I believe that when someone asks how to improve their composition, that what they’re really asking is how they can make their photos more interesting.
The skill of composition is in arranging the elements of the scene in such a way that the resulting image is aesthetically pleasing, and interesting to look at. Composition involves using techniques such as including leading lines, isolating the subject, exploiting tonal contrast, deciding what to leave out of the frame, and so on. But none of this matters much if your subject matter is boring.
The most effective way to create interesting images is to find an interesting subject. Composition becomes much easier when your subject is interesting. You are more likely to be enthusiastic about the photos, and put more effort into finding a good composition, if you are engaged with, or passionate about the subject.
Luckily, there are lots of interesting things to take photos of. But for me the most interesting subject of all is people.
Unlike static subjects like the landscape, which change slowly or not at all, people are transient. They change. Jobs change. Towns and cities change. The ebb and flow of life creates many interesting and varied subjects for the curious photographer.
Many of the great photographers (and yes, there are exceptions) built their reputations taking photos of people. Masters like Steve McCurry, Sebastião Salgado, David Bailey and Annie Leibovitz predominantly photograph people and their affect on the world.
So, how do you add the human element in your photos? Here are some ideas.
1. Include human figures in the landscape to show scale and context
Including human figures in the landscape provides both a focal point and a guide to scale.
I took the following photo in a remote region of northwest Argentina. The scene caught my eye not just because it is spectacular, but because of the people walking in the middle ground. The presence of the figures reveals the height of the cliff face behind them. We know how big it is because we can compare its size to the them.
Even though the people are small in the frame they are still large enough for you to see they are wearing traditional dress. There are also some stone walls in the foreground, which are animal pens.
The human figures, and evidence of human activity, adds information, providing context about the relationship between the individuals in it and the landscape.
2. Take environmental portraits
One way to create interesting photos of people is to take environmental portraits – photos that include information about the person’s surroundings. The person will be the focal point of the photo but really there are two stories being told here; one about the person, and another about their environment.
The photo below came about after I asked a friend of mine if I could take some portraits with her new gypsy caravan that she built herself from scratch. She loved the idea. This photo is as much about her caravan and the way she created a unique place for herself to live, as it is about capturing her likeness.
3. Find interesting people to photograph
The easiest way to find interesting people to take photos of is to set yourself a project. One of my current projects is to take photos of local craftsmen. This led me to take photos of Eoin in his glass blowing studio.
After I had taken some photos of him blowing glass, we went outside to take some portraits. You can see one of the images below. He has a very interesting face, and was a great subject, but I would never have found him if it hadn’t been for the project.
You may have read the story where a student asks photographer Jay Maisel how to take more interesting photos. The reply was,
“If you want to make more interesting pictures, become a more interesting person.” – Jay Maisel
Another way to find interesting people is to lead a more interesting life. The more hobbies and activities you participate in, the more people you will meet in everyday life. Some of them may make interesting subjects.
Do you agree with my idea that people are the most interesting subject for photographers? Please let us know in the comments, I’m looking forward to hearing what you think.
My new ebook Mastering Composition will help you learn to see and compose photos better. It takes you on a journey beyond the rule of thirds, exploring the principles of composition you need to understand in order to make beautiful images.