Tip #7 is: Improve your compositions.
Now we’re moving away from the straightforward technical aspects of photography; exposure and focus. Once you master the basics, composition is probably the most important aspect of photography. It’s a lot harder to talk about. There is no set of instructions that will improve your compositions. There are some things you can keep in mind and I’ll talk about them here, but I hate when people try to give you a set of rules that they claim will improve your compositions. This will not be a short “tip.” It’s going to be a long, rambling discussion that I hope you will find helpful.
Composing, or framing a photograph in the viewfinder is probably the most important thing a photographer does. By and large, photographers don’t create imagery from whole cloth like a painter might. We just have the world around us and what portion of that world we choose to isolate in our photograph. Depth of field (what part of the image is in focus) is another big choice, but composition is probably first.
Some people seem to have a knack for composition and others not. But I’m not a fan of the idea of “talent.” It implies that there is some kind of magic that some people are born with and others don’t have. I think anyone can develop their eye for comosition and make good photographs. It is probably true that some people have a background or nature that makes it easier for them to make interesting compositions while others have either had their instincts stifled or have never developed them.
I find composition completely natural, but I have years of formal art training and an artistic family that exposed me to art from a young age. If you haven’t had the benefit of exposure to art I think you can learn to improve your compositions with conscious effort. In fact, I think each person has their own particular instinct, once they learn to move away from the obvious choices. If you turn loose a dozen photographers to photograph a single subject you will get at least a dozen different viewpoints.
If you haven’t looked at a lot of art and/or photography, how would you know what an interesting composition is? Perhaps the first and best advice I have to offer is to look at a lot of art and think about what’s going on in the compositions. This could be paintings or photography. You should subscribe to a fine art photography magazine and get to some good museums or galleries to see how great artists have used compositions.
My all time favorite magazine for photography is Lenswork. You’ll find it online, not on any newsstands. They publish a handful of portfolios of photographers works in beautiful reproductions. They also publish artist’s statements, which can offer clues to how an artist works as well. And they talk a lot about the artistic process, which you may find inspiring and instructive. Forget about the photographs you see in popular photography magazines. For the most part they are absolutely conventional and uninteresting.
You have to think about what the artist is doing if you’re to gain much from the looking. Think about how the artist (or photographer) has composed the image. Where is the primary subject? How is it balanced by other elements in the image? Are there lines in the image that point to or away from the primary subject? What sort of shapes are formed in the image? What sort of shapes are formed outside of the main subject? What part does value (light and dark) play in the image? Are dark shapes more important than light? Do they have a different weight in the composition? What about color? How does it affect the weight of elements in the image? What about the sense of space in the image? Do certain elements come forward or recede into the background? What about line in the image? Do the lines have a particular character or shape that contributes?
That’s just a start on the kinds of questions you might ask. And of course you can and should ask those things about your own compositions.
The basic elements of composition are line, form, value, color, and you could add texture as well. Ask yourself what are they doing in a lot of good paintings and photographs and you’ll get a lot of clues to good composition.
An essential way to think about composition is that it’s an arrangement of shapes, value and line on a flat plane. When your image is printed, it will be flat. The composition is two dimensional. Sure, the picture’s content is three dimensional, but you should be thinking in terms of two dimensions when you compose. When I am composing an image I de-focus my eyes and try to see the shapes I’m working with, not the things I am photographing. I don’t literally blur my eyes, I just try to see the composition as a whole rather than thinking “this is a tree, that is a lake, that’s a mountain.” I’m thinking “That’s a strong, dark vertical, that’s a strong horizontal, that’s a big triangle poking up into a flat area of value, creating a shape out of it.” Of course I don’t really think that. I work instinctively, but I’m seeing those things.
I’ve said that I don’t like any formulas for “good” composition. One that you’ll read about all the time in photography magazines is the “rule of thirds.” I can tell you that nowhere in four years of art education did anyone mention a “rule of thirds.” There is no such “rule.” The rule of thirds suggests that you divide your frame into thirds vertically and horizontally and place important elements either on those divisions or on the intersections of those divisions. In truth, if your compositions are really boring, this “rule” could help you by getting your subject matter out of the center of the frame. But it’s not a rule and you can put elements of your compositions anywhere in the frame that you choose if it is balanced appropriately by other elements. There are even times when dead center in the frame is the right choice, though it’s not often.
So I haven’t given you any formulas or even guidelines here. Maybe you don’t find that helpful. I hope you do find the idea of line, form, value, color and texture to be valuable. I haven’t told you where to put these things in your photographs. There are just too many possibilities for me to prescribe what you should do. A couple of things I would suggest are that you avoid putting the horizon in the vertical center of your compositions. It divides the frame in half, which is awkward and dull. Another thing would be to avoid centering a primary subject. For example, if I’m shooting a barn in a landscape, I would almost never put it in the center of the frame. I said “almost” because I’m sure there are times when I have, but mostly, the barn will be well off center and balanced very carefully with other elements in the frame.
I compose my images almost entirely instinctively. I look through the viewfinder and I zoom and pan the lens until I like how the composition feels. I might take two or three slightly different compositions, to give me something to consider later on, but I probably find one instinctively that feels right to me almost immediately.
If you feel like your compositions are not good, then experiment a lot with how you frame any image. What if you move that barn all the way to the edge of the frame? How does that feel compared to near the center or off to one side a bit? What happens if you zoom in? What shapes does that make around the edges of the frame? What shape does the barn make against the sky? Place the horizon high in the frame and low in the frame. Which feels best? They express completely different things. Is there a road or a line of trees, or even a cloud that are dividing the space in a pleasing or un-pleasing manner. Think a little, but mostly experiment and feel.
I emphasize feeling because I think that’s what I am doing when I compose. I’m not thinking at all about rules. I’m probably thinking about balance mostly, and then maybe the shapes that are made in the composition. I might also be thinking about lines that point strongly in one direction or another. But mostly I’m asking myself how does that feel. Maybe that’s because I have so much background and experience in this area.
If you don’t have that experience, go get it. Get it by looking at great art and photography, and get it by experimenting constantly with your own pictures and seeing how you feel about the results. Ask a friend whose work you admire what he thinks about your compositions. Pronouncements of good or bad are not very helpful. Ask him what he might have done differently.
Well, this has been a lot of fairly oblique discussion. There are books that attempt to dissect composition in detail. They might be helpful to you, but I’m not a fan. My advice would be to experiment and follow your instincts. There is no one correct composition. There is only the composition that feels right to you and the one that feels right to me. We each individually have something to express in our work. Find your thing by developing and following your own instincts.