Composition: Not Just About Positioning Your Subject, But About Positioning Yourself Too

Composition: Not Just About Positioning Your Subject, But About Positioning Yourself Too

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Composition is not just about positioning subjects in your shot – but sometimes is more about positioning yourself as a photographer in order to make a more pleasing arrangement of subjects in your frame.

I learned this principle for myself back in a high school photography class where my teacher pointed out that every portrait I took was taken from a standing position. This meant any time I took a shot of someone seated – I was looking down on them – not always a flattering and engaging look.

Height is one way to alter your perspective as a photographer. In many cases a shot taken from or just below the eye level of your subject is ideal and creates a more intimate shot. However mixing it up can also leave you with a creative and interesting perspective.

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Looking down on someone looking up at you can also be powerful – and looking up from the ground at someone can dramatically alter the look and feel of the shot also.

Of course shooting height isn’t the only element you can change. The distance between you and your subject is another factor worth experimenting with. Shooting from a distance can show your subject in their environment – while shooting up close and tightly framing your shot can help to isolate them from a distracting background.

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One last way to alter the composition of an image by moving yourself as the photographer is to move around your subject. While shooting a portrait from in front of a person is probably the most sensible place to start in most instances – a side view (portrait) or even shooting from behind can create some interesting shots.

Many times as photographers using cameras with zoom lenses we can get a little lazy with composition – allowing it to be a matter of focal length – but it’s good to remind yourself that being a little more mobile and altering your shooting perspective can add a lot to an image.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Average Joe December 28, 2011 02:46 pm

    Awesome article! I'm gladly turning into a sponge for these photography articles.

  • Greg Lawrence March 5, 2011 02:38 pm

    Cohesion - the action or fact of forming a united whole. There are two perspectives to composition, physical and emotional. Physical places camera, foreground, subject and background to capture the desired image perspective. Emotional places the camera in relationship to the subject to emote the desired appearance or feeling. Technically, the lens focal length selection should be based on the chosen camera position to first obtain the desired subject perspective (distortion control) then to obtain the desired field of view. Example: If camera to subject distance is always the same, regardless of focal length, and the captured subject image is displayed the same size, the subject perspective is identical and will look the same; however, the field of view, the relationship of foreground and background to the subject and depth-of-field are different. If the camera position is changed so that the subject size is the same in the displayed captured image with different focal length lenses, the subject perspective changes with the selected lens. Wide angle lens exaggerates depth and telephoto lens compresses depth. FIeld of view is still different between these lenses because it is based on the focal length and sensor/film size. Once the camera to subject distance is selected for the desired perspective, then focus point and depth-of-field (aperture selection) are chosen. All of this has to be manipulated around the desired composition, which is the placement of the subject(s) in relation to the foreground and background content. You control what is seen and how is seen with the camera position and the focal length selected. In most cases chosen field of view in relation to the desired depth between foreground, subject and background determines the required focal length. Depth-of-field then determines how distinct objects before and behind the plane of focus will be.

    Basically what all this means is that for the optimum image capture, camera position is critical for both the physical and emotional perspectives. Camera to subject distance determines the perspective of subject appearance (distortion and depth at the subject, excluding foreground and background), focal length determines the depth between foreground, subject and background, AND field of view. Depth of field is dependent upon aperture and camera to subject distance for the given focal length lens.

    What is the point of all this? The discussion of prime (fixed focal length) to zoom is pointless. Choose the camera position based on the desired composition, appearance of depth and subject perspective, and field of view. Then choose the focal length to capture the desired scene. With a little practice you can simulate this without a camera and lens in hand. A piece of cardboard with an opening cut in it with the same height to width ratio of your camera sensor held at different distances from your eye, viewing the scene from your current position will give you the perspective of subject appearance and the field of view. Wide angle held closest to the eye and telephoto held furthest from the eye, normal in between. Since the eye is one focal length you may not be able to accurately judge depth differences between foreground, subject and background as they would appear with different lens focal length selections.

    If you have a series of zoom lenses with overlapping focal lengths from ultra wide to long telephoto, you have all options at your disposal to support the optimum camera position; however, the less focal lengths from which you can choose, the more restricted you are and more often compromises must be made, or you have to manipulate the positions of foreground, subject and background by physically moving one or more of them, or selecting a different viewpoint or scene.

    I will select the focal length of the lens only after I have carefully selected what is felt to be the optimum camera position, given the ability to actually physically be in that spot. Remember that camera position choice includes what makes the subject look the best.

    Sneaker zoom is not the same as lens zoom. By using a fixed focal length lens you are locked into a specific physical perspective which restricts choice of camera position. You risk a sameness in how your images look because the physical perspective, composition depth, and field of view are always the same. Perhaps call that style. Granted, doing a photographic project with a select fixed lens can be enjoyable and get the creative juices flowing, but I will bet that it is more from the uniqueness of the experience, or change in the routine that is more satisfying. Photographers do get bored working within the same box.

    Some will argue that prime lenses are sharper, have more contrast and are faster. Technically maybe so, but with today's computer designed lenses and sophisticated glass formulations and coatings, professional quality zoom lenses are very good and some very fast (my 16 - 35 f2.8 and 70-200 f2.8 lenses really rock); thus, the prime lens arguments may be based on diminishing returns. Personally, I would rather have a camera with a clean high ISO range than an ultrafast lens.

    Image content still reigns supreme. Optimum content comes only with optimum camera position and lens focal length selection to capture the desired composition which is the arrangement and depth of objects within the lens field of view.

  • Bittner Photography March 5, 2011 01:02 pm

    Great close up shot. Love the eyes and the narrow depth of field. I see your point on a fix lens but like the additional options a zoom gives you...I don't suffer from the lazy (stay in one place) syndrome. Though with kids some times I stay put because they are moving... ;-)

  • jide olatunbosun February 28, 2011 02:15 am

    moving around, sometimes, close one's eyes and reopen give a refreshing view of composing a better shot.
    As an artist, I chronicle my thoughts to bring out artistic angles of elevation or depression with better interaction with the subject and the background.

  • Singapore Wedding Photography February 27, 2011 12:44 pm

    I must admit, i sometimes do let the laziness get the better of me. This is espeically so at the end of a full day shoot.
    What I tend to do is I promise myself at least 1 good shot every 30 mins, one which I'll go to greath length to acheive.

  • Gwen Jarvis February 27, 2011 05:34 am

    Awesome ideas. The straight on thing gets "boring" at times.

  • Kenneth Hoffman February 27, 2011 12:58 am

    As a professional portrait photographer, the first thing I did when taking outdoor portraits is choose the background I wanted in the picture. Then I would position the subject and myself. My twin lens reflex could easily be lowered or raised for different andgles. The direction of light was important, too. I used large reflectors for modeling (first choice) and fill light. Good article.

  • Daniela Reinsch February 26, 2011 04:05 pm

    So right! Here I took it to the extreme - and I love it.

    [eimg url='https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/_Kef_T8bu3ZE/TWiDAURYWII/AAAAAAAAAyk/8ElJodnOLGE/s720/DSC_0474.JPG' title='DSC_0474.JPG']

  • Andreas - 16th Ave February 26, 2011 08:11 am

    This is so true! Wow, I learn something new every single day from the Digital Photography School! Get's me thinking, and it's awesome! :)

  • Yannis P. February 26, 2011 04:32 am

    This is a really simple article about a really simple subject that ends up being so important and so complex in the end! Well done for reminding us all, and thank you!

  • Dave February 26, 2011 02:20 am

    Honestly some of the most dramatic shots I have gotten is flat on my stomach pointing up.

  • Ricky February 26, 2011 02:11 am

    It's true, I've gotten more lazy about moving better the zoom lens have improved. I remember back in the 80's when zooms was hard to find or afford, I use to work so hard to get that perfect shoot, but now, man..... times have changed.

  • amir paz February 26, 2011 01:38 am

    no doubt the 50mm f1.8 makes you very creative in composition:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/amirpaz/2971805316/in/set-72157604823214817/

    :)

    Amir

  • Ryan Lue-Clarke February 25, 2011 08:18 pm

    Nice post, I'm a little bit on the shorter side so usually I might need a stool/ladder for those more drastic shots. Always fun to switch it up though and see things from different perspectives.

  • craziemutant February 25, 2011 07:45 pm

    I'm still a beginner but a friend gave me some advice to get the 50mm while I was purchasing my camera. When I started out, I just used the kit lens and zoomed in and out as I needed. I shot while staying in the same spot for long periods of time. But then I decided to give the 50 a try and quickly realized I didn't have the luxury of zoom and was forced to move myself rather than the lens. And boy am I thankful for it. I was lucky enough to learn early on that shooting from one spot was entirely different from moving yourself to get different shots and angles.

    If you only have a zoom lens, take a day and force yourself to shoot at a set zoom. Notice how much you have to move yourself and position to get shots you want. I've had to climb, sit, kneel, stand, and lay down to get shots I was looking for.

  • Antony Pratap February 25, 2011 04:08 pm

    Absolutely right! Angles, perspectives does matter!

  • Bob Summerville February 25, 2011 02:42 pm

    The point in the final paragraph is well made. I spent time recently with a professional photographer to brush up my technique. (What technique?) He made that point over and over again. Get mobile. Focal length is about perspective, foreshortening etc. If you want to crop your image, get closer. A Frank Kappa said, if your images are not exciting, you're not getting close enough. But I'm not selling my zoom lens just yet.

  • dewi February 25, 2011 12:25 pm

    I got frustrated while asking my friend to take a photo of me, even in a simple way. they keep talks to me to move all the way just because it didnt on the frame (its really hot, burns me to death)...couldnt stand anymore, I told them, why dont just move around to make a good composition...and you know what, they just keep silent and take the photo just in seconds...what a relief

  • Remi February 25, 2011 12:22 pm

    I tend to get lazy with my zoom lens but sometimes it's tiring when you've to crouch, squat and standing just to get a different view. But to be honest it's worth it.

  • Technojeff February 25, 2011 08:52 am

    I am in total agreement with the main thrust of this article. I certainly agree with the previous statement. I believe one of the real benefits of using a prime against a zoom is the vastly improved control over depth of field. (They are also invaluable in low light conditions.) My zoom is a 24 -105mm F4 to F5.6, whereas my prime is a 50mm F1.4. I don't tend to use it below F2 if I can help it as the images soften at the extremes of the aperture range.

    To get the depth of field I am looking for, I will adjust the camera aperture and also adjust my distance to the subject. A few test shots will "seal the deal" and of course, I always gain the other benefit of reviewing my perspective along the way, to judge whether I am getting the best from the subject.

  • photog1107 February 25, 2011 06:04 am

    Good reminders. One of the reasons I just purchased a Canon 1.8 50mm was to force myself to remember how to frame by moving myself... I hadn't used a fixed focal length in years, and it is amazing how "creative" it made me feel, just to physically engage with my subject until the composition feels just right. :)

  • Trep Ford February 25, 2011 05:26 am

    Sumit raises a good point. Sometimes we need to remember to dress and/or gear up for the positions we'll need to take to get the shots we want. Clothes we don't mind getting dirty, knee/elbow pads for rocky or hard surfaces (or a rough and tumble blanket). I try to keep a couple of moving blankets in my trunk at all times, and those can come in handy when shooting in dusty, dirty or damp locations.

    It's also a good idea to take different points of view on non-people shots, of course. On a couple of occasions I was lucky enough to get helicopter or airplane rides near travel spots I was visiting and that change of perspective certainly can lend some new excitement to the places we visit. Climbing trees is certainly an option ... sometimes. :) Climbing neighboring buildings can be a great way to get unique points of view on landmarks too often shot from street level.

    Yes, exploring points of view is, for me, all part of being a photographer. I just call it ... moving around. :)

  • gary pearce February 25, 2011 04:49 am

    Great article. Looking for ways to make photos more evocative... engaging. thanks for tips.

  • Matt G. February 25, 2011 04:38 am

    Good reminders, Darren!

    One of the things I've been thinking about in terms of composition is how not to have images LOOK meticulously composed (e.g. slavish adherence to Rule of thirds, etc.). Sometimes there can be a tendency to look through the viewfinder and "correct" composition to be more like textbook ideal. Which is fine and often ends up producing a decent, even great, image. But at the same time there are moments when I feel like this process can become too contrived, too forced, not organic enough. Yes, the image may look OK. But sometimes I wonder if breaking those traditional compositional rules is called for.

    And of course sometimes the answer is YES. Depends on the subject, context, end use/client, etc.

    By the way, very nice portraits here. As a newish dad myself, I just love the great expressions that kids can offer.

    All best. Matt

  • Sweet Ronit February 25, 2011 04:33 am

    Good points. With kids, I also like to sometimes shoot them from below, so they appear big, like in this shot:

    http://sweetronit.com/blog/2010/12/16/bernardino-and-irving/

    Thanks for the article!

  • rio h. February 25, 2011 04:08 am

    i have 2 toddlers, they move much faster than me.... so i always have to try to shoot from different angles, from different points.... it's tough, but i am learning a lot from the toughest subjects :) one of them doesn't like having his pictures taken at all, so i have to be super creative and a fast thinker to get a good shot (makes for good practice in the photojournalism field?) the other one has just started walking and doesn't really stop long enough to get her photo taken either.

  • sumit February 25, 2011 03:44 am

    I agree. The other I was out with a friend when I went lay flat out on the ground to take a picture of some pigeons, while my friend was more concerned about me getting my clothes dirty :)
    It's all about getting the right view, climb up a tree or down into a hole if that's what it takes.

  • Jim Cox February 25, 2011 03:29 am

    I shoot from a wheelchair so my posibilities of positioning myself are limited. I shoot very tight to overcome this disadvatage. I would love to hear tips about other ways to shoot from a wheelchair

  • ratkellar February 25, 2011 03:29 am

    For kids and pets, kneeling makes a ton of difference. And with digital, the cost of trying different angles is minimal.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck February 25, 2011 03:29 am

    Hi

    New angles and perspectives work well with Model Shoots as well!

    This one of Jessie is striking!

    Piercing Blue http://t.co/Bls83VQ

    Regards, Erik
    Kerstenbeck Photographic Art

  • b w krucke February 25, 2011 03:24 am

    Photos of older women are often more flattering taken from above because it takes away chins and heavy lids.

  • Nikki February 25, 2011 03:21 am

    What a cutie pie! Cute from any angle!

  • carolyn February 25, 2011 02:54 am

    I love low angle.

    http://www.facebook.com/carolynCphotography#!/photo.php?fbid=188651307819366&set=a.174879819196515.40455.170070809677416&theater

  • ScottC February 25, 2011 02:15 am

    The last point is the one never to forget, zooms do make us lazy. Otherwise basic, but very worthwhile, reminders.

    Another point, the lay of the land (or achitecture) can be used to advantage as well.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5434052576/

  • Mei Teng February 25, 2011 01:57 am

    So true. Sometimes, we just need to move around to get a different perspective or angle.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck February 25, 2011 01:32 am

    Hi

    Great article about moving around your subject. I did just that at the San Diego Convention Center, hunting unique views of this architechural wonder. Here are three views from three unique angles:

    ...Going Up: http://t.co/aSItc0r

    Downstairs to Downtown: http://t.co/B2D1i7g

    "After the Rain": http://t.co/e854mS2

    Regards, Erik
    Kerstenbeck Photographic Art

  • Brandon February 25, 2011 01:24 am

    Love it! Being a tall person, its good to be reminded that sometimes i should crouch to get a different angle :)