This by no means, a comprehensive guide to composition. This is more a step by step dip your toe in ‘guide’ to some basic ideas behind the rules of composition.
You don’t have to apply some or even all the rules of composition to each of your photos!
They are more of a guide but using them can enhance your photos.
You’ll soon spot which rules to use for which photo or when to ignore them and go for something completely radical! Wikipedia describes composition as ‘the placement or arrangement of visual elements or ingredients in a work of art’.
I’m going to concentrate on 5 composition rules, with practical examples in pictures to show you how to do it.
- Rule of Thirds
- Leading Lines
- Symmetry and Patterns
- Foreground interest
- Combing several rules
Rule of Thirds
Firstly, imagine the photo is divided into 9 equal parts. Just like the superimposed grid on the photos below. The rule says that the most important elements of the photo should be positioned on these lines.
You might even find your camera has the option to turn these on to help you compose a photo. In photo 1, for example, the upright of the building lines up with the left hand vertical and the lower horizontal line matches up with the lower section of the building.
Secondly, looking at this grumpy, hungover idiot on a beach, the same thirds rule can be seen. The land and trees are in line with the top horizontal and the figure with the left vertical.
Of course, leading lines are a way of leading the eye into the photograph. With this method, you can control where the eye is led. In this case, in the photo below, the pathway and arch create a journey down the path, under the vines to the end.
Specifically, the lines in the lavender lead the eye to the horizon. The picture is designed to take the viewer on a journey through the lavender field and we use the lines to lead the viewer.
It’s almost impossible not to follow strong lines in a photo. In fact, your eyes will be drawn to the lines.
Symmetry and Patterns
Patterns are everywhere, in both man-made structures and nature. For example, the pleasing pattern in the photo below is made from a close-up of the building in picture 1.
In photo 6 below, for example, the wine fermentation tanks are an exact mirror of each other. Another technique in this photo is Leading Lines, you can combine more than one technique in a picture.
Drawing your eye to the centre of the photo, framing is used to isolate the subject and emphasise it. The archway in photo 7 for instance, frames the photo and is mimicked in the centre of the frame adding depth too.
For example, an alternative take on framing, photo 8 has a has a small frame in the middle. A frame within a frame.
Cropping for Composition
Also known as filling the frame. Picture 9 is of the Frank Gehry-designed Marques de Riscal Bodega in Elciego, Spain. The overall building is impressive and much photographed, I tried to capture its essence in a cropped photo of some of its more striking lines.
Picture 10’s butterfly is cropped close, so the subject fills the frame and leaves no doubt as to what the subject is supposed to be.
How do you give a sense of depth to an image that is, by its very nature, two dimensional? By placing something in the foreground of the picture. This can be either adjusting your position to include an object in the foreground of your picture or, indeed, moving an object so it is in the photo.
Likewise, lowering your shooting position or angle of the camera can incorporate details that are already there. Whether it be rocks, a tree stump, flowers or indeed anything that creates an interest in the foreground and leads the viewer’s eye into the photo.
How is the foreground used in composition?
The two photographs above show a tropical beach scene with a bit of foreground interest. The coconut husk was added, gingerly and carefully by me. I’d found it a little further down the beach and placed it in the photo so my footprints didn’t show.
I also came back to the exact spot a little later on when the sun was setting to take another photo which added a whole new dimension to the picture. See my ‘Light and time of day‘ blog where there are more examples of how the time of day can make a huge difference to your photos.
Adding foreground interest works well with wide angled lenses. The two photos above and the one below were all taken with my favourite Sigma 10-20mm lens.
The foreground, middle distance and background can vary in size and shape depending on the subject of the photo. As can be seen below, the photo of the picnic table uses a tree in the foreground. However, the foreground, in this case, is the left-hand side of the photo from top to bottom.
To bring the texture of the bark out I used the built-in flash from my Nikon D7200. Foreground interest can be almost anything. As can be seen below, almost anything! A long exposure gives the car lights a pleasing streak adding to the Picture of Frank Gehry’s Dancing House in Prague.
But the one thing that must be remembered is that the foreground element must be worth putting in. What I mean by that is, it should add to the photo and not take away from it. If it doesn’t help the photo or, even worse, it distracts the eye, it’s not worth putting it in.
Several rules of composition can be applied to a photo. The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted several photos above that combine a number of rules. For example, photo 3 combines leading lines and framing. Photo 5 has patterns and leading lines. Photo 6 for example, combines symmetry, leading lines and patterns.
As can be seen above, in this panorama of Mt Maunganui in New Zealand, I have used the rocks and grass for foreground interest in conjunction with the spit of land leading the eye to the subject. It also has a bit of symmetry to it, too.
Composition – Conclusions
These are the rules but like all rules, they are made to be broken! However, to break the rules, you need to know them first! You’ll soon get a feeling for what works and what doesn’t, whether to apply a rule or not.
It’s important to remember to take your time, have a look what angle is best. Should I include foreground interest? Should I combine several rules? Or just break them altogether? Take several shots with different compositions to see what works best for you!
This beginners guide covers a few of the basic rules, now you have to get out there and put them into practice!
Below is a selection of the actual gear I use. For the full list of equipment I use to take all these photos check out My Travel Camera Bag
Click here for all of my Top 10 Photography Tips
Composition – Learn the rules of composition, then break them.
Shutter Speed – Slow Shutter Speed Tips and how to avoid Camera Shake.
Use a Polarising Filter – Take away reflections and boost colours.
Fooling your camera’s internal light meter is easy! – Bracket your shots.
Light changes dramatically with the time of day! Know what’s best for your shot.
Know Your Camera – Know where all the buttons are for when the perfect shot comes.
The Depth of Field – What’s in focus in your picture and what’s not.
Backup and Memory Cards – and spread your trip out over them.
Plan your Photographs – Spend time on Google street view getting to know the area.
Take your time – For less time editing – Walk around the subject and try from different angles.
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