How to Compose a Photograph
Good Photography Composition Is Essential
‘Photography Composition’ is something of a dirty word in some photographic circles, because of the way that certain rules used to be raised to the status of a religion, and a picture which did not follow the Rules of Photography Composition was automatically disregarded by the self-appointed pundits in the camera clubs and photo magazines. Even so, the old ‘rules’ are excellent general guidelines, though you should never be afraid to break them if you can get a better picture that way.
Composition is all about how you arrange the elements of the scene in front of you. While you can’t move the landscape, you will still have plenty of opportunities for perfecting your composition.
For a subject to be strong enough to be worth photographing, the relationship of its forms must be rigorously estabilished. Photography composition starts when you situate your camera in space in relation to the object. For me, photography is the exploration in reality of the rhythm of surfaces, lines, or values; the eye carves out its subject, and the camera has only to do its work. That work is simply to print the eye’s decision on film. -Henri Cartier-Bresson
Taken in Bryce Canyon, Utah. The horizon is roughly one-third from the top (Rule of Thirds). © Gary Nugent
The best advice I can give is to use your feet. Get out there and walk around your chosen area to see how the elements within the landscape work together. Change your viewpoint – don’t stick to the ‘standard’ eyeball-height view (everyone does this), so get down on the ground or get up to a height and use uncommon viewpoints to see if these perspectives can improve a scene. Take a look at the tips on landscape photography for more ideas. Photography composition is more art than science, although using scientific principles will get you better results, but you need to go beyond that. A book like Composition: From Snapshots to Great Shots will help increase your artistic proficiency while still keeping you grounded in the science. Always take your time while composing a photograph.
While changing light conditions can mean you need to work fast, I find that using a tripod slows things down and means that I have to think about what I’m photographing and the composition I’m trying to achieve rather than quickly snapping a scene in the hopes it’ll turn out well when I look at it at home. Since I use a tripod, I’m more likely to go to a greater effort in getting a good photo to reward the time I’ve put into setting up the shot. If your exposures are going to be long, a tripod will ensure your photos are as sharp as possible.
So here are the rules I’ve found most useful in getting better landscapes. “Guidelines” would be a better description as they shouldn’t be seen as hard and fast. Use them as starting points:
Rule of Thirds
A photo of Mt. Burgess, in Canada with the mountain placed one-third from the right of the frame. The peak is roughly placed near the intersection of the top third and right third of the frame. © Gary Nugent
Probably the most basic of photography composition rules, this states that if you mentally divide a picture into vertical and horizontal thirds, like a noughts-and-crosses board, the principal subject will always attract the most attention if it is at the intersection of two of these lines, and the result will almost invariably be more pleasing than if it is dead central. Why? No-one knows – but it works. In practice, unless your camera comes with a viewfinder screen that has been divided into nine rectangles (unlikely), you’ll probably be a little off in mentally determining the intersection points. But your judgement will get better with practice.
The S-Curve/Lead-in Lines
In this photo of Vancouver, the lead-in line is the wash from the ferry I was on. The Rule of Thirds was also applied and the city skyline is one-third from the top of the frame. © Gary Nugent
This technique uses a gentle curve – a path, or a river, perhaps – to ‘lead the eye into the picture’, though it is not necessarily particularly S-shaped. Positioning lines or objects diagonally towards the main point of interest in the scene will draw your viewer into the picture.
You can use this technique with both wide angle and telephoto lenses, but the effects will be different. Viewed from a distance through a telephoto lens, the elements of a landscape will appear to be compressed so your lead-in line needs to be bigger and more prominent to work successfully. Look at using riverbanks, streams, fences, rocks, roads, etc.
Using a wide-angle lens means you’ll be much closer to the object you’re using as a lead-in line, so the foreground will appear much larger in the frame. This lets you use smaller objects as a lead-in and even something like a small stream of tree branch can work well.
Lead-in lines don’t have to be straight. All they need to do is lead the eye into the picture. Don’t have lead-in lines going out of your picture. The viewer’s eye will just follow the line and will tend not to see any other major feature in your photo.
Applied well, the S-Curve/Lead-in Line technique works surprisingly well.
Taken in Bryce Canyon, Utah, this shows a natural rock archway with a small scene framed within it. © Gary Nugent
Closely related to the S-Curve, this is where you use an overhanging bough, or an archway or doorway, to frame the principal subject. It can be overdone, but if you don’t do it, you may find that your picture just ‘peters out’ towards the edges.
By framing the scene, all the attention is concentrated on the main part of the picture. Rock formations, archways or trees with overhanging branches make great natural frames. It’s best to be bold when using such frames for your landscapes. A few leaves or branches hanging at the top of the frame can look messy and unnatural, so try to include the whole tree to link the elements in the scene and join the trunk to the ground.
Positioning The Horizon
An important part of photography composition – if the horizon is bang in the middle of the picture, it will cut it in half. It is usually much better to have it distinctly above half-way point or distinctly below the half-point in the picture. Try positioning it one third from the top or bottom of the picture using the Rule of Thirds.
Lough Bray In Ireland. Some rocks have been included in the scene to add foreground interest. © Gary Nugent
Having objects in the foreground can lend your landscapes a greater sense of depth. This works best with wide-angle lenses as these let you get closer to objects in the foreground and give it greater prominence in the final image. The smaller the object, the closer you need to get to make it larger in the frame. Use a small aperture, such as f/16 or f/22, to keep everything in the scene in focus. To ensure foreground objects are pin-sharp, try using hyperfocal focusing.
Sense of Scale
There you stand faced with nature’s majestic canvas clicking your shutter in an attempt to capture the grandeur laid out before you. With anticipation, you see the result of your photographic expedition (as a print or on a monitor) but it looks nothing like you remember it. Instead of grandeur, you have insignificance. What a disappointment!
Without any reference point, huge, sweeping landscapes that you try to capture can end up looking small and insignificant. To counter this, you need to find something in the scene that the viewer can relate to. The most obvious thing to do is place someone in the foreground, which will also add some foreground interest. A more subtle technique is to use objects such as buildings, boats or wildlife to lend a sense of scale.
This is one of the harder things to convey, but basically, if you have all the major subjects at one side of a picture, it will look lopsided. A small ‘counterbalance’ on the empty side will repair matters.
Vancouver Harbor. The horizon obeys the Rule of Thirds. The line of boats leads the eye into the picture and, since it’s a diagonal line, the picture “feels” more dynamic. The image has been cropped to a letterbox format for greater impact. © Gary Nugent
Another awkward one, but at its simplest, it is concerned with the grouping of the main elements or shapes in the picture. For example, if they are grouped in the form of a triangle resting on its base, the impression will be one of calm: if it is resting on its point, the impression will be one of instability, or looming. If you find the concept of ‘shapes’ slightly awkward, try putting your eyes slightly out of focus as you look at the picture; then, you see the ‘shape’ rather than the subject.
The dominant line of the picture affects its mood. Vertical lines generally convey strength, massiveness, and durability; horizontal lines generally convey calm and repose; and diagonal lines are ‘dynamic’. This is the most disputable of all the ‘rules’, but it still works most of the time.
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