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Composition and the skills related to creating compelling composition in photographs are something photographers spend a lifetime honing and improving. It is composition that plays a large part in setting one’s own style or signature ‘look’ in photographs and makes an image go from a snapshot to a thought provoking experience. You can spend years journaling, reading and studying composition. But, overall, a photograph with good composition has four basic elements all working together:
· A clearly defined subject and background
· A point of view
To begin, let’s look an amateur photo I took some years ago in Paris. At the time, I thought I was taking a great image. But when we evaluate it according to the standards of composition, it turns out to be nothing more than a mediocre snapshot. Why is this? First, there is no clear subject and background. One could argue that the trees are the subject, or that the building is the subject. Is it the red or green parts of the building? For the viewer, the question arises, “What am I supposed to be looking at?” And if this happens, your image has failed. Second, the image is not balanced. It is just one big blob of “stuff” going on. There is virtually no negative space, and no breathing room for the eyes. It’s busy and unfocused. Third, while this image has a point of view (that if a tourist looking upward from the street), it is not an unusual or compelling point of view. It is that which any of us see most of the time on any given day. Had I climbed to the rooftop across the street, or climbed one of the trees and taken a photograph, the point of view would at least be different. Finally, as we have said, this image is not simple. It’s crazy busy.
With a poorly composed photograph as a backdrop, let’s look at a much better one. And as we go through it, I will bring in a couple of other elements that you can be thinking about as you start to intentionally compose your own images. Looking at this image there is no question that the crow is the subject. So, immediate, this second image is a million times better than the first. Just this simple “detail” is powerful.
An additional element that adds interest to the subject is that the crow is at one side of the image. In this image, the eye travels from the crow, over to the tree and back again. the eye travels around the image in a natural way. In the Paris image, the eye does not “travel” at all. Instead it rests in one spot, unsure what to do or what to look at.
The crow mage is balanced in at least 2 ways (1) by the use of lines and (2) by another object the tree, to the left. And of you look carefully, you will notice that some vignetting has either been applied around the edges in post-production, or as a result of the lens (some lenses have a bit of a fall off that can be a good thing).
The point of view of this image is subtlety different. It is not from the bird’s perspective. But it is not from your average adult’s perspective either. It looks like the photographer either knelt down or placed the camera on a tripod about 3-4 feet high. The result is a point of view that is one not commonly seen. This makes the viewer spend more ‘time’ on the image and make the photograph more interesting. The other strong element in this image is that it has a clear foreground, middle ground (the tree trunk) and background (the other trees and buildings).
The simplicity of this image is obvious. A bird on a fence. With not much else going on, it allows the mind of the view to begin to create a story for the image. Why is the crow there? What is it doing? And so on. The gap between the bird and the tree trunk is essentially good use of negative space. Negative space is one of those “issues” in photography. Some say to not have too much, others have mostly negative space in their images. But an image, like the Paris one above, with no negative space is unlikely to work.
Making images that contain strong compositional elements is mostly a matter of awareness. Take your time and try to address these 4 basics, and you will see a major improvement in your images.