This is a re-working of notes produced when I was teaching beginners at a camera club (back in film days), the notes just need updating with photo examples and a general tidyup and some changes made to better suit the digital photography era. It will happen one day (yeah, right).
Composition in a photo is like composition in a painting, the beauty
is in the eye of the beholder.
The aim in composition is to produce something that you like and hopefully will appeal to others.
In appealing to others you should aim to get their attention, then hold their attention and then make them want more.
Whatever the photo, the above aims should be strived for.
Getting attention could be by means of bright colour, size, unusual framing or controversial subject matter.
To hold attention, it must have an interesting subject or scene. Usually trying to keep it simple so that the whole picture suggests or points to what you want them to see.
To make them want more the photo should have detail and or interest that will hold the eye for more than just the cursory glance while the viewer either explores the scene or looks for the story in the photo.
The photo should not be confusing or jar the senses.
Make it harmonious, make it something that you could live with if mounted where seen often.
On top of all this, the technical quality of the photo must be good. Exposed properly and sharp where it should be sharp, unless some other effect is being aimed for.
In a painting, just as being captured by the camera, there are some basic guide lines. But remember that some of the most spectacular pictures are striking because they broke some of the basic rules.
The camera sees what you would see if you were using only one eye. Any three dimensional effect is squashed into two dimensions. The composition should be such that it suggests depth to make it appear more like what you would see with both eyes open.
The following composition rules and ramblings are presented in no particular order, and may be ignored completely in some circumstances to achieve the result desired. They are mainly a gleaning of facts from various information sheets and books and from remarks made by some competition judges.
Observe the rule of thirds for points of interest. Mentally divide the frame into thirds vertically and horizontally. The four intersections are the best places to position the centre of interest.
Avoid horizons, riverbanks, or strong horizontal lines in the centre of a composition, as this tends to break the photo up into two pictures causing a conflict in the viewer's brain about which half is important. Similarly, avoid poles or trees or strong vertical lines near the middle of a scene chopping the picture in two halves unless some special effect is required.
Keep water horizons level. Keep boats floating level. The eye is disturbed by water that looks like it should run off to one side or by ocean horizons that slope.
Framing. Use branches, trees etc to form a frame and so highlight the centre of interest - use this method to help block out or fill in boring sky or other features not wanted. Framing also helps add a desirable three dimensional effect. Don't make the framing too strong an element in the photo.
Run the composition diagonally, rather than straight up and down or across the picture. Don't do this if the horizon or some vertical feature will appear abnormal. A diagonal composition running bottom left up to top right is more "restful" than a diagonal composition running from bottom right up to top left which is more "dynamic".
Leading lines in scenes. Have something leading into the subject from near a bottom corner, like a road or path or fence or line of trees to help the eye find the way to the centre of interest. Don't make the leading line too dominant, or the eye won't go where it should, it may end up "stuck" on the line. Usually the most acceptable lead in is the way you read, that is, left to right.
Avoid large blank areas like clear blue sky, or boring expanses of blank ground. Try to have something filling them in like an overhanging branch or a cloud. Try a different camera angle, higher or lower, to help eliminate the sky or ground as appropriate.
Avoid a symmetrical composition unless it is of a pattern in which symmetry is the idea behind the picture.
If you do have a strong pattern photo try to break the pattern with some object that either contrasts or complements the pattern in colour or form but the break must not dominate the shot. A perfectly even pattern may engage your attention for a moment but the pattern breaker gives you something interesting to explore. There may be a pattern breaker naturally in the shot or you may have to introduce something to get the effect you want. It may be as simple as a carpet of brown leaves on the ground, make sure there is a yellow or green one, a flower, or a stone to break the pattern. See the rule of thirds above as to where to place the pattern breaker.
Make sure that the subject doesn't merge into the background due to similar colours or textures. Try to separate subject and background by taking advantage of sun angles, camera placement or depth of focus control or moving position to capture a contrasting background colour.
Avoid tilting of buildings, if possible. The more you point the camera up or down, the worse the effect. For architectural competitions the building sides should be parallel. This means using a camera with lens shift or by correcting it during printing. Try and find a vantage point at half the height of the subject building so the camera can be kept level. If you have to tilt the camera up/down and can't avoid the converging line effect, then make it very obvious, a feature of the composition.
Fill the frame. Move in or zoom closer so that the subject is as large as possible, this forces the viewer to see what the photo is about, instead of having their eyes wander all over the place trying to decide what is the point of the photo. Be aware of how your camera viewfinder relates to the final print or slide, most viewfinders on SLR cameras show less than the film will. Printing usually chops a little off the edges and slide mounts always hide a fraction of the frame.
Try to get balance in the photo, make sure the top of the photo doesn't look "heavier" than the bottom and make sure one side of the photo doesn't look "heavier" than the other. This heaviness could be caused by shadows or by dominant coloured areas or objects.
Take close up portrait photos from the subject's eye level. If taking
a full length picture of someone standing it often works better to lower
the camera to chest or maybe waist level, this will help stop legs looking
too short if using a normal or wide angle lens. Get down low for children
or animals, down to their head height. Don't photograph down onto tops
of heads or peering up nostrils unless you are after a special effect.
In all cases make sure the background doesn't intrude. Don't have horizons
or major background lines right behind the subject's head. In portraiture
the dominant feature is usually the eyes - make sure they are in sharp
focus. Another focus aid for portraits is to use the top shirt button or
a necklace, this usually lines up with the plane of the eyes and can be
sometimes easier to focus on.
For portraits always try and arrange the lighting so that simple catchlights appear in the eyes. The sparkle makes them look more alive. If outdoors in sunlight then use a fill flash to achieve that. Too many lights in front of the face will produce a complex array of catchlights and not look natural. Never use a ring flash on a face as the annular catchlight in the eyes looks very weird.
Avoid distortion in portraits. Getting too close with a short focal length lens will make the nose seem too big and ears too small. Using too long a focal length can make the face look flat. About a 1.5 to 2 metre distance produces the most acceptable perspective for a face. Use around 100mm focal length lens for a 35mm camera at about 1.5 to 2 metres to produce a good portrait. Any other lens at that distance will also provide the best perspective for the face but will include more or less of the subject. Never-the-less some interesting portraits can be achieved with a 20mm lens, but the camera position and wide angle distortion has to be carefully handled.
In action shots give the subject "room to move", make it appear that the subject is coming into and not leaving the picture. As noted earlier, the action will seem more dynamic if it is coming from the right side toward the left side.
Use a shallow depth of field to isolate the subject with manual cameras or with aperture priority control, or maybe your camera has a program for portrait which usually tries for shallow depth of field. Automatic cameras may give the desired effect if set at the longest telephoto setting or portrait setting.
Avoid bright spots or bright colourful patches away from the main subject. They will distract the eye.
Avoid shots that make the scene look flat - try for a third dimensional effect. A building showing a side as well as the front is better than just showing the front. Include some near foreground, like a plant or letterbox only partially in the picture, even if it is out of focus.
The family snapshot can be improved if the background forms a better frame. Don't just line the family up against the crummy old back yard paling fence. Use a bit of imagination and try to group them around a seat or some other indoor or outdoor feature. You don't have to include legs and shoes, everyone knows those appendages should be there, so get in closer and capture Aunt Mim's lovely blue eyes.
When taking people photos avoid chopping limbs off at odd places. Either include the full person or chop at waist or mid-thigh (shorts line). Arms should be chopped at the shoulder and not the wrist. Don't let them stand like a dummy, get them to sit three quarter facing you or lean against a tree or add some action like holding a sandwich or smelling a flower. Get them to pose in such a fashion that they look "compact" and fully in the frame. Sitting on the ground with the legs drawn in close to the body can achieve that. Make the pose natural, don't get the person to contort their body just to satisfy the composition rule.
When framing a people photo, make sure there are no trees or power poles etc "growing" out of their heads. If you have control over the aperture then use a large aperture to give a shallow depth of field to help reduce the effect of the background. Use the depth of field preview if available to see what will be in the final shot.
A bland scene can be improved by including a figure to show relative size or add life. If the figure uses a colourful coat or umbrella the scene is often improved by the splash of colour. A "nice" landscape scene can often have no point of interest so put your companion in there either sitting looking at the scene or having a picnic. Use a tripod and the self timer and put yourself in the scene. Be wary of always including that same red scarf/umbrella etc, try and avoid the usual camera club clichés.
Try for a good sky. Dead clear blue skies and overcast grey skies don't always look good. Often a scene looks a lot better with a nice set of fluffy clouds. This may mean waiting and watching and even coming back another time to try for a better shot. Home darkroom and computer savvy users can add nice clouds from another picture to a boring sky to improve things.
Another rule is to always include an odd number of objects in a photo. One or three flowers strangely look better than two or four flowers. Try for 1,3,5 etc instead of 2,4, etc. This rule is often ignored to good effect.
Watch the shadows! To the naked eye shadows are fine, but due to the nature of film, shadows will always come out darker and heavier than you remember in the scene. Maybe fill-in flash is required. Make a decision whether it is bright detail or shadow detail that you want to capture and either alter the exposure appropriately or adjust the composition to exclude the excessively bright or shadowed area. Maybe you should be using a lower contrast film so the shadows will appear less dense.
The third element. I have never had this one satisfactorily explained to me but it seems to follow the odd number rule above. For example, if you have a photo of a flower, with a leaf or two showing, then also wait for that elusive bee or butterfly to make the third item of interest (flower, leaf, bug). A bridge over a river is improved by having people or traffic showing (bridge, river, traffic), the third element showing in this case the reason for the bridge. A bowl of fruit still life shot is improved by adding a leaf or two or a kitchen implement to the scene (fruit, bowl, leaf/implement), it makes a story of where the fruit came from or what is about to happen to it. The typical family group portrait can be improved by grouping the people around some garden feature or the family car or some favourite family possession, the three elements being the background scene, the family and the car/feature. A spider in a web has two elements, web and spider, so wait about for an innocent insect to blunder into the web, now you have the third element and shows the whole purpose of the spider and his web. A picture of an old doorway or window in an historic building makes more sense if someone is at the window or going through the doorway. The third element usually seems to be needed to complete the story in the photo.
A very important consideration that is not composition but is content
and most judges comment on.....
Avoid shots of other peoples art, vaguely this is plagiarism. If you do find an interesting sculpture or man made object, try to photograph it in an unexpected way or with interesting and innovative lighting or props. That way the photographer is adding something of his effort in making the shot and not just doing a straight record shot of someone else's ideas. A straight shot of the Sydney Opera House is just recording the architect's art, but if you get an interesting angle to the shot particularly with people in it (the Opera House is designed for people to use) or interesting night lighting, then the shot contains your thinking.
In a similar vein, straight shots of Ayers Rock or some other geographic feature have all been done many times before, so look for that new and interesting angle or different lighting. Be aware it may not be new and interesting to the competition judge but it is new and interesting to you and that is what counts.
Innovation and imagination. Add this to the shot and you have a winner. Trouble is that camera club judges see thousands upon thousands of photos from all around the world so it is hard to appear innovative to them. They've seen it all before. Read plenty of magazines and see what sort of photography is happening now. Try out some of the things you've seen, try out some of your own ideas. Typical library photography books tend to be a bit old so the basics may be OK but the style of photography moves on year by year. Visit any photo exhibitions that are on, the Friday copy of the Sydney Morning Herald has a list of exhibitions in the Metro section. The main thing is to try to take photos that you like. Look at a scene and photograph it in a few different ways, try horizontal and vertical formats, try major features placed on the right or on the left, try horizons near the top or nearer the bottom. You may be able to see what's best through the viewfinder but often it's only when the results return you get a real idea of what's best. Don't be a slave to what other people tell you, experiment with what you think looks good. If they also look good to a club judge then that is a bonus.
For camera club competitions the main idea is to make the shot stand
out from the rest of the shots on the board when seen from across the room.
Of course as the judge gets close there still has to be some quality in
the shot. All the normal technical needs have to be satisfied like exposure,
sharpness, depth of field etc. With an extremely good shot sometimes a
judge will overlook some technical faults but others will find faults and
use that reason to eliminate it.
Most shots taken when on holidays are necessarily just record shots to help remember where you have been. Don't feel obliged to waste everyone's time in trying to make every shot a winner. This doesn't stop you from taking a few extra shots using more care to get a better result with an interesting subject. It may involve waiting for the right number and placement of people in a scene or waiting until the light is right. Maybe you need full sunlight, maybe you need a cloud to help reduce dark shadows. Maybe you need to come back later when the sun shines from a different direction. The angle of the sun is important, midday sun is high and gives a flat look to scenery, shots early morning and late afternoon have the sun at a lower angle which will give more shape to most scenery. Look around at details in your maybe unfamiliar surroundings and take lots of well-composed close up shots of those details. They will come in handy in club competitions! Judges like to see well picked out details, particularly if they have been to the same place and missed that detail.
Very importantly, introduce variety into your compositions and variety in the content. If every picture is composed the same way, with the same people filling in the blank bits, then the photos become boring. If somebody can look at a photo and easily identify it as yours then you are doing something very predictable and potentially very tiresome. Try to vary the style and content from photo to photo. You will learn a lot more that way. I know this conflicts with the usual expert advice of developing a style and sticking with it. Be game to be more versatile than that.
Judicious use of the above rules and ideas may help make a boring or
dull subject or scene come alive.
But, in a lot of cases you can throw all the rules out the window and that blurry, smeared, awkward shot of, say, a cyclist going by, may turn out truly spectacular.
These rules, if adhered to, will generally produce nice photos, but sometimes the nice pictorial look is not the best thing for your subject or what you are trying to express. Try shots with unexpected extremely shallow depth of field, try shots with "incorrect" shutter times so that things are blurred when they shouldn't be. Take advantage of the things the camera can do in regard to time (fast or slow shutter speeds) to make a photo come alive instead of looking like a frozen scene.
Try bizarre things like taking "nice" pictures on E6 type slide film then getting it processed through the C41 colour negative system. If you decide to do it then try overexposing the film by a stop or two. The results on the prints will be rather unpredictable. You will need a friendly mini-lab operator as some may refuse to do it. This method will not corrupt their chemicals unless you maybe submit 20 E6 films to do at once. The nicely composed photos will now have a new element of surprise introduced into them because of colour and contrast changes.
Back in the world of normal nice photography, if you get one or two really good pictures out of a roll of film you are doing well. If you take maybe 1,000 pictures on a long holiday then expect only a few spectacular photos that would look good enlarged to poster size. The better you get, the more critical you get so the one or two good shots per roll result seems to hold true no matter what your skill level.
The main way to take better photos is to get about a lot and take many photos and then carefully examine the results and work out what could have improved the shots. Get another club member to evaluate your work and invite and accept criticism graciously. Understand all the features of your camera and use them often so you don't have to carry the handbook all the time.
I felt I was doing better work when I owned a medium format camera. The cost per shot was higher and I took more care with each shot. Now with 35mm it's all too easy to fire away and hope that one shot will work. Try working slower by using a tripod and careful setups.
Just keep in mind the fact that there are two sorts of photography. Normal nice scene and event recording shots for your own memories that will improve with the above rules followed, and camera club photography where you are trying to impress a judge about how clever you are. The clever club shots are not for the album so don't waste your life doing just that sort of photography. Try and record your life - family - holiday - whatever as the main purpose of your hobby.
This page is loosely based on and expanded from a set of composition notes produced by Bill Treble. Thanks, Bill.