As a beginner it is often easy to get bogged down with all of the technical elements of your camera. It can seem really overwhelming and often results in disappointment and it’s all too easy to blame the camera and your frustrating lack of knowledge of camera settings and modes.
Yes, this is a big part of photography and understanding exposure is a huge part of it but equally as important is having a knowledge of basic rules of composition.
What is Composition?
Composition is all about the balance of the elements in your photograph. This is what separates a snapshot from a great shot. Good composition draws the viewer into the image and leads the eye around in an intentional way.
If you want to achieve a good composition, you need to plan it out and see where each element is going to be placed before you take the shot. You may have heard photographers talk about seeing the shot in their head before they have actually taken the image. What they are doing is considering the composition elements and planning it out in advance.
It’s not as difficult as it sounds and there are many rules to guide you to achieve the perfect composition for your photograph. You can train your eye to ‘see’ and in this blog post I am going to take you through four of the compositional rules (there are many more but let’s start with four for now) and some other helpful tips to get you started.
Also I am going to suggest that you follow these exercises not with your camera but with your camera phone. Why? Well by eliminating the frustration of not quite understanding your camera settings yet, you can just focus on the composition of the image. On may phones you can pull up a grid that will help you with your composition (see above). Once you start to understand composition then it’ll be so much easier for you when you’ve mastered understanding your camera more.
Seeing your Shot
Let’s start with seeing your shot or framing the scene. For this exercise, you won’t need a camera.
Cut out a frame from cardboard or any material you want as long as it’s a rectangle. You could equally use your hands (finger and thumbs to form a rectangle), but I prefer using the cardboard frame. You might get some funny looks but don’t worry! No pain, no gain!!!
The frame narrows your field of vision and helps to block out distractions and look for the main focal point, which is what the viewer’s eye is drawn to. This simple exercise will help you train your eye to see better in terms of composition. Don’t forget to try different angles. Changing your position, including getting down low or high can drastically change the look and feel of an image.
Above: Don’t be scared to change your angle when composing your image.
Before you go and get your phone out of your pocket, let me explain four compositional rules that are a great place to start for beginners:
Rule of Thirds
You may have already heard of this one. This is an actual formula based on mathematical principles of harmony and proportion. It has been used by artists for centuries. So think of your photo with imaginary lines that are drawn dividing the image into thirds both horizontally and vertically. You place important elements of your composition where these lines intersect. This is something I use in my photography all of the time.
Above: Can you see how the photographer has placed the point of interest using the rule of thirds? Whether it is the eye of the model or the flower, it leads the viewer to the thing the photographer wants you to look at first.
Above: Look at the way this image has been composed using the rule of the thirds. It makes the image more dynamic and leads your eye around the photograph.
Rule of Odds
Our brain is programmed to look for evenness and symmetry. So this compositional rule works around the principle that having an odd number of objects in an image will be more interesting and, therefore, more pleasing. By having one or three elements is better than two.
I see wonky horizons all of the time. Once you see it, you can’t be unseen it and it easily distracts from a great shot. Always make sure that the horizontal line is level and the vertical lines in your image are straight. This is particularly important if you shoot landscapes, seascapes and cityscapes.
Leading lines are also very effective for drawing the viewer to where the focal point of your image is.
Shooting landscapes? Try placing your horizon a third of the way up the image. Look for lines like the angle of hills, paths or roads to lead the viewers eye into the scene.
There are lines everywhere. Look at buildings, reflections and angles. All of these lines can help you achieve dynamic perspective and take your images from average to wow!
Remember – keep those horizons straight!
Above: Each of these images uses lines to draw the viewer into the image in a different way. In fact, can you see that each images uses the rule of thirds too? Clever isn’t it?
The use of negative space in an image is another of my compositional favourites! This concept describes the space around your subject, otherwise known as ‘white space’ that draws your eye to it. Think of it in terms of letting your main subject or object having room to breathe.
This rule of composition is one of the most powerful and can really add drama and maximum creativity in your images giving them an almost abstract quality.
Now you’ve learnt about some of the basic rules of composition (remember,there are many more!) why not look for use of these rules in art. Not only is a great day out but by visiting a local art gallery you can see how these concepts have been used throughout art history.
Ask yourself why you liked a particular painting? How were the elements in the painting arranged or placed? Now you know what you re looking for you will look at the world in a different way. You will start to ‘see the shot”.
Try it out!
Before you pick up your phone or camera and try to put some of these rules into practice, take a moment to review the images in this post and keep all of the four rules in your mind: Rule of thirds, rule of odds, lines and negative space. I bet that you’ll be able to see many of the rules used with effect in many of the images.
So why don’t you try giving it a go? Grab your phone and your cardboard frame (or just use your hands if it’s easier) and start looking for great composition. Change your angle, move around and try different concepts. Your photography will thank you for it.