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It seems everyone has a camera these days, so you may be wondering, “How can I separate myself from the pack?” The answer does not involve a better camera, or a more expensive lens. In fact, the most important part of your equipment actually can’t be purchased in a store. It’s your own unique vision, and perspective on the world, that makes all the difference. The following five elements of creative composition are starting points to help you better express your point of view.
While using leading lines in composition sounds simple, it’s actually one of the harder styles to pre-visualize. The idea is to find a line that will lead the viewer’s eye through the frame, and direct them to the subject. Train tracks are an obvious example, but it’s dangerous to shoot there, and therefore not recommended. There’s no shortage of safe alternatives however. The key is learning to see these opportunities, and apply them accordingly. How do you do this? Slowing down is certainly a good place to start. If you’re chasing the light at sunset, chances are your composition will be rushed and sloppy. If you take the time to really scout a location, it’s possible to craft an image that far exceeds a routine snapshot.
Yes, even your camera settings can be used as a compositional element. In this instance, a fast shutter speed would have frozen the water, leaving it rather listless. By slowing the exposure down to several seconds, the circular motion of the stream becomes evident, and works to anchor the scene. This is a different way of thinking about composition. It’s not only about where you put your focus point, but how you apply your settings to create the scene.
The aperture you choose can also play a major role in your composition. At f/1.8 for example, you have such a shallow depth of field that only a small portion of the picture is in focus. From a strategic angle, this can be quite an effective way to bring attention to your subject. While the face of the monument is sharp, both the foreground and background are completely out of focus. Seeing like this in advance, takes practice and imagination. When you look at an object, try to visualize how the camera can render it at various settings.
When traveling, it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of a location. Often, you have to balance shooting time with making time to eat, sleep, and well, be human. Still, you want to get the shot that will be good enough for your portfolio. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to sleep in the field, with the camera as your pillow. Sometimes, the difference between an average shot and a great one is a little extra effort. I’ve seen this time and again in my own work, and therefore wanted to stress it here.
In the first shot (above), I got off the ship, turned around and made a quick mindless record shot. The light was pretty but the overall image is uninspiring at best. Taking my own advice, I asked the waiting cab to let it idle for a minute, and walked down the pier a few hundred feet. From this new perspective, an entire different view presented itself with the sun kissing the ship’s bow. To emphasize the shape and color I purposely underexposed the scene (to make a silhouette). The small aperture of f/16 turned the sun into a starburst. These two shots are vastly different but were taken merely 100 feet apart, separated by five minutes.
There are of course times when you scout and plan well, but the light is just not flattering when you arrive. You can go home empty handed, or work with what’s been presented, to make something special. Framing is one of the most effective ways to eliminate bad light. By essentially hiding it behind foliage you can emphasize your subject in a clever way. For the viewer, this provides a sense of three dimensionality, almost like they’re peering through a window. A small aperture works best for this technique, as it will keep everything sharp from near to far.
So try to incorporate some of these creative composition techniques into your images as you shoot. Work intentionally and think about your image before you press the button. Share any additional tips you have in the comments below.