Guest Post: Composition in Photography

In yesterday’s guest post, we talked about learning to see the light and how to use it in photography. Today’s topic is all about composition: deciding what to include in a picture, what to keep out, and where to put it.

When you start taking pictures, your first instinct is to snap your finger down on the shutter button as soon as you get your subject anywhere within the frame. No doubt, that does the trick; you’ll have a photographic record of whatever it was that caught your eye.

However, if you take a couple of seconds to think about the composition of your photograph, and another heartbeat or two to take a really good look through the viewfinder and be selective before you push that shutter button, you take the big leap from simply taking snapshots to making photographs that tell their own stories. When you’re shooting pictures, whether of your kids, your pets, the sunset at the cottage or your treasured rose garden, keep these principals borrowed from the fields of visual arts and design in mind.

Consider your perspective
Too many pictures of children are taken from the same angle:  you’re standing up and pointing the camera slightly down at your kids. Don’t look down at your kids, change it up: get down on your knees, sprawl on your belly, even lie on your back and shoot up at them. Almost all of my favourite pictures of my kids are taken from their eye level or even below. I’m belly-down on the driveway for this one:

Try taking the same picture from a couple of different angles:  from above, from below, from the side. Tilt your camera at an angle. Don’t be afraid to try something different.

Fill the frame
Getting your subject in the viewfinder is only half the battle. Think about what your “centre of interest” or main subject is and make sure nothing in the image distracts attention from it; in fact, everything in the image should draw attention your subject. Get in close and fill the frame—kids look great in close-ups!

Take a look at everything else that’s in the viewfinder and decide whether it should be in there or not. Check the background for tree branches sticking out of peoples’ heads and other distracting elements, and try to compose your image so that you only things that add to the story you are trying to tell.

Foreground, middle ground, background and depth of field
Think of each photograph as a story. The foreground is the introduction; it leads you into the story. The middle ground is your subject, the story you are trying to tell. And the background is your conclusion. If these things help tell your story, make sure you include them. If they don’t, try to remove them or minimize the attention on them.

Depth of field is an important tool that dictates how much of your foreground or background are in focus, and you can use it to help tell your photo’s story. A shallow depth of field will isolate your subject and make it more prominent by blurring out the background. You can usually achieve this on a point-and-shoot camera by choosing the “portrait” or “macro” setting.  On a dSLR, use a large aperture (low f-stop number) for a shallow depth of field.

On the other hand, the “landscape” setting on your point-and-shoot, or a small aperture (high f-stop number) on your dSLR will give you a large depth of field, meaning that more of the background and foreground are in focus. Use this to help put your subject in the context of the environment, or to keep a large group of subjects in focus.

See how the rocks lead you right into the photograph? And then the sea and sky beyond compliment the idea of freedom and play. It’s not just two buddies on the beach; it’s a story of adventure and exploration.

Rule of thirds
This is one of the hardest bad habits for me to break. Unless I really think about doing otherwise, I almost always put my subject smack in the middle of my viewfinder when I’m composing an image. Unfortunately, this often leads to boring, static images.

Imagine a grid of three horizontal lines and three vertical lines like a tic tac toe board superimposed on top of your image. Placing your centre of interest along one of the horizontal or vertical lines or, even better, at the points where they intersect, will add energy and interest to your photograph.

Now that you’ve learned some of the key principals of composition, take your camera out and start using them! And after that, take your camera out and start breaking them, because the best rules are made to be broken.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll give you a list of 10 more elements of composition you can use so that you *make* a photograph, instead of merely taking one. And if you love Canadian Family as much as I do, head on over to my blog for a chance to win one of five subscriptions, this week only!

—Dani Girl, Postcards from the Mothership

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