So what exactly is composition in photography and why is it such a big deal? Composition is the way you intentionally arrange or put together the visual elements in an image, in and around your subject. The goal is to catch the viewer’s interest and keep it wandering around your photo. While some people have an innate ability to “see” and compose great images, it is a skill that can be taught.
Once you have identified your subject, here are a few useful precepts you can use when composing your next great image.
Now that you have your subject in mind, the first question is how do you showcase it so there is no doubt of your intent? Keeping it simple is a good approach, as clutter can distract or even make it difficult to identify your focus.
Most times in landscape photography, you have no control over what is around your subject. Here, the use of lighting can reduce clutter, as the brighter areas of your photo will draw the eye to them. You can also find an angle that helps you remove any strong elements that can detract the focus of the object. Thus use only what you consider necessary components.
Good composition is as much about what you leave out as it is what you include.
You have no doubt heard the term lead-in lines – which are lines that direct the eye where you want it to go. This is a powerful tool in composition and can add a three-dimensional feel to your image. It does this by creating movement and can take away that static/flat feeling.
Lines can be literal (such as roads, streams, power lines, or fences) or implied (those that link different subjects in the frame). While diagonal lines are considered the strongest, you are not limited to it as experimenting with horizontal, vertical and converging lines can also be a source of inspiration.
If you have more than one subject in your image, choose an arrangement with an odd number of subjects (at least three e.g. three rocks or trees). Similarly, you can frame or surround your main subject with two objects to add visual stimulation. Odd numbers within a frame are said to be more pleasing and comforting to the eye.
Side Note: In landscape photography, even numbers in the frame can seem less natural and informal, although an even number of subjects can produce symmetry. This is just something to keep in mind if you are breaking the “rule of odds”.
The easiest way to create interest is by having a foreground element in your shot which adds extra depth and dimension. Following on from the point above, you can feature a subject in the foreground, middle, and background, keeping them harmonious or having subjects that complement each other. Complementary subjects are those that have some association (e.g. they are the same color, similar appearance, or add to your story in some way). On the opposite side of this, you can use juxtaposition to create some tension in your image.
Other ways to add interest can be showing the scale of the scene by including an object or person or even by framing your photo in an interesting way.
5. Rules? What Rules?
Most composition articles start with the rule of thirds. This rule divides the image into thirds horizontally and vertically and suggests that you arrange your subject and other important elements near these division lines or at their intersections. The objective is to be more visually pleasing, as placing your subject in center of the frame stops the eye there and takes away from the movement you are trying to create and use to your advantage.
It is a classic rule that is widely used with great results, so it is an excellent place to start as a beginner. However, what if you want to create a perfectly symmetrical image, such as a mountain with its perfect reflection in a lake? What if you have just as much interest in the sky as in the ground? An image like that will clearly not follow the rule of thirds, would it?
When you are out in the real world looking at the scene before you, these rules become more like handy suggestions. You need to allow your subject to influence your composition and not force it to conform to the “rules”. Therefore knowing the rules helps you decide when it is okay to break them, this is a skill you will develop over time.
Composition is important. To get a sense of how important, think about the impact of what you perceive as a really good or bad image. First, analyze the elements and how they work or do not work together. Identify the subject(s) of the photo and break it down into which compositional “rules” are present or broken. Are there lead-in lines? Is there a point of interest in the foreground or odd numbers present? Remember to move around your scenery and try different angles for your composition and in time you will know which rules to apply or ignore.
Please share any images you have created that use one or more of these tips, in the comments below.