof, lie on the floor, move your feet around until what you see in frame is the best possible angle, the best possible position you can manoeuvre yourself into. Get dirty if you have to. This requires patience (and good knees), and patience is one thing I think most amateur photographers need to develop more of.
There is one particular culprit in our kit that discourages us to move, and makes many of us lazy – a zoom lens. This should NEVER be a replacement for moving around a scene and finding the best angle. Do not fall into the trap that just because you have the subject in frame you can just zoom in to get it. Compose your best possible shot in frame, zooming in only if it’s totally the right thing to do , and not as a default option for moving. My best advice for zooming is pick a focal length, then move your feet and find the angle you need.
4. Get closer
Robert Capa said – “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you are not close enough.”
This concept reminds me of when I once read about a famous chef, who believes that the difference between home cooks and professionals is that home cooks are afraid of heat, and don’t turn their gas hobs up high enough. It’s the same with photography – obviously!
If you feel yourself not wanting to get closer, then this is definitely an idea you should explore. You will almost be able to notice in your images that barrier of fear you set up of getting closer because there will be a distance to your subject. Push through that fear, and your images will benefit from more intimate images. The iconic travel photographer Steve McCurry always photographs subjects within a few feet of himself. For him that is the distance that feels most intimate. That is his style.
Take a deep breathe, hold your fear in check, and just get closer. Investigate as though nothing is holding you back.
5. Build your photo
When I am out wandering around looking for things to shoot, I am looking for elements that I can combine. Often it starts with one thing; it could be anything – an odd looking person, a beautiful shaft of light, a piece of amazing graffiti on a pockmarked concrete wall. If one thing strikes me, I start to look around to find something else to build on that first element to make it more interesting.
In this photo above I think you’ll agree that if you took away the light in the window you’d have a perfectly lovely shot. But that light is what makes it work. It’s that additional element, creating another layer of depth, and providing an echo almost of the church light of the same colour. I passed this spot on many mornings and often took this particular shot, but one morning the window light was on and it changed it from a beautiful scene into a great image.
6. Look behind you
I shoot in places where I often find myself surrounded by other photographers – the Eiffel Tower at Dawn, sunset on Westminster Bridge – and it continuously stuns me that almost every (or even every) photographer will be pointing the same way and shooting the same thing. Now of course a purple pink sunset over the Houses of Parliament is gorgeous – but that light will also be doing incredible things to everything around you. So, while everyone is going nuts at the obvious, do something different – turn around, walk down that alley way, do what everyone else is not doing.
When I was in Paris I was intimidated about shooting the city. It’s the most visited city on earth (hence the most photographed). It is a small city and much of what’s amazing to photograph has been shot to death. I wanted to shoot the Eiffel Tower differently. Here is one shot I liked. You’ve got opulent gold, beautiful dawn sky, the iconic Eiffel Tower – all pretty so far – but then you have this injection of something that most photographers would have avoided – the cleaners.
Have the patience to explore other angles.
The streets cleaners are a vivid contrast against the opulent gold, and while I kept the iconic Eiffel Tower in the shot, it’s really only as a background. Paris is obsessed with tidying itself, so this is also a nice little comment on the city.
7. Simplify your kit (and get really familiar with it)
I think most people generally have too much kit. If you have a lot and you don’t use it daily or even weekly, you’re not going to have that intimate knowledge of how it responds to situations and subjects. Try reducing to just one lens for a while and really get to know it.
When you have a lens that you know exactly what it will do in every situation, you’ll be able to execute even more interesting compositions, as you aren’t leaving things to chance. Chance is something that professional photographers will go out of their way to avoid.
8. Find beauty in the mundane
It’s easy to get a spectacular shot when you have a spectacular subject. But to make simple, boring, or mundane things look interesting – now that’s a challenge! But it’s a challenge I invite you to take up, because it’s an amazing way to train your eye to reveal the beauty of any subject.
This for me is a good example. There are three things that are interesting in this photo (can you guess?) You have the bold colours, and then a little bit of light falling on the wall to create a contrast, and the lines. Now if light was falling on the whole wall, or if there was no light at all, the photo would be totally boring. But can you see how just three simple elements working together can make a photo?
And as I am obsessed with colour and light, I admire this shot.
It’s part of a longer story I am working on in Istanbul at dawn, but to me it shows that there is no subject that isn’t worthy of attention from your camera.
I love my digital camera, but I also still use film, and now that I’m mainly digital I appreciate the discipline and grounding I received from training in film. I use these skills to help me now.
One super important skill that will really help your compositions is pre-visualizing. It’s a skill you had to have when you shot film, because otherwise you were just shooting randomly.
Pre-visualizing is, “the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure” (Ansel Adams said that, not me). What I love about this, is that it’s about creating space between seeing a shot, and taking it. It’s about being prepared, thinking through what you want to capture, looking at all of the elements of light, positioning, etc., and then picturing in your mind what the final image will look like. For example, imagine your final output was a print. Imagine the print in your hands. What would it look like? If you can see it clearly then your are pre-visualizing. If not, then keep working at it until you see the image in your head. When you have a solid picture in mind, take the shot.
You can also use pre-visualization when you think about timing. A lot of landscape photography is really about waiting around for the perfect moment, that great light. Here is one situation (above) where I knew the scene had potential, but was pretty flat, and if nothing else happened it wouldn’t be interesting. So, I waited for the sun to rise just that little bit more and ping, the clouds were filled with pink light giving the photo more depth.
10. Look for patterns
Patterns come in many forms, and are extremely pleasing to the eye. A pattern is anything that is repetitive, that turns your subject from its innate quality, into something more abstract. So people will look and respond more to the pattern and shape that it makes, and less to the subject itself.
“Whatever emotional response a single design element arouses is multiplied when it is repeated in a pattern.” – Bryan Peterson
Patterns are particularly effective when you fill the frame with your subject, and totally cut off the rest of it. These are particularly interesting to look at.
Another way to create patterns is reflections. I love playing with reflections. Anywhere you have a bit of water, even just rain on the street, or shiny surfaces, you have the ability to play with reflections.
Once you start looking out for patterns you’ll start seeing them everywhere.
Time to practice
I’d love to know what you think of these ideas, and if you put any into practice. Which compositional techniques do you use to enhance your photos?