Do your images suffer from unwanted features or clutter? Do they struggle to convey what caught your eye when you first looked at the scene in front of you? Do they lack that ‘impact’ you’re looking for?
If so, this blog, ‘Composition in Photography: A Guide to Image Design’ can improve your photographic composition significantly!
Here are some simple guidelines for ensuring that you have the maximum chance of achieving this:
Ask yourself ‘Why am I taking this Picture’. What is it about the scene in front of you and how can you use composition to make this clear to the viewer.
Think of ‘Designing your Image’ rather than ‘Taking a Picture’. This will help you to think in terms of shape, form and the elements that make up your image rather than what you’re photographing.
Simplicity and Selectivity: A key to image design is being clear on what contributes to the composition and what detracts. Only include what adds to the composition and leave out what detracts from the effect you want to achieve (or crop if you need to).
Thinking In Abstract: Whatever your subject, how does your image appear in shape, form or colour? Try to get away from the idea of ‘going to a great place to take a picture from’; it limits the potential for individuality and creativity and at best you’ll get a variation on what has been taken many times before by others. Try instrad to explore with your camera and create your own compositions from what’s around you.
Creating a ‘Visual Journey’: If your images look flat without clear focus or direction, then try some ways of taking your viewer through the image. Think of this as creating ‘a visual journey’. The most well known of these is the use of leading lines; a linear element that takes the viewer through the image. These can be strong, simple and direct or subtle, meandering and slow with many variations in between.
Choosing Your Viewpoint (Point of View): This is precisely where, in what direction and in what orientation you hold and position your camera. It may for example be a high or low viewpoint, moving left or right to change the angle of view, use of portrait format, pointing the camera up to the sky or down to the ground, getting closer to or further away from your subject. Try varying your Point of View to achieve a variety of interesting compositions.
The fundamental question: Why am I taking this picture?
It is very easy, particularly in the digital age, when its costs nothing to fill a memory card, to fire away taking lots of pictures in the hope that some will produce results. But why not pretend you have film in your camera and take care over every shot? A more measured approach to photography often gives more consistent and higher quality results. An analytical thought process really helps in being selective with your shots and taking care over the compostion.
So, before pressing the shutter, ask yourself ‘Why am I taking this picture’? In other words, what is it about the scene in front of you that’s encouraged you to pick up the camera in the first place?
Your answer to this directs everything you do from now on. As examples, this will dictate the camera settings you use, the focal length that you select, the position you take the picture from and what you include and exclude in the frame. Your next task is to do everything you can to convey this to the viewer of your image through effective (and usually simple!) composition.
‘Designing your Image’ vs ‘Taking a Picture’
We’ve all heard of the well known composition ideas such as using lead in lines, the rule of thirds, using foreground and others, but they are only a small part of the image making process. The photographer also needs to be fully aware of why they are being used; each of them needs careful thought as to whether they are appropriate for your image or not.
A good starting point is to think of ‘Designing your Image’ rather than ‘Taking a Picture’. This will help you to think in terms of shape, form and the elements that make up your image rather than what you’re photographing. This in turn will encourage you to analyse your image more closely. It’s also the start of a thought process, that if followed through, will make a huge difference to your approach.
TREE IN OIL SEED RAPE FIELD: With the example of the Tree in the oil seed rape field underneath the dark clouds, there were 3 strong reasons why I chose this compostion:
– The image is formed from 2 distinct rectangles with a strong single feature. I wanted a composition which emphasised this.
– I wanted the grey to dominate the yellow so I chose a very low horizon line; this gave additional weight to the grey sky. If I had given more weight to the yellow then it would have dominated the grey
– I placed the tree right in the middle is the eye is drawn toward the centre of the frame. Positioned in the middle, the tree therefore has maximum impact.
Simplicity and Selectivity
Whereever you are, there are views in every direction, and contained within these views, an endless range of features, objects, colours, textures and more. Out of this range there are a multitude of potential images, most of little interest, some with potential, and amongst all of them, something that catches your eye and said to you ‘I want to take a picture of this’!
Your compositional task is to be selective; Your view potentially has a lot of features or elements in it and you need to think carefully about what you want to include in the image (what contributes to your composition) and what you want to leave out (what detracts). Being selective and the ability of think about what to include and what to exclude, is a key part of image design.
However, wherever you are, and whatever situation you’re in, think carefully about that you include and exclude in the frame. I keep features in the frame to a minimum and try to do this by being selective in camera. However, there are two important things to remember:
- Unwanted features: Sometimes your composition will include features or objects that detract. I’m not against some tidying up to remove minor (usually man made) features if I think that these detract. These may be temporary (such as cars, people, litter for example) and on occasion may be minor permanent features such as telegraph poles and litter bins.
- Cropping: Just because our cameras produce 3:2 or 4:3 proportions (or aspect ratio), it isn’t necessarily the best proportion for our images. Given that these days our files are typically of very high resolution (and getting larger all the time) then there’s plenty of scope for cropping. See the image captured in the camera as a starting point from which you can select the part that you want to keep and crop in post-processing. However, it’s usually best to have a clear idea of your final crop in-camera, rather than ‘I wonder what it’ll look like cropped!). The key to cropping is closely related to your original question of ‘why am I taking this picture’; thinking about what part of the image captured in the frame adds to the composition and what detracts?
Line of Trees: It was the symmettry of the line of trees and the backlighting through them that I saw as being important in the image. With the uncropped original, the farmhouse and trees at the bottom detracted from this, so I composed the image to exclude all other features. If you look carefully you’ll also notice other judicious cloning in the final image!
So, get used to practising the thought process of what is key to my image, what contributes and what detracts nd your images will have greater clarity and simplicity!
Thinking in Abstract
It’s very easy in photography, particularly with landscape photography, to think about familiar, and increasingly popular places to take pictures from. This inevitably leads to a plethora of similar images, particularly of the most well known locations (there’s a tree in North Wales which has almost achieved notoriety through no fault of its own!) and we’ve all heard the comment about tripod holes!
Every image you take is made up of a number of shapes, colours or patterns. Try to think of your image in these terms rather than what you’re taking and where you’re taking it. Look at the examples below; their strength is drawn from use of simplicity of composition and thinking of the subject in abstract rather than content.
POPPIES AND PIECE OF WOOD: Look at the comparative examples of the field of poppies and the simple composition of the concrete and red piece of wood. The content of these images couldn’t be more different but the image design is exacty the same. Both are made up from 2 rectangles of grey and red. The only differnece is the detail, colour and texture which fill in the rectangles. The 2 rectangles form the basis of the composition their strength is drawn from use of simplicity of composition and thinking of the subject in abstract rather than content. Anything that you add subsequently will break the simplicity of this compositon and potentially detract from the image (a common one is with coastal or mountain photography where a bank of sand or hillside cuts into the image)
Choosing your Shooting Position (Point of View):
When exploring with your camera, there is not absolute right or wrong, and no one single shooting position. There are many variations with many potentially strong and not so strong results.
It may for example be a high or low viewpoint, moving left or right to change the angle of view, use of portrait format, pointing the camera up to the sky or down to the ground, getting closer to or further away from your subject. It’s really about experimenting shooting position, with angles, focal lengths and shooting technique.
This is precisely where, in what direction and in what orientation you hold and position your camera. Try varying your Point of View to achieve a variety of interesting compositions. You’ll find that a small change on viewpoint can make a big difference in the impact of your image. Try identifying a feature or subject near to you and explore it with your camera. Let your imagination go and try to get 10 unique images. You’ll be surprised what you can find!
Daffodils: the image on the left is simply a view of some daffodils on an embankment. By using a lower viewpoint and getting closer to the foreground daffodils with a wide angle lens the image is much more effective, drawing the eye towards the larger daffodils and effectively turning the scene into bands of colour in green, yellow, white and blue.
Architecture and Structues: Although a collection of different subjects, the elements of these images are the same; a dominant diagonal and perspective lines leading to it. I use diagonals regularly as the images are often dynamic and suit architectural photography well.
Image Design Ideas: Creating a Visual Journey……..or not!
A critial decision when deciding the composition is whether you want to create depth or flatten perspective with a two dimensional image. This article includes examples of both and you will see in each of them, it is clear which of those I have chosen. So, in asking yourself the question ‘Why am I taking this picture’, think about whether ‘a Visual Journey’ or ‘Shape and Pattern’ is appropriate for the effect that you are looking to achieve. This is explained in more detail below
The Visual Journey – Extending Perspective
We so often hear the comment that ‘it never look the same in a picture as it does in real life’. Aside from the fact that photography is interpretive and therefore you might not want to reflect real life, then one key reason is a failure to create a ‘visual journey’, in other words, using your composition to take the viewer through your image.
If your images look flat and one diminsional (which as you can see from many examples here, you might want to acheive but it will only work if done deliberately!), then try some ways of taking your viewer through the image. I like to call this ‘a visual journey’. The most well known of these is the use of leading lines; the use of a linear element that takes the viewer through the image. These can be strong, simple and direct or subtle, meandering and slow with many variations in between.
However, don’t just see your leading lines as something that draws the eye to a subject. Often, my approach is to see them as the subject of the image in their own right. In utilising them in this way, you can create some strong abstract compositions and produce much more individual images than if you simply use leading lines in the conventional sense.
Perspective Lines to Central Feature: With these examples, the whole composition is designed to draw your eye towards the main subject in the centre of the frame. If you are used to using the ‘Rule of Thirds’ this is an example of where this doesn’t apply. Both images make use of the very strong perspective lines. I produced a design with strong symettry which drew the eye to the single feature in the centre of the frame. With the pier image, the cloud movement created by the use of a long exposure emphasised the effect whereby the sky mirrored the foreground
Creating a Visual Journey – Flattening Perspective
Of course, rather than creating a visual journey, many examples here take the other approach and look for simple, flat two dimensional images rather than stretch perspective and create a visual journey. Both nature and our built environment provide many opportunities for two dimensional images with a strong emphasis on simple shapes and repeating patterns. This is a great use of a telephoto lens as it picks out details from the wide range of options around you. Look through the viewfinder and see what your local landscape or cityscape comes up with!
Wavy Lines: These images are of Larch Trees in snow and Rice Terraces respectively. But they draw their strength from the fact that they form a simple pattern of wavy lines and a predominant colour.
You can see how with all these examples, the subject matter is secondary to the visual effect; they are similar pictures in compositional style and contain nothing that detracts from the effect. So try to think of your image not in terms of the subject or what you’re photographing, but in terms of the shape, pattern or colour that makes up the image. You’ll produce stronger, simpler images.
Think about ‘Designing your Image’ rather than ‘Taking a Picture’,
Think in abstract rather than what you’re photographing.
Explore and experiement with your camera,
Find your own unique compositions rather than ‘following the crowd’
…………and always ask yourself that question ‘Why am I taking this Picture’!
Try the following exercises:
Go to a place (say local town or village) familiar to you and look for 10 simple compositions based on a theme 9for examples circles, lines, diagonals, rectangles etc). It diesn’t matter what you photograph and it’ll really help in looking for abstract form rather than subject or location.
Try capturing 5 images with a foreground and background feature in portrait format (portrait format is effective in forming a stronger connection between the two than landscape format). It’ll help you identify what’s important in your image and what detracts
Take 2 images based on 2 rectangles in landscape format. Seascapes and skies are an obvious example but look for anything which forms a strong base for the image and draws attention to the sky.
Find a subject (for example a bridge, statue, building or other feature), and look for as many different ways you can of photographing it. Explore it from all angles and viewpoints and look hard at each image to see how you can simplify or improve it.